Builders hear this question a lot. The answer, as with most such questions is, "It depends." But on what?
Those who haven't built before may have an unrealistic concept of how long it will take to plan, budget and build a home.
Many variables will affect the timetable. Three that stand out are design, permitting and site work.
Design. A stock plan will take less time than a fully custom home, even if the homeowners make changes to a stock plan. A custom home can take months to design and a year or more to build.
Some think size is the best indicator of how long the project will take. Not so - cost is a far more accurate gauge. Imagine a pair of 2,500-square-foot homes, one for $500,000 and another for $1 million. It's a good bet that the higher priced home will have a more complex design that will take longer to build.
Permitting. The legal approvals required before construction begins have multiplied over the years. Sign-off will be needed from the zoning board, the building department, the health department, the fire department and, when building in a planned community, the homeowners' association. In some areas, design committees, historical commissions, water authorities or other entities want their say as well. Not surprisingly, the wheels of these bureaucracies can move slowly, but an experienced builder should be able to estimate the time required to negotiate all the red tape.
Code requirements have also lengthened the process. For instance, in many jurisdications, estimates of the home's heating and cooling loads are now required before a permit is issued.
Site work. Is the property on flat ground with roads and utilities already in place, or is it a sloped or rural parcel where the contractor will need to cut a road to the site, bring in utilities or excavate and fill to accommodate a foundation? The latter scenario will obviously take more time (and require more permits and approvals).
Staying on Track
Fortunately, there are things both homeowners and builders can do to keep the job moving. These include taking deadlines seriously, providing details on how the home will be used and minimizing changes.
Agree on a timetable. Most busy architects and builders work hard to get things done promptly, so without firm dates things can slip. The entire team, including the architect, the builder and the homeowners need to be sure that there is a date set for the next meeting and deadlines in place for upcoming steps. "The plans will be done in a couple of weeks" is vague. Compare that to "The plans will be ready on March 15th," which provides a clear understanding for all parties. Similarily, when any party on the team postpones scheduled meetings, the timetable will be thrown off.
Think it through. The more detailed the plan, the less chance of hang-ups. For example, vague electrical plans can stop a project in its tracks. Homeowners need to think through where they want furniture and cabinets so the architect can specify the correct number of outlets. If artwork is to be displayed on a wall or above a fireplace, the architect needs to know in order to specify the correct lighting. If homeowners don't drill down to this level of detail until the job is well underway, things can be held up while new wiring is installed or walls and ceilings re-framed to accomodate it.
Minimize changes. Change orders (or additional work authorizations) can be a huge killer because they often require additional time to plan and coordinate. Changes made late in the design stage can extend design time and those made after project kickoff will often extend the build time.
The bottom line is that, if moving in by a certain date is a priority, homeowners need to be absolutely clear with the builder about it and get assurance that the builder is on board with this schedule. That way, the homeowners, the builder and the architect can plan effectively to meet the deadline.