It is, unquestionably, the thrill of a lifetime – that stellar moment when you open the door and walk in to begin life in a new house that’s been built just for you.

A new house will probably reflect your personality and meet your needs better than any house that has been built already for someone else. And now, a lot of the “smart house” features (technology that offers amenities like a central vac system, preprogramed temperature, appliances, lights, security systems, etc.) that would be prohibitively expensive to retrofit into a completed house can be included in the planning stage and installed at surprisingly little expense. A house that you build now is probably going to be a lot safer, more fuel efficient, less expensive to maintain, and more environmentally sensitive than ones already on the market.

But, to make the house you are going to build the best it can possibly be, you have to do your share of work. Although you literally may not be pounding any nails yourself, the input you bring to the project before construction starts is even more important than the actual building process.

Even before buying land, it’s important, as you begin to define the general outlines of the type of house you want, to examine your lifestyle objectively.

To find out how some of the experts have been able to translate ideas into reality, look at as many houses and building plans as you possibly can before choosing your own. Every city and town has some type of home buyer’s guide and designers are always show-casing their work in model houses. In Talbot County the two guides are Homebuyer’s Journal and Eastern Shore Showcase of Homes

You also can make use of the internet, magazines, and books – read and look at everything while you are considering the elements you would like most to include in your house.

You may decide to bring an architect into the process. To find one, contact The Chesapeake Bay chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) at (410) 268-3534, or, you can visit their website at www.aiachesapeakebay.org/. If you do opt for a custom-designed house, try to give your architect as detailed a description of what you want and need as you possibly can.

Another option is to buy house plans through home plans magazines and books, video, or internet services. Or, choose a basic plan offered by a local contractor, and refine the plan to your needs.

A useful tool, especially when you want to adjust an existing plan, is a kit that gives you scale-size model room outlines and furniture shapes. The kit will show you if you have enough room for two beds in one room, for instance, or for a round table in the kitchen.

You may want to consider a manufactured house kit. There are a variety of different styles, sizes and price ranges on the market.

Choosing a Site

Overlooking the Miles River out near Tunis Mills
Photo Courtesy of Coard Benson, Benson and Mangold Real Estate

As you decide on a plan, you must also look for a site. You can do this in the same way you would look for a house: Check listings for land on the internet, in the real estate section of the newspaper, and consult real estate agents. Sometimes builders offer a package that includes the lot, as well as the house. For referral to an accredited land consultant – a real estate professional who must meet certain academic and ethical standards set forth by the National Association of Realtors® (NAR) – contact the Realtors® Land Institute, which is an affiliate of the NAR, at 1-800-441-LAND or at www.rliland.com.

Once again, the more time and thought you give to choosing a site, the happier you’ll be in the long run. If there is one unwritten rule for homesite buyers, it is this: Never assume. No matter what anyone tells you, check and double check everything yourself, and get as many assurances in writing as you can.

To get an idea of land values in the area you like, check with a local real estate agent or two for a price range. Balance their estimates against your requirements, and be realistic. Everyone wants a nice four-acre wooded tract that’s close to shops and entertainment, and has a pretty little pond out back. But you must expect to pay a price for desirability.

Keep in mind, too, that you’re going to have to pay a lot more for a large lot not just once, but over and over again. ‘That’s because the cost of connecting utilities could be more, a driveway will be more expensive if it is lengthy, and land-scaping will require a bigger investment and upkeep.

When you’ve found what seems to be a good site, look what’s around it, too. To find out more about a community visit The Talbot County Free Library (see pages 94 and 95), or read about it on the internet. There you can read about the town’s history, as well as find out all kinds of information, including what’s going on now – and sometimes what is planned for the near future. Talk to other residents about town services, such as recycling, and ask them about the local fire and police departments. Visit the Talbot Chamber of Commerce (410-822-4653) and the Talbot Office of Tourism (410-770-8000). Ask your real estate agent for a tour of the area and for leads to other local sources of information.

Once all your questions about the locality are answered to your satisfaction, consider what your new house will look like when it is compared to others in the neighborhood. If it is too grand or too modest you are in for trouble. You also should check any restrictions the seller might put on the type of house you build. Sometimes subdivisions or planned communities insist that the structure conform to the general style of the area.

If everything else checks out, it’s time to closely look at the lot itself. You need to know the exact status of the land. Even if the lot is surrounded on all sides by other houses, and the seller assures you it’s buildable, go to the appropriate local office – Talbot County Planning–Zoning Office (410-770-8030) or the Talbot County Finance Office (410-770-8020) – and double check.

At the same time, you can check out any municipal plans for major changes in the area. Is the grassy meadow across the road going to turn into a shopping mall? Has the town just floated a new sewer bond issue that could cost you thousands? What about school district or property taxes?

If in the course of your research you learn that the property you have in mind is only buildable if you have a variance, be extremely wary. Sometimes the process can take years.

