Top Ten Things to Think About When Choosing a Home Site

Obviously, you can’t build your “House On A Dime” unless you have a site to build it on.  Even if you’re buying an existing home, you need to pay careful attention to the site.  While it’s true that the foundation is the most important part of your house, don’t forget that the foundation starts with the piece of dirt that it’s sitting on!

Some things to consider when choosing a site:

  1. Drainage: Be absolutely certain that your site drains well, and that the water can be directed away from the house.  (Water is NOT your friend!)
  2. Access: What type of roads lead to your house?  Are they full of potholes?  Our road beat our cars to death!  That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t live in the middle of nowhere…just make sure you understand what that means!
  3. Distance: Will you be commuting from your “House On A Dime”?  What is your fuel cost going to be?  There were times that my gasoline bill was almost $1,000/month!  (Hmmm…maybe I should have bought a car with better mileage!)
  4. Terrain: Is there a suitable home site on your land?  You might be shocked when you find out how much those 100 dump truck loads of dirt are going to cost! Or, the excavation of the side of a hill.  Find a spot that will require minimal dirt work.
  5. Utilities: Are they available?  What’s the cost of getting a water meter? (Probably more than you think).  Can you even get city or community water?  Will you have to drill a well?  What about electricity?  You might be surprised that you often have to pay to bring the power from the edge of your property to your actual house site…SO, if you build smack dab in the middle of 50 acres, the costs can add up!
  6. through 10.  HELP ME OUT HERE! Someone comment or ask a question about site considerations.  I’d love to get some input!
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“Permits? We Don’t Need No Stinking Permits!”

No permits…a great way to save money, right? WRONG! If you live in a jurisdiction that requires permits, make sure that you follow all of the rules. In most cases, homeowners are allowed to do their own work, but you must still apply for, and pay for, a permit.

Municipalities require permits to ensure that construction meets building codes, and just in case you forgot, check out this post to see why you need to follow building codes.

So how does pulling a permit save you money?  Since your permitted work will require an inspection before receiving a “green tag,” you can have more confidence that the work was completed properly – whether you do it or hire a subcontractor.  Sometimes, subcontractors do a better job when they know that their work will be checked.  Also, you will avoid fines or re-doing the work.  Let me give an example.

I have a friend who was convinced that he didn’t need to get a permit before converting a garage to living space.  He did all of the necessary work:  demo, framing, wiring, plumbing, insulation, drywall, texture, trim and paint.  Now, I’m not sure when the building inspector noticed that the work was being done without a permit, but he didn’t show up until the job was completed…and then required all of the sheetrock to be removed so that he could inspect the wiring, plumbing and insulation.  So much for saving $200.00 on a permit! To top it all off, he was fined for doing work without a permit.

WHAT YOU WANT TO SEE!

Save yourself some pain…and extra work…and money.  PULL A PERMIT!


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Saving Money on Plans

Forgive me if I don’t post something every day for the next couple of weeks.  I’m away from home performing some military training with the Air National Guard, but will try to make an occasional post and respond to your comments (that’s a hint for you to comment!)

The next several posts are going to cover a few ways to save money in each of the categories I listed here.  First, we’re going to take a look at plans and permits.  In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve used the word plan an awful lot…that’s because it’s really important!  Don’t move any dirt, don’t cut a board, and don’t drive a nail until you have some sort of plan!  A plan doesn’t necessarily mean a complete set of architectural blueprints, but you do need to have your idea put down on paper, along with some measurements and details.  Now, I’ve got to be honest…I haven’t always done this.  When we added on to the back of our farmhouse, we based our addition on the amount of salvage flooring that we had…so we added a 28′ x 28′ addition, without any sort of plan for the inside!  We built the floor, exterior walls and roof, and then finished the inside a year later!

28' x 28' Floor for Addition - WITHOUT A PLAN!

It did work out in the long run, but definitely presented its challenges along the way – like being limited on options like room sizes and configurations, etc.

