If the building process seems mysterious and potentially overwhelming, we are here to help!

What’s the real secret to happiness?

Here’s a deep topic: the secret to happiness, satisfaction, and fulfillment. You know what it is?

Expectations. Being happy and fulfilled is simply a matter of having your expectations met. It doesn’t even matter much whether your expectations are high or low, as long as what you expect to happen is what actually happens.

Why is a home builder writing on such a philosophical topic? Because I’ve seen happy clients and unhappy ones, and I can boil the difference down to expectations.

Here’s what I mean: not too long ago, I lost a potential client to a builder who quoted them a lower price than what I could deliver. Fair enough. Sometimes price is all that matters. Problem is, I know that she will end up spending more than quoted and then she won’t be happy.

Why? Simply because she was given the expectation of one thing, and she’ll experience another. Now, I could have led her to believe she could have everything on her wish list and stay within budget, but that would have ended with an unhappy client. I would have won the deal, but at what cost?

I’ve also heard stories of people starting the building process with expectations that everything will go smoothly, contractors will show up on time and do their work without mistakes, and not much will go wrong during the process. Then, reality strikes.

The concrete cracks, a window gets broken, the wrong color paint goes on the walls. All of a sudden, the building process turns into a nightmare. But the process simply is what it is—home building is the only manufacturing process that happens before your eyes, so you see the mess that gets made. (You’ve heard the analogy about making sausage, right?)

If you don’t know what to expect, then even little problems are a surprise and can create stress. If someone had told you what to expect, then all those little things would just be part of the process.

The building process—with all its warts—is the same in both scenarios. The only difference is expectations. Unfortunately, there are builders and sales people who just want to get the sale and aren’t worried about setting the right expectations. They’re afraid that if you know the truth, you’ll walk away. And you might. But it’s better that you walk away than become unhappy or even miserable because of unmet expectations.

Don’t give up on your home

How much do you really want to build that custom home on your land?

Do you want it enough to endure the whole process, from finding and buying land (and worrying about whether the land will really work for you), to finding a builder, then a banker? From designing that perfect home, to worrying about whether you can afford it, and then living through the stress of watching the slow process of building?

Now, you’re probably used to home builders emphasizing all the positives of building on your land—trying to sell you on the idea. But if you have the dream of living on your own land, away from the noise of town and nosy neighbors, you’re already sold on the idea.

I do want to encourage you not to give up, though. It can be a lot of hassle to build your family’s home on your own land, but it can be an even greater joy. Seek the joy in the chance to live your dream—to build your forever home on your land, and live the life you’ve dreamt about for yourself and your family.

Find the builder who wants to bring you that joy and understands your dream. That builder will help you clear the hurdles that come up from the start to the finish of the project.

We see over and over again that the people who are really motivated to live in their forever home on their own land are the ones who see it through to the end. You might be tempted to quit out of fear of screwing up or not finding the right land, but if you have someone you trust helping you through the process, that lowers the hurdles for you.

When we began transitioning from being a builder who builds in planned neighborhoods (where the homes are often ten feet apart) to a builder who builds on people’s land (mostly rural), we had no idea what we were in for.

We’ve spent the last several years honing our processes, learning from our mistakes, and solving problems for our clients that they thought they had to solve on their own.

You have no idea the satisfaction that comes from seeing the joy on someone’s face when they realize they can have their dream—and from the knowledge that we helped make it happen!

So if you’re dreaming about building that forever home for your family on your land, stick with it. Don’t give up. We get to see what happens every day when families don’t give up on that dream, and it’s worth it.

Is your lender familiar with the construction business?

Often, when families come to us wanting to build a home on their land, they’ve done a lot of homework up front. That’s a good thing.

Sometimes, they come to us having already chosen a construction lender. That can be a good or a bad thing—depending on the lender.

This might be a banker they’ve worked with in a previous transaction, someone from their personal bank, the bank they work with in their business, or someone their realtor has recommended. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing—but it can be a bad thing if this particular lender doesn’t have a lot of experience with construction loans.

