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DO-IT-YOURSELF HOUSE Building your own house is rewarding, difficult work


Almost everyone dreams about the perfect home. Some, like Jan and John Kenney, actually build it.

For years, they fantasized about their dream home, imagining how the morning sun would strike the bedroom window, how the patio would be shaded in late afternoon, how they and their children would play and entertain from one airy room to another.

They bought a few acres of land near Falls Road north of Baltimore, then hired a contractor. Ms. Kenney's teaching career and Mr. Kenney's law practice, they realized, left little time to learn how to pour foundations or raise a roof.

"We felt we needed the expertise a builder would have. We totally enjoyed the experience. It was fun, a very creative process," Ms. Kenney said of the cedar and stone house built in 1984.

Like dressing in clothes that don't fit, living in a house that doesn't work can become unbearably uncomfortable. People who build their own homes say they are driven by one too many bumps into an awkward corner, or one too many mornings contemplating the view of the powder room from the breakfast table.

While the number of single-family home starts has been falling since 1986, the percentage of homes that are owner-or contractor-built on the owner's land has been increasing. In 1986, it was 31 percent. In 1991, it was 40 percent.

Last year, 138,000 families built their homes in the United States, acting as contractor and playing a part in pouring foundations, pounding nails and hanging doors. Another 199,000 families such as the Kenneys hired a contractor to oversee the project, but still were heavily involved in picking the lot and designing the house.

Building a home is complex, difficult -- and often extremely satisfying, according to builders and owners. Here are a few of the steps they took to build their dreams.

* Design the Home. The sky is the limit -- at first. Randi and Bob Goldstein spent 10 years designing their Pikesville home with her brother, a Fort Lauderdale architect.

"We did a lot of drawings. The hardest part was scaling it down, making it work without eliminating something important, getting it affordable and buildable," Ms. Goldstein said.

The first step is to consider how you want to use the spaces in your house, John Cole and Charles Wing wrote in "Breaking New Ground," (Atlantic Monthly Press). Think about when you'll use each space. How will it be oriented to the sun? How much privacy will you need there?

The authors suggested drawing a bubble for each space you need, andmoving the bubbles around in a series of drawings until, as in a puzzle, all the pieces seem to fit.

"The house has to work for the way you live in it. Those needs change over time," said Dwight Griffith, a Fallston home builder and vice president/secretary of the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

The Kenneys had small children when they began designing their home. Anticipating that the kids would eventually move out, the Kenneys designed the children's rooms and activity areas on the second floor and their own large bedroom and entertaining spaces downstairs. Now, the children are getting ready to leave for college. With their own living areas contained on the bottom floor, the Kenneys have a house within a house: perfect for the two of them, but expandable when guests and relatives come to visit.

With a bubble diagram or even pictures of homes you like, consult with a building professional who can help you convert your ideas to a floor plan, Mr. Griffith said.

"Clients come in with a budget, maybe some napkin sketches, pictures, or a floor plan they saw in the paper," he said. Precise drawings are made. "Then we bid off the drawings."

* Select the Lot. Classified ads list plenty of land for sale. But the right price and proximity to essential stores doesn't mean the site is right. Be skeptical of a lot that seems to be particularly good deal, said Dennis Holloway and Maureen McIntyre, authors of "The Owner-Builder Experience" (Rodale Press).

"Any number of things can add significantly to the development costs on a piece of property," they write. "Even though the selling price may seem attractive, by the time the lot is buildable, you may have spent much more than you had expected."

Is the lot exposed to high winds? Is it perpetually shaded? Will you have to blast through bedrock to build a basement? Has a soils report been prepared? What utilities will you need to build? Do the neighbors have wells or town water, septic tanks or links to a sewer system?

A soil expert, civil engineer, builder or landscape architect can help you answer important questions before you put money down on the property. Make sure you can sell the lot easily if you have to.

* Select builders/contractors. "A lot of people build their own home strictly for the cost savings," Mr. Griffith said. "But in most cases it doesn't save them anything. They don't weigh all the intangibles, the greatest being the value of their own time. Building a house takes an enormous amount of time, and much more when you don't know what you're doing."

Whether you plan to hire subcontractors or a turnkey builder, thoroughly screen everyone who has a part in the building of your home, Mr. Griffith said. "Most people do less research buying a home than they do when they buy a stereo."

Look for subcontractors with technical ability, craftsmanship and those who will stand behind what they do. If you hire a general contractor, ask what's expected of you.

* Sending the job out to bid. Be painfully precise in the materials you want, not only the color of carpet and cabinets, but also behind-the-walls products such as insulation and lumber.

Ms. Goldstein, an interior designer who did her own house, said specifying materials is difficult even for professionals. "There's so much out there. You've got a huge selection, and you've got to zero in on exactly what you want."

Go over all the details and ask plenty of questions before you sign anything, contractors warned. One builder may agree to build the house, but forget to mention that his services don't include building sidewalks, landscaping and driveways.

* Building the house. When construction begins, owners must deal with months of an unsettled atmosphere and the impatience of family members. Work delays caused by material shortages are common. When the house is built, the carpet laid and the smell of fresh paint still lingers, some owners have to contend with windows that won't open, settlement cracks in visible places, and overdue bills from a blown budget.

To Ms. Goldstein, the worst part of the building process was its length. "It took two years to build my home. We thought maybe it would take a year or a year and a half."

For the Kenneys, the actual building took one year. "We came to the house every day," Ms. Kenney said. "Some of that was out of need, part was curiosity, part was we just that wanted to see what was new. We became as familiar with the house and the process as the foreman on the job."

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