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Frequently Asked Questions
 
Below is a list of frequently asked questions organized by category. Scroll through or click on the titles to jump directly to the FAQs for that catagory.
 

 

Top FAQs
 

What is the single most important decision I will make in building a new house or remodeling the one where I live now?
Choosing who will build or remodel for you. A great design, superb location or dramatic view won't compensate for structural defects or poor workmanship. Although remodeling and home building seem very similar, they are not the same. For your project, engage a professional with at least five years’ experience in what you plan to do.

What does the cost-per-square-foot figure mean?
A builder quoting cost-per-square-foot is averaging the cost over the entire house. This doesn't mean that every square foot in the house will cost exactly that amount. The cost of a specific square foot depends on what's in it. For example, a square foot in your kitchen or bathroom will cost a lot more than one in a corner of your living room that's merely "raw space."

At the beginning of a project, however, the cost-per-square-foot figure can be helpful in giving you a sense of what a particular budget will buy. For example, when you divide the amount of money you have to spend  — say, $325,000 — by the size house you want to build — say, 2,500 square feet — you get $130 per square foot. Using this calculation, an experienced architect or home builder can tell you what finishes and features are possible for the size house you want. You may quickly realize that you will have to build a smaller house to get what you want or accept modest details and finishes for a 2,500-square-foot house.

If you have developed a preliminary design and material specification list and then find you’re over budget, you have to think more holistically about ways to reduce your cost. Lopping several square feet off the end of your house will not get you back on track because you’re only cutting out raw space. To stay within your budget you may have to switch to less costly options in floor finishes and cabinetry for your kitchen and bathrooms.

What should I look for in a kitchen?
How easily you can prepare a meal in it. Gorgeous cabinetry and fabulous countertops will look great initially, but if you can’t cook with ease, the bloom will quickly come off this rose.

How can you tell if a kitchen will be hard or easy to work in?
When you visit a furnished model or look at a resale, pantomime how you would fix a meal in the kitchen. If you and a partner frequently fix meals together, do the pantomime together. You'll feel slightly ridiculous, but the information gained will be invaluable. For example, you may discover that the food preparation area is too small for two people to work at the same time or that you have to criss-cross the large kitchen 15 times to get a meal ready — two big negatives for most people. After you’ve done this several times, you’ll be able to size up most kitchens very quickly without having to do the pantomime routine.

What is green building?
Building houses in a more environmentally sensitive way.
A green home builder tries to make his houses as energy efficient as possible, often going far beyond local building code requirements.

Green builders also emphasize healthier indoor air and avoid products that can give off gases containing volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can have serious health effects, especially to sensitive individuals.

Green builders also practice resource conservation in their choice of materials, favoring those that require less energy to manufacture and can be recycled when their useful life in your house has ended.
When the green building movement started in the early 1990s, most builders were skeptical and resisted changing anything. But over time, many have been won over as they began to realize that being an environmental steward was also cost effective.

For example, green building emphasizes recycling and using materials with recycled content. When the builders began to recycle the waste at the job site instead of mindlessly tossing it into the dumpster, they discovered that they could get by with a smaller dumpster and they didn’t fill it as many times. Both changes reduced their cost.


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Emotional Intelligence
 

What is an emotionally intelligent house?
A house with emotional intelligence will make you feel good every day that you live in it. Much of your sense of well-being can be attributed to the design. A house will lift your spirits when it’s tailored to your lifestyle and your building site. But an architect can only deliver so much. The rest is up to you and what you bring to the table.

For example, you’ll be making innumerable decisions. Are you and your spouse good at this or do you argue about everything?

Should Mom and Dad decide everything about the new house or the remodel, or can the kids have some say?
Therapists who work with kids and families say that either approach works; the most important thing is to be consistent from the start. Don’t encourage your kids to contribute their ideas and then decide that you don’t like what they suggest. This conveys the message that you think their ideas are not important. For a sensitive child, this can negatively reverberate for years.

My spouse is an architect, and he wants to design a new house for us. He has very strong opinions about everything. Already I feel like it will be his house and not our house.
I can imagine that your husband wants the new house to advertise his design talents. But if you sense that you will not have any input, remind him that you are a client as well as a spouse, and that he is professionally obligated to bring you into the decision-making process and incorporate your ideas.

What is a sexy kitchen?
It has so many bells and whistles that you want it right now. Oh, those fabulous-looking appliances, gorgeous counters and beautiful cabinets! But don’t count on functionality; the layout may make meal preparation a nightmare.

