DIY House From Scratch: Final Plans & Finding Builders

If all goes well– and, as someone who almost just lost the tip of a finger to a kitchen utensil (the irony of that is not lost on me, by the way) I can attest that occasionally all does not go well– but assuming the best relating to fingertips and floor plans for the rest of this week, by Friday I’ll have a full set of complete plans in my slightly bandaged hand.

For those of you who don’t know, I often threaten to lose a finger to one of my big power tools but very rarely try to make good on the promise through sheer stupidity. Today was an exception.* Relating to the more important topic of this post, however, I started working with my favorite architect on the plans for my new little cottage about two months ago, and we’ve just about hit the finish line for the first phase of this project. Here’s a quick recap of the process:

  • The first version of the floor plan (and some rough sketches of the elevation) were ready to look at just before Thanksgiving. I spent a few weeks looking over them, got some other opinions, and came up with a short list of changes.

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Which brings us to today, about eight weeks later, where I’ll soon have a full set of plans (which will include things like the foundation plan, roof plan and structure details) that can be used for cost estimates, lumber takeoffs, cabinet plans, and making scale cutouts of my furniture to play a grownup version of dollhouse with. Oh yeah, and building the thing.

I can tell you my fingers are itching to pick up hammer and get to work, but there’s quite a bit more planning and prep (and that one pesky detail about finding a place to build it) before the sawdust starts flying. The biggest decision I have to make at this point is how much work I’ll be doing on the cottage, and who will be helping me with the rest.

With  the DIY House Addition on Memorial the idea was to do as much of the construction myself as possible. There were a couple of things going for me with that project, like the ability to live on site (albeit in a garage), the fact that the utilities were already hooked up, and, of course, I happened to have live-in help with the heavy lifting.

The story for Hillside Cottage is a bit different. Unless I decide to take crazy to a whole new level and live in my car for a few months (not entirely implausible) I won’t be able to stay on site. And with a much shorter timeline– my lease is up in four months– I don’t have the luxury of juggling the building after hours and on the weekends like I did with Memorial. Which means I’m going to have to do the one thing I hate most: Ask for help.

Well, let’s be honest here… pay for help. With Memorial I essentially acted as the general contractor for the subs we used, and while I’m considering doing the same for Hillside Cottage, it’s probably going to go a lot faster if I get someone to manage the details. So I’ve started the process of finding a builder who– god willing— I won’t be tempted to hit over the head with a shovel and bury in the back yard in the next six months.

While I haven’t had any outstanding contractor experiences yet (which explains why I decided to get my own builders license) I have learned a lot along the way, so here’s what I’m doing to make sure I get the best fit for my project:

  1. Asking around. First on my list of people to talk to are contractors other people have used and had good experiences with. As it turns out, however, not a lot of people have built a house without some drama. I also went outside the box on this one and contacted the building inspector and one of the guys who taught my builders licensure classes in the area for recommendations– if you want to know who does good work and who doesn’t, the guy who inspects all the buildings is the person to ask.
  2. Getting multiple quotes (and multiple types of quotes). With one exception we had good experiences with everyone who worked on Memorial, but for things like the rough framing and HVAC, we we under a time crunch and didn’t get multiple quotes. Big mistake. Not only am I asking for detailed quotes from multiple builders, I’m asking to have them itemized so I know what projects it makes the most money sense for me to tackle myself.
  3. Asking for references– and going to see the work. I absolutely will not hire anyone to build me a house without seeing the type of work they’ve done for other people first hand. Its not just about trust, it’s about the fact that we might have different definitions of the word “good.”
  4. Checking them out. I don’t solely rely on reviews posted on the internet, but that doesn’t mean I don’t do a good number of google searches on anyone I’m thinking about working with. An actual good old fashioned type-their-name-in-google search is a good way to go, as is checking them out on the BBB website, Angie’s List, and verifying that they are actually licensed. For more information about rules regarding people who build houses, check out this post.

While I do have some lamps and a bed to build, for the next two weeks my focus is going to be getting a piece of property under contract and searching out the right builder. Then it’s full steam ahead with material take-offs and building stuff for the new place.

