FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Q#1: How much do custom house plans usually cost?
A#1: On a national average, plans can cost from 1%-2% of the gross retail cost of the house if the plans are prepared by a home designer, or a house plan drafting service. This is a ball park figure and assumes that full design and drafting services are included. A $300,000 home, for example, might cost $3,000 for the preparation of the design and working drawings. It varies from state to state depending on the housing market and the skill level of the provider. This cost will also vary, of course, depending on the complexity of the design, location, market conditions, etc. If a licensed architectural firm prepares the plans, then the typical cost range will likely be from 4%-10%, with the average cost around 7%. This all depends on the reputation of the architect, his fees, and the location and style of the home. These rates usually only pertain to the cost of the structure and do not include land and administrative costs and permits. Frank Lloyd Wright used to charge his clients 10% of the cost of their house. In my market, a good rule of thumb for my services, which includes basic design, production costs, working drawings, profit, travel, and printing expenses generally runs around $1.00 per square foot of living area. Decks, garages, shops, gazebos, and similar structures or extra design time may be additional, depending on the design.
Most building plans for a conventional home to be built in a standard housing tract average around $1,900 according to Thumbtack.com., which is determined by the area, style, and complexity of the roof. Most plans do not include third party services such as structural engineering or mechanical design which must be obtained independently for permitting. As a rule, the larger and more complex the house, the more it will cost to design it. Million dollar homes can cost upwards of $30,000 or more to design due to sprinkler systems, landscaping, pools, smart home computer systems, security systems, spas, large kitchens, tile garage floors, marble columns, granite counter tops, etc. Basically it all depends on the complexity of the design and features desired in the house.
Q#2: Why do plans from a plan book or Internet house plan web site cost so much less?
A#2: Obviously it’s a matter of volume sales. When house plans are marketed to a vast audience and sold in large volumes, then the prices are often reduced as a buying incentive to increase market demand, and because profits are obtained in smaller amounts from multiple sales of the same plan repeated on a steady basis year after year. By contrast, plans that are prepared for a custom home design, which in most cases are a singular event for a custom owner or builder, often cost a lot more due to the exclusivity and personal nature of the service. Custom home planners and designers generally earn their income from providing a personal service on unique projects and cannot compete with the volume sales rates of commercial plan sources. Essentially it is like buying a tailored suit versus one off the rack at a retail store. You get what you pay for.
Q#3: Are the plans from plan books much different from custom home plans prepared by a home designer?
A#3: Yes. Plans from plan books offer a variety of styles, floor plan options, and architectural treatments, but many of them have to be adapted to local climate, site, and building conditions. Depending on the source, many plans are out of date and show 2×4 exterior wall construction instead of modern 2×6 walls that have become standard in the industry. Commercial off-the-shelf plans have to be adjusted to meet local wind and snow loads, seismic zone bracing requirements, and often modified to meet local CC&R’s or community architectural committee standards for colors and materials. Not all commercial plans will fit perfectly on many building sites without severe modification. By contrast, custom plans are prepared to fit the owner’s budget, lifestyle, tastes, site constraints, and to comply to local building codes and zoning ordinance requirements, and are custom tailored to meet the owner’s unique personality and family situation.
Q#4: What kind of information is found in a typical set of custom home plans?
A#4: The definition of a set of construction working drawings is a set of building plans that contains all the relevant plans, details, sections, dimensions, specifications, notes, and similar information necessary to describe the construction project, such that any qualified third party builder could reference the information and build the structure. A typical set of house plans includes: a site plan, a floor plan for each story, a foundation plan, four exterior elevations, relevant stair sections, wall sections, building sections, architectural details, floor system framing, deck framing, roof framing plans, an electrical system schematic, and material and equipment specifications. Usually cabinet drawings and mechanical drawings are produced by third party suppliers and are not included in the architectural drawings. If the building permit jurisdiction requires the plans to be engineered, then an independent structural engineer often produces the required design drawings and calculations and either submits them to be included and bound with the architectural drawings or as a separate attachment to them. For permit purposes for most residential projects, an energy compliance report to state and national energy codes must also be prepared and submitted with the plans as well as engineered floor and roof plan layouts from manufacturers of truss components.
