Construction hasn’t even begun, yet a whole lot has happened. So much more was involved than I anticipated! This may be a good time to pause and review. Here is a recap of the pre-construction process, in the general order the steps were taken:
a) Find a lot. You can do this yourself or if you’ve chosen a builder, he/she can help you.
b) Make sure the lot is buildable. Buildability really depends on the location of the lot. There are, however, a few general factors to keep in mind:
– Is the lot improved? If the lot has access to public utility lines such as gas, water, and sewage, then it is an improved lot. An unimproved lot can certainly be buildable, but will require significant cost and time to bring the utility lines in.
– Is the soil and terrain suitable for small house construction? Essentially the soil needs to support the weight of the foundation and house. It also needs to be free of contaminants that could leach into your house. See my post The Soil Test for details.
– Will your city’s zoning/planning dept give you permission to build your small house on the lot you’ve chosen? One potential reason for rejection, for example, is that the lot is in a neighborhood of sprawling homes and your small house doesn’t fit with the neighborhood’s style. Another common reason is that your lot is not zoned “residential”. If it’s zoned “commercial”, for example, you’ll have to apply for a variance to change its zoning classification so you can build a house and not a storefront.
c) Find a builder. Ask for recommendations from your real estate agent or friends, scope out local new construction and its builder, see if your area has a builder’s association.
I found my builder incidentally — the local paper’s real estate section quoted my builder’s opinion in an article on green construction. I googled him, found his company’s website, and discovered they were local green modular builders — exactly what I was looking for!
d) Have the lot surveyed. The type of survey you need is a site planning survey, which includes the boundary lines, marking of utilities and easements, and topography.
e) Determine a houseplan. You can hire an architect (cost = 8-20% of budget), choose from the builder’s stock set of plans, purchase a plan online, design your own, or make small modifications to any published plan. Remember to determine the city’s setback requirements to figure out the max allowable width, depth, and height of the house.
Personally, I found 2 houseplans online I liked. I took what I liked best from each and combined into a single houseplan. The builder has an engineer that reviews the plans to make sure they are sound. Many versions later, we arrived at the final houseplan.
f) Have the survey guys put your house on a plot plan. This plot plan is basically a diagram to scale showing where your house will be relative to the lot and its surrounding structures.
g) Talk with the utility companies (gas, water, sewer, electric) to determine the connection lines, notify them of proposed project, and identify any potential issues.
h) Take the plot plan to the zoning dept for approval. The zoning department needs this plot plan before it’ll even consider approving your house. Once approved, you can apply for a building permit. If it’s not approved, they will tell you why and if you can apply for a zoning variance.
i) Apply for the building permit!
Steps A-E were done by me, but they can be done by your builder or architect if you choose. Steps F-I were all done by the builders (thanks, guys!) The entire process took 6 months. This is way longer than anticipated and I imagine it’s way longer than average. The main issue was how long we spent in the design phase, which was about 4 months. I know, crazy, right? Each time I thought the plan was finalized, there was an issue with the feasibility and/or cost effectiveness of the design once the engineers reviewed it. I suppose that’s what happens when you find a plan online and try to make it fit a narrow, sloped lot plus build it using modular construction techniques 😉 Lesson learned, but I don’t think I would’ve done it any differently in hindsight — what I lost in time, I gained by avoiding architect fees and will hopefully regain because modular construction takes only a couple of months!
My next post will be a brief blurb on financing this little endeavor. This is a crucial step in the pre-construction process, which I thought deserved a post of its own!