Does every child need his or her own bedroom?
Most small children would rather share a room, and sharing space and toys can teach important life skills, including how to tell a person to stop annoying you (yes, believe it or not, this is a learned art that many, many adults have a hard time with). As children hit adolescence, however, they begin to separate from the “bosom of the family,” and then they often want their own bedroom. So, the answer to your question is, “it depends on the age of the children.”

I hate uncertainty and making decisions about the unknown. Should I even be thinking about building a new house?
I’d give it a lot of thought. With a brand-new house, you’ll be making decisions and spending huge amounts of money, based on a diagram on paper (a floor plan), not on a real house. Many architects and home builders now have 3-D software that can give you a more realistic idea of what they are planning, but you’re still looking at a drawing, many steps removed from the real thing.

Be brutally honest. If you find yourself becoming unglued at the prospect of a huge leap into the unknown, you will be happier buying a resale and remodeling it to suit your needs, if necessary.

I love my dog. How far should I take this in planning for a new house?
Dogs are so wonderful and lovable and so much a part of the family, it’s easy to imagine that their wants are similar to ours — say, fluffy pillows for the dog bed, and a comfy sofa for stretching out on a lazy afternoon. But, despite more than 12,000 years of living with humans, dogs still have a dog’s agenda. Your dog will be satisfied with a dry place to warm up in winter and cool off in the summer.

Dogs always like to keep tabs on what’s happening outside as well as inside, so a bay window on the front where your dog could sit alertly or take a snooze would be ideal. A dog will love a big yard but will make do with whatever sized one you have.

My husband and I are ready to sell our house where we have lived for 30 years and move to something smaller. To my amazement, my adult children are despondent.
Well, yes. If you have lived there for 30 years, it sounds like your home is the place where your kids grew up, and it evokes “a million memories” for them. If you move out, they have to give up a tangible piece of their past. Even if they acknowledge that your move is 100 percent sensible, it will still be wrenching.


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Getting Started
 

I have three small dogs. I have heard that many homeowner associations do not allow owners to have more than one dog. What should I do?
Keep looking until you find one that will allow you to keep your dogs. This regulation is not likely to be included in any of the sales promotional material, so you'll need to ask the sales agent. To be absolutely sure, double-check the association’s bylaws.

Considering a resale purchase? Again, check the bylaws. A three-dog household is unusual (though as a dog lover I can say it’s to be envied!), and the seller and her neighbors and your real estate agent may have no idea about this.

My kids are still very young and I need to sleep within earshot. In my market, most new houses have a first-floor master suite and put all the other bedrooms on the second floor. Any thoughts?
I would sleep on the second floor until your kids are older. Until then, you can use the master suite as a guest room or home office. I know that seems crazy, but if your children are not great sleepers, or they get sick, etc. etc., you will not be happy if you have to make frequent treks upstairs in the middle of the night. If your moving upstairs means that your children will be sharing a bedroom, that's a plus. Most children do not like to sleep alone at night.

The same architect has done quite a few houses in the neighborhood where I am planning to build. Those houses look nice, but when I met the architect at a housewarming, things did not jell. What should I do?
You will be working with your architect very closely for two years or more, and you need to be VERY comfortable with that person. If you didn't like the architect when you met him or her socially, I would keep looking.

What about the builder? Do I have to like my builder personally?
As with the architect, you will be working very closely with your builder for two years or more, and, as one builder characterized his relationship with his clients, "It's like being married." So, yes, you do need to like your builder personally. Of course you should also check out the builder's bona fides and look at his finished houses to make sure that he can do the job you want.

How about plan services? Is that a good way to get a design for my new house?
Home-plan services can be a great way to buy a design, and many of these companies sell plans designed by registered architects.

But you should realize that it’s not quite the bargain you might assume. In addition to paying for the plan, you will also have to spend several hundred to several thousand dollars refining the plan for your building site. (The plans are designed for a flat site with no constraints due to lot size, setback requirements, existing trees, etc. etc.)

Your plan must also meet local building code requirements, and this may require additional modifications.

Most houses that I see look boringly traditional. I want to be much more adventurous. Is this prudent?
It's your house; you can build whatever you want. But a word of caution is in order. At some point you or your heirs will be selling your house. If you build one so unique that few buyers are interested, it will be harder to sell than if you go with something a little more mainstream. This is not saying that resale should become the tail that's wagging your design, only that you don't want to build a house that becomes a white elephant.

Is it worth it to look for a lot with a great view? Does it affect resale value?
A great view can make living in your new house even more wonderful, but in most cases you’re buying the lot, not the view. If view protections are not in place before you purchase the land, you will be at the mercy of your neighbors, who are legally entitled to build or plant whatever they want.

To see if you do have a view protection, you need to examine the property documents carefully, both the written deed, which describes the location of the surveyor marks and any easement issues, and a land survey map made by a surveyor. You need to look at both documents, because the information may be written on one and not the other.


