Mistakes to Avoid When Building a House



As you know, we are going to be building our dream home.  It’s also our retirement home.  We are not, however,  following the usual “guidelines” for a retirement home, mostly because it’s going to be bigger than any home we’ve ever lived in.  Most people downsize.  We’re going the other way.  But as you look at the property, you can understand why.  It’s a big piece of land, it’s actually more of a “compound” at this point since the buildings are so spread out.  Most of our family and friends won’t be living nearby, and when people visit they’ll be staying over.  And we wanted to prepare for that.  We also like to have a yearly Bocce Party.  And that includes many, many family members and friends.  So, believe it or not, we also wanted to prepare for that. Plus on holidays we’ll have company that will stay over.  There’s been a lot of planning, and designing, and changing of plans so far, and we haven’t even started on the house yet!

Here's our split level house

Here’s our split level house

I saw an interesting article a while ago on freshome.com.  Have you checked out their site yet?  It’s an amazing site for anyone interested in building, designing or renovating.  It talked about mistakes people make when building a house.  We all spend a lot of time figuring out what we want and need, but do we look at it from the other angle?  What we really don’t need?  Of course budget usually leads the way, the money dictates not only the size of the house, but how upgraded it can be.  So planning for what you need AND what you don’t need is very important.  Here are some examples:

1.  Don’t over build or under build your HVAC system.

You could wind up with moisture and mold growth! Also, if your system is too small it won’t perform properly and your house will be too cold in the winter, and too warm in the summer.  On the other hand, if your system is too large, you will utilize too much energy and waste money when you don’t need to.

This was our house in PA

This was our house in PA

2.  Poor Space Planning and Overall Planning

The design and space planning of a house is very, very important.  You need to look at how you really live. We all need storage space, so you want to have enough, but you don’t want to build in so much that you take away floor space that could be better utilized as living space. Will you primarily come in the back door?  Maybe that’s where the coat closets should be, instead of at the front door. Also, you need to take your lifestyle and habits into consideration.  Will you need safety features as you’re getting older.  Will you have grandchildren often in the house?  Do you need safety features in place for that?  How about stairs, bathrooms?  Will you have guests often?  Placement of bathrooms becomes very important when you think about it this way.

This is the house I grew up in, and the people changed it so much it looks NOTHING like it used to!

This is the house I grew up in, and the people changed it so much it looks NOTHING like it used to! And where did that fire hydrant come from?

3.  Poor lighting

There should be plenty of light fixtures and outlets.  And also plenty of windows!  Natural light should be the main source of light, but having a well-lit home, especially as we age, is also extremely important.

4.  Under utilized rooms

Having a game room or a home-theater room sounds like a fun idea.  But how often will you use it?  If you are buying a home that has a game room or a theater room already -  and we see these often on House Hunters on HGTV – that’s one thing.  But when you are building a home, especially a retirement home, every square foot counts.  And paying $150 to $200 a square foot brings you to the reality that these rooms would be used a few times a year and might not be worth what they cost.  Now maybe for some of you, it will be worth it.  But that’s what you have to decide ahead a time.  I was thinking I’d want an exercise room in our new home.  But the reality is with all the other spaces that I really wanted – a large pantry, a mudroom, a laundry room, an office for John and a separate one for me, and a craft room – the exercise room just became one room too many.

The house John grew up in.  Also looks completely different now.  Better than mine looks though!

The house John grew up in. Also looks completely different now. Better than mine looks though!

5. Placement of your Laundry Room, the Master Bedroom, the Kitchen and the Garage.

This may sound like a no-brainer, but in every house I’ve lived in these rooms were not strategically placed.  I’ve never had a “real” laundry room, and I usually have had to carry laundry up and down several sets of stairs to the basement.  I’m in a split-level right now, so it’s three sets of stairs!

Our bedroom – in the many homes we’ve lived in – has usually been upstairs like ours is right now.  It is also just above the garage, so it is not only frequently noisy if the garage is opened, but it is somewhat  very cold.  In our new home, of course, the master will be on the main floor, but we want to place it as far away from the noise and traffic as possible.