Now, you may think that I’m going to tell you to draw your own plans to save money.  That is one option. With the variety of software programs out there and a little practice, you can draw a very professional looking set of construction drawings. However, we have architects and draftsmen for a reason…they know some of the typical details and specifics of buildings.  How many of you know how deep a closet should be?  Or what size doors to install?  Or where to place windows?  Or how much space should be in front of a toilet?  These are all details that you can learn (that’s some of what I’ll be teaching you over time!), but they’re things that most architects are already familiar with…and having those things planned and designed correctly up front will save you time and money.  Let me give you one example. 

Several years ago, my dad’s house burned to the ground.  We designed his new house in a cool design program.  It looked really good on paper!  But, we didn’t pay a lot of attention to the exact dimensions of the rooms…we just made them about the size we thought they should be.  We wanted the bedrooms to be decent sized, so they were all over 12′ in each direction.  The problem was, they were 12’1″ or 12’2″ in each direction.  Just in case you’re not familiar with construction materials, most come sized in 4′, 8′, 12′ widths, etc.  Well, sheetrock doesn’t stretch…so rather than having a nice, easy, sheetrock hanging job, we had to make a lot of splices – which created more work in both cutting and finishing the sheetrock.  Guess what else?  Carpet comes in 12′ widths!  If only we had paid attention and made the rooms 1 or 2 inches narrower, we could have saved a lot of time and money!

SO, how can you save money on plans?  Drawing your own is an option, but be sure to learn all you can about design.  You can do this by looking at the THOUSANDS of sample floor plans available on sites like HousePlans.com, BuilderHousePlans.com and CoolHousePlans.com.  Or just google House Plans. You can look at a preview of the floor plans for free.  If you find one you like, BUY IT!  If you just want a few changes, most of them can be modified for a fee. The plans are drawn by architects, and they are cheaper than having custom plans drawn.

Stay tuned for next time when I’ll talk about Permits.

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Small, Bite-Sized Pieces

If you’re tackling a major building or remodeling project for the first time, you probably feel a little bit overwhelmed.  To help make your project a little more manageable, you need to break it down into smaller, bite-sized pieces.  Here’s a list of the main phases of construction:

  • Plans & permits (Don’t forget to PLAN!)
  • Site Work (Make sure that your site keeps water away from your house…water is NOT your friend.)
  • Demolition (Doesn’t everyone love to tear things up? What a great job for your teenage boys!)
  • Excavation (Shovel, anyone?)
  • Concrete (Something I DREAD!)
  • Masonry (I’m not talking about the lodge, but bricks and stones.)
  • Framing – Floor, Walls and Roof (I’ll be covering ways that you can do this in an energy efficient way – and save a lot on your utility bills!)
  • Roofing & Gutters (Yes, gutters…they’re not just for looks.)
  • Exterior Siding (Wood, vinyl, fiber cement, etc.)
  • Exterior Trim (You can really dress up your house without spending a lot of $$)
  • Doors (More than meets the eye…do want your rooms to be accessible?)
  • Windows (Lots of options…some much more efficient and cost effective than others.)
  • Plumbing (Most major plumbing work is best left to licensed plumbers, but there are definitely ways to save money here.)
  • HVAC – Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (I’ll talk quite a bit about how to choose an HVAC subcontractor – many don’t have a clue how to properly design and size a system.)
  • Electrical & Lighting (Another area that is best left to licensed individuals…having said that, I’ll be covering a lot that you can do yourself.)
  • Insulation (It’s not just fiberglass anymore…think FOAM.)
  • Drywall (The pros do it MUCH faster!)
  • Interior Trim Carpentry (You can DO IT!)
  • Cabinets (Custom or stock? Prefinished?)
  • Countertops (Granite or Laminate?  Don’t answer too quickly!  I’ll be covering some good money savers here!)
  • Floor Coverings (This has always been the most difficult decision for us to make.)
  • Tile (Floors, backsplashes, etc.)
  • Painting & Wallpaper (Learn to paint…buy quality painting tools.  Wallpaper?  NOOOOOOOOOOO!)
  • Cleanup
  • Landscaping (Remember the shovel I mentioned?  Don’t put it away!)