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Room by Room
 
Kitchen
 

What should I look for in a kitchen?
How easily you can prepare a meal in it. Gorgeous cabinetry and fabulous countertops will look great initially, but if you can’t cook with ease, the bloom will quickly come off this rose.

How can you tell if it will be an easy-to-use kitchen?
When you visit furnished models or look at resales, pantomime how you would fix a meal in the kitchen. If you and a partner frequently fix meals together, do the pantomime together. You'll feel slightly ridiculous, but the information gained will be invaluable. For example, you may discover that the food preparation area is miniscule, or it’s too small for two people to work at the same time, or that you have to criss-cross a big kitchen 15 times to get a meal ready — all big negatives for most people. After you’ve done this several times, you’ll be able to size up most kitchens without needing to do the pantomime routine.

Which type of counter layout is best?
The most efficient layout, and the one most preferred by professional chefs, is a galley arrangement with one aisle and the sink and stove opposite each other. That way, you only have to turn around to go from one to the other. An island cooktop opposite the sink has almost the same advantages but makes a kitchen feel more open. Just make sure that you have at least 15 inches of counter space on both sides of the cooktop. This will give you ample room for pot handles to overhang and space to put bowls, utensils, condiments and all the other things you typically use when you work at the stove.

Which countertop material do you recommend?
This depends on the individual. If you are conscientious, wipe up spills right away, and clean up after every meal, even when a dinner party runs really late, and you pull out a cutting board every time you are slicing and dicing, you will be happy with any material, even ones that stain and scratch easily.

But, if your M.O. in the kitchen runs towards the slapdash, you will be happier with something that is nearly foolproof, a material that won’t stain and is almost impossible to scratch. An engineered stone product like Silestone, Zodiaq or Caesarstone, all of which look remarkably close to granite, is a sensible choice.

Plastic laminate is often regarded as the “low rent” option, but if reasonable care is taken — that is, using a cutting board every time instead of cutting directly on the counter, and wiping up spills right away — it can last for 20 years or more, as I can attest from my own experience in my house.

How about exhaust fans. The one I have now is so noisy and it does zip.
It sounds like you have a builder grade, Brand X model that was the cheapest thing the builder of your house could install. For your remodel or new house you should pay the extra bucks to get one that's quiet. Then you will use it.

You should also get an exhaust fan with a motor that’s big enough to exhaust the smells of cooking disasters in short order (when it does this you will hear the motor, but it won’t be on for long). An exhaust fan with a 550 cfm capacity (cfm means cubic feet per minute) should do the trick. It will be inaudible for regular use at low speed, audible at medium speed when you’re cooking a garlic-laden meat sauce and don’t want to stink up the whole house, and loud only at high speed when you want the acrid smell of burnt soufflé to be gone in short order.

What's the difference between stock and custom cabinets?
There are actually three grades of cabinets — stock, semi-custom and custom — with much overlap in features and finishes. The only hard and fast distinctions are price and size. Custom cabinets are the most expensive; they are made to order in any size you specify and they have more features and offer more options in finishes. Stock cabinets are the least expensive, are manufactured in fixed sizes and offer fewer features and finish options. Semi-custom cabinets are in the middle of the price range. They are available in more sizes than stock cabinets, but not every size. In general, semi-custom cabinets made by a custom cabinet firm will have many of the same features as its more costly, custom ones.

I'm kind of a slob in the kitchen. Can clever design make this less obvious?
Yes, clever design can help. It sounds like you need a countertop that won’t stain, so that you don’t have to catch every spill right away. You should also get something that won’t scratch easily, so if you forget to pull out a cutting board no damage is done. Engineered stone will be your ticket here.

You will also be happier in a kitchen that does not have a huge food preparation area because I suspect that you tend to spread out. If the space is too big, your cleanup time will take forever.

For the floor finish, look for something with a pattern or texture that will hide the dust and dog hair.


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Bathrooms
 

Any thoughts on whirlpool baths?
Many people think they need to get a large soaking tub with jets for resale purposes, but real estate agents have said for years that it rarely influences a buyer. Most people find that after the initial thrill wears off, they use it about once a year, if that often.

I'm meticulous about my makeup and want the best possible lighting for seeing what I'm doing. What should I ask for?
Theatrical lights on three sides of the mirror is optimal, but a band of six to eight lights across the top of the mirror is a reasonable compromise for most people. The overhead lighting that most builders install is terrible for applying makeup because it creates shadows on your face.

