What First-Time Homebuyers Need To Know About Building a House

Make sure you understand the pros and cons before diving in

A builder and client look at a blueprint.
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Peter Cade / Getty Images

As home prices keep rising, a first-time homebuyer might wonder whether it’s cheaper to buy land and hire a contractor to build a home. But what’s involved with building your first home? How does the process work?

The project isn’t for the faint of heart. Building a house from the ground up is a different experience than buying and moving into an existing home. Before jumping into the new construction market, learn what you need to know about the pros and cons, financing options, and timelines—plus, how much new construction costs.

Key Takeaways

  • First-time homebuyers can customize a home to their tastes by hiring a home builder.
  • Financing typically requires a construction loan unless you have enough cash to complete the build.
  • Building a house in 2022 likely means long delays and surprise costs due to supply-chain issues.
  • Carefully vet any land you’re considering buying to make sure it will work and to understand how it will affect the cost of building.

Pros and Cons of Building Your First Home

Pros
  • Ability to customize according to your lifestyle and needs

  • Flexibility

  • Energy-efficient and low-maintenance options

Cons
  • Long lead times

  • Supply-chain issues

  • Buying land can be complicated

Pros Explained

  • Ability to customize according to your lifestyle and needs: Designing your house from the foundation to roof allows you to create a space that works for you, rather than working from someone else’s preferences.
  • Flexibility: Some rooms or extras can be left unfinished, allowing you to save money on building costs by waiting to finish them later or handling them yourself.  
  • Energy-efficient and low-maintenance options: With the right design and proper inspections, you could create a low-maintenance, energy-efficient home that avoids the surprise issues that can pop up in older houses.

Cons Explained

  • Long lead times: Buying land, lining up financing, permits, and construction all take time.
  • Supply chain issues: Manufacturing and shipping challenges may lead to delays, increased costs, or altered plans for home finishes and features.
  • Buying land can be complicated: Potential pitfalls can affect your planned costs, utilities, and timeline.

How Much Does Building a House Cost?

The median sales price for a new home was $436,700 in March 2022, increasing more than 21% compared to the same month in 2021, according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). That’s only slightly more than the median price for all houses sold in the U.S. at $428,700 as of the first quarter of 2022.

However, the cost to build a house varies widely. “We get a lot of calls from people who don't have land yet, asking how much it costs to build,” said Gregg Cantor, president and CEO of Murray Lampert Design Build Remodel in San Diego, California. “There’s no magical cost per square foot for a site unseen.”

For example, whether the land is relatively flat or sloping impacts grading and foundation design requirements, which then affects cost significantly, Cantor said.

Before buying a parcel or lot, consult with an architect, land planner, design/build firm, or experienced new-home builder to ensure you’re selecting solid ground, Cantor suggested.

According to an NAHB survey of new-home builders, major construction costs typically include:

  • Framing
  • Fees and inspections
  • Excavation
  • Exterior finishes
  • Major systems (plumbing, electrical, heating and cooling)
  • Landscaping and outdoor structures

The largest share of new construction costs stems from interior finishes (such as insulation, drywall, painting, lighting, and appliances), according to the survey. But you may be able to save money on these finishes, said Brian Walsh, senior manager and certified financial planner at digital personal finance company SoFi, who built a home in the Midwest to be closer to family.

“HGTV [shows have] skewed our expectations of finishes and costs, causing people to think they need hardwood floors, granite countertops, and custom trim,” said Walsh in an email to The Balance. He noted that it’s possible to achieve expensive looks with cheaper materials—for example, using laminate or luxury vinyl plank flooring instead of hardwood.

Another option is to buy new-home construction built to order from a menu of choices offered by a builder. You won’t have to worry about a lot’s suitability, but you may face tradeoffs in choosing lenders, finishes, and more.

How To Finance a New Build as a First-Time Homebuyer

In most cases, you’ll apply for a construction loan to finance your home build. Conditions and requirements vary based on the lender and loan type. Because building a new home involves risks regarding uncertainty, delays, and other issues, not all lenders offer construction loans, and they often have higher or floating interest rates than conventional loans, said Bill Gassett, a RE/MAX agent in Massachusetts at Maximum Real Estate Exposure.

“Certain banks specialize in construction loans. It becomes a three-way relationship between a bank, builder, and homeowner,” Cantor said, noting that the builder may need to be approved by the bank or underwriter (such as with VA loans). This process ensures the builder or general contractor is licensed to undertake the work, protecting the lender’s investment.

You’ll provide the lender with architectural drawings for your project and a set of building specifications, said Gassett. Construction loan lenders usually issue payments on a set draw schedule based on major construction phases.

After construction wraps up, you can usually convert the construction loan to a conventional loan, Gassett said.