Do any of you have good/bad contractor experiences to share or any insight on how to find the best builder?

*Also, for any of you who are actually worried about my finger (hi mom!) despite the copious amounts of blood it basically turned out to be a really bad puncture. 17 hours later I can tell you I’m not going to loose the finger, but I have lost all feeling on half of my finger tip… here’s hoping that comes back to me in the next couple of days or the number of typos on this website is going to quadruple.

15 Responses

  1. I never used them, but I’ve been interested in UBuildIt in the past as a way to have access to pre-screened contractors when building a house. I don’t have your end-to-end house building experience, though, so perhaps their services are beyond your needs.

  2. I love the design of your house and I hope you the best. I would like to offer a piece of food for thought. I currently live an a cape cod style house in MD. I noticed that your design has similar attributes, relating to the roof and dormers. With this style of roof comes huge heating and cooling challenges. I’m curious if you have thought about this or have had the same experience.

    As for the contractors, I second getting multiple quotes. I have and gross estimates.

    1. Ah, heating and cooling… the topic close to any vaulted-ceiling lovers heart. My feeling is that “attic rooms” typically are more difficult to keep warm or cool because they don’t have that lovely 6-7′ of buffer space between them and the roof. Often in older homes the roof joists are 4 or 6″ which means there’s no way to have enough insulation to keep things warm.

      In the Memorial house we vaulted the ceilings in the great room and used 10″ joists (with 10″ of insulation) along with spray foam insulation on the walls and things stayed nice and toasty. If I’m not mistaken I’ll have 12″ of space (plus a little extra on the dormers) to insulate the heck out of the new place!

      1. That’s great that you have experience with it, or at least thought about it. Luckily my house was make with 2x6s. However, it has the equivalent of an R-7 in the roof. It’s funny, the standard for today is R-38, fell a little short.

  3. Are you close enough to the Turtle House to consider the builder they used?

    And what were you doing in the kitchen to almost lose a fingertip to a pucture wound? I can’t wait to hear that story!!!

  4. I don’t know that I’ve ever had a GOOD experience with a contractor. For some reason, the fact that I have boobs makes them totally unable to talk to me and leads them to believe that I haven’t the faintest idea what I’m talking about. Drives me absolutely batty.

    That, and they never seem to be on time…or show up at all….or bother to call you to tell you they won’t be showing up.

    ARRRGGGG!!!!

    1. My mom (single at the time) used to go to a small town hardware store for her various DIY projects. She still laughs about their assumption that she was picking up supplies for a man. They would say “Now what does he need this for?” when she asked about something!

  5. We found our contractor through word of mouth. We talked with 2 different people who built with him (they both worked with my husband) and then walked through one of their homes. We had a good experience. The lady who gave us the tour kept pointing out areas where the builder had given her suggestions about things to add or placement of doors, etc. It really seemed that he was interested in building a home they would love rather than throwing some sticks together and slapping on a roof. That was important to us and I know it would be to you!

  6. I built my very first home two years ago. The architect produced three drawings that I didn’t like. In the end I used Microsoft Viso to create a floor plan and then the architect converted it into proper drawings. I was really pleased with the outcome and I’m thinking about building again.

  7. I have no advice about the GC. Just managing my kitchen renovation myself has proven to be a total stress bomb and almost not worth it. We saved some money for sure, but got a lot of inconvenience along with the savings.

    I’m glad your finger is intact, how crazy! Take care and use a utensil next time you mess with your blender, eh??

  8. Hi Kit, There must be something in the water around here, I, Me, Myself 56 yoa big shot builder type now has shorted index type philange after slight problem with new 6″ joiner/planer. So I feel your pain Babe. At least it happened on big bad bloody power tool, Problem was I was the nutjob who didn’t follow procedure. Starting out at WCC next month to work toward Mi Builder’s License..

    1. Sorry to hear about the finger Terry, that sucks! You’ll enjoy the WCC classes, especially the ones Harry Hutchison teaches.

  9. Have you considered borrowing or buying a used RV to live on site? I have friends who did this while building their house and it wasn’t so bad… 🙂

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