Shocking Things Homebuilders Wish You Knew About Designing a House

Shocking Things Homebuilders Wish You Knew About Designing a House

Admit it: You’ve wondered what it’s like to build your own home. Who hasn’t fantasized about seeing their dream floor plan and fixtures come together before their very eyes?

That’s the fun part, but the actual process of building a home can be complicated. I know a lot about this topic, at least secondhand, because my husband, Scott Wahlen, is a builder in the Chicagoland area. I often hear what his day is like with his clients, and all that can go wrong along the way.

For those who embark on this ambitious project, creating their dream home from the ground up can involve a steep learning curve, as well as a lot of curveballs. After all, it’s not like building with Lego blocks; it requires intense planning and lots of pivoting in real time—particularly today, when supply chain problems plague many steps of the process.

By knowing the speed bumps ahead, you can proceed with a lot less stress. To help, here are five things that homebuilders wish you knew about constructing your own home. Take them to heart for a freakout-free experience.

1. Supply chain delays are serious

Buyers need to understand the time frame is going to be longer than normal.

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Not too long ago, you could put in an order at a lumberyard and leave with whatever you needed soon after. Times have changed, and supply chain delays are the rule these days.

“The constraints and shortages being faced are very real,” says Andrew Smith, president of Home Builders Research, a housing research firm for the Las Vegas–area market. “Buyers need to understand the time frame on building a home from the ground up is going to be longer than normal. How long can change from builder to builder and even day to day based on what’s going on with materials and labor.”

Previous estimates for build time was between three and six months—although that time frame has been expanding for a while. If you go by the U.S. Census Bureau’s survey in 2019, about 8.1 months was the average. Factor in the COVID-19-related slowdowns, and it can take substantially longer.

The National Association of Home Builders recently reported that the number of single-family homes that have gone through the permit process but haven’t broken ground is up by 53% over the past year. This makes it tough to predict an end date for many future home buyers as the activity level and delays pile up.

Your move: Once you get started, you could help speed things up if you make decisions quickly, so your builder can order materials early.

2. Prices are heading skyward

The cost of most materials is going up, too, which means more expenses for the builder and less profit.

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Up, up, and away would best describe building costs. One main reason: Contractors are paying top dollar for labor, and in many hot housing markets, there aren’t enough workers to go around.

The cost of most supplies is going up, too, which means more out of pocket for the builder and less profit. Tradespeople must raise prices just to stay afloat.

It can be very difficult to manage build costs with this kind of pressure.

“A main thing builders here are hoping people understand is that, despite appearances given the current market, they aren’t just pushing up prices to simply extract as much profit as possible,” says Smith. “There are a lot of real cost increases involved across the board that are simply out of the control of any one person or company.”

Your move: Understanding that costs are higher is important, but you shouldn’t hesitate to request a punch list of expenses or more details so you can make sure prices are in line. A good builder won’t mind providing you with that information.

3. Beware of cost-saving shortcuts

Look over bids carefully, and don’t just focus on the total cost.

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Have you ever bought a cheap mattress only to wake up with a sore back? Or opted for an inexpensive pair of dress shoes that falls apart after a few wearings? Then you probably know what we’re about to say.

“There’s always someone who can do it cheaper, but you may not want them,” says Seth Argo, president of Focus Builders in Nashville, TN.

He shares a phrase to highlight what that means: “Pay now, or pay later.” The truth is, quality does matter.

Your move: Look over bids carefully. The bottom line number might actually be a case of apples to oranges. Really read through what a builder includes before making a final decision.

Don’t just focus on the total cost. Some builders might give you allowances for certain items, while others might charge you.

It pays to check in with your builder before you buy fixtures.

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Are we the biggest buzzkill or what?! But hear us out. When you fall in love with an amazing tub filler or pendant light and snap it up, you might be buying something that looks good but performs poorly over time. A homebuilder can be a great source of information as you work through the details, weighing in on what’s a smart buy.

Your builder has also probably made excellent connections over the years with reputable vendors for lighting, faucets, showerheads, and more.

“Our suppliers have high-quality fixtures made with better materials than your average store,” says Argo. This can wind up saving you money in the long run.

Your move: It pays to check in with your builder before you buy fixtures. Even if you don’t want to go with its recommendations, a builder can still point you toward higher-quality brands. These will last longer and save you money.

5. Last-minute design changes can tank your timeline

The more you can think through all of the details ahead of time, the better your chances of reaching your ideal finish line.

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Adding another sink bowl in a bathroom might seem like a small change to you, but if it isn’t in the original construction plan, it can cost you time and money. The same goes for things like building in extra outlets, a larger window, or a linen closet.

My husband always pleads with homeowners to spend the bulk of their time on the front end of the project. This means settling on as many details as possible. Builders, you see, work off the house plans, and if you make a change and it doesn’t get updated across the board, things can be missed and costly mistakes can be made. And if you keep making adjustments to the workflow, it practically guarantees that you won’t finish on time.

“Coordinating all the trades can be difficult as it is, but getting contractors to come back and do additional work may not be easy to do with an altered timeline—especially in this busy market,” he says. “The more you can think through all the details ahead of time and work that into your initial blueprint, the better the chance you’ll be getting in somewhere around your ideal finish line.”

Your move: Have lots of discussions with your family and your builder about how you’re going to live in the space. Figure out all of those fancy little perks you’d love to have, but do it early. Adding a laundry chute or a built-in medicine chest is a breeze if it makes it into the drawings early on. Later on? Not so much.