From the ground UP

Overseeing the building of a custom house can be hard work, but the reward is a place that's uniquely yours

June 08, 2008|By Nancy Jones-Bonbrest | Nancy Jones-Bonbrest,Special to The Sun

When Kevin and Melissa Armentrout decided to build a custom house in Perry Hall, it was all about creating a one-of-a-kind look.

"When you pick everything out down to the doorknobs you have no one to blame but yourself," said Kevin Armentrout. "But what you have is your own product. It's nice to say your house is unique, because it really is."

Each year, people like the Armentrouts decide to buck the usual route of purchasing a new or existing house and opt for the more unconventional path of building their own. The do-it-yourself method requires countless decisions, including picking out the lot, the architectural plans, the builder, the paint and, in the case of the Armentrouts, nickel hinges and doorknobs.

"You really have to have an eye for detail and ask questions and be nosy," said Armentrout. "It's your baby, your project. It's you who ultimately has to catch any mistakes."

Experts say the job can be a tedious one, but also rewarding.

Custom-house construction has increased slightly over the past three years, according to statistics from the National Association of Home Builders. In 2005, it accounted for 19 percent of total starts, and climbed to 24 percent in 2007.

Christopher Rachuba, the Armentrouts' builder and a co-owner of the Rachuba Group, an Eldersburg-based real estate development company, said people who choose to build a custom house want something more than the average tract house.

"They don't want your neighbor's house," said Rachuba, the immediate past president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland. "A few years ago, people tried to get the biggest house they possibly could and didn't put a lot [of extras] into it. The way the market's going and with the price of lots, they [now] want the personal detail."

Costs for typical custom houses can range from $100 to $350 per square foot, depending on how specialized the homeowners want to go, with land often being the biggest overall expense.

The Armentrouts' budget of $900,000 for construction and land gained them a house on a 1-acre lot that backs up to parkland. Features include 9-foot ceilings, curved entryways, Andersen windows and a top-of-the-line heating system.

The first step in deciding to build your own house is to get your finances in order, says Hunter Bloch, a broker at Annapolis First Mortgage and president of the Maryland Association of Mortgage Brokers.

"For anybody thinking about doing this, before they spend any money on plans or anything like that, talk to a mortgage broker or banker and get prequalified," said Bloch.

The most common loan product for a custom house is a construction-to-permanent loan that typically includes a short-term loan used to finance the cost of construction. It then converts to a traditional mortgage loan once the project is complete.

Once financing is secured, it's time to choose a house design, a builder and a lot that will accommodate the house.

Plans can come from many sources, including builders if they offer design-build services, architects or even the Internet. Plans purchased online or through catalogs may need to be modified by an architect or builder to meet local zoning codes.

Custom builders often have lots available for sale or can help in the land search.

Custom-house-building expert Kevin Daum, CEO of Stratford Financial Services and one of the authors of Building Your Own Home for Dummies, advises people to do as much preplanning during the design phase as possible. Spec out as many details, architectural elements and finishing materials upfront as possible. This important step will keep the project from going over budget.

"You talk about custom homes and you hear about the horror stories. The biggest way to keep horror stories from happening is preplanning," said Daum.

Also, put as little down payment on the lot as possible because the lender is going to want to see cash in the bank before giving approval on a construction loan.

"Equity is not considered cash. Once you put the money in your lot, you can't get it back out," said Daum.

Experts advise those considering building a house on their own to do as much research as possible and to choose a reputable builder who's knowledgeable about local zoning laws and building codes. Once a builder has been selected, a strong contract is needed.

Choosing materials for the house can be the most overwhelming part, says Jim Selfridge, president of Selfridge Builders in Howard County.

"When you take all the things involved in a house, it can very easily complicate the process," said Selfridge. "The time involved to get through all of those selections has to be allotted."

Rachuba suggests starting with a list of all the features wanted in the house but not skimping on the structure of the house.

"You want a solid house. Don't get caught up in the trendy stuff. Avoid what you don't need and put the money into things you can't change," he said.

Hiring a builder to construct your house is the most common way to go, but it isn't the only way.

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