Every master bathroom that I see has two sinks, a big soaking tub and a separate shower. Is all this necessary?
If you and your partner get up at exactly the same time, two sinks can be convenient. Many builders now are beginning to offer a master bath with a bigger shower and no tub. This can leave more room for a bigger linen closet, handy for storing bulk purchases of toilet paper and toiletries as well as towels and bed linens.


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Bedrooms
 

Why do so many master bedrooms in furnished models have a standard-sized double bed when a larger bed could clearly be accommodated?
The bed may be small because it was impossible to get a larger one in there. In many new houses now the stairs are narrow and U-shaped, and the hallways narrow. This can make it impossible to get a large piece of furniture up the stairs, even when you have an experienced moving crew.

In some furnished models that I see, the master bedroom has a chaise lounge but no dressers. What gives?
If there are no dressers, it’s likely that the bedroom was too small to fit them in. If you need dressers as well as closet storage, measure carefully to see if your own furniture will fit.


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Family Room
 

We like to congregate in the family room, but we have a noise issue. When I am reading, I can’t concentrate if the TV is on, and my children’s video games can drive me crazy. Can you recommend a solution?
If you are working with an architect or custom builder so you have control of the plan, add an area next to the family room that you can close off with French doors. You can make this either the “quiet” room or the “noisy” one. Since the doors have glass, the people in one room won’t necessarily feel cut off.

I plan to make our new family room the center of family life. Right now my kids are toddlers and we are on the floor with toys everywhere, which is making me crazy. What can I do to calm down?
Add storage. Whether it’s a closet or base cabinets with open shelving above or bookcases or all three, this will keep a semblance of order and help you to feel calmer.


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Storage
 

Will attics ever make a comeback?
In some parts of the country, where builders do not routinely build basements because of the local soil conditions, the attics never disappeared.

Why don't any of the builders include a pull-down stair and some floorboards so I could put stuff in the otherwise inaccessible attic space?
Since most buyers are not interested, most builders don't want the extra hassle. Creating a small attic-storage area looks simple enough, but the builder would have to reinforce standard roof trusses because they aren't sized to support any floor load. Then he would have to add wiring because you want some light up there. Code requirements may call for additional refinements (such as the space must be enclosed from the rest of the attic) that would add to the hassle as well as the cost.

What do you think of the large walk-in closets that are fitted with open hanging and wire baskets instead of drawers?
I think that the open storage concept is great in theory — you can easily see and find everything. But I suspect that in real life, once you start to use it, the setup can quickly look like a jumbled mess (for sure it would in my house). I also suspect that dust will collect on things that you don’t wear very often. So this is where I come out on your question: The open look is nice, but hanging shirts, pants, dresses, etc. behind closet doors and having closed-drawer storage for folded items like underwear and socks is more practical in the long run, though it will cost more.


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Laundry Rooms
 

I've noticed that many home builders are putting laundry rooms on the second floor. This seems odd to me.
Actually, it's a lot more practical to have a laundry on the second floor because most of the dirty laundry is generated there.


My builder is offering an optional foldout ironing board in the laundry room. Is it worth the extra cost?
Not in my book. Personally, I hate ironing. The only way I can make myself do it is to set the ironing board up in the nicest room in the house, preferably one with a view and a television. If you can imagine yourself ironing in a big closet (which basically describes a laundry room), then it might be a good idea. But for me, never.


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Garages
 

Can you offer any useful guidelines on garage size?
To accommodate two cars plus your garbage cans, recycling bins and maybe a bike or two, you need at least 19 feet in width and 21 feet in length. To be able to open the doors of one car without hitting the other, you need a width of 24 feet. If you have gardening equipment, recycle bins, trash cans and a lot of other non-automotive items you plan to store in your garage, you may need a length of 24 feet. And, if you have unusually large cars, say a van or a crossover, you may need even more length and more width. You also want to make sure that you can clear the garage door as you drive in and out.

Before you make a final decision, "test park" your cars in the garage of a house that is nearly finished.


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Home Office
 

If I can pick any exposure in the house for my office, which do you recommend?
I would go for the one with the best view, and then invest in window treatments if necessary.

I plan to use one of the bedrooms for my office. Since it’s upstairs, no one will see it but my family. I’ll use the same cobbled together set-up I have now and get new furniture for the rooms where we will be entertaining. Sensible?
If you are planning to work at home full time, I urge you to make your office the nicest room in the house. After all, you will be spending most of your waking hours there.


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The Big Picture
 

I’m ready to jump into the details of the new kitchen and my husband says we should wait on that and fix a budget, find an architect and a builder and work out the design first. Who’s right?
Your husband. By the time you work out the design of your house, you may decide that you want more space or more energy efficiency and this will impact the choices for the kitchen. Rather than fixating on one part of the project, you need to look at the big picture first.

