Should I buy or build a home?

Mar 29, 2017

As a portfolio lender, we’ve been one of the Northwest’s custom home financing leaders for many years. Since the loans we make stay on our books, we’re able to make our lending decisions based on common sense principles – not just guidelines put forth by Fannie May or Freddie Mac. 

We wanted to talk about one of our most commonly asked questions – Should I buy or build a house? Since everyone’s preferences and finances are different, there’s no easy way to answer this, so we’ve broken it down and addressed a few misconceptions about the building process.

Building a house is more expensive than buying one.

This is a tricky question to answer, but in general, yes, it is cheaper to buy a house than purchase land and build one from scratch. Caveat: This will vary greatly depending on a variety of factors, including a buyer’s flexibility with location, renovations they’d like to make on a pre-built house, and how long the buyer’s planning on staying in either home.

Photo of a house being built

Building a house will give me a lower return on investment than buying a house.

Not always the case! This also varies depending on a variety of factors, so it’s difficult to do a true apples-to-apples comparison. There are lots of aspects to consider, but here are a few.

How “standard” are the features and layout of the home you’re thinking about building?
 
If you’re planning on building a home on acreage and including a more obscure structure, like a standalone garage with RV parking, a big office space, or a large swimming pool in the backyard, then odds are that you may not recoup your investment.


In general, any expensive feature or additional structures that makes your home and property more “niche” will likely limit the number of prospective buyers when it comes time to resale, which may result in you needing to lower your future asking price.


Another factor that will play a big part on your return on investment is the length of time you’re planning on staying in the house.
Appliances and modern home design, architecture, and materials are continuing to grow more and more energy efficient, which can play a BIG role in your overall heating, utility and energy bills. 

When you build a house, you’ll pick out the appliances yourself. So if you’re planning on staying in your custom built home for 10, 15 or 20 years, then you could save a substantial amount by “going green.” (Bonus: some states offer rebates or tax incentives for environmentally friendly features, like solar panels. Consider checking with a green builder in your area for more details.) 

I’ll always save money if I do most of the work myself. 

No. This line of thinking can be dangerous to your body, mind AND wallet. If you have time that you can allot to easy aspects of building a home, and you’re familiar with the type of work, then by all means – pick up a hammer. But remember – time is money, and unfortunately the more a job costs a professional to do, the more of your time it’s likely to take. Before you start tackling any aspects of building a home, put in some research.
photo of builders looking at plans

HomeAdvisor’s TrueCost Guide is a great resource that can help you quickly get a general idea as to how much a professional would charge for a job in your zip code. For example, you can find out how much installing new countertops could cost in your neighborhood.


If you’re unsure as to whether you can tackle a project, opt for the professional route. In general, you’ll spend more money hiring someone to fix any damage done by DIY-ing than you would have spent if you had paid someone from the start.

A good professional will also come with an understanding of building codes and requirements, knowledge that most amateur home builders would need to put in research hours to obtain. Another bonus of hiring someone – a general contractor will often provide warranties on the products and work he completes, either personally or through subcontractors. For example, if a toilet that a contractor installed doesn’t work, most contractors would cover the cost for the repairs or reinstallation. The Wall Street Journal has an excellent article about this topic in their news archives.

Paying a contractor a hefty down payment in advance is standard industry practice. 

As you might expect, most contractors will ask for a down payment up front to secure your spot on their schedule or purchase materials for your job in advance. Depending on the job, subsequent payments are generally tied to job progress. However, asking for a large down payment is a big red flag. Down payment amounts and percentages will vary by contractor and job, but in general, look closely at down payments over 20-25% of the contract price. 

To help protect consumers, many states have issued guidance, or even enacted laws surrounding this matter. For example, Maryland’s Home Improvement Commission states that homebuilders should “pay no more than one-third of the contract price as down payment.” California law states that home improvement down payments cannot exceed $1,000 or 10% of the contract price. Your local consumer agency or the agency that issues contracts licenses can provide applicable limits in your state.

photo of men looking at house plans

Down payment percentages are often negotiable. If you’re feeling unsure, ask your contractor for more details and see if they’d be willing to establish payment schedules as certain milestones. Most importantly, before you hire a contractor, do your research. The Federal Trade Commission’s helpful Hiring a Contractor website can assist you in spotting home improvement scams and finding the right, reputable contractor. 


If you’re thinking about building a home, we’re here to help. We’ve been specializing in helping people achieve their home ownership dreams for over 100 years. To find out more,
contact one of our neighborhood branch managers or call us at 800-324-9375.