Build Your Own Dream Home

Lisa SandhamBayview Magazine Spring 2010

Planning and building your dream home is an exciting adventure but it can also become a daunting experience for those who are unprepared. Your home is one of the biggest investments you will make within your lifetime, so it is important to plan well to avoid the unexpected. A successful home build is based upon four factors: establishing budget, investigation, proper planning, and the competence of the contractor.

Establishing and maintaining a budget is one of the most important tasks when building. Know what you can realistically afford, factoring in cost of your property, design fees, new furnishings etc. Speak with local designers, architects and contractors to gauge the current market range for per square foot costs. A rough idea of square footage costs will be your guide when determining size and quality of finishing.

Before you purchase the property of your dreams, it is wise to visit the office of your municipality or township to determine zoning, size of the building envelope and mandatory information required on building permit drawings. Your building envelope will determine the footprint of your home and may also limit size and configuration, so it is wise to do a little research beforehand. By-laws dictate minimum and maximum size front, back and side yards, as well as maximum allowable heights and lot coverage.

Pay particular attention to any water sources on your property. If your survey indicates a water source, such as a river, lake, creek, you may be under the jurisdiction of a regional conservation authority and further investigation will be required to determine land use planning, monitoring associated with environmental legislation, resource mapping and flood elevations.

If you are on a flood plain or if your property has high water tables you may run the risk of water damage or flooding.

It is important to know and understand your requirements and needs before developing a plan. Sit down and make note of your current requirements by listing all of the rooms you will require, their size and purpose. If you plan on staying in your home until retirement, look ahead and think about how your needs may change in 5, 10 or 20 years. Consider incorporating ideas associated with Flex Housing that address adaptability and accessibility. As we age our needs can change, and accessibility may become an issue. Incorporating wider doorways and providing additional blocking around shower areas for installation of grab bars can eliminate the need for messy and costly renovations in the future.

When developing a plan you can choose to work with a qualified designer, an Architect or search out a stock plan that suits your needs. When working with a designer within the province of Ontario it is important to note that any practitioners working under the building code, are required to pass mandatory exams and carry liability insurance. Drawings submitted for building permit must be stamped with a BCIN (Building Code Identification Number). In June 2002, the Ontario government passed Bill 124, also known as the Building Code Statue Law Amendment Act. This Act incorporated recommendations made by the government’s Building Reform Advisory Group (BRRAG). BRRAG was established in March 2000 by the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH) to look into expressed concerns with how new construction was being reviewed, approved and inspected in Ontario.

The review looked at both practitioner accountability and the overall framework for Building Code enforcement and administration. The BRRAG review indicated a need to raise the standards of knowledge and skill among all building designers. The requirements of Bill 124 have met this need. To ensure your designer meets these qualifications, search the MMAH public registry.

On-line stock plans offer some advantages in terms of cost, delivery and visualizing the design concept, but buyer beware. If you are thinking of buying a plan online there are a few important facts you should know. Ensure the seller will provide the plans stamped with a BCIN stamp by a qualified designer in Ontario, otherwise they will not be accepted by your municipality. If the plans are purchased from another province or state, the construction may not meet the minimum safety standards of the Ontario Building Code. The seller may indicate that the plans are stamped by a licensed architect, but if that architect is not a member of the Ontario Association of Architects (OAA) or licensed to practice in Ontario it makes no difference. Carefully pay attention to wording such as 'Total Living Area'. Most often when a seller lists 'Total Living Area' square footage they have not included circulation and storage areas such as: stairwells, closet space or unheated space. If you are determining your budget based on market value square footage costs you may be purchasing a home larger than you can afford. Always clarify these definitions with the seller and ensure that your purchase will be an investment and not a costly error.

When searching out a general contractor look to family, friends and design professionals for references. Before you meet with potential contractors assemble your ideas, drawings, photos, etc. so your contractor understands the full scope of work involved. “You can never provide a contractor with too much information,” suggests Jeff Pradal, whose family business, Louis Pradal and Sons Ltd. have been building homes in Thunder Bay for over 35 years. “Building a home is a very long and detailed process that should never be rushed. Take the time to plan, educate, prioritize and research. This preparation will lay the foundation for a successful and enjoyable experience.”

Ensure your contractor has the proper experience, insurance and bonding. Request references and call them, asking specific questions relating to quality of work, performance and scheduling. Provide a set of drawings and specifications that outline your scope of work and request a written estimate that itemizes material and labour costs. Insist on a written contract, outlining cost, scope of work and a completion date. Review your project regularly with your contractor, paying particular attention to any additional costs or scheduling changes incurred. Having regular coordination meetings, along with open dialogue with your contractor will allow you to deal with any issues quickly and painlessly.

Home building need not be stressful when executed through a well thought out plan. An initial investment of your time and careful consideration will ensure that your dreams do become reality.

Links of interest:

Ontario Association of Architects

To search the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing Public registry

City of Thunder Bay Building Permit Information Pamphlets & Zoning bylaw permits

Lakehead Region Conservation Authority

Lisa Sandham is an interior designer, home designer and freelance writer.