I keep reading that home buyers “want a sense of community.” What does that mean?
Most people want to know their neighbors and feel some connection to the community in which they live.

Some land use planners think this can be achieved with a type of land use plan called Traditional Neighborhood Development or TND. With this, every homeowner has a front porch that is very close to the sidewalk, enabling casual conversation between neighbors on the sidewalk and homeowners on their porch. When the garage is accessed from a rear alley, another opportunity is created for socializing with neighbors across a narrow alleyway and neighborhood kids often play there.

A TND has been tried with varying degrees of success all over the U.S. for the last 25 years.

What is modern classicism? I don’t want a house with columns across the front that looks like Tara from Gone With the Wind.”
A classical approach may sound like the architect wants to encase your house in columned arcades, but a modern day classicist will emphasize clarity and efficiency in organizing spaces and design in any style you want.

An analogy to two women’s clothing designers might further clarify this. If you’re more inclined to favor Eileen Fischer styling (simple, clear lines) over Ralph Lauren (gold braid, gold buttons, epaulettes and plenty of other doo-dads that you may quickly tire of and then want to buy more clothes), then I would check out a residential architect who says that he works in a “classical mode.” 

Why should I build a smaller house?
The best reason is that it costs less money!


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Home Building
 

What is the single most important decision I will make in building a new house or remodeling the one where I live now?
Choosing who will build or remodel for you. A great design, superb location or dramatic view won't compensate for structural defects or poor workmanship. Although remodeling and home building seem very similar, they are not the same. For your project, engage a professional who has had at least five years’ experience in what you plan to do.

What does the cost-per-square-foot figure mean?
A builder quoting cost-per-square foot is averaging the cost over the entire house. This doesn't mean that every square foot in the house will cost exactly that amount. The cost of a specific square foot costs depends on what's in it. For example, a square foot in your kitchen or bathroom will cost a lot more than one in a corner of your living room that's merely "raw space."

At the beginning of a project, however, the cost-per-square-foot figure can be helpful in giving you a sense of what a particular budget will buy. For example, when you divide the amount of money you have to spend — say, $325,000 — by the size house you want to build — say, 2,500 square feet — you get $130 per square foot. Using this calculation, an experienced architect or home builder can tell you what finishes and features are possible for the size house you want. You may quickly realize that you will have to build a smaller house to get what you want or accept modest details and finishes for a 2,500-square-foot house.

If you have developed a preliminary design and material specification list and then find you’re over budget, you have to think more holistically about ways to reduce your cost. Lopping several square feet off the end of your house will not get you back on track because you’re only cutting out raw space. To stay within your budget you may have to switch to less costly options in floor finishes and cabinetry for your kitchen and bathrooms.


My builder only offers one bland, off-white color for the walls and trim. I am an exuberant soul! What should I do?
After you close on the house and take possession, paint the walls with the colors you want before you move in. But when it comes time for you to sell, be prepared to repaint the walls with the neutral colors the builder used because most people prefer them.

I have a modest budget. Should I look for the lowest cost-per-square-foot I can find?
A builder quoting you an unusually low cost-per-square foot isn't necessarily offering a terrific deal. To get the low figure, the builder may be using inferior materials and subcontractors known for shoddy workmanship.

Why do houses cost so much?
The biggest ticket item in any house purchase is the land. So where you decide to build your house will have the single biggest impact on its price. The shape of your house also will affect its price. A 2,400-square-foot house on one floor will cost more than the same size house on two floors because you’ll have more roof and more foundations.

How should I pick a lot?
Before you sign on the dotted line and buy the property, make sure that you can build on it. If you plan to work with a custom builder, bring him along to evaluate those restful three acres in the country. You may find the reason it’s really quiet and peaceful is that trying to build anything there presents logistical issues that would be daunting, even for the U.S. Army.

If you're buying a house in a subdivision, bring a landscape architect to advise you on the grading and drainage of the lots you are considering. At the time of your purchase, all the topsoil will have been removed, making it very difficult to tell just what you would be getting and whether it is a “collector” lot or not. A collector lot is designated to collect the rainwater runoff from surrounding lots. The water will eventually be absorbed into the ground, but you can have a small pond out back until it is and the absorption process can take as long as two days.

Do I need to engage a private home inspector? Can't I just rely on the local municipal building inspector?
Private home inspectors and municipal building inspectors look for different things and have different priorities. The municipal inspector will be checking for building code infractions, and most of these address safety issues; he’s not concerned with the quality of the workmanship. The private home inspector is looking at quality as well as code issues. This person brings a second pair of eyes to make sure everything is in order code-wise, but he is also concerned with items that will cause maintenance problems down the line if not addressed during construction.