Consider the slope of the site. Will it allow proper drainage, or introduce difficult structural problems to overcome? How will it be affected by wind?

What is the relationship of the site to natural light? Are there buildings or natural obstructions to the sun? Look at the view. Is there something pleasant to see, such as trees or a gorgeous waterfront view?

Also evaluate the location for future expansion if necessary. Will local zoning laws permit you to build the size and style of house you desire?

All these questions can be, and should be, answered by your architect or builder.

Mother Nature will have her way – even in places that are usually predictably safe. Find out from an insurance agent familiar with the locale if you will be required to buy additional protection, such as flood insurance. This could strain your financial picture.

As an additional safeguard, make sure your contract of sale includes provisions about buildability and water availability. If you are in an area with municipal water systems, find out how much it will cost you to link up with the main line. In some communities, the hookup could cost thousands. In rural areas, you may have to drill your own well or install a septic system. Get estimates from the utility company of what the work will cost before you sign a contract. Include a provision in the deal that will allow you to cancel the contract and get your money back if water cannot be found.

Once you have thoroughly analyzed a prospective site to make sure it will be able to accommodate your lifestyle, you can begin the actual process of turning your dream into a reality.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) offers a booklet entitled, Building Your Own Home ($16.95, plus shipping and handling) that you can obtain by calling their bookshop at 1-800-223-2665 or visiting the NAHB website at www.nahb.org

Financing

Most people will have to apply for a construction loan, which is separate and somewhat different from a mortgage. The reputation of your general contractor will influence the bank’s decision on whether or not to give you the money. The general contractor is contractually obligated to see that the house is up to code and completed.

Like applying for a mortgage after you have made an offer to buy a house, you will apply for a construction loan after you have purchased land. In fact, a lender, such as a savings bank, probably will not consider your application until you are the owner of the property.

The lender may not be permitted by law to extend a loan to you on unimproved land (land without a house on it). The lender will, however, be able to extend a construction loan based on the cost of the house plus the cost of the property once the land is in possession of the builder [you].

Easton Farmers baseball team

The 1924 Easton Farmers baseball team featured two future Hall of Famers. Seated in the middle row center is manager, Frank “Home Run” Baker, and standing directly behind him in the middle of the back row is Jimmie Fox.
Photograph from the collection of the Historical Society of Talbot County

In order to determine the cost of the unbuilt house, the lender will look at the house plans and specifications. But there is a catch to all this. Let us say that the estimated cost of the entire project is $400,000 and the land cost $100,000; All would seem well, but the bank will not approve the loan until you have purchased the property. You still need the up-front money to buy the land before you get the loan. This could be a problem, and laws regarding financing vary by state. Here are suggestions for what you can do.

There are several ways to obtain the money: Borrow it from your family with the provision that you will repay it once the construction loan comes through; apply for a commercial loan; or ask the land owner if he or she would be willing to lend the money to you with the provision that you would repay the money in installments over an agreed upon period. The purchaser (you) would receive the deed only after all payments are made. Also, most banks now won’t give a construction loan to anyone who wants to be their own general contractor. Too much can go wrong, and what you inevitably see is the person running short on money to finish, moving in before the sheetrock is up, and getting into trouble with inspections.

If you do want to save money on your building project by doing some of the work yourself, experts suggest tackling some of the finishing work.

Actually, your financing company will be your ally in assuring completion of a satisfactory house. Financing is paid out in stages. Before the funder releases a percentage of the loan, the contractor has to prove that the required amount of work has been done. He or she also may need to show invoices for materials. The lending institution will send someone to the site to make sure everything that had to be completed actually was done before the next payment is released.

Every lender has its own method of calculating payout schedules. If your contractor wants to adjust the payout, he or she will have to work out a plan directly with the financing institution.

The single most important contribution you can make to keep your project on schedule is to resist the urge to make last-minute changes. Every builder will allow a few adjustments in the plans without penalizing you for the changes. In fact, your contract probably will spell out exactly how much flexibility you are going to have during the course of construction. But, if you decide at the last minute that you want to add a bay window, for example, you are going to have to pay for it. Even small changes add up, in terms of time and money. The fewer you make, the easier it is to keep the project on time and within the boundaries of your budget.

Most lenders will hold out a final percentage of the construction loan – perhaps 10 to 15 percent – until the house is completely finished and has received a certificate of occupancy issued by the local building authorities. If, at the last minute, you notice something that must be redone, be sure to voice your complaint before the last payment is released.

Most banks now are reluctant to finance construction projects, especially residential ones, unless they are going to convert the building loan into a mortgage after the project is completed. You can’t go to one bank for your construction loan, and then expect to go to another for a lower mortgage rate after all the work of building is finished.

In all likelihood, your new house is going to turn out to be even better than you dreamed. It will probably be a constant source of satisfaction, comfort, and pride for years to come.

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