For part two of our series ‘Building your own American Home’, we’re taking a closer look at how to find a reputable architect and what steps you need to take to obtain planning permission before you can break ground on building your dream home.

Where can I find an architect?

There are a variety of ways to search for the perfect architect to design your home when you move to the USA. Firstly, use the architect search tool offered by the American Institute of Architects (AIA). This organisation is the official body of architects in the USA. Therefore, finding an architect who is a member ensures that their work complies with industry standards. Handily, the AIA search tool lets you pinpoint your specific location to help you find architects in your neck of the woods. Secondly, don’t underestimate the power of word-of-mouth. Ask around. Do any of your new neighbours, work colleagues or friends know of a decent architect?

The most exciting part of the process, planning your home!

Alternatively, you can opt to take your search online. Decent architects will have comprehensive websites showcasing their work and credentials. Once you’ve established a shortlist of architects you’re interested in working with, reach out to them. How quickly do they respond? Do you like their general vibe? Are they happy to show you examples of their work and to put you in touch with past clients? A good architect will have a bank of happy past clients delighted to wax lyrical about the work the architect did for them. If they are less forthcoming, or seem reluctant to hook this up, ask yourself why that might be and proceed with caution. Also, asking architects for referrals is another way to locate the right person for the job. Additionally, design magazines and newspapers are good resources.

How difficult it is to get planning permission?

The USA equivalent of planning permission is called a building or construction permit, and you must have this in place before any building work can commence. Approving these permits comes under the jurisdiction of your local town or city. Without a permit, all building work is illegal. The reason the process is managed on a local basis is so that officials can ensure all building work complies with building codes for the town, that the right materials are used, and that construction work complies with minimum standards. How complicated the process is and how much it costs will depend upon where your plot is. For example, if it’s in an area prone to earthquakes or extreme weather, things could be trickier. Research how easy it is to obtain a building permit in your specific location and what restrictions apply before you buy the plot of land. The last thing you want is to discover too late that your specific plans for your dream home are forbidden in this particular town. Your realtor will be able to offer guidance on what rules and regulations apply to the plot.

Also, bear in mind that if the neighbourhood you’re building in is managed by a Home Owners Association, you will need to seek their approval (in addition to that of your local council) before work can start.

If you need extra finance for your US home, read up on all your financing options in our new guide, How to Pay for an America Property.

Who applies for the building permit?

Typically, the contractor hired to build your home will apply for the permit on your behalf. Therefore, the cost of the permits should be factored into their quote. Double check this when reviewing each of the quotes you source (we recommend at least three) to ensure you won’t be charged later.

What you might need to budget for the build cost of a house? provides a handy online calculator, which offers a rough figure for how much it will cost to build your house in the USA depending on your specific zip code. As a general rule, custom built homes cost between $350,000 and $1.5 million (£274,000 – £1,173,000), although costs can vary significantly depending on location, plot size and location. For something pre-fabricated, i.e. manufactured offsite and assembled on location, the total figure is less. In this instance, expect to pay between $50,000 – $300,000 (£39,000 – £235,000). Additionally, you can opt for an established home builder or developer. While going through a developer may restrict you in terms of location and floorplan, this route offers plenty of options for customisation. In this instance, expect to pay between $50,000 – $1.5 million (£39,000 – £1,173,000).

How much does it cost to build a pool?

Surely any dream home needs a swimming pool, particularly if you’re based in a sunny state like Florida! According to it will cost you between $12,982 – $37,659 (£10,125 – £29,400) to have a pool installed. A cheaper option is to have an above-ground pool, which doesn’t look as nice but costs substantially less at between $1,500 – $15,000 (£1,200- £11,700). These figures all include labour costs, which typically make up between 25-50 percent of the total bill.

The length of time to build a home puts you at serious risk of currency volatility. Discover how to manage that risk in the Property Buyers’ Guide to Currency.

Where is it possible to make savings?

When drawing up building plans with your architect, think about what spaces you really need. As a general rule, open plan properties tend to be cheaper. Plus, consider what work you are actually capable of doing yourselves. Sure, it might seem easier to have your contractor do all the painting or to install your sinks, but if you know how to do those things yourselves, you can make big savings. Furthermore, costs can be kept down by sourcing your own building materials. In some cases, your contractor can secure a better deal because they have relationships with certain companies and are buying in bulk. However, a quick double check won’t hurt. They may quote you $4,000 for a boiler when you can get one online for a fraction of the cost. One place to find great bargain fixtures, fittings, toilets, doors and so on is at a Habitat for Humanity ReStore.

Where not to cut costs?

While it’s all very well saving money where you can on fixtures and fittings, there are elements of your house build where you really shouldn’t scrimp. For example, unless you really know what you’re doing, we recommend leaving the gas, electrics and plumbing to an expert. Similarly, if you are building a home in a state known for its cold weather, don’t scrimp on insulation. You’ll only end up racking up enormous heating bills. Shelling out for better insulation may be a larger out-going cost initially, but overall you will save yourself money.

Also, if you’re moving to somewhere susceptible to hurricanes or tornados, it’s important to protect your property effectively, no matter the cost. Never forego keeping your property and family safe for the sake of saving yourself a couple of hundred dollars.

Additional features

What you need from your USA home will differ from what you needed in the UK. For example, in sunnier states, air-conditioning throughout is essential, plus perhaps a Walton’s-style veranda where you can sit and cool off on hot evenings. In the south, many homes have wraparound porches, window shutters and rooms with fans and furniture, but with mesh on the windows to let the breeze in, but keep the insects out. For the colder states, wood burners, open-fires and covered wood-stores for stockpiling logs are all nice features you might like to include.

USA Property Guide cover

Your guide t buying a home in the USA, safely:

  Your timetable for buying

  Focus on where and what to buy

  Set your budget

  Understand the legal processes

  Buy safely in the USA

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