My builder charges extra for wider trim around the doors, windows and wall bases. Is it worth it?
Yes. Wider trim will give the rooms a more finished and distinctive look and make them feel more comfortable (the difference may be subtle, but you will definitely notice it). Using the same size trim throughout your house will also help to make the spaces flow together visually, and this will also make your house feel more comfortable.

When I open the doors in a builder's model, they often feel flimsy and cheap. What could I substitute — if my builder agrees?
Many production builders use hollow-core doors. A solid-core door made of medium density fiberboard feels more solid when you open or close it. When painted, it looks like the solid-paneled doors you see in older houses. The heavier doors also have soundproofing benefits.

What's the difference between custom and production builders?
A custom builder constructs one-of-a-kind houses, often one at a time, and is willing to build plain or fancy. The custom builder may provide the design, or you may provide the design, either by hiring an architect or buying an off-the-shelf, pre-drawn design from a home-plan design service. A custom builder's price covers only construction costs; you buy the lot yourself, wherever you want to build.

A production builder (as tract builders prefer to be called) does not offer the anything-you-want smorgasbord and will build only the plans offered by the builder's firm. Construction materials and finishes will be of the builder's choosing, but you can pick colors and patterns. A production builder will not build just anywhere. Instead he buys a number of lots in one location and sells the house and lot as one package.

Another critical difference between the two types of builders: cost. On average, custom builders charge about twice what production builders charge, and you pay the lot cost on top of this (since the production builder sells the lot and house together, it is hard to compare the construction costs for these two different approaches). The huge, nationwide production firms that build in 20 or more housing markets have tremendous clout in bargaining for material costs because they literally order them by the trainload.

Custom builders often belong to a buying cooperative, so they do get some break on material costs, but it’s nothing compared to what the national production builders enjoy.

When I tour model homes, I avoid the sales agent because I'm afraid I'll be trapped into signing a sales agreement. Am I being paranoid?
Some sales agents are intimidating, but most are very friendly and want to be helpful. They know that no one buys a house without visiting at least three or four times. After the fourth visit, however, the agent might ask how serious you are.

My builder offers a ton of options. Some would give us additional space, but most are for more expensive finishes. Which should I choose?
As a rule of thumb, I would say you are better off getting the extra space now because it will be harder and much more costly to add it later. With finishes, such as kitchen countertops, you can get the cheaper one now (say, plastic laminate) and install a more expensive one (the granite that you really wanted) later.

But having said that, I urge you to think over how much you will actually use the extra space. For example, I frequently see optional sunrooms and always wonder how useful they are.

My builder offers about 60 choices of carpet. How can I choose intelligently?
To get a carpet that will wear reasonably well, you will likely have to upgrade two or three levels. You will also need an upgraded pad. As you move up in carpet grades you will discover that the number of color choices increases. In general, a neutral color that goes with your furniture is a good bet. A lighter carpet color will make a space look larger, but it also shows the dirt more. If you have kids and pets, factor them into your choices (personally, I found chocolate brown hides all sins.).

My builder offers several choices for the exterior finish of the house. I can get a brick front and then finish the sides and back with something less expensive. Am I being cheesy to consider this?
Not at all. In most new subdivisions today, almost every house with a brick front has something different for the sides and rear. When you find out how much it costs to have brick on all four sides, you will decide to do what all the other buyers on the block did.

I want a deck. But my husband, who has lots of hobbies, wants to spend the money on a finished basement instead. What do you think?
Well, one way to look at this quandary is that in many areas you can only use the deck for part of the year, but you can use a finished basement every day. In most cases, a builder's charge to finish a basement is less expensive than bringing in someone later to do it. Adding a deck later will cost about the same as doing it now.

I know that I need more lighting than the builder offers in the base-priced house. How can I tell what I will need?
Try to visit a furnished model at night. During the day, the large windows that everyone wants will flood the house with natural light, so it will be hard to figure out what additional lighting is required after the sun goes down.

When I visited a new-home construction site last weekend, I saw really odd-looking joists holding up the floors. They aren't what I have in my house (built in 1950). Is this builder cutting corners?
Almost everyone makes that assumption the first time they see these odd-looking beams; I did myself. What you saw were probably TJIs or I-joists, which look like steel I-beams made of wood. They're actually more expensive than sawn lumber that’s cut from a log, but most builders prefer TJIs or I-joists because they're stronger and dimensionally stable. They won't warp, twist or shrink, but sawn lumber will as it passes through annual heating and cooling cycles.

Some home builders offer design-build services. What is this?
Many custom home builders have a very sophisticated design sense, and they also offer design services. These can be in-house or the builder may hire an architect. The design will not be as detailed as an architect would produce if you hired him directly because the home builder will have many standard details that he will use.