You might not be able to do everything on this list (yet), but almost anyone can clean up!  Even if you’re going to hire someone else to do part of the work, you can still save hundreds to thousands of dollars by doing the cleanup yourself.  If you’re remodeling, you might consider doing the demolition.  Obviously, the goal of this blog is to show you that, if you’re adventurous and willing to learn new things, you can do quite a few of these items.  Start with some small projects like painting, trim or tile, and your confidence grows, you’ll be jumping headlong into more advanced projects, and saving yourself a ton of money!  And, hopefully, having fun in the process!

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Patience, Attitude and Sacrifice

“Building and remodeling without breaking the bank” can mean different things to different people.  Some of you might be building a brand new house, and want to find some ways to shave a few thousand dollars off of the cost, while others may want to do everything themselves.  Some of you might have a 3 month timeline, while others may be willing to wait years to have a “finished” house.  I hope to be able to provide information here that will benefit everyone.  We spent years on our house, but I also worked as the Project Coordinator on houses that were completed in as little as 58 days – so I’ve seen both sides.

If you’ve ever been involved with a building project, you know that your attitude is crucial, especially if you’re married!  You need to have a common purpose and common goals.  You need to think about what you want, and make a plan, before you start the work. Luke 14:28-30 says,

For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it— lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’

Now, this doesn’t mean that you can’t start until you have enough time and resources to complete the entire project…but you should at least be able to finish a phase of the work.  That was one of the secrets to our success…we took on smaller, bite sized projects.  We worked towards getting our house weather tight and livable, and then moved in.  It was much later that we added more space.

Which brings me to another thought – Sacrifice.  What are you willing to sacrifice to have the home of your dreams?  When we moved in our little house, we had 5 children, who all slept on two sleeper sofas in the living room.  They were at an age where it didn’t seem to bother them…as a matter of fact, it was probably quite an adventure!  BUT, if I were to try that now that they are all teenagers, the result probably wouldn’t be quite as pleasant!  We didn’t even have a bathroom door for over a year – I was forced to install the door when my sister-in-law refused to come for Christmas unless I got the door installed…which I did…Christmas MORNING!  All this to say, what are you willing to give up?  Are you willing to sacrifice, and if so, how much?  These are things that you and your spouse need to talk about ahead of time.  You might love the idea of “camping out” for a year, but your children may want their own room and their own bed…talk about it, think about it, pray about it, and make a plan.

Lastly, have patience! Have patience with others, have patience with yourself.  You will probably be learning new skills along the way.  Don’t demand perfection of others or yourself.  Be willing to stretch yourself to do something you never thought you could do.  When we started, I had a little background in building, but not much.  I started reading a lot of books and bought a lot of tools (I love Lowe’s, The Home Depot, and Amazon!), and wasn’t afraid to try new things.  I didn’t always do everything right…as a matter of fact, there were a lot of things that I didn’t do right at all the first time, but I learned and each time did better.  My wife and kids learned a lot about building.  The truth is, Elizabeth (who’ll you see me refer to as Didiba), is the creative one, and is usually the one that gets the ball rolling on projects.  I want to research everything so that its perfect…she wants to forge ahead and see progress!  It makes for a pretty good balance.

Patience, attitude and sacrifice – do you have what it takes to build your House On A Dime?

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Before and After – An Amazing Transformation

Just to whet your appetite, I thought I’d give you a little history of our first major house project, and post a before and after pic. When we moved to East Texas, we had a little over $6,000.00 and wanted to find a house for that price. We weren’t so much concerned with condition, but potential. We would spend Sunday afternoons driving down back roads looking for houses and property. Sunday after Sunday we’d drive, and we couldn’t find anything in our price range (no kidding, right?) One afternoon, we drove by this place.

Not very exciting, is it?  I didn’t even THINK about it, but Elizabeth thought that it had potential. Potential?  That place!?   But, we called and found out that the asking price was basically the price of the land, so we bought it…and we started demo…and more demo…all the way down to the studs from the outside (We wanted to leave the wood on the inside walls). We pulled out all of the old wiring and plumbing. We re-wired, re-plumbed, re-insulated, re-roofed, re-sided…re-everything, until we got the outside finished. We’ll post more “in-progress” pics later, but this is what it was transformed into after Phase One.

