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Building A House

25 Things You Must Know If You're Building A House

Home building has many different tasks, elements, parts, etc. How many do you think it takes to build a house from start to finish? How many decisions do you think you need to make to ensure that your new home construction is as near to perfect as possible? Add all of these things together and you undoubtedly have thousands, if not tens of thousands, of things that combine together to create the warm, comfortable home you have envisioned for the past few months.

Unless you have been living under a rock, you surely have heard more than one horror story from your parents, relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc. about a problem or group of problems they might have had when they built their last home. If you hear enough of these stories, you might be inclined to avoid building a home.

I am here to tell you that building your own home is a job can go smoothly and the entire process can be one of very happy memories instead of bitterness. The key to having a pleasant building experience is identifying processes or materials that are hard-to-fix or expensive-to-fix when things go bad. Concentrate on those and you can avoid the major disappointments other people suffer when they base too many decisions on hope instead of sound facts.

Block Foundations

The house foundation is extremely important. If the foundation of a house is poorly built, long-term and expensive structural problems can haunt your new home. Many parts of the USA still use concrete block to build both full height walls as well as shorter foundations that create a crawl space.

The mortar that holds each block together has only a fraction of the strength that poured-in-place concrete or the actual concrete block. Add to this a typical concrete block is quite hollow.

With a little extra work and some expense you can install both horizontal welded-wire reinforcing steel into every other course of block and you can install vertical steel reinforcing steel rods up through the block from the footer to the last row. If you then fill the voids of the block with a mixture of pea-gravel concrete and / or coarse sand and cement mortar, you will have a concrete block foundation that will indeed stand the test of time.

Building Codes

Many homeowners have a false impression of the residential building codes. Many builders have disdain for it and the inspectors that enforce the code regulations. Understand that the building code is law. It can be an enormous asset to you because building code issues are black and white. Either something passes or fails the code.

But this is where people often get confused. They often think if a house is built to code it is indeed a high-quality home. That is not always true. Why? The building code is for the most part a set of minimum standards. In almost all areas of the code, the structure can be built better.

I feel it is a very good idea for a person to purchase a copy of the building code at the same time as the building permit is issued. The building department often sells copies of the code or can readily tell you where to get one. The sections of the code are very easy to read and understand. Consider it your play book and read the code making sure your builder is on the same page as you are!

Certified Products

How many times has a salesperson told you they were selling the best product? Perhaps they were, but how were you to know? There are going to be many products in your new home, flooring, roofing, windows, doors, perhaps siding, the list goes on and on.

Some manufacturers who make different home building products recognize the importance of getting an impartial second opinion. In fact, certain groups of manufacturers and associations set up strict specifications for products that, if met, tell you for sure you are getting a quality product.

Many windows, doors, siding, even kitchen cabinets can carry certification labeling that help you make sound decisions. For example, the American Architectural Manufacturers Association (AAMA) has a stringent set of guidelines that if met, tell you the windows in your home are some of the best. Companies that meet these criteria get to apply a special AAMA label to their products. Ask about independent certification each time you talk with a salesperson.

Change Orders

Change orders are written instructions that tell the builder you have switched gears. They are to be avoided like the Black Plague. A change order or series of them can wreak havoc on your budget and they can slow or completely halt the construction progress of your new home.

If you have the misfortune of working with a builder that is not honest and fair, a change order opens up a window for him to extract vast sums of extra money from you. Asking for a price of extra work or work to be changed when there is no competition, puts you at an enormous disadvantage.

Before the contract is signed to build your new home, make all of your decisions about what products you are using. When you are in the bidding phases of your new home, request that each builder state the hourly charge for the different craftspeople who would work on the job, including unskilled labor. Make the bidders quote what percentage of overhead and profit is added to the labor and material prices in any future change orders. This data may help you decide who really has the best overall package for you.

Communicating with the Builder

Once you have selected a builder with fine homebuilding skills, it is time to get really serious. Yes, you are happy and excited, but you are talking about a large sum of money. At every meeting, take written notes. Digital voice recorders are very inexpensive and allow you to capture the entire meeting. Save the recording and make a written transcript of the meeting to circulate back to all who attended. Board meetings, public meetings, clubs, PTAs, etc. all do this and the meeting minutes are verified as accurate by the parties who participated.

Why is this important? If your builder makes a verbal promise that is not in the written specifications or plans, your digital notes and the follow-up summary that he is asked to sign, helps ascertain just what was said at the meeting. This extra work on your part puts in writing all of the important spoken words. Without the signed summary, an argument or disagreement can easily degrade into a he said she said confrontation.

Once again, you only need to summarize in writing the things in the meeting that are important to you. You do not need a complete written word-for-word transcript of each and every meeting.