Many lenders say they do construction loans (and technically speaking, many do) but it’s a difficult process, and it takes experience to do it right. By that, I mean doing it in a way that doesn’t stress you out so much that you’re ready to be done with the whole building process before the foundation is even laid.

It’s best to avoid the lender who doesn’t foresee land title issues and plan accordingly, or the lender who doesn’t understand how to manage the appraisal process for rural land with very few comparable properties for the appraiser to work with.

You should always avoid the lender who doesn’t understand that an on-time closing (by the deadline on your lot contract) is critical for you to get the land you’ve been dreaming about. I’ve seen people almost lose land because the lender didn’t close the loan quickly enough.

Before you choose a construction lender, talk with your trusted builder. The right builder will have a stable group of lenders they’ve worked with in the past, and will be able to pair you with the right lender for you and your situation.

Construction lending isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” kind of thing. Your builder should know you and your situation well enough to introduce you to the lender who can tailor a program to fit you, and then get the loan closed with a minimum of fuss and hassle.

If your builder tells you to go find a lender and get qualified, and come back when you’re “ready,” you’re talking to the wrong builder. Or if he just hands you a bunch of business cards and says you should call around for the best deal—again, that’s the wrong builder. That’s not someone who’s going to get to know you and what’s best for your family.

Construction lending is a critical part of the building process. And for most people, it’s impossible to build a custom home on your land without that part of the process.

Before you get too far into the process, make sure you’re working with a lender who knows what to do and what pitfalls to avoid. Find a lender who’s proactive throughout the entire process to make sure you endure the least amount of stress to get the new home you deserve.

If you’re not sure your current network can connect you with a lender that fits those qualifications, that’s okay. A builder with lots of experience building homes on rural lands can recommend a lender who will be a great fit for your family and your needs.

It’s not going to be all rainbows and unicorns

You’re probably used to builders talking about all the positives of building a home on your land: the freedom, the quiet, being away from your neighbors, you name it. You can sit on your front porch and watch the sunset without seeing anything but the land and the sky.

That’s all great, and those are some of the reasons why our clients do what the do, but the road to get there has a few potholes.

And I think it’s important for me to be honest with you about that, as a builder. Here’s why.

Let’s say you’re going to go to the dentist. Have you ever visited the dentist for any kind of work other than a teeth cleaning—like getting a filling, crown, or a root canal?

If you’re in that situation, you want the tooth filled or fixed, or else you wouldn’t be there. But what if the dentist didn’t warn you before he stuck that needle in your gum to numb it? What if he just started drilling without warning you it was going to hurt?

It’s an absurd thing to think about, because of course a dentist knows it might be painful. And any good dentist will give you realistic expectations about the procedure out of respect.

Building a home on your land can be a little painful, too.

Your custom home on your own land has never been built before. Obviously that’s true, but have you thought about what that means? Nobody’s created it before, so there’s nothing to duplicate. On one hand, that’s pretty exciting! On the other, it can lend itself to human error.

Chances are, you have a vision in your mind of what your home should look like, but not everyone involved in building your home understands that vision, and it can be a difficult thing to get across. That one-of-a-kind dream home is also being built with natural materials (wood, tile, brick) that have natural variations. There will be natural imperfections that are unpredictable.

Your new home is also being built outside in the weather, and if you’re building anywhere in Oklahoma, it will (at minimum) get rained on during construction. You’ll be dealing with subcontractors who will probably make mistakes, like any other human being.

Why am I telling you all of this? Am I trying to talk you out of building your dream home on your land? Of course not. I spend my days helping families do just that.

But I have found that people are most happy and satisfied with their end result if they know what to expect going in. It feels a bit dishonest to me to gloss over the gory details. Yes, the end result will be beautiful. But the process might sometimes feel like someone is poking in your mouth with sharp tools while you drool onto a bib.