A major advantage of this is that the designer and builder work together from the start, so the builder, who is out there every day buying materials and hiring subcontractors, can monitor the design to ensure that it stays within the homeowner’s budget.

I want to visit the site every day. Is this a good idea?
You won’t be able to see that much change, day to day. If you visit once or twice a week, you’ll be able to measure real progress.

Most builders have rules for when you can visit the site (usually before construction starts in the morning or after it’s over for the day in the afternoon). And most builders insist, for safety reasons, that you are accompanied by one of their personnel.

If you have young children, it’s best to leave them at home. You will have to watch them every second, and this defeats the purpose of your site visit.


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Remodeling
 

Our house does not work for our household. Do we stay and remodel — or move to a bigger house?
There are several considerations here.

First, what’s the dollar amount to get what you need in the house where you live now? If you will be spending more than you could expect to get back when you eventually sell your house, think long and hard. You might consider soliciting the opinions of several real estate agents with sales experience in your neighborhood.

There are tax consequences to factor in. In many places now, the property tax assessment on a newly purchased house is dramatically higher than on a home that was bought years ago. When you compare the cost of improving your current house (and the added tax for the improvements) to the cost of moving and paying higher taxes in a bigger house, you may decide that staying put is more sensible.

A move will also impact the household (unless you stay within the same neighborhood). Your children will have the stress of changing schools and making new friends. You’ll also be leaving friends and a community where you have made multiple connections over the years, know exactly where to go for this and that, have a great doctor, etc. etc.

Every household is different, and there is no set answer to these questions.

From a resale perspective, which rooms in the house are the most sensible to remodel?
The kitchen is always a safe bet, but don’t go hog wild on the improvements and upgrade beyond what a prospective buyer will pay (you can easily spend $50,000 to a $100,000 on a kitchen remodel). A good-looking kitchen will interest every buyer, but it doesn’t guarantee a sale.

The second place I would put money is the master bath. Before 1980, the master bathrooms in most houses were smaller. Today, they look dated and depressing to many buyers. If you can’t make the master bath bigger, installing new fixtures will give it a new look.

The third type of remodel to consider is added space. But you may find that you can get the changes you want by moving the walls around in the living areas you have now, and this will be much less costly.

Please note: Many Remodeling issues are the same as those in Home Building. For more information, see the FAQs for Home Building.


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Green & Greener
 

What is green building?
Building houses in a more environmentally sensitive way.
A green home builder tries to make his houses as energy efficient as possible, often going far beyond local building code requirements.

Green builders also emphasize healthier indoor air and avoid products that can give off gases containing volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can have serious health effects, especially to sensitive individuals.

Green builders practice resource conservation in their choice of materials, favoring those that require less energy to manufacture and can be recycled when their useful life in your house has ended.
When the green building movement started in the early 1990s, most builders were skeptical and resisted changing anything. But over time, many have been won over as they realize that being an environmental steward is also cost effective.

For example, green building emphasizes recycling and using materials with recycled content. When the builders began to recycle the waste at the job site instead of mindlessly tossing it into the dumpster, they discovered that they could get by with a smaller dumpster and they didn’t fill it as many times. Both changes reduced their cost.

It sounds like green building involves many different aspects of home building. Which is the most important?
Many green builders would say energy efficiency. In the U.S., home energy use accounts for more than 20 percent of the greenhouse gases that are causing global warming. When home energy use is reduced, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions associated with that house is also reduced.

In planning my new house, why should I care about anything more than my own needs? How can the actions of one homeowner have any effect on the environment?
You’re right. The actions of one homeowner are too small to measure. But collectively, the actions of all homeowners in the U.S. do affect the environment. For example, the energy used in buildings in the U.S. accounts for more than 40 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted from our country every year. More than half of these buildings are houses and apartment buildings.

If all homeowners used less energy at home by making their houses more energy efficient (using less energy for heating and cooling, lighting, and electronic equipment), it would make a huge difference in the amount of greenhouse gases emitted from our country. (The U.S. is second only to China in annual greenhouse gas emissions).

What is LEED?
LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a program designed by the U.S. Green Building Council. The program rates the greenness of finished buildings; in residential construction it’s LEED Home.

The rating system gives points in numerous categories; each category describes an area of home building for various things that will reduce the environmental impact of a given house. The highest score is LEED Platinum.

I see a lot of really big houses being touted as green. How can a big house be green? Nobody would say a big car is green.
A big house can be green, but a smaller house will always be greener because fewer resources were used to build it and less energy is needed to heat and cool it.