Q#5: Who reads the construction plans besides the owner and the builder?
A#5: A good set of house plans must speak to a broad audience. The owner usually has them prepared to represent their individual tastes and preferences in room sizes, shapes, materials, colors, equipment, architectural style, and similar information. Each trade and material supplier involved in the construction of a house must be able to refer to the plans and extract relevant information that will enable his business to complete his service or supply certain materials. There are well over sixteen different trade activities, or subcontractors, involved in the construction of a typical residence, and the information relevant to each trade needs to be included in the plans. The local building jurisdiction reviews the building plans with a focus on compliance to building codes, ordinances, and life safety issues. A structural engineer may review the plans to determine the proper size of structural members, bracing, and fastening methods. A lender, or real estate appraiser, may look at plans to determine costs and financing needs and the fair market value.
Q#6: Where can I get a set of plans prepared?
A#6: This should be obvious. If you want the best service, you can always hire me. You can also ask your local building department for recommendations on local services to prepare your plans. They see most of the active suppliers in your area and can tell you which ones are the best for your project. You can also refer to your local Yellow Pages and search on the Internet for the available custom home designers and drafting services in your area. My recommendation is to try to hire someone local as opposed to someone in a remote location off the Internet, or from a house plan website, because they will know your local weather conditions, soils, ground water, and building regulations. You may wish to try out: Thumbtack for this job.
Q#7: How long does it take to have plans drawn for a new house?
A#7: It all depends on the availability, season, and work schedule of the plan service and the complexity of the project. The house has to be designed first, and then working drawings have to be prepared. Small home plans can be prepared within a week or so, while larger homes can take up to several months. It also depends a great deal on the decision-making capability of the owner(s) and how often they change their minds. During peak building seasons such as the spring, summer and fall months, companies are usually busier than during the winter and may not be able to produce the work in a timely manner. Small one-person offices cannot turn out the work as fast as a large company with a huge staff and resources, so it all depends on the company you choose as well. I cannot emphasize enough the importance in giving yourself plenty of time to plan your project. Do not wait until the last minute and expect everyone else to scramble to meet your deadlines, because it just won’t happen in the real world.
Q#8: What is involved in designing a new custom home?
A#8: Generally, there are two parts to designing a custom home: Phase One – the design process and Phase Two – the plan drafting. Phase One is open-ended because it is entirely dependent upon how long it takes the customer to make design decisions. Some people can make decisions more readily than others. It all depends on how well a person can process visual information. This could range from just a few hours or take up to several months. Design deals with graphics and visualization. Most people are left-brain dominate and cannot see in their mind’s eye many aspects of a home design, so if they can’t visualize it, they can’t decide if it meets their requirements, or not. This is where the skill of the designer comes into play. A skilled designer can produce sketches and any other graphic representations to show customers how their homes will appear in plan and the exterior views regarding sizes of spaces, windows, doors, and features such as roof pitches, columns, fireplaces, and siding alternatives. A good designer can illustrate special features such as sun-rooms, decks, saunas, home theaters, fountains, fireplaces, vaulted ceilings, and similar design elements in a series of preliminary design drawings. The design process is always a battle between what people want and what they can afford. It is a process of give-and-take, negotiation, and a matter of establishing priorities and reaching a compromise between wish-lists and budget constraints. Everyone is different when it comes to making decisions, so there really is no easy answer to this part of the question.
Phase Two is easier to predict. When the design has finally been established, and the preliminary estimates for all the design elements have been calculated and fall within the project budget, then the working drawings can be prepared. The first step to preparing working drawings is to make sure the preliminary plans comply with all local ordinances and building codes. The designer must check with the appropriate fire department, utility suppliers, health department, building department, land use planning department, any architectural committee, street and road districts, water associations or any other agencies or regulatory departments to make sure the preliminary design complies with all their respective rules. At this juncture, it may be determined that an outside surveying company or engineering firm will be required for surveys, structural design elements, foundations, soil testing, wall bracing, sewage disposal, storm water management, erosion control, excavation, or some other special need and the designer will have to coordinate with them so their information is properly referenced or included in the plans. At this time, the customer may also want to visit with their funding source to get a preliminary appraisal of the building, land, well, road, and utilities to pre-qualify for a construction loan or mortgage. Once these assurances and collaborations have been established, the designer can then prepare all the different plan drawings detailed in Question #4 above.