You deserve to know what’s about to happen if you do choose to build your family’s forever home on your land. You deserve to have realistic expectations so you can prepare yourself and move through the process without getting blindsided.

If your builder pretends it’s going to be all rainbows and unicorns (at least until he gets your check), then it’s time to find another builder.

The key to building your home on time and within your budget

If you’ve spent any time thinking about building your family’s home on your own land, you probably already know that building a home is a complex logistical process.

There are a lot of moving parts, and all the work is done by individual contractors. Weather will create some issues. Terrain may pose a challenge. Government rules always have an impact. Murphy’s Law governs it all.

Given all the variables and unknowns in that process, how do you make sure your builder can deliver on his or her promise to build your forever home on your land—within a reasonable amount of time, and within your budget?

The answer is simple, but it isn’t easy: Hire a builder who makes most of their mistakes on paper, instead of in real life.

One of the most appealing things about a custom home is that it’s one of a kind. It was designed only for you and your family, to suit your needs and your situation.

That means it’s not like a car being manufactured on an assembly line, where the engineers and the factory workers have had plenty of other cars just like it to practice on.

When it comes to your home, your builder only has one shot to get it right. But he or she can prepare extensively before the foundation is laid. It’s just preparation that has to happen on paper.

Ask your builder how many times he or she builds a home on paper before construction begins. If you see a deer-in-the-headlights look, find another builder.

Most builders simply take a home design and give it to their contractors. They let the contractors solve all the problems, such as figuring out where the heat and air system is supposed to go, how to brace the roof properly, where the pipes and wires will run, and more.

But it’s foolish to rely on the framer to worry about the heating and air conditioning contractor’s needs—that kind of big picture planning is the role of the builder. Whether or not it actually gets done will have a big effect on the cost and length of your build.

By failing to plan, and instead deciding to figure things out on the fly, a builder sets himself up for lots of mistakes and lots of reworking things that should have been done right the first time. Each of those mistakes costs time and money.

Whose time and money? Yours, not the builder’s.

Don’t pay for your builder’s mistakes. Find out your builder’s planning process before you commit. Make sure he or she is guarding your time and money as if it were their own.

Beware of the bid

Many families who are considering building a custom home have price as a main concern. In fact, it’s the top concern for most families until they get a little further into the process.

When you’re planning to build a custom home on land you own, it makes sense to get bids from a few builders, right? You want them competing for your business so you’ll get the best deal.

At least, that’s what you’ve been told.

Most custom home builders out there will indulge you and create a bid for you. Knowing that you’re looking for the best deal, many builders have tricks they hide up their sleeves to ensure they’re giving you a competitive bid.

The simplest of these tricks is to give you an estimate of the total cost, which conveniently happens to line up with the budget you’ve told them. That reels a lot of people in. They see the number they’ve been looking for and decide to continue meeting with the builder who gave it to them.

Here’s the trick: that number is often based on generalized costs of building homes—not the projected cost of building your specific home, according to your family’s specific needs.

Most of the time, a potential buyer provides a home design with a few details that they like here and there, and the builder will make a bid off that. Those details probably account for less than 5% of the overall cost of the house. So what’s the other 95%?

That’s the part the builder knows you won’t be familiar with. When you and the builder start working out all the smaller details of your home, and you’re so far along in the process that it would be difficult, expensive, or time consuming to back out, the price will creep up. Before you know it, the price has increased by 30-35% of that originally attractive number you saw in the bid. But now you’re already committed.

If you are going to have multiple builders bid on your home, make sure they provide extremely detailed specifications to go along with the floor plan. That means a list of every item that will go into your home—down to the make and model of the doorknobs.

If a builder balks at that, it’s because you’re taking away his ability to low-ball you to reel you in.

Get the details—a truly professional builder will be able to give you those details as a part of his or her normal process. If they can’t give you those details, how do they really know the investment your specific home will require?

Don’t let hurdles get in the way of your dream

Over the course of a week or a month, I meet a lot of people who dream of living out on their own piece of land.