What is deconstruction? I thought this was some kind of literary theory.
As applied to green building, deconstruction means carefully taking down an existing building and reusing the building materials. Not everything can be reused, but many items, including the framing lumber, are often better quality than you can buy new.

My neighbor is trying to get me to use those compact fluorescent bulbs, but the color is awful.
Your neighbor is pushing compact fluorescent bulbs, usually called CFLs, because they use much less energy (about 75% less than incandescent bulbs) and last 8 to 10 times longer than incandescents.

Unfortunately the color issue puts a lot of people off. The incandescent light bulbs that we are all used to have only one color of light. CFLs have more than one color of light and none of it is what we are used to. The CFL colors range from warmish red to blue-white. You can tell the color of a given bulb by looking carefully at the packaging. The color is indicated by the Kelvin temperature rating (usually called K-temp). A 2700K CFL will be warmish red. As the numbers go up, the light will be whiter (4100K) then bluish (5000K). Above 6000K, a CFL’s light becomes a harsh blue-white. You would want it if you had to clean every spec of blood off the walls of a butcher shop, but not to use in your home.

There are so many building materials now that contain recycled material. Does this really make a difference to the environment?
Yes. When a product can be recycled into another useful material, its useful life has been extended and the local landfill has one less item taking up space.

My budget is limited. If I can only do one or two things to make my new house greener, what do you recommend?
The most important thing you can do is to make your building envelope more energy efficient. This will cost more initially, but you will save money in the long run because your energy bills will be lower. You will also have fewer maintenance costs, because the quality of the building materials used to increase energy efficiency is generally higher.

But an energy-efficient building envelope means that you will have less fresh air, because all those air leaks that make older houses drafty will be plugged up. To make sure that you are getting the fresh air you need, you will have to use mechanical means. The least costly way to do this is to use continually running bathroom exhaust fans.

What is the ecological footprint?
An ecological footprint is a way of quantifying human impact on the earth. The originator of the concept, environmentalist Mathis Wackernagel, sees it as a way to help average people wrap their brains around an overwhelming amount of data and grasp the enormity of this problem.

Wackernagel converted all the earth's resources into a single unit of measurement, productive hectares of land. He terms that a global hectare. Then he calculated each person's share. That's the ecological footprint. With 6.6 billion people on the planet, the average stands at 1.8 global hectares per person. (1.8 global hectares equals 2.2 acres.)

The size of an average American's ecological footprint, however, has ballooned to 9.6 global hectares. If everyone on earth lived like we do, we would need five planets, clearly an unsustainable proposition. Scaling down to a "one-planet lifestyle" will require many changes in our American way of life.

If I lived in a house that fits within my ecological footprint, how big would it be?
It’s natural to assume that living within your ecological footprint means living in a small house. But size is actually not the major factor. Where you live and what type of transportation you use to get around are just as important.

If you have to drive to every activity outside your house, the transportation share of your ecological footprint is equal to that of your house — about 20 percent.

The house with the smallest footprint has good public transportation and essential services within walking distance.

Is it hard to find a green builder?
Look for membership in the U.S. Green Building Council, known among builders as USGBC. That's always a good indication that a home builder is committed to green building principles. You can also ask your local home builders’ association for names of members who focus on green.

Another good source is your local newspaper or other media. Almost certainly they have run stories on new green homes or green renovations and the builder’s name will figure prominently in each article.


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Spotlight Houses
 

Why are show houses nearly always supersized?
If the show house has sponsors that manufacture building materials, appliances, bathroom fixtures, flooring, windows, etc., the sponsors will regard the show house as an opportunity to showcase their wares. The more space there is, the more ways to showcase. It is farcical, however, to suggest that a 6,000-square-foot show house “is the way that America wants to live.”

What do I personally look for when touring a show house?
I look for takeaways for the average homeowner, who lives in an averaged-sized house. When a house is enormous, my takeaways are usually in the details. For example, when the trim around doors and windows and the base of the walls is correctly proportioned for ceiling height, and the same sized trim pieces are used throughout the house — not just in the main living areas — you will perceive the difference. The house will feel more comfortable.

Do I have a favorite historical home?
As I see more famous houses, my list of favorites grows longer. But my all-time favorite is Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

I first saw it as a teenager, after having visited many historical homes in the Washington, D.C., area where I grew up. My immediate, gut reaction was, I could live here. After I studied architecture, I understood why I liked it. Though Jefferson designed his house in the 18th and early 19th centuries, he had a very modern sensibility. For example, the house has more windows than was typical of that time and the windows were bigger, reaching higher up towards the ceiling and lower down to the floor. This flooded the interiors with daylight, which was very unusual then, but a hallmark of well-designed houses today.


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