How To Build A Custom Home - What It Takes

If you are in a position to design and build a custom dream home, congratulations! You are very fortunate. According to a recent study, 71% of Americans who own a home are dissatisfied with some aspect of the design or floorplan. More than half would alter their home dramatically-if it was economically feasible.

That is why designing and building a custom home is such a unique opportunity for those able to embark on the journey. You can have your ideal floorplan, custom trim, custom cabinets, the latest energy saving features-all for a very reasonable cost.

Modifying or adding these custom features to a home already built is prohibitively expensive. Most remodeling projects cost at least twice as much as adding the feature during new construction. The return on every dollar spent remodeling an older home can be as little as 30%. It just makes sense to design and build your dream home from "scratch" if you can.

A Step-By-Step Guide and Checklist for Building a New Home

Step 1: Buying Land (Read more >>)

We suggest you buy frontage on a County-maintained road because financing is usually easier and appraisals are normally higher.  Get a land survey, have an attorney or title firm conduct a title search and buy adequate title insurance.

Is water easily available? If you can’t connect to city or county water lines, you will have to dig a well.  First, check with the city/county water department for information on local water tables.  Your neighbors are also a good source of information on well depth averages for the area. You can spend thousands of dollars digging a well if the water table is too low.

If a sewer connection (“tap”) is not available, be sure and have a soil test done by a soil scientist or the local health department.  It may be that the land is not suitable for a septic system.

If you are thinking of passive solar heat, choose land that allows your home to face south, so that you get the heating benefits of the sun.  Also, find out if the land can be easily prepared for building. It is a good idea to talk to an experienced home builder or grading contractor before you buy.


Step 2:  Before Closing a Construction Loan (Read more >>)

Before you close on a Construction Loan for your home, there are several important items to handle.  Of course, you have to submit your loan application and we suggest that you carefully review your loan documents one last time. We also recommend you obtain all of the necessary permits prior to closing.

Along with building plans, you will need to prepare a Specifications Sheet which describes your home in detail.  Then, prepare complete Material/Labor cost estimates, often called “take offs”.  These will determine how much you will need to borrow for your new home.


Step 3: After Closing (Read more >>)

Now that you have money to start, arrange your sewer and water connection or contact a well digger.  Order your temporary services-electricity and water (if you’re not digging a well). Order these as soon as possible because utility installation sometimes takes six or more weeks.  Also, have a surveyor prepare a site plan and stake the property lines, driveway and location of the home on the site.


Step 4: Subcontractors (Read more >>)

One of the most important steps between you and success is the quality of work done by your subcontractors.  Two rules of thumb apply: Check references and get estimates in writing.

Check Those References!! For ALL subcontractors, obtain at least six references. Skip the first reference and call the second, fourth and sixth.  Everybody puts that best foot forward so check at least two of the last three.  Ask these key questions:

  • Are they licensed and bonded?
  • Do they guarantee their work?
  • If so, for how long?
  • Do they carry liability and workman’s compensation insurance?

Get Written Estimates.  Call two or three subcontractors for every major job and get written estimates from each.  The major subcontractors are: Foundation, Framing, Cornice & Siding, Roofing, Plumbing, Electrical, Heating & Cooling, Drywall, Trim, Cabinets, and Flooring.  Local building material dealers can supply you with a list of subcontractors in your area.  Find out who the better home builders use and check them out.

Never choose the lowest bid just because it is the cheapest. Often there is a reason for the low bid: inferior materials, sloppy workmanship, missed deadlines, etc.


Step 5: Buying Materials (Read more >>)

This is one of the most important (and expensive) steps in building your own home.  So take your time and be as thorough as possible.  First, select three reputable building supply firms and submit materials estimates (“Take offs”) to each for bid.

Check the building supply firms’ bids against your original “take offs” and correct any differences. Then, we recommend that you select one building supply firm with the best combination of service, terms and pricing for the entire job if possible.


Step 6: Site & Foundation (Read more >>)

Review Step 3 and follow through on those items, then do rough grading.  Cut your driveway 12’-14’ wide so concrete and delivery trucks can pass easily.  Have the driveway covered with 4”-6” of crush and run gravel to prevent mud and rut problems.  Then get your water meter (or dig well).