They want a life without other people telling them how to live, what kind of house to live in, what color to paint it, or what they can do in their own backyard.

Unfortunately, all too often many of them run into an obstacle that throws them off from their dreams. Especially if you are new to the process, it can seem like there are so many moving parts, you can’t know where to start.

Once a family gets started planning for a home out on their own land, they’ll inevitably run into a problem they don’t think they have the resources to overcome. Maybe the land they like is too expensive; maybe it has issues they don’t know how to address; maybe they’re just afraid that the land will have some kind of unknown problem that turns out to be too costly to fix, and they don’t want to commit their life savings to something with that level of uncertainty.

All of that is perfectly understandable. Each one of us has expertise in our own career, so there’s no way to have all the knowledge necessary to address the potential problems you can encounter when you’re building a home on your own land unless that is your career. You’re focused on learning and getting better at the things you’re already spending your life doing.

But when I meet with people who dream of building a home on their own land—but who are discouraged by known and unknown obstacles—I encourage them not to give up on their dream just because the hurdles seem too high.

There are people who do this as a career, and who have spent their lives gaining the knowledge and expertise needed to help you clear those hurdles.

The biggest hurdles when you’re building on rural land typically don’t have anything to do with actually building the home. Because of that, it’s important to work with a professional who has experience not just in building homes, but in building homes on land that are outside the norm.

They’ll need to know how to build on land that isn’t already perfectly flat with easy access to utilities. They’ll need to be able to navigate city or county government to find out hidden issues like flood plains, special permits, pipeline easements, or other “gotchas” that aren’t all that obvious.

Your forever home is too important to trust to someone who only builds on rural land every once in a while. Working with someone who primarily builds on rural land will give you the support you need to clear any homebuilding hurdles on the way to your dream.

Get a builder from the school of hard knocks

It’s an awful lot easier for a builder to say that they can build on your land than it is for them to actually do it.

But I’ll bet that when it comes to your own home, you want a builder who has already faced the types of challenges they’ll encounter on your land—and knows how to address them for you. Because odds are there will be challenges.

I’ve been building homes with my father for the last 18 years of his 53-year home building career. Several years ago, we began building on our clients’ land with just a few homes here and there. We learned some extremely valuable lessons!

Now let’s stop right there. Imagine a guy who’s been building homes for 50 years, who learns brand-new things about building when he starts building on an owner’s rural land instead of in a fully-developed neighborhood.

Is there really that much difference? You better believe it!

Really, building a home is the easy part. It’s preparing the build site that changes the game.

If you’re building in neighborhoods, you’re pretty much building the same thing, over and over, on land that’s already been prepared—sitting right next to a paved road, with utilities already on the site. All you have to do is buy a permit, level the dirt, and you’re off to the races.

But building on rural land, as we’ve learned over the last several years, is a completely different animal. You might have soil issues, drainage issues, floodplain issues; you might run into issues with the title; you may not even be able to drive a truck to the site if it’s rained in the last 48 hours. For rural land, it often takes longer to prepare the land than it does to actually build the house.

Considering building your own home on your own land? If you’re interviewing builders, ask them how many homes they’ve built on rural land before. Ask about the title problems they’ve come across, and how they resolved them. Ask how they know there aren’t any easements on your land that will create a problem.

What about soil testing and foundation engineering? What’s their process for creating site access and maintaining it during inevitable bad weather (so your build isn’t delayed)? How do they know the site isn’t in the 100-year or 500-year flood plain?

The answers to those questions should be straightforward, and should involve a process for finding solutions and resolving issues. “Sounds good” or “we’ll see” aren’t good answers, because they don’t address the particular details of your home and your land.

Frustrated by builders with a minimum square footage?

Usually, when I’m in a conversation with someone who wants to build a custom home on their land, I can tell whether or not they’ve been shopping around for builders.

How? It’s in the questions they ask. If they’ve been interviewing several builders, people will ask very good questions that strike to the heart of the matter.