The kitchen/garage placement is extremely important.  These days I’ve mostly seen it placed correctly, the kitchen is off the mudroom and/or off the garage.  That’s how our new one will be.  But yet, there have been places we’ve lived where the kitchen was not near the garage, and carrying groceries in was not all that convenient   a real pain.

This house, by architect Dan Sater, is what we'd like our new house to resemble.

This house, by architect Dan Sater, is what we’d like our new house to resemble.

These are just a few ideas to think about when you are planning to build your dream home.  And while it’s very important to discuss all these issues with the professionals you hire as your “team” – it is more important for you to decide what YOU need and don’t need.

Builder’s Contracts


When we first decided to build our retirement house, we were sort of naive.  Sure, like most people, we’ve had some construction done on the different houses we’ve lived in, some renovating here and there.  But a whole house?

In our case, we started with the garage, then went onto the “crab shack”- which of course is a house, although a small one.  It was a good thing actually  that we did do our plan that way, because when we start on the house – probably next year -  we will be so much wiser!

Little Choptank copy 020

We didn’t realize, for instance, that there are different kinds of contracts you can negotiate with a builder.  According to Amy Johnston in her book, “What Your Contractor Can’t Tell You,” (a book I will be reviewing soon), there are about 5 or 6 different types, but to me, many are the same as each other, and some aren’t really “contracts”- but ways of building your house, such as Design/Build – which is you go to one company and they do it all, from designing the house to building it.  Or Modular Construction, where you buy from a manufacturer that builds the house in a factory, again, an option for building, but to me, not a contract with a builder to stick-build your house.  Another option Ms. Johnston mentions is Build-to-Suit.  This is where you buy a developer’s lot, usually in a community, and have a choice from houses that the developer builds.  You can customize it a bit, but basically the plan is already set.  Two that come to mind that are this type are Toll Brothers, and K Hovnanian Homes.  But again, this doesn’t seem like a “builder’s contract” to us.

Little Choptank Aug. 7-14, 09 001wtmk

For the way we want to build, there are two kinds of contracts; Time and Materials, and Fixed Bid. (Meaning we come up with the plans for the house, either from online or have a draftsperson or architect do them, then interview a few different builders, then have each one come up with a price for building the house.)

The Time and Materials type of bid, in our opinion, mostly favors the builder.  It basically is based on the number of hours it will take the builder to finish the project, plus the cost of the materials you specify. The small advantage for the owner is that he will pay for only the actual time worked.  Some of these contracts come with a guaranteed maximum price (GMP) which is a little help for the homeowner.  It specifies the contractor agrees not to go beyond a certain price. The builder may then have allowances for any unknown issues.  Also, a time limit may be written in to the contract, and the builder actually has to pay you if the job takes much, much longer than written into the contract.  Not one builder of the many we spoke with agreed with that portion of the contract.  There are too many variables to predict a building timeline, but I guess if you had to be out of your present place and into your new place, this might be an option you would want to think about adding in.

We actually used the Time and Materials contract when we had the garage built.  And believe it or not, the project came in under budget.  However, it is only a garage… and there aren’t appliances in there that I would want to upgrade, a situation that is all too common when building a house.

We also used it with the Crab Shack, since it had gone so well with the garage.  Well, this was a completely different story, and also the reason why we would not use a Time and Materials contract again.  Yes, we upgraded things as we went along, something we realized always happens.  Really, always.  Then, parts of the metal roofing were missing, and the first go-round they sent the wrong thing.  But our builder had his guys working on it, installing it before realizing it wasn’t the right pieces, and of course, we paid for that time.  Other situations like that happened.  Time adds up very quickly and adds a lot to the total cost.

