I managed major renovation projects for five years – complete gut jobs on 100-year-old houses. I honestly didn’t think building a house from the ground up would be so difficult. I could not have been more wrong. As I put the finishing touches on what one of the neighbors says is a “gorgeous house…breathtaking”, I was thinking, I wish I’d known…..

1. Trees Have Feelings Too

Granted, I built my house in a Hippie enclave just outside of Washington, DC. It’s one of the eco-friendliest places on earth. I grew up there so I understood how liberal, green, and active the community was. However, never in my wildest dreams did I think it would take six months to remove a dying, hazardous tree – the result of a lightning strike ten years prior to my purchase. I needed to remove that tree in order to build my house.

I wound up in front of the Tree Commission (yes, there is such a thing) pleading my case, complete with letters from three certified arborists, an email from an engineer, 25 signatures from neighbors supporting my cause, and a licensed forestry expert by my side serving as my advocate.
Do your homework. Check the local ordinances on tree removal. You may be surprised. Did you know that it is illegal to remove a large tree in Maryland unless it’s done by a licensed arborist?

2. Green Isn’t Just the Color of Money

I wanted to build a 100% “green” house (i.e., natural stone counters extracted from the hills of West Virginia, floors made from fast growing, mature bamboo trees, refurbished wood used in unique design elements, 100% wool carpet, cabinets made from recycled products, a corn cob burning stove, and natural roof made with plant material…. until I found out how much it was going to cost. Although green building is all the rage, it’s still not mainstream and thus follows that classic business rule – Supply vs. Demand.

Research green alternatives to see what’s doable. You can add some green elements (i.e., recycle the rain water off the roof and create rain gardens like I did) but a 50 to 75% increase in building costs may encourage you to pick and choose.

3. Permit Applications Have Legs

Just because you’ve submitted paperwork properly doesn’t mean it’s going to get approved in a timely fashion. The local arborist lost my application – twice. Keep a copy of all paper work and follow-up constantly. Documents get lost, after all they do have legs.
But, the good news is that most municipalities have online resources so you can track your permit status online.

4. It Takes a Village to Build a House

Involve your soon-to-be neighbors right from the beginning. It may seem like an invasion of your privacy and an annoyance to do so, but I have to say that nothing is more aggravating than having one of them call the county and complain and getting a stop work order. Think about it, these people have to endure loud noises, traffic challenges, and maybe a disruption of their utility service (oops!), all because you want to build a house. Well, what’s in it for them? Make them part of the process and they’ll help you along the way. My neighbors chose the paint color for my house – and I love it!

5. Nobody Likes a Show Off

Be humble. This might sound loopy but it’s true. Everyone wants to be loved and appreciated.

I was standing in the permitting office talking to my permitting technician. My landscape architect had stamped and signed my plans, and gave me two copies to use in order to get a permit for my new rain gardens. When the county’s permit technician told me I must have an original signature in blue ink on the plans, I almost lost it. I mean, how stupid, right? Then, he told me I’d need to make an appointment with him to review the plans again once they were re-signed? What?!? In two years I’d never made an appointment!

I said, “Okay, I’d like to make an appointment for one hour from now.” That would give me a chance to dash over to architect’s office, get the plans signed in the now required blue ink, and dash back.

He replied, “You can’t do that. I’m not sure if I’ll be busy.”

“What!?! “, I thought. I tried hard to keep my composure. “Well, when will you be free?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “You’ll have to call later and make an appointment.”

“But, you’re standing right here,” I logically replied.

“But I’m not sure what the rest of day will look like.”


We went around and around until I remembered that I hadn’t sufficiently thanked him for giving me advice, guiding me, and helping me understand the (often frustrating) process. I took the time to express my gratitude despite my frustration.

The next morning, everything was approved.

About the Author:

Jill Patton is an avid equestrian, real estate investor and would be pilot. She lives to blog @ pattonjill.blogspot.com .

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