Q#9: Do I design my house first or purchase my property first?
A#9: This is a very good question and it all depends on the project and your priorities. Some people like to design their house first since they will spend most of their time in it and then buy a lot that it will fit on. This pertains mostly to urban projects in platted subdivisions where the land doesn’t influence the house design as much. In this scenario, people want to get all the special features of their homes defined first such as materials and colors, and get all the spaces sized properly and located in just the right place. Where the house is located often becomes less of a priority as long as it is in a good neighborhood, on a good street, close to good schools, shopping, traffic routes, proximity to work, etc. Sometimes the acquisition of the property has less importance because it is based mostly upon price, availability, and if it is affordable. City lots are generally all the same anyway with fences, sidewalks, and a few trees so the design options are limited. In this case, as long as the house will meet all the zoning, setbacks, and CC&R’s of the development, it can usually be placed in any subdivision.
The property for rural areas and larger city properties usually drives the design. In this scenario, the property comes first in order to design the house to take full advantage of the site and be oriented to the best views, vistas, sunrises, sunsets, water bodies, mountains, best access, wind protection, drainage, most privacy, and similar elements. The property usually determines where the living spaces and decks are located in the house, and where the house is best located on the property to minimize the cost of tree removal, driveway construction, water and utility lines, sewage disposal, and similar design features. Larger sites also open up more possibilities and options in the actual house design itself such as the use of rustic materials like logs, shakes, timbers, and raw wood sidings and railings such as cedar and redwood that work well in rural settings, but stand out in a typical urban subdivision. Large sites also allow more outbuildings and landscaping such as shops and barns, meadows, pastures, gardens, ponds, and other features that may influence the house design in terms of views, utilities, and access.
Q#10: What can a person do to best prepare for designing their new custom home?
A#10: The first thing I recommend perspective home owners do is to visit their local hardware store, Sears, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Hastings, Barnes and Noble, or similar home center or book store and purchase several home plan books and thoroughly read through them. Take your time and study them carefully because you will be making decisions that will determine, in most cases, what amounts to the single biggest purchase of your life time. Make a list of the things you like. You can also go on the Internet and visit Amazon or several home plan websites to review a variety of pre-designed house plans that might fill your requirements. The longer you can spend in planning your new home, and the more ideas you can collect, the better your project will turn out. Lumber yards such as Ziggy’s, or masonry supply outlets, lighting stores, and plumbing supply stores are also good places to obtain material and product brochures and actually see a variety of different items you may want in your new home. I advise my clients to grab brochures of any product or equipment when available and collect them in a file. It is also a good idea to subscribe to magazines such as Fine Home Building, Builder Magazine, or similar sources of articles and photos of building materials and copy anything that interests you for your “wish-list collection”. Next, you should visit several neighborhoods or sites that appeal to you and take photos of existing houses in those areas that you like. Focus on details such as windows and doors, siding, decks, columns, roof pitches, roofing, colors, masonry, landscaping, and similar things. At this phase of your planning process it is important just to gather ideas and start figuring out what you want, and what you can afford, then narrow your choices down to establish your priorities. Organize this information into several files or boxes and then give it to your designer.
Q#11: What if I don’t know what I want, or can afford, or can’t make decisions, then what do I do?
