Building a Custom Home – Lessons Learned

Do you have a fantasy of building a custom home one day?  If so, stay tuned to get the lessons learned from someone who has been through it in 2020.

My sister started building a lake house in Minnesota this year.  I don’t know if I will ever get the chance to build my own custom home so I’m living vicariously through her. 

I’m sharing eight tips about how to work with your contractor. If you are looking for advice on how to find a contractor, check out this post. These tips are from the mouth of a woman who just completed the construction of her dream custom home.

I hate to say this, but I think it can be harder for women to work with contractors because some contractors don’t think women are the final decision maker. I once had a contractor tell me that I could “talk it over with my husband first”. I’m getting on a soapbox so skip ahead if you just want tips. My husband doesn’t know or care about construction. We aren’t always treated the same as a man when it comes to building.

I’m off the soapbox and back to tips for working with a contractor on a completely custom home. I can’t give you exact numbers but the cost per square foot was reasonable. Email me directly for more details.

1. Know Your Priorities before you hire a Contractor 

Think about your list of floor plan must-haves before you start meeting with any contractors. Annette (my sister) knew that she didn’t want a giant lake house even though they are all around her.  She lives alone with her six dogs. 

Her must-haves included a basement, a garage (because it’s Minnesota), an open living room and kitchen, a sewing room with lots of natural light and a fenced yard.

lake house windows

She also knew what she didn’t care about, a large master bedroom, a chef’s kitchen, large bathrooms or lots of bedrooms.   It’s not a huge house, approximately 1200 square feet, but she uses every room, every day. She even uses the unfinished basement every day, which isn’t in the 1200 square feet.

Her design priorities (which go beyond the floor plan) included lots of large windows with views, wood floors and a minimalist open style.

She wanted hardwood floors and she decided to go with hickory throughout. The floors were one area worth a little splurge and they are the show stopper, along with the big windows that look out over the lake.  You might think with lots of dogs that hardwood is not practical to maintain, but they are so easy to sweep up and the finish doesn’t show scratches.

loft sewing room

2. Changes are expensive – even small ones

Once you have a set of construction plans, go over them with a fine-tooth comb. Small changes cost money, even things as simple as adding an extra outlet or a disposal. Changes require “change orders”. All of these things have to be in the details of your plans. The sub-contractors use these plans on the job and if it’s not in there, it doesn’t get in your house.

Kitchens and bathrooms are really critical because plumbing and electric are not easy to change once the walls are closed up. Living in an old house, I can say add more outlets than you think you need.

3. don’t procrastinate choosing fixtures

Everything takes longer to arrive than it’s supposed to. When it comes to ordering anything including lighting, faucets, towel bars, cabinet hardware, flooring, tile and appliances it’s best to be ahead of the game.

Make decisions early and order quickly. If it doesn’t come in when the contractor is ready, YOU cause the delay. If they are stalled because you don’t have something they will move to another project and it can be hard to get them to come back as soon as your ___ arrives.

4. Check In with your contractor Weekly (at a minimum)

Remember the saying, the squeaky wheel gets the grease? It’s true. You don’t want your contractor to dread your calls, but if things start to drag out they may be focusing on someone else’s project who was squeakier.

This only happened for Annette a few times, but weeks can turn into a month of no progress. If they feel like they can put your project off, they might.

5. Switching Contractors Isn’t bad

The contractor that finished Annette’s house was not the one she started with.  She interviewed three contractors that were all highly recommended.  The first one drew up the plans, but getting into his construction schedule was another issue.  Once they got all of the approvals and permits, he couldn’t fit her in for months.

She decided to switch and just pay him for the design.  If you meet with multiple contractors, don’t burn your bridges.  You may be calling one of them back. In the end, all parties were happy.

building a lake house

6. Educate Yourself About the Local Building Requirements

Lake houses in Minnesota have lots of conservation guidelines that you have to comply with when you are building a new home.  Lots of neighborhoods, even without lakes, have conservation ordinances that you might be faced with learning.

In Minnesota, she had to get things like wetland permits, septic system permits, watershed permits in addition to the regular building permits. In other neighborhoods, you might have to go before a conservation board that only meets once a month.

Getting extra surveys and inspections from these entities added lots of extra time to the planning and approval process. 

7. Plan For Delays

If every contractor explained all of the hurdles that might delay the process you would probably never hire one.

Everyone says it’s a long process and that’s no lie. When you start to build your home the contractor will give you a time frame and it sounds totally reasonable.  It is reasonable if the only people involved were you and the contractor.  Unfortunately, there are so many other parties that can muck up the process. 

building a custom home

8. Stand Up For What You Want

Her contractor tried to discourage her from doing some things, like buying a vanity at IKEA and buying less expensive lighting.  Often the contractors have relationships with vendors like cabinet makers and lighting companies.  They may even get a cut if you buy through their contacts. 

It’s fine to use their sources if you don’t like to spend time researching on your own.  You might love the suppliers they use and the prices they offer, but they probably aren’t the least expensive.  If you don’t like what they have to offer this is your chance to get exactly what you want.   

For example, Annette used the cabinet maker from her first contractor (who didn’t build anything) because the liked the quality and the design of his cabinets and his pricing. Her contractor argued against this because he had is own cabinet guy.

It’s OK to tell your contractor no. 

The final project turned out so beautiful. If you are getting ready to embark on a new custom home, I would love to hear your tips once the project is complete.

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  1. Wow! Great read and excellent tips. Also, I love the house!!

  2. These are great tips! I think it should be noted this was the first time Annette ever ventured to build a house and she did all the leg work herself. She found her own contractors, worked with them to come up with a design that worked for her and then had the house customized to fit her. She built herself a sanctuary on a little quiet lake. It’s perfect!

    1. Good point. She is did an amazing job. Wish I could have seen you when I visited.


  3. What a great post Andrea! Your sister’s home is so very lovely and I love the style and everything about it. I hope you had a great visit and looks like the weather was beautiful!

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