Choose a Builder with a Plan
There’s a saying I heard a lot in my Army days that works well in the building trade, too: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” Building a house isn’t a simple job; there are a lot of moving parts in the process, and a lot of people have to be there to do their bit at exactly the right time. If you try to do it without a solid and detailed job schedule, then, basically, your ambitions are outrunning your abilities.
Most builders have worked their way up through the trade, usually starting as an apprentice and ending up as the owner of a building company. They’ve picked up their skills and knowledge as they go. The problem is that management skills aren’t necessarily ‘picked up’ in the same way.
If you spend your days working on building sites, you’ll soon start to pick up tips from the men working beside you. Sometimes they’ll tell you stuff; other times you can learn just by watching how they do it. Do that for a few years and you’ll end up pretty good at building – but how much are you going to learn about planning a build? You’ll get some of it, but you won’t get it all.
This creates an obstacle that a lot of building companies run into. They don’t have the skills to plan a job properly, because the owner never really had the chance to learn them. The result is jobs cost more than they should and take longer. It’s not good for the customer, for pretty obvious reasons, and it holds the company back too.
From your point of view as a customer, a lot of management skills don’t matter – but the ability to plan a job definitely does. You want your home to be ready on time and within your budget, after all. That’s almost impossible to achieve without a good job schedule.
Be Fully Informed
You can’t make a proper plan without being fully informed, and sometimes that involves research. Now here’s something you might find hard to believe: There’s a basic piece of research that needs to be done before you start building a house, but about 90 per cent of builders usually don’t bother with it.
Every house sits on a plot of land, and that land is going to have a big impact on two things that, as an owner, are really important to you. One is the types of house you can build, and the other is what it’s going to cost you. You can’t just buy a plot and build anything you want on it; the site itself is going to have a lot of influence.
Most builders will take a look at your plot, check it for any obvious problems and maybe do some searches with the local authorities, but they don’t go through the full process that’s needed. I don’t believe you can plan a house properly without doing a full site assessment, and that takes a lot more work than just having a walk around looking for obvious problems.
A proper site assessment covers every detail of the plot, and it should be your first step even before buying the land. It’s a detailed report conducted by a Building Construction Commission licensed professional for any factors that could affect building a house there.
When I do one I start off by checking with the council, to see if there are any easements or planning restrictions that limit what styles of house you could build there. Town plan overlay searches and survey marker identification are pretty important, too. The wind classification of the plot needs checked – most people don’t think of that, but a plot with a high wind classification can add a lot of extra expense to the build.
There are other searches that can be done in council records and elsewhere, and sometimes you find some real surprises. One thing that causes a lot of problems is subdivided plots. Someone will buy a large plot, build on part of it and then sell the rest.
The problem is that it’s not that simple. When you do a subdivision it needs to go through a lot of official approvals before you have title on that block of land and can sell it. Not everyone knows that, so it’s pretty important to check before buying a plot that the owner is actually allowed to sell it.
Subdivisions have some other issues, too. I remember one job where our customer had bought a plot subdivided from the next-door neighbour. The local authorities had given him title and approved it for building on, but they’d missed something.
We didn’t get asked to do a site assessment until after the customer had bought it, and when we started our searches we found the plot didn’t have a sewer connection. My guess is the council had just checked if the original plot had one, found it did and gone with that. What they forgot was that if there’s only one sewer connection on the plot, where do you think the original owner’s going to build his house?
In the end the new owner had to go back to the council and get them to put in a new connection on his plot, and it cost him heaps. If he’d known this before he bought the land he could have negotiated a lower price, or even walked away and bought somewhere else.
Sewerage is one of the most expensive connections you need to have, but it’s not the only one. Electricity or communications connections are pretty important too, and if the plot doesn’t have them that’s something you need to know. Even access – what if there’s a street light that stops you putting in a driveway?
Some plots are vulnerable to bush fires or water inundation. You probably don’t want to build your house then find out it’s on a flood plain, but a site assessment will protect you from that.
I’ve learned that you have to be really careful to nail everything down when you’re searching for information from councils. They aren’t always great at keeping records, and things can get overlooked.
What you don’t need is to have designed the house and signed the contract, then the council contacts the builder and says that particular style of house can’t be built there because they’ve just realised there’s a flood risk.
Obviously if it’s a really serious flood problem you won’t want to build there at all, but some areas get more minor flooding, and you can build on them as long as the bottom floor’s a minimum height above the ground. The thing is, that height can be a metre or even a metre and a half. It’s no problem to design that in from the start, but changing an existing design to allow for it is going to push the costs up.
A site assessment doesn’t just avoid problems; it can also open up a lot of opportunities. I find this happens a lot on plots that have steep slopes. This type of land , in a low market, is sometimes cheaper than a more level plot; the reason for that is a lot of builders won’t touch it. They just look at the ground, see that it’s too steep to easily put up one of their standard designs, and walk away.
No doubt about it, slopes can be a problem. If the soil isn’t stable it can be difficult and expensive to build on. What’s the soil really like, though? You can’t tell just by looking at the plot; you need a proper soil survey. If you get that done before you buy the plot, you might find you can get a bargain piece of land that lets you build a really spectacular home.
Out of the homes I’ve built, some of my favourites were on slopes that other builders had refused to work on. They didn’t want to take the risk, but because I’d done a site assessment I knew I could build on it.
To be fair, most of the time anyone could have built on it, but unless you’ve done your research and planned properly there are a lot of ways it can lead to delays and cost blowouts. If you haven’t had a soil survey and you find a big chunk of granite as you excavate for the garage, that can be an expensive discovery.
When you build on a sloping plot it actually opens up a lot of possibilities. Often you can create a home that has great views, for example. Putting garages and storage space on the lower level, using the shape of the slope, then building the living spaces on top of that, can create houses that feel amazingly open and spacious. If you’re considering a plot that has a slope, but a couple of builders have told you it would be too difficult to build on, a site assessment might tell a different story.
Even a more level plot can have challenges that might be turned into opportunities. If there’s a stand of old trees on the land, you can cut them down and dig up the stumps; that’s what most people do. On the other hand, depending how the trees are placed, you might be able to use them to give extra shade to the parts of the house you want to keep coolest. A bit of imagination can give you a really unique home that’s also more pleasant to live in.
Some builders will try to back away from anything unusual or that’s not within their comfort zone. If they seem determined to flatten the site and build a standard house, they might be wary of doing anything out of the ordinary. Personally, I like a challenge. If you never challenge yourself, you never grow with knowledge and experience. You might be able to do a good, workman-like job, but I always find it more satisfying to build something out of the ordinary. If people are walking past a house I built and they stop to look at it, I feel like I’ve done my job.
Obviously you can’t build something special without planning for the exact conditions you find on the plot, and I think that’s why a lot of builders steer clear of the more interesting pieces of land. Their comfort zone isn’t too large, and the thought of planning an unconventional build puts them off.
My opinion is that’s just a bad sign in general. If they’re not comfortable with moving out of that comfort zone, how good are they at actual planning? For a trouble-free build you need a builder who has flexibility, imagination and, above all, attention to detail. Get the job schedule right and the rest of it will go smoothly.