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First Steps to Building

One of the most challenging ways to put a roof over your head is to build a home of your own. You may start with nothing more than a desire to build and a few ideas. It's a lot of work, and can be extremely frustrating at times, but in the end there is nothing more gratifying than coming home to a place you know intimately because you placed every board and nail.

Planning is vital

Before you start building, you need a plan. Professional builders and developers create project plans for each house that encompass the completed drawings and specifications, materials lists, timelines, and budgets. They vet every subcontractor and check licensing and insurance. They line up financing in advance with a schedule of payment due dates. They pull all requisite permits and schedule building inspections according to local building codes.

You'll need to complete all of these tasks yourself, so organizing your project is essential. The payoff is that you'll save time, money, and probably a lot of grief.

Organize your project

Initially, as you gather ideas, a notebook or file is the best place to collect your inspiration materials. We like notebooks, because they can be color coded and tabbed with sheet protectors to collect images. Punch large envelopes to hold loose pictures like magazine clippings of various appliances or paint chips.

It can be a simple as a scrap book approach with paste and pen or high tech with scanned images and extensive notes. The more detail you give yourself, the more likely you'll find solutions to problems in organizing and designing your home's spaces ... something that is an especially important aspect when designing a small house.

Use one notebook for design inspiration and product research, and other notebooks for financial, project management schedules, and contracts, warranties, and agreements.

Ask yourself the right questions

Start with the most general questions first. What kind of a house do you want? How will it capture your values and ideas? Where will it be located? Do you have a site already? If so, what is the path of the sun (which will dictate orientation)? What are the local county or city codes and restrictions on building? Are there historical overlays might that dictate the style of your home?

Proceed slowly and deliberately from the high-level questions to the smallest details.

Once you have a good sense of the general, you can work toward the specific questions such as what kind of kitchen counters or flooring you want.

Do your homework

Research every aspect of your home starting with the land upon which you intend to build. Learn as much as you can about site orientation, water tables, and soil composition. Find out what local ordinances are non-negotiable ... preferably before you plunk money down on a lot or piece of land. Some municipalities have size restrictions that require new home construction to be a minimum size and not the 1000 square feet you originally envisioned.

Building materials come in an almost infinite variety, so it pays to know what is available, its costs, life expectancy, and maintanability. The big advantage with a small house is that you may be able to opt for sustainably harvested wood and wood windows, a metal roof, and other green building technologies that are still relatively expensive. Look for options that are earth-friendly ... in the long term it's an investment that will pay off if you decide to sell. In the short term, your research can result in savings many times over in saved energy costs and improved livability.

Know your limitations

Building a house is a big job. Even a small house may involve aspects that are beyond your skill or interest level.

Some people are fine with design and construction from the first wisp of a concept through hammering the last nail. Others need more outside expertise. Most of us fall in the middle. We are often able to manage the finishes once the foundation, framing, and rough electrical and plumbing are in.

The more labor you have to hire, the more the project is going to cost. Planning for that up front saves considerable frustration, time, and rework.

Thinking you can do it all when the reality is different can result in a less than optimum project, so go slow and hire experts if you need to.

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