Clear your home site plus an additional work area of 10’-15’.  Next, have the temporary power pole installed and call the power company for hook-up.

Now for your crawl space or basement: Install batter boards, dig foundation footings and get them inspected.  Then, pour footings and walls and/or lay block and get that inspected.  Pre-treat the foundation for termites. 

For the basement slab and garage floor, install the form boards and rough-in the plumbing and miscellaneous pipes.  Be sure water, gas and miscellaneous utility lines have been installed by your mechanical subcontractors.  Pour gravel under concrete slab areas and install polyethylene vapor barrier.  Do the pre-wiring (if necessary) and pour concrete.  Now order a spot survey of your home’s foundation to make sure it is in the correct location and adheres to set-back requirements. Water-proof and backfill your foundation now.


Step 7: Framing (Read more >>)

Once your foundation is complete, check to see that it is level and square before starting the framing.  Then check level/square again.  You will need a builder’s level which you can buy at most hardware stores.  If your foundation is not level, shimming of your floor system may be required.

Have the materials delivered for framing the floors, walls, ceilings and roof.  As the crew builds your home's framework, you will need to maintain an adequate materials supply (“Fill-ins”) so you are not paying carpenters to sit around. You will also have to supervise the “Culling” of materials (crooked and broken boards, etc.). Be sure and check the level, square and wall layout as work progresses.  Catching an error now will save you a lot of money and time.

Install your basement walls and beams.  Then, move to the first floor.  Install the subfloor.  Set special tubs and do the walls/partitions.  Go up to the second floor. Install the subfloor, set special tubs and do the walls/partitions. Install wall sheathing.

You are now ready to install ceiling joists, rafters and trusses, roof and wall sheathing, roof felt and house wrap (you can eliminate roof felt and house wrap by using the ZIP System® which we recommend).  Install exterior doors and windows. Once framing is complete, you can have your custom cabinet contractor measure for your kitchen and bath cabinets.


Step 8: Exterior Masonry/Miscellaneous Tasks (Read more >>)

After your framing crew has completed the “dry in” (roof felt and wall sheathing installed), exterior brick or stone siding and trim should be delivered so that your masonry contractor can install them.

Now there are a variety of tasks to complete.  Install the factory built fireplace. Rough plumbing can now begin (see Step 11). Rough framing punch out and installation of "deadwood" for bath accessories can be completed.


Step 9: Roofing (Read more >>)

This step should be done as quickly as possible after the framing is completed.  All horizontal roof shingle lines need to be straight and shingle watermarks (vertical splits) should be aligned.  Each shingle should have four (4) nails above the tar line.  All roof flashing should be metal and properly “stepped” (staggered) to prevent leaks and allow the flashing to move in varying weather conditions. Ice and water shield should be installed in all valleys. Proper attic ventilation must also be provided.


Step 10: Cornice & Siding (Read more >>)

As your exterior trim and siding are installed, watch carefully to see that the siding is nailed properly to prevent serious “Cupping” (warping) and splitting as the siding ages.  Different types of siding require different procedures for nailing and we recommend that you check with the manufacturer for proper installation instructions.

Also make sure the window, door and roof flashing are installed properly to prevent leaking.  Your garage door(s) should be installed and then do the exterior paint/stain and clean up.


Step 11: Plumbing (Read more >>)

Your plumbing contractor will get all permits and conform to all local building codes.  You will specify CPVC or copper pipe.  CPVC is quality pipe, but you may prefer copper for your drinking water lines.

Rough-in your baths, kitchen, utility room, etc.  You may also want to rough-in a future bath, or an extra outside faucet.  Your plumber may require 50% payment when he finishes the rough-in stage.  Get the building inspector’s approval of this work before you pay.


Step 12: Heating & Cooling (Read more >>)

Your heating/cooling contractor obtains all permits and coordinates his work with your electrical contractor and the building inspector to conform to all building codes.

Have the heating/cooling contractor determine the size of the central unit.  You may also take your floor plan to the local power company. They will tell you exactly what size unit you need and sometimes this analysis is free.

