- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2001

Karen and Doyle Winters did not step lightly into the world of home building. From the moment they bought their 5-acre waterfront parcel on Maryland's Eastern Shore in 1986, they intermittently interviewed architects and builders, visited open houses and talked to families with homes similar to the one they planned.

By fall 1999, they had settled on a timber-frame structure, a floor plan they liked and a builder who had experience with the design. Little did they know that a year later, work crews still would be underfoot and their dream home would be 50 percent over budget.

"We love the house. The workmanship is wonderful," Mrs. Winters says. "We keep saying that we would do things very differently if we ever did it again but we will never do it again."

As the Winterses' experience demonstrates, it is difficult to prepare adequately for the experience of building a custom home.

As with most endeavors in life, the first step in building a custom home seems the most difficult. Even the professionals debate where to begin.

Some say find an architect who will help you select a site. Others say start with a builder who can help select an architect. Still others say skip the architect; a good draftsman can do the same job for a fraction of the price. In no time at all, the decisions begin to stack up.

Early in the process of building a custom home, would-be homeowners discover a world of options as dazzling and exciting as they are confusing. From finding a builder or architectural firm to setting a budget to hashing out a home design and finding a home site that will be compatible, the buyers are calling the shots.

Before groundbreaking, they secure the lender, apply for permits and sort through the endless options for doors, windows, tile, lighting and the myriad other details that together make a house a home.

Then, as the lot is transformed from mud to concrete to a structure, they stay in constant contact with the builder.

For families like the Winterses, this puts them in the driver's seat they have dreamed of occupying since they emptied the contents of a U-Haul into their first home years ago. Others have chosen the commitment based on a picture in a magazine, a drive through a beautiful neighborhood or a visit to a friend's new home.

According to a recent survey by the National Association of Home Builders, almost 30 percent of people who planned to buy a home last year wanted a "custom" home that is, one built to their specifications on their own land. Yet only about 6 percent of the more than 6 million new and existing homes acquired last year were custom-built. An astounding 79 percent of home sales in 2000 were existing homes, a sign that many dream homes remain just that: dreams.

Custom builder Peter Brown of McLean-based Brown Custom Homes warns clients early on that building a home is a time-consuming process.

"It's much harder when there's an endless number of things to choose from, whether you're looking at plumbing, lighting, windows, fixtures, woodwork or tile," Mr. Brown says. "But what I see is that clients want it done right, and they want to be the ones to do the choosing."

The work begins long before any plans are drawn up, when buyers begin to interview designers, builders, landscapers and architects. Don Jacobs, former chairman of the housing committee for the District-based American Institute of Architects, says buyers must do their homework before signing any contracts.

"Get references and check them religiously. Check them, check them, check them," says Mr. Jacobs, an architect who recently finished teaching a class called "Building Your Dream House" for the city of Newport Beach, Calif. Building a custom home should be "one of the most fun experiences of a lifetime," he says.

Whomever the buyer puts in charge of the project should be intimately familiar with the people who will one day inhabit the home.

"There has to be chemistry," Mr. Jacobs says. "They have to know who you are and how you think. And you can't feel intimidated by them."

Annapolis builder Scott Bateman says home buyers are rarely as concerned about chemistry as they are about cost estimates during the initial interview.

"It's one of those things where first impressions mean a lot," says Mr. Bateman, who builds about four custom homes a year. "But most are more concerned with price than anything else."

Who can blame them? With impact fees for new construction, sewer and water-line charges, it's easy to spend more than $10,000 before a shovel hits the dirt.

In an attempt to hold expenses in check, the Winterses spent weekends planing their own lumber and staining their wood floors.

With so many expenses creeping into the picture, veteran custom builder Sam Wilkinson Jr. advises his clients to handle their own permit work to save as much as $3,000 on administrative fees.

"It takes so many hours to get these plans approved sometimes, there can be $3,000 in preparation fees," says Mr. Wilkinson, who has offices in Anne Arundel and Calvert counties in Maryland.

In addition to saving money, he says people who handle their own permits are more involved.

"It makes them aware from the beginning and gives them a feel for the house," says Mr. Wilkinson, who speaks with his clients at least weekly throughout the building process.

"Rather than sitting in a real estate office somewhere where they don't know what materials are being used, these people are involved with the county agencies; they're involved with the bank. They're already connected to it. And it saves them a lot of headaches in the end because they know what they're getting into."

It is that sense of connection that drives many to build a custom home, Mr. Jacobs says. Certainly, after a year of daily e-mail contact with their builder, evenings spent picking out fixtures and appliances and weekends of hard labor, the Winterses can testify to that sense of connection.

"Not many people get a chance to do this build their dream home," Mrs. Winters says. "We had to remind ourselves every now and then that this was the experience of a lifetime."

Indeed, Mr. Jacobs advises home buyers to foster that connection. "It's something that not a lot of people will do in their lives," he says. "And you can see people throw themselves into it and come out with a really memorable experience."

Not only do they come out with memories, but after six, nine or even 12 months of discussion about everything from fireplaces to bathroom fixtures, they come out with the home of their dreams.

More info:

Books

• "House," by Tracy Kidder (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1999). Journalist Tracy Kidder tells the story of one family's custom-built home. Along the way, he introduces readers to the architect, builders and the family, with all of their accompanying crises, frustrations and triumphs.

• "Build it Right: What to Look for in Your New Home," by Myron E. Ferguson and Linda West (Home User's Press, 1997). The authors help readers sort through the options available, using diagrams to help describe the differences between such items as knobs, handles and finger grooves and the million other details home buyers have to decide upon.

• "Creating the Not So Big House: Insights and Ideas for the New American Home," by Sarah Susanka (Taunton Press, 2000). The author profiles 25 house designs, from a Southwestern adobe to a Minnesota farmhouse to a New York City apartment to a Rhode Island summer cottage, and explains how good design can give a house character and coziness.On line

• The Northern Virginia Building Industry Association's Custom Builders Council Web site (www.custombuilderscouncil.com) walks visitors through the process of building a custom home. This month-by-month guide offers advice and insight on where to begin and where you will finish up.

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