The Fixed Price Bid includes the cost of performing the work, purchase of materials, plus the mark-up for overhead and profit. With this contract, we feel the advantage is more with the homeowner, since you know the cost up front, and no matter how long it takes the builder to fix issues, the price stays the same.  The disadvantage for the builder is if the job runs long, or if he has underestimated the cost.  If you have a good relationship with your builder and trust him or her, this won’t be an issue, but some contractor’s have been known to use lesser grade materials than stipulated to save costs and increase profits.  No matter what, it helps to be on site regularly to check on the work.

Stipulations can also be built-in to this type of contract, for instance, the specific schedule, or a reporting schedule, where the builder sends regular updates on work completed and even pictures.  We did this with the Crab Shack, but we plan to be living IN the Crab Shack while the house is being built, so we’ll have the advantage of seeing what’s going on every day!

With this Fixed Price Bid, the builder gives you “allowances” for your appliances and other items that must be decided upon.  I have to admit, I didn’t get what this meant at all.  I figured, it’s our money, why does the builder give me an allowance?  But I found out that you let him know up front the range you are willing to spend for your appliances, etc. and after he quotes a total price,  then he lets you know later how much you have allotted for those appliances.  I know, still kind of sketchy.  Say for instance, you specify, “medium grade granite” for the countertops, then later, when the kitchen is ready to be built, he tells you how much money you can spend on the countertops.  I guess it’s helpful, but when you go to actually chose the granite (or whatever), that’s when you (meaning I) usually decide to upgrade.

Here is the first draft of our house plans.  We’ve changed it twice already, and we already have some more changes to make.  We’ll probably do that another time or two before we’re ready to build.  You always think of things later that you should have added, or taken away, and we have the luxury of having the time to come up with the best plans we can.  And get the best contract we can.  The more decisions you have made, the better.  For you, and for the builder.

floor_plans_1st_lookI’d love to hear some of your stories, good and bad, about builders, and contracts, or your house plans and designs. Send me a comment and we’ll chat.


American Flag Houses


We’re going to be out of the country on July 4th this year. It’s sad in a way, because I love July 4th!  I love watching the fireworks, any fireworks, but especially the TV shows from Boston and New York.  I can be in the comfort of my own home and have a great view!  Yes, not the same as in person, but I love it anyway.  Which do you prefer?  Watching in person, or on TV?    Anyway, John has a business trip to Prague, and I’m going with him.  I couldn’t pass that up, could I?  So in honor of the holiday, here are some interesting flag houses I found for you to enjoy:






Those three pictures came from www.rogersfamilyco.com.

This next one is from www.bicycletouringtales.com:



And from carolyncholland.wordpress.com:



This one is from www.thegazette.com:



And last, the American Flag house that is probably the most famous, right from our future retirement city!  There were many stories about it around the internet, supposedly the owner, builder Brandon Spear painted it this color in protest because he couldn’t fly the flag on his house.  But that story is not exactly true.  He wanted to restore the home, but the windows he chose weren’t up to “historical code”, and the local building inspectors wouldn’t let him put them in.  The windows he was supposed to use would have cost one-third of the restoration budget!  So, since the building code didn’t say anything about what color the old Victorian should be painted, and as a sort of protest against what he said are unfair regulations, he painted one of his homes black, and one this way, with an American flag theme.

Stars and Stripes housewtmk

It’s my favorite!    Hope you have a wonderful holiday!

The Story of the Boathouse


Garage, check.  Dock, check.  Boat, check.   Now, finally, we decided to build a building where we could actually stay, and sleep and make a meal.  (And use the bathroom –  just saying.)   Just like our first boat ride, we were excited to think we could actually wake up in the morning and be on our own property. Not in a hotel.  With the noise.   Still, we weren’t ready for the MAIN house.  So what do we come up with?  A “boat” house.   No, not a REAL boathouse.

Little Choptank August 10-12 2008 078wtmk

Little Choptank August 10-12 2008 080wtmk

That’s a real boathouse.