Remember, a properly sized HVAC system which runs often is much more energy efficient than an over-sized system that cuts on and off frequently.  Also, properly sized systems usually last longer saving you money!

If you have a large ranch or two-story home, consider using multiple systems rather than one large system. This should save money in the long run and it provides for more comfortable living.

When your heating/cooling contractor reaches the rough-in stage, he also may require 50% payment.  Again, have the building inspector approve this work prior to making payment.


Step 13: Electrical (Read more >>)

You are now ready to install rough-in wiring.  We recommend that you make a sketch of furniture in each room so that you will know where you will need wall or floor outlets, lights and light switches and have these shown on your building plans.

Mark these locations on your floor plan and your wiring plan then discuss them with your electrical contractor.  The number of outlets per wall is usually set by local building codes, so be sure your electrical contractor gets approval for your wiring plan.  He is also responsible for permits and conforming to all codes.

For most homes, 150-200 amp service is plenty.  If you plan on adding electrical items later or are building a large home, you may need a larger service.  Talk to your local power company and electrical contractor before deciding.

When he finishes rough-in stage wiring, your electrical contractor will probably require 50% payment.  Do not make this payment until the building inspector approves the work.


Step 14: Insulation (Read more >>)

If you are so inclined, this job is a good do-it-yourself project for those that want to save some money.

The amount of insulation you install will determine your home's R value.  The more insulation, the higher the R value, the more you keep out heat and cold and the more money you save on heating/cooling.  Your local power company will help you decide on how much insulation you need. (Do this before choosing a heating/cooling system, since a higher R value reduces the size system you will need.)

Insulation that is blown into your attic is done after ceiling drywall is installed (since the drywall keeps the insulation in the attic). DO NOT block the soffit vents in the attic because that makes it hotter in the summer and overloads your cooling system(s).


Step 15: Ceiling & Wall Covering (Read more >>)

You are now ready for drywall. Many homeowners install drywall themselves but (unless you are experienced) we recommend you hire a drywall contractor.  If you do install drywall, we suggest that you hire a contractor to finish it-he can do it better, quicker and cheaper.  Check the drywall finish by running your hand over it; your eye can not always spot the defects.

One-half (1/2”) inch drywall is recommended for 16” on-center studs.  If you wish to stipple or spray your ceilings, do so before painting the walls.


Step 16: Trim & Cabinets (Read more >>)

We recommend that you hire a master carpenter for this work.

Baseboards, door/window trim and interior door casing comes in two grades: stain grade and paint grade, depending on how you want to finish them.  To allow for carpet, leave 1/2" space between the bottom of your baseboard and the subfloor.  Interior doors and kitchen/bath cabinets should be installed now.  Caulking is recommended around window and door trim, inside and out, to save on energy bills.  And you should finish the fireplace now.


Step 17: Interior Paint & Wallpaper (Read more >>)

Now you can paint the interior and put up wallpaper.  Over new drywall, you will need one coat of primer and two coats of paint.  The primer helps uncover flaws in the drywall finish that have been missed.  Make finishing repairs prior to the finish coat of paint. If you want wallpaper, we recommend that you use an expert installer or expert instructions if you do it yourself.


Step 18: Final Finish & Trim (Read more >>)

Install tile, hardwood, carpet and vinyl next. All are enjoyable do-it-yourself projects.  You can also install the closet shelves, etc. yourself. Next, install mirrors and bath accessories and finish miscellaneous trim and hardware.  You are now ready to do final grading, install your gutters, window screens, do the landscaping, drives, walks and miscellaneous work (decks, patio, splash blocks, etc.)

Call back your plumbing, electrical and heating/cooling contractors to install vents, switch/outlet plates, hook up sinks and tubs, etc.  After final inspection, your electricity, gas and water can be turned on.


Step 19: Final Clean up (Read more >>)

Now is the time to fix those little nicks, touch-up the paint, wax the tile, wash windows, put up window coverings, have all the appliances installed, and vacuum and sweep.

Now you are ready for the big event…


Step 20: Move in (Read more >>)

Move in, relax and enjoy your new home! Congratulations, you have done it!