- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 12, 2001

Building-industry professionals — and new homeowners who've walked across the hot coals themselves — say having a new home or addition built can be one of the happiest, most rewarding experiences in life, or one of life's great disasters.
Doing plenty of homework in advance, staying in touch with the professionals who are carrying out your plan and learning that all good things take time to come to successful fruition are the keys to seeing that new dream home or addition become a happy, fulfilling reality.
David Blanken, a construction consultant and former builder in Potomac, says the most important phase for homeowners comes before the shovel even hits the ground.
"It's all about preplanning," says Mr. Blanken, who is hired by homeowners to make sure they get the best quality work at the price they are comfortable paying.
"I'm not their builder, so they can trust me," he says.
In the "preplanning" stage, homeowners should check a builder's references and make sure they like the quality of work by that specific builder (which they can do by looking at the builder's previous work).
Mr. Blanken also recommends hiring a team of professionals, including such specialists as a lighting expert and a landscape designer in addition to the architect and builder. In commercial construction, that type of teamwork is taken for granted, but with residential properties, it's less common.
"It's a way to make sure that all the pieces of the puzzle fall in their right place," he says.
As for the cost, Mr. Blanken says it's very important to keep extra money aside for unexpected expenses.
"Most people get involved in a project without knowing how much it's going to cost," Mr. Blanken says.
"Most of the time, I would tell my clients to set aside 10 percent," he says. "If they hold that aside they should be in pretty good shape. It doesn't mean they necessarily have to use it."
One way to get a more realistic picture of expenses is to be very detailed about fixtures, carpets and cabinets. If you know, down to brand and color, what you want, you also know what it's going to cost, Mr. Blanken says. Many of the hidden costs lie in the details, he says.
Richard and Susan Holbrook moved into their new 5,300-square-foot Colonial in Medfield, Mass., in March 1999, and they seem extremely satisfied and happy — both with their new home and the experience of building it.
"It was an exciting time for everybody," Mr. Holbrook recalls. "I'm hoping it's my last" — not because the experience was painful but because, he says, he is so thrilled with the new home.
Although the Holbrooks are both financial types — he is executive vice president and chief financial officer of Eastern Bank; she has an MBA and was a financial planner — Mr. Holbrook says, "Anyone can do it."
Basic secrets of the Holbrooks' success include: selecting a trustworthy builder and developer; maintaining regular contact with him throughout the process; studying materials, prices and quality in homes and building-supply houses; being specific about materials; keeping systematic records; and having both a budget and the discipline to stick to it.
The Holbrooks began their process by choosing Scott Colwell, a third-generation builder and developer who builds and lives in the area, as their contractor.
"He lived nearby and had built the house we lived in for 11 years," Mr. Holbrook says. "We liked the construction, and we knew him personally."
After the Holbrooks selected a lot in Mr. Colwell's new development, the contractor provided them with several plans, from which they chose one. They customized the size and configuration and agreed on a price per square foot. Pricing by square foot can be tricky. If you don't know specifically what that quote includes, you can be stuck with low-grade materials — or wildly escalating prices.
"Our developer quoted us a per-square-foot price before we settled on the final plan," Mr. Holbrook explains. "He said, 'I will build you a house with this level of quality, with this much cabinetry, this grade of carpet, paint, flooring, this much lighting per room. Your square-foot price is X.' By the time we signed, we had agreed on the house and the price.
"We ended up going over budget by only 3 percent — and that was because we added stuff and knew [the price] would go up. If you change the design — be prepared to pay for it."
As president of the Builders Association of Greater Boston, Mr. Colwell has advice for anyone planning a home. At the top of his list is selecting a reputable contractor.
"Ask to see his work," he advises, and choose someone who does the same type of work you are planning.
Check with a local builders' association for references, he says,andbe sure the builder is licensed and insured.
Make certain your contractor has time to build your home.
"That's a problem now," Mr. Colwell says. "Many are booking up to two years ahead. You're going to have to wait. If somebody's available tomorrow, there's probably a reason."
Mr. Colwell recommends having a detailed plan, the more specific the better. This means including details — types of windows, insulation, bath fixtures and drawer pulls. "And," he says, "put everything in writing."
He advises starting with a basic square-foot price, then working with your builder, investigating materials you want, firming up changes and agreeing on a total price.
Per-square-foot prices range from $120 for a basic four-bedroom in an outlying community to $200 for a luxury home, Mr. Colwell says.
With a client, Mr. Colwell discusses the price and quality of materials and a standard list of allowances and specifications to come up with a final price.
"I give customers a list of my suppliers and encourage them to go to the plumbers' supply place, talk to the cabinetry people, before they finalize plans," he says. People research such sites on the Internet, too.
Like many builders, Mr. Colwell lists specifics such as per-yard allowance on carpeting, number of rooms to have oak or maple flooring, a per-square-foot tile allowance and a percent of total sales price for lighting. Consumers then know exactly how much is in the budget for each item, and make choices accordingly.
He also stresses the importance of meeting regularly with the contractor. Do a walk-through at the framing stage, and sit down periodically with the builder for updates.
Two big don'ts in Mr. Colwell's book: shopping strictly for price and acting as your own contractor.
If organization, project management, meeting regularly with contractors and keeping extensive notes are not your forte, an intermediary professional may be the answer.
Shelby Husak is an interior designer who serves as a residential building consultant in Alton, N.H.
"Basically, I mediate," is how Mrs. Husak explains her role. "I found a lot of my clients were at a loss from the beginning."
Building a new home is much more involved than people think, she says.
"It should be a team effort," Mrs. Husak says, between homeowner, builder, interior designer and architect, if there is one. Some builders advise planning on 5 percent more than the budgeted amount, but Mrs. Husak, just as Mr. Blanken, suggests 10 percent, to allow flexibility.
"When builders give a price, they want the job, so they often quote the lowest-grade cabinets and carpet, unless you specify up front" exactly what you want, she says.
Ask what costs are available on each item, she advises, and select what is most appropriate for your needs before agreeing on a final price.
* Staff writer Gabriella Boston contributed to this report.

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