After a lot of patience and creative building techniques, including adding on 3 bedrooms and a bathroom (using awesome heart pine flooring from an old warehouse, and lumber that we had cut by a portable sawmill), we ended up with a very nice, very unique, 4 bedroom, 2 bath house. Here’s the final product.

Pretty amazing, right? This is proof that it CAN be done. Is it easy? Nope. Does it take a lot of work? YEP! Was it worth it? Absolutely!

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Learn as much as you can BEFORE you start!

Even if you’re going to hire a General Contractor to build your home, you can still save thousands of dollars by learning as much as possible about the building process.  As a matter of fact, I used the information from House-n-home-building when I was a Project Coordinator for a Builder! It teaches you the right questions to ask your builder, and includes written specifications that you can use to ensure that you are getting what you pay for. There are a lot of good builders out there, but there are also a lot of bad (albeit nice) builders out there. Make sure your start the building process with as much information as you can, and I can assure you that the process will go much more smoothly.

Having said that, don’t second guess everything that your builder tells you…you hired him/her because they’re the expert, but make sure you understand what they’re doing, and that it is exactly what you want.

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Our Latest Projects and Energy Efficiency

Our current house is 26 years old.  Not “old” by any means, but right at the age when a lot of maintenance needs to happen.  We’ve only been here about 2 months, and we’re taking inventory on which projects to start first.  Do we close in a portion of the attic for more bedroom space? (We have 5 children at home, and three bedrooms).  Do we update and enlarge the kitchen?  Or do we make some energy efficiency improvements?  Well, based on our first electric bill, we’re probably going to invest in energy improvements, like insulating the attic with open cell foam insulation.  We’ll be replacing windows and updating our A/C system.  One of the best resources that I’ve found for learning about energy efficiency is Green from the Ground Up. It explains, in layman’s terms (and lots of pictures), the ins and outs of building science…the information you need to know whether you’re building or remodeling. Even if you’re hiring a contractor to build your house, READ THIS BOOK, and ask your builder LOTS of questions. Most builders are still building houses “the way they’ve always done it,” and I can assure you that is not the most efficient way. Many improvements have been made regarding building science in the last few years, and you want to take advantage of as many as possible. Many, if not most, of the energy efficient improvements that are available don’t cost any extra…they just involve building smarter!

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Building Codes and Affordable Housing

When we bought our house in the country, I was thrilled that I wouldn’t have to abide by any local jurisdiction’s building codes.  I’ve since learned that EVERYONE should follow code, and with good reason.  Codes are designed to provide a safe, sanitary and functional home.  Most people would recognize the obvious danger of not following electrical codes…FIRE or ELECTROCUTION!  But what about plumbing codes?  Have you ever been in the shower when someone flushed the toilet, and either been scalded, or had a drastic drop in water pressure?  Following proper water supply sizing, as determined by plumbing codes, would have prevented that.  Have you ever been frustrated that there isn’t an electrical outlet nearby?  The code specifies minimum spacing for outlets!  The 2009 International Residential Code (2009 IRC) has the latest code requirements for One and Two Family Dwellings. I personally like something more concise (and with pictures!), so I carry Code Check Complete: An Illustrated Guide to Building, Plumbing, Mechanical, and Electrical Codes with me, and if I need to do more research, I dig into the IRC.

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Save money and have fun!

This blog is about building or remodeling your house, saving money, and having fun!  When we bought our house and 3 acres for $6,000.00, we didn’t have a lot of construction skills.  But, through a lot of reading, trial and error, and time, we turned it into a beautiful 4 bedroom, 2 bath home that always received comments from our family and friends.  We sold the house 2 years ago for $146,000.00…not a bad return on our investment.  We recently bought another house, and will be blogging about our experiences right here!  Feel free to comment, and don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty on your first project!

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