We just decided to call it that because we wanted to.  We would store our boats under it, so it made some kind of sense to us.  And we just liked saying it was a boathouse.   It actually was going to resemble a lighthouse if you want to be technical.  (And I know you do.) The kind of lighthouse we’ve seen around the Chesapeake area.  Like this…..

Little Choptank 08 Labor Day wkend 025wtmk

Here’s what our plans looked like…….


Up in the northeast, we have the tall kind of lighthouses, here’s one of our favorites from Montauk, Long Island…..

Montauk May 20, 09 Anniversary trip 028wtmk

So, anyway, there we were, all happy, planning to build a boathouse.  We hired a draftsman to draw it up, we got the permits, we tested the soil, and we had Thom our builder give us a quote.  And then….. the economy collapsed.  And that, combined with a quote that would have built the actual house, convinced us to give up that dream and move on to another…..  the Crab Shack!  Yep, we’ll build a little Crab Shack that would eventually be a guest house after the main house is built (which we won’t even start for a year or two).  Brilliant!  So, John found plans online, they were from the “Katrina” collection of small homes, designed for the people of New Orleans, and that’s what we decided to build.  After months and months of redoing the plans, adding this, taking away that, having all sorts of tests to make sure the ground could support the house, we changed everything!  Thom was still happy to have the work, and we were happy to begin!

And then it snowed.

Little Choptank JAN 09 015wtmk

But Thom and his men persevered…..

Little Choptank JAN 09 017wtmk

And we were on our way!

Let’s Begin


Little Choptank, NEW BOAT, April 08 120wtmk

So here’s what I’m thinking.  I LOVE talking about houses.  Especially the new house, the DREAM house, my husband John and I are going to build.  The design of houses, the flow of one room to the next, the products that are used to build houses, and the products that we fill up those houses with…. it’s all so interesting!   And for some reason, people around here are getting a little tired of me talking about it all the time.  So… I figured there are LOTS of people out there in computerland who also love talking about this stuff, and if we can find each other, we can talk and talk all the time and just be so happy.  We can compare, and suggest, and decide.  It’ll be so perfect!  So that’s what I was thinking when I decided to start writing.

I also have some experience to share with you.  We’ve started on our “retirement” journey,  although believe me, it is not a typical retirement choice, and we were able to make a few decisions already.  For instance, we figured out where we would move and whether to build a house (obviously what we chose) or buy one already built.  So maybe some of what we have already been through will help you.  I hope so.

So let’s begin…..


If you’re starting to think about retirement and you’re pretty sure you’ll be moving from your present locale, how do you go about choosing where to retire?  Many people will stay where they are, as many friends of mine will do, because family (mostly their children and grandchildren) are in the area and because truthfully, they’re used to the place.

Some people will move because their family (again, their children) have moved, and they want to be closer to the grandchildren.  Or possibly they’ll move closer to elderly parents.  Some will pick a place solely based on personal desires.  A couple of our friends moved to a warmer climate and in a golf community, knowing they will be the ones doing a lot of traveling when they want to see any of the three “kids” and grandkids.  One brings the entire family together to their place for Christmas, and then plans a big family vacation in the summer, guaranteeing a visit with all the grandchildren at least twice a year.  All good options that work for them.

It’s interesting to hear why people have decided to move or not move.  There are magazines and web sites devoted to how to choose a place, if in fact you will pick up and go somewhere just based on your own wants.  The magazine “Where to Retire” is a good one.  www.wheretoretiremagazine.com.  Unfortunately, you can’t access too much on the website, but you can request a free issue or back order a copy that has an area you might want to know more about.   I found a site http://www.livesmartafter50.com/  that has an extensive checklist of items that could help you decide, geographic aspects, climate preferences, location, health and support services, housing type, etc.  It’s an excellent starting point to finding out what’s important to you.

We’ll talk more about where to retire in future posts, but I have a question for you; what will be the criteria that will help make your decision?  Do you want to be closer to family?  Further away?  (haha)  Is it cost of living?  Amenities?  Weather?   So many aspects factor in, and I’d like to hear what’s important to you.

Till next time…..