Cost Overruns

Very few people have unlimited funds to build a new home. I have seen houses go over-budget by tens of thousands of dollars. What many people forget is the construction loan and permanent home financing is already in place. It can be difficult if not impossible to borrow additional money. The cost overrun has to come from another source such as your savings account or a cash advance on a credit card. This type of financial stress needs to be avoided at all costs.

You can avoid cost overruns easily. The first step is to eliminate all allowances from your plans, specifications and contracts. Take the time now to select each and every item that will be in your new home. This process forces the bidding contractors to tell you the final and exact cost of your home. Using this method, there will be no surprises that turn into financial headaches.

Home Improvement

Are there things in your current home that drive you crazy? Maybe it is a dimly lit narrow hallway? Perhaps it is a lack of storage space on your first floor. Take some time and you might generate a list of 50 things that you do not like about your existing home. Let's not make the same mistakes in your new home! This is the time to incorporate those home improvement ideas.

Pocket doors are often underused today. They are very practical and high-quality, pocket door hardware ensures the doors never rub nor fall off the track. A window seat makes a great place to sit and enjoy a view. Incorporate doors in your window set plans for hidden storage under them.

If you plan to have a laundry room near your garage entrance, be sure the washer and dryer are placed so that you do not have to walk across piles of dirty laundry on the floor to bring in the groceries.

Don't overlook your patio and deck plans. All too often these spaces are too small to accommodate enough patio furniture for a party of six to sit, sip some wine and waste the night away.

Driveway Problems

You may not give a second thought to the driveway at your new home. This is an item that is not easy to change, but has a profound impact on your everyday life and that of your visitors. Many driveways are too narrow, even ones that are two cars wide.

Think about the typical parking stall at the mall lot. Those lanes are often only 9 feet or ten feet wide. Imagine for a moment if wet grass was on the other side of the painted line instead of blacktop! Make sure you allow a minimum of 11 feet of space for each lane width of a driveway.

Would you like a very unique nearly maintenance-free paving material? If you are lucky, your builder may be able to install a tar and chips driveway. You could end up with a brown driveway like mine that puts all of my visitors heads on a swivel. To dress up your driveway even more, think about a nice edging of granite cobblestone or a local fieldstone.

Electrical Must-Haves

I am quite sure you will discuss your electrical outlets and switch locations with your builder or planner and some of these are minimum electrical code requirements. But there are new products that can minimize electrical fire hazards called arc-fault circuit breakers. These are required in some rooms of your home, but it might be a good idea to install them in many of the circuits.

If you like to install holiday lighting around your home, now is the time to install plenty of outdoor outlets that are controlled by interior switches. If you work with power tools outside of your garage, then make sure one or two outlets are just outside of your garage.

Consider using 12 gauge wiring to minimize voltage drop on circuits that extend the greatest distance from the electrical panel or that will be used with tools and appliances that draw lots of current.

Extra Height Foundations

A tremendous amount of homes are built that have basements. Basements are some of the best and least costly space you can create in a new home. The trouble is, all too often the basement walls are too low.

The typical poured concrete foundation height in many areas is 7 feet 10 inches as the concrete forms are eight feet tall. By the time you pour the basement floor, the distance between the floor is just 7 feet 7.5 inches. If there is a center beam in the middle of the basement, a tall person has to duck to clear it!

You have but one chance to cost-effectively add height to your basement walls. Your builder can add another 18 inches of height with little effort. In certain instances you can create this extra height by building short walls on top of the foundation. Ask your builder to offer you several options.

Garage Plans

Many garages, I see in the average home, are far too small. When you see them empty as you walk through the model homes, they look enormous. But by the time you put your car, SUV, lawn equipment, garbage cans, sports equipment, etc., you barely have a place to move.

If at all possible, try to design your home so the garage has a ceiling height of 12 or even 13 feet. I realize this seems impossible or out of proportion, but this height allows you to create a loft that extends over the hoods of the cars. If you are less than 6 feet tall, you can walk around the loft without hitting your head.

Be sure there is at least 4 feet of space between the edge of the garage door opening and an interior wall of the garage. This will allow plenty of room to store things along the wall and still allow you to comfortably open a car door once in the garage.

Consider your garage doors also. Do you want one garage door or separate doors for each car? Garage door openers have special features such as vacation settings and motion detection for interior lighting.

Be sure to plan for a central vacuum system now and plan to have the actual central vacuum power unit in the garage so that all noise is outside of the living area. It is also easy to empty the dirt directly into the garbage cans.

Grade Around The House

I can't begin to tell you how many homes I see that are built too deeply into the ground. The soil around the house is nearly flat. It is no wonder the yards are like swamps after a heavy rain or that basements leak. What's more, these houses rarely, if ever, meet the minimum building code requirements with respect to the slope of the soil around the house foundation.