A#11: This is more common than you’d think. It’s a lot like writer’s block. Sometimes in planning a new home, people reach information overload so fast that it leaves them numb, or in shock, and unable to make decisions in order to move forward. Here again, this is where a good designer can step in and get you “unstuck”. The best thing to do is to follow the old Indian proverb, “How can one best eat an elephant? One bite at a time!” In other words, you need to divide your project up into bite-sized pieces and then take on one thing at a time, not everything all at once. You can organize your project into the standard 16 divisions of construction, organize them into a 3-ring binder, and then address each one individually. I have prepared a report on “Getting Organized” for this very reason, so be sure to visit my website at The Plan Shoppe and get yourself a copy or request one from me, and I’ll email it to you. By following a sequential order in your planning process, you will avoid becoming overwhelmed and stuck. Complete one task then move on to the next task. Do not try to multitask! It doesn’t work. Work on one thing at a time and thoroughly get all the ideas you can gather on that task and then make your decisions on it before you move on to any other issue. Try to follow the natural order of things and build your house from the ground up. Start with site related issues, then move on to basement matters, then main floor issues, then upper floor things, then decks and garages, and so on. If you take your time and stay focused on the single task at hand, you won’t get in trouble. As far as your budget and finances are concerned, this is a matter best resolved by your bookkeeper, accountant, or banker. If you own your own home and are planning an upgrade, then you’ll want to get a realtor, or appraiser, involved to determine how much money you have to work with as the first order of business. Once you establish a budget for your project, it will act as a filter to shape all your other planning decisions. Start with first things first and then follow a logical order of progression.
Q#12: Is there a law that requires an inspection for the sale of my current house?
A#12: Most lenders require that existing properties undergo a thorough inspection from a qualified party to insure the building meets building and fire codes and is in good condition. Safety is an important issue as well and most buyers want the assurance that there are no hidden problems such as mold, rotten wood, termites, ants, foundation settlement, sewer problems, or radon gas present. Most real estate companies these days, and sales contracts, require home inspections, so most buyers insist on it as a condition of the sale. The buyer often tries to use whatever problems might be identified in the home inspection as leverage to offer a lower price. Often the buyer will pay for the home inspection, but sometimes the seller will in order to facilitate the sale.
Q#13: How can I make my new home more secure?
A#13: There are a number of security companies that can install conventional alarm systems to help deter break-ins and home invasion. Motion detector lights are handy, but audible alarms will prevent more burglaries than warning signs or lights. Sliding glass doors are particularly vulnerable to break-ins because burglars can use a flat bar to pry up the fixed side panel from the frame in just a matter of seconds and get into a house. If a professional burglar is determined to break-in to your new home, then chances are good that they will find a weak point in your armor. It is best to install dead-bolt locks on heavy metal doors with reinforced metal jambs to make it hard for them to get in. Install security cameras and “nanny cams” in discrete locations on your property and monitor them from your computers and smart phones. I recommend ADT services which will call the police if their sensors detect a home invasion. Always keep a loaded pistol in your night stand beside your bed, easily accessible, but secured from children. If it is within your budget, install a combination of blinking red lights and audible alarms that operate from a panic button close to your bed so it can be activated at the first sign of a break-in. If you can design a secret safe room in behind a walk-in closet, you can go hide in it as a refuge in case burglars ever break through the other defenses. Don’t forget a good guard dog is well worth its dog biscuits and even a tiny dog can sound a loud alarm to announce an intrusion.
Q#14: How do people usually handle the transition from selling their existing home until they are able to move into their new home?
A#14: This usually depends on the resources of the people and the timing of their project. It is best to hope for the best, but prepare for the worst scenario. Seldom does your existing house sell at just the right moment so you can move your belongings directly into your new home. It almost never happens that way, so just be prepared for the likely alternative. Prepare to either rent another place or to live with relatives, or stay in a motel. If your house is priced right, it could sell right away. If it is over-priced, then it could still be on the market even after you have moved into your new home. Most new homes take from four to six months to build depending on the size and location, but this is a reasonable average build time to include in your plans. You should prepare to move your furniture and other non-essential property into a storage unit, and then rent a place to live until your project is finished. That is the most frequently used strategy. If the house sells right away, some people just move into their RV’s on their property and wait it out while others prefer to crash with friends or relatives. If the weather permits, some people get out their camping gear and pitch a tent on their property or move into the unfinished basement. Regardless of the circumstances and options available to you, moving will always remain one of the most unpleasant tasks of your project and you’ll just have to deal with it as best as you can.
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