to build or not to build (that is the question)

1 November 2012

Should you build a new house or should you just buy an existing house are two very important questions that can be very challenging. If you choose the latter, should you buy a house and be done or should you buy a house and renovate it over time as you get money and to adjust it to your own tastes? Do you have a headache yet?

This question was posed to me recently by a friend and I have to admit I had a hard time trying to distill it down to simple advice. There are so many people who have written about this and answered this before me. What should I say?

Within less than a week I was faced with this again as I consulted briefly with a potential client referred to me by a contractor with whom I worked before. In this particular case, I didn’t feel he really wanted a custom designed home. I had to give him honest advice knowing it wouldn’t yield me a new project.

Let’s go back to the first set of questions posed to me. I am going to share with you an edited version of what I shared with my friend. In true architect form, I answered her question with questions. Did you expect anything else? Be honest with yourself and your partner or spouse as you embark on spending a lot of money.

  1. Just New? – Do you just want a house that is new (no one else has ever lived there but you) or do you want a custom-house that will be fitted to who you are and how you live? This doesn’t necessarily mean luxury or expensive, it just means the difference between cookie cutter and tailored or somewhere in between.
  2. What’s it Worth to You? – What kind of investment are you willing to place on the house and its design? Would you like a house that is designed to fit the specific conditions of the site?
  3. Custom or Stock? – Could you live with a house from a stock set of plans? What if you can’t find what you want when considering such a large investment? At what point is “making a few changes” to a set of plans not worth it because “few” is now too many?
  4. Do you like it here? – Will the area or neighborhood you choose to live allow for custom designs or must you use their builder and plans? What if you want something different? How does the price of your house align with the house prices of your new neighborhood?
  5. Your Best Interest? – If you choose a builder and follow their lead with a house design (i.e. no architect or designer), do they really understand good design or are they just selling what they offer? In other words, can they offer unbiased options or do they believe what they have to offer is the best for YOU? How do they react when different ideas are posed?
  6. Design Professional – Are you interested or at least willing to hire an architect and invest maybe 5% to 15% of the construction cost to have a design that serves your evolving family needs for years to come? Do you see that as part of the overall investment?
  7.  Cost Calibration? – If new construction can range from $150 to $250 per square foot (and up) for a custom home (at least in my area) does that surprise you? What is your budget? Cookie cutter houses that are mass-produced can be a less, but you’ll get less choice and (sorry to say), likely get less quality.
  8. Sprint or Marathon? – Would you rather buy an existing house and make changes, adjustments and renovations (or even an addition) over time as you live in it? This way you can pay out money as you get it or invest slowly in the house and make decisions as you live and learn in the house.
  9. Land – where? – Can you find vacant land in an area you can see yourself living? Is it better to choose an existing good neighborhood with a good school district, good character and purchase an existing house there?
  10. Research – Ask around your area for what other people in your circles typically do. Is it too expensive to build in your area? What does land cost? Are you up to making so many decisions in a new house?

You may see this as 10 questions when I’ve actually asked more than twice that. I may have over-generalized at times, but it more important to focus on the questions. Perhaps I’ve given you something to think of now. If you have other questions, please share. If I can be of further help or if you would like to take the next step, call me, or call an architect near you for an educated, professional opinion.

photos are from shadowrave’s stock photo gallery on Stock.Xchng (used under the Standard Restrictions)

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11 Responses to “to build or not to build (that is the question)”


  1. This is a GREAT post. Very important questions for people to consider.

    Sometimes people realize, AFTER working with an architect and a contractor and having a home built, that they didn’t really need to go through all that. It would have been worth a little extra time looking for an existing house that would work for them. I think that working with an architect and designing a home is a dream that many people have, and don’t realize they’ve outgrown, or no longer have the time for, or don’t have an unlimited budget after all…

    • leecalisti Says:

      i haven’t designed too many new homes for some reason, but i’ve done countless additions and renovations. they bring the most challenges and the best rewards with the change.

  2. jane Says:

    #8 – Do you like where you live? your neighborhood? I make a living designing for people who decide to stay and remodel/ update/repair what they own.
    After a winter snow storm people in town will call: their children have walked to visit friends and the library, they took the train and/or bus to work and walked to the store for essentials or met a friend for coffee.They are no longer interested in the fancy house in the new neighborhood.
    Because they know their house and how they live in it, we can tweek and adapt it to their needs and its site. Very satisfying for us all.

  3. Ted Rusnak Says:

    Sage advice. Should be required reading for anyone considering a “new” home.


  4. Lee, great post. You hit the nail on the head of things for people to consider.

  5. william finnerty Says:

    lee, you have made a great case for hiring an architect! even if it’s only for strategic planning (a valuable, compensated skill and service)
    our advice is thoughtful, encompassing and prioritized so that addressing the larger picture will eliminate three or four questions off each path not taken.
    i like the diligence of your list, how it portrays the complexity of the undertaking and how the questions can spin out of control, but then i would simplify it in the actual discussion with the client the way we are trained to analyse, organize and simplify complex problems.

    the conundrum is how can we offer advice without analysis? without being hired? we can only offer the questions!

    • leecalisti Says:

      thanks for the kind words and i agree with your statements. too often we feel we need to always provide answers to people intelligent enough to make decisions on their own. however, they don’t know what questions to ask, so they’re led astray into making poor decisions not knowing what other options they really had.


  6. [...] special” is the type of home you want or do you want something truly special. Check out this blog to help you decide if a custom home is right for [...]


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