The Homebuilding Process

Gassett suggested that before building a home, it’s crucial to speak with vendors and investigate delays in your area to set your expectations around potential time frames. In 2021, homes built on the owner's land by general contractors took an average of 9.4 months to complete.

To help you plan ahead, here are the steps in the homebuilding process.

Prequalify for a Loan

Start arranging financing before you begin construction unless you have enough cash to fund the entire job, said Phil Warrick, a North Carolina-based builder and president of Piedmont Wholesale Engineered Products. In general, be prepared to finance four times the lot’s value to build a house, he said—a $100,000 lot could require a $400,000 loan for construction.

A complication for homebuilders right now is rising interest rates, said Walsh. “Rates have gone up dramatically and the typical time lag between signing a contract and moving into your new home can be a year or more,” he said. “Be conservative when projecting your budget to account for future rate increases. If they stay the same or go down, amazing. But if they go higher before closing, you do not want to be house poor or not secure your mortgage, therefore losing your deposit.”

If you’re buying land and building all at once, a construction loan will likely cover the outlay, said Gassett. If you’re buying the land now but not planning to build for years, you’d first apply for a land loan, then apply for a construction loan later.

Assemble an Experienced Team

A good real estate agent can help first-time buyers navigate the process of building a new home, from finding land to closing the sale. Ask around to find an agent who can refer you to experienced homebuilders.

“Real estate agents hear quickly when people sour on experiences with builders and will hear all the bad news,” Gassett said. “A lot of builders like to overpromise and underdeliver.”

At a minimum, make sure your contractor has insurance, a business license, and a contractor's license, Warrick said. “Many people will take advantage and walk away, leaving you with a [half-built] house.”

Design Your Home

Work with your builder or architect to plan your future home. If you buy plans from elsewhere, your builder may need to modify them to meet local building codes and restrictions. Warrick said that codes can vary quite a bit—for example, plans drawn up in one state might feature 2-by-8 floor joists, while your local code requires 2-by-10 joists.

Prioritize design features that are difficult to change later, like ceiling heights, said Warrick. “Take time to make sure the house's structure is what you want before splurging on cosmetic features,” he said. “You can finish rooms, upgrade floors, install cabinets, paint, and upgrade light fixtures in the future.”

Remember that these plans may not translate exactly to final results, as quotes received during the planning phase may change before construction is finalized.

“After the permitting process, we usually rebid everything, and pricing mostly goes upward,” said Cantor.

Get Permits and Start Construction

Depending on your location, expect construction documents and permit processing to take between four and eight months, said Cantor. The build timeline depends on the home’s size, scope, fit, and finishes. With landscaping, you can expect a new build to take at least eight months, he said, and features such as pools or spas may take longer. The timeline may be extended in 2022, where you may wait longer for windows, roofing products, sheetrock, and other building materials, Warrick said.

Gassett agreed, saying, “You'll need to temper your expectations on how quickly you'll be able to complete the project.” Stay flexible and consider your budget as you and your builder navigate price changes and supply chain issues, he advised.

As construction progresses, a representative from your lender will visit the site to ensure completion of specific steps. The lender will then release a percentage of your loan, as detailed in your agreement, so you can pay your builder.

A money- and time-saving alternative might be to buy an older house in tear-down condition and strip it to its foundation and studs, said Cantor. Fees and permits would typically be based on the original home’s footprint plus additional square footage, not a wholly new footprint.

Wrap Up and Closing

After a final inspection, the new home receives a certificate of occupancy. However, before closing the deal, it’s a good idea to hire an independent home inspector to look over the new house. Walsh said he’s seen more buyers skipping inspections, but inspectors may point out issues that can save you thousands of dollars down the road. “This is a few hundred bucks that’s always worth it,” he said.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How do you save money when building a house?

The experts we spoke with suggested a number of ways to save on a new build:

  • Look into alternative new homes, such as tiny homes and modular homes, which may be cheaper.
  • Consider doing some DIY work, such as painting or installing bookshelves.
  • Leave some rooms unfinished, such as in a basement.
  • Delay purchasing major appliances such as refrigerators, washers, and dryers until after you move in so you have time to shop for deals.

Where do you usually live while building a house?

You can’t live in your house as it’s being constructed because you won’t have a certificate of occupancy. Depending on your build timeline and situation, you might consider renting a home, booking a vacation rental, or staying with friends or family.

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Article Sources

  1.  National Association of Home Builders. “Declining Affordability Conditions Put a Damper on New Home Sales.”

  2. U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “Median Sales Price of Houses Sold for the United States.”

  3. National Association of Home Builders. “Cost of Constructing a Home.”

  4. U.S. Census Bureau. “Average Length of Time From Start to Completion of New Privately Owned Residential Buildings.”