In many respects, a house can't have too much slope away from its foundation. I prefer to set a foundation such that the top of the foundation is about 18 inches higher than any point within 10 feet of the foundation.

This allows me to keep six inches of foundation exposed and create a generous slope of 12 inches of fall in the first twelve feet of run away from the foundation.

HVAC Sizing

The heating and air conditioning system in your new house is very important. It creates and maintains a comfortable and artificial environment within the walls of your home when the outdoor weather is within seasonal average limitations. To simply that, your central air conditioning unit is supposed to keep all rooms of your house cool so long as the outside high temperature is at or just slightly above the average high temperature.

To keep all rooms comfortable, the heating and cooling contractor has to do a heat gain and a heat loss calculation. This tells them how much heat or cooling to pipe into each room and it also tells them the overall size of the heating and cooling equipment.

These heat loss and heat gain calculations are so precise that two identical homes on the same street might need different sized heating and cooling equipment! Why? The one house that has the most glass surface facing west will need a larger air conditioner.

Lot Selection

Before you build a house, you need a lot. The differences between lots can be a varied as faces in a crowd. You need to make sure your lot fits your lifestyle. If you love to relax on a patio after work, then maybe it is a good idea to have a lot where your patio is on the east side of your home so you don't cook in the hot sunshine. But if you like watching sunsets, then perhaps your patio needs to face west.

Often there is extensive grading done when a subdivision is built. Was your lot a ravine that now has 15 feet of fill dirt under it? You can determine this by looking at before and after topographic maps.

Consider avoiding lots that are located at the bottom of hills or are in low valleys. These lots may become inundated with water in periods of heavy rainfall.

Panhandle lots can be troublesome as your backyard might be tucked right up against the front yard of another house. Privacy can become a real issue.

Home Inspection

Issues about the level of quality of both the labor and products used in new homes is something you need to know about before a problem arises. You may not possess the knowledge and skill to make determinations as to what is acceptable and what is not.

It may be in your best interests to meet with a certified home inspector before you sign a contract to build a new home. Discuss with the home inspector the top problem areas, and ask the inspector if he can assist you with writing up some basic specifications and visit the new home to check on the quality as the home is built. These basic specifications will probably be based on his home inspection checklist.

Include the written specifications in your bidding documents and in the final contract between you and the builder. Also include the language in the contract that permits the inspector to make periodic visits as the construction progresses.

Photographs And Videos

As your new home is built, visit it often. Take numerous home videos and photos of the work in progress. Take photos of all walls and of all the new things that happened since you last visited. Closeup photos are very important.

Photographs of things such as flashings that will be covered by brick or stone, air and water infiltration barrier tears or seams that are not taped, holes in wall sheathing, etc. are very important to document.

Photographs of all of the structural elements that will get covered with drywall are very helpful. They can help remind you of what might be involved at a later date should you decide to move a wall or enlarge an opening.

These photos might also be worth their weight in gold should you become entangled in a legal dispute with your builder. Photos do not lie and you may have 20 or more photos that clearly define building code violations. Videos will allow you to photograph the construction and make comments while you are taping.

House Plans

If I was allowed to give you just one piece of advice to help make you homebuilding experience wonderful, it would be this: the home plans, blueprints and specifications are the single most-important part of the entire process.

Each and every item you want in your new home should be clearly called out. I don't mean simply mention that doors and windows get trimmed out. I want you to show the exact molding, name it, its model number and draw a side profile so the trim carpenter knows he is installing the right thing.

I want plans that call out each and every faucet, every lighting fixture, each exact model number of an appliance, etc. I want a table in the plans called a Room Finish Schedule that tells the builder and all subcontractors how the floors walls and ceiling in each room and hallway will be finished.

Important rooms such as kitchens, bathrooms, and studies should have interior elevations drawn showing the location of each fixture and finish on the walls. Nothing should be left to question. Your builder should be able to use the plans to build a perfect house without having to ask you or the architect a single question.

Plumbing System Secrets

Indoor plumbing is magnificent and it is even better when it work flawlessly and quietly. Imagine having hot water instantly at each faucet. In many homes, this is possible with a simple gravity hot water recirculation loop.

The annoying noise caused by water hammer can be eliminated if your plumber installs 3/4 inch piping to all fixture groups. This piping method also ensures abundant water flow if water is being used at multiple locations at the same time within the house.

Modern cast iron drain piping will keep noise from rushing water inside the pipes instead of broadcasting that someone just flushed a toilet upstairs. Cast iron is much denser than plastic piping and is very easy to install.