One of the most common of those questions is, “What’s the smallest home you’ll build?” Typically, people ask that question because they’ve interviewed a few different builders, and each time they’ve been told that the home they want to build is smaller than that builder’s minimum square footage.

So the builder isn’t interested in building their home.

While that’s a common answer, I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to who are frustrated by the building process because they want to build a house that is exactly enough room, and no more. Maybe they want a 1600-square-foot home with a two-car garage (or no garage!) or perhaps they’re willing to sacrifice space for the design touches and finishes they’ve dreamed of for years.

Why is it so hard for people with those dreams to find builders? Let’s explore a little bit why builders have a minimum in the first place. It comes down to skill—but maybe not in the way you’d think.

My dad has been building in central Oklahoma since 1964, and he’s always told me that it’s far more difficult to build a small home than a big one. We tend to think of larger homes as more fancy and requiring a different skill set from the contractors than a smaller, simpler home would.

Here’s the dirty little secret: every home builder uses subcontractors, and the same subcontractors who are doing work for the entry-level home builder are also doing work in Gaillardia and other high-end neighborhoods.

The difference isn’t in the skill set of the subcontractor, it’s in the skill set of the builder. The smaller the home, the less room there is for error. A builder has to coordinate several aspects smoothly in order to properly build a house:

  • Home design/blueprint
  • Document control
  • Scopes of work for contractors
  • Schedule for all parts of the build
  • Client communication

If he hasn’t mastered those elements, a builder will make enough mistakes building a home that the only way he can make a living is to have a big margin of error. The larger the home, the bigger the margin for error.

Of course, it’s ultimately the client who pays for that. Since a smaller home comes with a smaller price tag, there is a smaller margin for error as well. And there may not be enough wiggle room for that builder to be comfortable building a smaller home.

So rather than telling you he can’t afford to build a smaller home because he knows he’ll make too many expensive mistakes, he’ll simply tell you that your home is below his minimum square footage. When really, it’s just beyond his skill level.

The building process: good, bad, and ugly

When was the last time you watched a car go down the assembly line? Most people don’t ever get the opportunity to see all the stages a car goes through before they purchase it. Any mistakes or inconsistencies are buffed out, replaced, or corrected before the car leaves the factory. All we ever see are the clean, shiny, finished products.

Now think about all the different stages your home will go through as it’s being built. Some of them are not pretty. Your home won’t be built in a climate-controlled factory, built more by robots than by hand. And because it’s totally, completely custom, it won’t look exactly like the last home your builder built or the next one.

But it’s surprisingly easy to expect that a home built out in the elements, by hand, with natural materials, will look just as shiny and perfect as that brand-new pickup. Why is that? I think it’s because we live in an age shaped by technology and surrounded by near-perfect manufactured, mass-produced products.

When you’re watching your brand-new forever home take shape before your eyes, it’s a bit like childbirth. Sure, it’s a beautiful thing, but the end result is far cleaner and more picturesque than the process! It’s important to remember that, unlike childbirth, we hire professional homebuilders to build homes for a reason: building a home can be a challenge to your patience and tolerance for mistakes.

The real key, then, isn’t whether mistakes are made—but what types of mistakes and how the builder deals with them. What separates most builders from the few elite builders who are the leaders of their profession is how they prevent mistakes and respond when they do occur.

The builders in the elite group do a lot of planning up front. They create detailed specification lists by really listening to their client. They draw detailed, accurate plans and plan for contingencies such as inclement weather and labor shortage. They leave room in their plans and their schedules to correct errors and have a plan to deal with them as they arise, but they also have systems in place to simply avoid common mistakes in the first place.

When you’re talking to builders, ask what their planning process looks like. How many times will they review the plans for your home? Do they review their detailed plans and framing layouts with a framing contractor prior to starting? Do they proactively gather accurate material quantities and bids from each supplier? Have they reviewed the heat and air ductwork layout with the heat and air contractor to look for any conflicts?

If their answers to these questions are vague, or aren’t forthcoming, keep looking.