Looking for the perfect house? Maybe it doesn’t exist yet. If you’ve already scoured the listings of homes in your area and still can’t find what you want, consider building a house instead.
That’s what Bill Gates did. Mr. Microsoft carved out a five-acre site on the shores of Lake Washington near Seattle, and built a 66,000-square-foot mansion that includes a guest house, pool house, boat house, library, reception hall, and exercise room that’s better appointed than most health clubs. You probably won’t be able to be quite as extravagant as Mr. G, but you can take advantage of the basic concept of building: you get what you want.
Buying vs. Building
First understand the trade-offs. When you buy an existing house you know exactly what you’re getting. What you see is what you get. If you don’t like surprises, or can’t visualize very well, you may be better off sticking with the tangible, rather than pinning your expectations on a set of plans that you can’t even read, and which may not turn out the way you’d hoped.
On the other hand, new homes have a lot going for them. They have tons of amenities including built-in appliances and efficient heating and cooling systems; safety features such as hard-wired smoke alarms and sprinkler systems; and zillions of electrical outlets. Everything is brand-spanking new.
If you’re building a truly custom home, you can specify everything you want, right down to the faucets and cupboard knobs. Just think. You can put in a home office with high-speed Internet access, an entertainment room with surround sound and big-screen projection TV, a temperature-controlled wine cellar, a secluded Jacuzzi off the master bedroom, and even (like Bill) electronic artwork on the walls that changes with the push of a button. You can have anything you want . . . as long as you can pay for it.
Which brings us to the downside of building a new home: It usually costs more. This is especially true if you’re doing it because you’re picky. The more extravagant your tastes, the more you’ll have to pay. It can be hard to curtail your wish-list when you’re faced with so many choices in flooring, appliances, light fixtures, etc. Existing homes pretty much force you to accept what’s there unless you’re going in with major renovation plans. The house has been broken in, the bugs have mostly been worked out. You don’t have to face dirt in the front yard, or hang sheets on the windows until you can afford to buy curtains.
New House Building Choices
You have three basic options when building a new home, ranging from least-custom to most-custom. You can:
- buy a house in a new subdivision where you can choose your lot and floor plan;
- buy a piece of land and a set of established plans, and hire a general contractor to build the house for you; or
- hire an architect to help you design and build your fully customized dream home.
Buying a home in a new subdivision is the least risky because you can pretty much see what you’ll be getting. Most new subdivisions have model homes that allow you to actually stand inside the house and get a sense of how it will feel to live there. The biggest risk with basing your decisions on the models is that your eye might be distracted by decorating tricks that make rooms appear larger. Also, the “finished” look can lead to disappointment when you move into your own naked house.
Building a house from an established floor plan on the lot of your choice gives you more flexibility. Instead of a handful of plans to choose from, there are hundreds of plans available. And you can pay more attention to the property itself: an expansive view or heavy woods; a location close to town or out in the sticks. By hiring a general contractor to oversee the building process and manage the subcontractors, you avoid getting involved in the actual building of the house. You will have to oversee the contractor, however, and make lots of decisions about building materials and other details.
When you work with an architect, you can get a fully customized home built to your exact specifications. In fact, the architect will help you determine what those specifications are, based on your lifestyle and design preferences. If you want something out of the ordinary and/or don’t feel totally comfortable making decisions on your own, an architect can guide you in right direction and help you avoid mistakes.