Now is the time to plan for water softeners. If you think you might want one in the future, make sure the outside hose bibs are fed by one large plumbing line that originates before the water softener. But do install one hose bib near the garage that is soft water. If you rinse your car with soft water after washing it, water spots do not develop!

Quality Control

Quality is a moving target. It is perhaps the most subjective part of the entire home building process. The level of quality you might find to be perfectly acceptable can be repulsive to another person.

The best way to solve quality issues when building a new home is to create a standard to which the quality of work in your home will be compared. For example, if you are buying a home based upon a model you walk through and you love the fit and finish of the trim, how the cabinet doors fit, the smoothness of the drywall, etc, then make that exact model home the standard the builder must hit.

Place language in the contract that specifically talks about visual examples that the builder and his subcontractors can easily see. You must be specific about each and every item that is of concern to you. If this means talking about the finish on the concrete walks and drives, then spell it out.


The last thing you need at your new home is a roof leak. Most homeowners fail to realize that a vast majority of leaks do not happen within the vast field of roof shingles or tiles, but where the roof touches up against something that is not the roof.

Flashings are transitional roofing materials that are used at these locations. When designed and installed properly, they make waterproof connections between skylights and your roof, plumbing roof vents and the roof, side walls that project above roofs, etc.

Flashings can be made from a variety of materials such as tin, copper, galvanized metal, aluminum, lead and even sheets of rubber. It is important that flashings be designed so they require little or no care over the life of the actual roofing material. Soldered tin or copper can last 50 or more years. Don't rely on caulk as a flashing component as normal caulk may only last 10 or so years in the harsh environment up on your roof.

Sound And Noise Control

Many people are disappointed once they move into their new home when they begin to hear noise transmitted throughout the house. Perhaps it is the sound of music from a child's bedroom. Or maybe a person is trying to sleep and noise from a tv across the house bounces down a hallway.

There are very important steps that need to be taken as a house is built if you want to control sound and noise. It is nearly impossible to lower noise transmission once a house is built.

Stopping air leaks is very important. Sound travels through air and if rooms can be sealed so that no air leaks under walls, around doors, through heating ducts, etc., then sound can't make it from one location to another.

Solid core doors, thicker drywall, sound-control batts in walls and cork underlayment under flooring all help to minimize sound movement from one space to another.

Trusses - Storage Opportunities

Visit a normal new subdivision and you might see any number of houses being framed. My guess is that you will readily recognize the standard roof trusses that have angled pieces of lumber that create several V's within the truss.

Old houses had attics because the roof were framed differently. Imagine if your builder told you that he could install trusses that created a vast attic space under your roof? Wouldn't it be nice to have the option of finishing that space at a later date?

Think of all of the wasted space above the average garage. Your builder can order special affordable trusses that create a lowered storage area that is open but only has maybe five feet of head room. This roof truss design allows you to create wide-open spaces that are completely covered in flooring. There is no danger of you falling through the ceiling below.

Vapor Barrier

Surely you have heard of vapor barriers. Barriers stop things. Well, even the highest quality sheet plastic goods that can be purchased will not stop all water vapor. But the sad truth is that the vapor retarder, or vapor barrier, your builder may choose to use, is an inferior one.

There is a vast difference in quality among vapor retarders and this is an item that is virtually impossible to change once drywall is applied to a wall or a basement concrete slab is installed.

Be sure your builder installs a vapor retarder in all required locations that meets the newer ASTM Standard E 1745. Installing this vapor retarder is your guarantee of stopping the most water vapor possible and that is very important, to say the least.

Water Infiltration

Take apart an older home and you will almost always see tar paper under wood siding or under shingles. This very basic building material is still available although newer high-tech underlayments are now available.

These materials are extremely important as they capture water that gets past the primary weather barrier on both walls and roofs of a home. It is imperative that you place these hidden water barriers on all walls and on the roof of your new home.

It is even more important to make sure they are installed correctly, so take a few minutes to read the simple installation instructions. Make sure your builder understands that you want water to stay outside of your new home.

Waterproofing Foundations

If you are lucky enough to get a basement with your new home, make sure it stays dry. This can happen if your builder waterproofs your foundation instead of damproofing it. Damproofing is an inexpensive coating of hot liquid asphalt. It does a great job of stopping water vapor that passes through concrete or concrete block.

But damproofing will not bridge cracks that might develop in your foundation. Waterproofing can and does do this and does it for many years. My own home has a waterproofed foundation and it has never had one drop of water come in through a crack nor has water leaked between the floor and wall intersection.

This is also a task that is nearly impossible to do once your home is built. The time to waterproof is before the soil is backfilled against your home's foundation.

Follow these guidelines and you will build that new home with little, or no, problems. Getting everything in the house plans will ensure everyone is on the same page during the entire home construction.


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