Why home building horror stories happen

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If you're thinking about building a home on your land, I can already guess one part of your experience so far: you've heard tons of horror stories.

You've probably heard about builders who went way over budget or didn't even build what the customer wanted. I bet you've also heard about builds that took a lot longer than expected or were just riddled with mistakes (adding to the delay).

What is it about building a home that makes this happen? Sure, building a home is complicated, but I don't think that's why. Let me shed some light on why these horror stories tend to happen—and why they shouldn’t.

Home building expectations

Most conflict can be traced back to one cause: unmet expectations. Here's how it works out in a couple of common scenarios.

The home that goes way over budget

Initially, the client and the builder agree on a budget. But by the end of the build, the home ends up being 30% over budget! (Here's a discussion on Houzz between several people about building a custom house - it gives some really good insight into what you might experience and questions to ask.)

Whenever I hear this story—which is often—I wonder if the budget was set too low in the beginning or if there were circumstances that forced the build to go over budget after the fact. But either way it stems from expectations set (or not) in the beginning.

Did the builder provide an appropriately detailed set of specifications (down to the last doorknob) of what the budget included and have the client approve it? Or was it all kind of vague, leaving a lot to interpretation?

Were there "unforeseen" price increases or increases in the quantity of materials needed? If so, why didn't the builder get bids beforehand and do a detailed analysis of the home design to know exactly how much of each material and labor element would be needed? That would result in a more accurate budget to share with the client.

The home that takes six months longer than expected

First of all, I used the word "expected" for a reason: who expected it would take only six months, rather than a year, to complete the project? The client? The builder? Clearly, something is amiss. Unfortunately, I hear this story all the time, too.

Most of the time, it means that there were some unrealistic expectations set at the beginning of the project. Maybe the client expected to be able to make unlimited changes without affecting the schedule of the build, and the builder never made it clear that each time a change was made it would affect the schedule.

Maybe the builder never let the client know she was expected to make all her color selections within a certain time period in order to meet certain ordering deadlines. Again, setting strong expectations up front would have prevented much of the frustration in this case.


In any relationship, it's important to have the right expectations at the beginning. If each party is expecting the other to do something different, disappointment is a guaranteed outcome.


And here's the other piece of the puzzle: in order for a builder to set realistic expectations at the start of a project, they have to be able to create a detailed plan for your build. That includes planning for "unforeseen" issues like weather delays or building during the busy season. If a builder seems disorganized, you might not get a reliable set of expectations at the outset.

What to do about it

Just because all the horror stories happen doesn't mean you want to give up on the dream of building a house on your land. What you need is a basic understanding of the process, what it looks like, and what to expect at the various stages. Building a house is complicated but somewhat predictable, it's just that it isn't something people do every day - most people only do it once in their whole lives, if at all.

Start by reading this page that describes the process of turning raw land into a forever home.  It will give you an overview of the the steps you take during the process, assuming you own land already.  You can also download the guide in PDF format here.

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Tim Turner

Written by Tim Turner

A home builder for 18 years, Tim is the "son" in Turner & Son Homes. He is the CEO of the company and partners with his dad, Ben, who has been building since 1964.

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