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A cloudy fall day brings out the earthy hues in the home of Mark Hunter and Denise Whitehead in Stratford, Ont., on Oct. 25.GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail

What does it take to build your own house?

For Mark Hunter and his wife Denise Whitehead, the first step was finding the perfect location in Stratford, Ont., where Mr. Hunter is president of Hunter Steel.

Vacant land for building is scarce in Canadian cities, which typically means buyers have to source property with an existing house and demolish it. When Mr. Hunter found a bungalow for sale at the end of a cul-de-sac that was close to a river and walking distance from downtown, he wrote a cheque 10 minutes later. It was not without its problems.

“We were told there was a buried oil tank that had been remediated, but that wasn’t the case,” he says. “That was an unexpected $25,000 (expense), and the house contained asbestos so there went another $20,000 in remediation. But the location was ideal.”

To turn their vision into reality, the couple worked with Thor Dingman, an Ontario registered designer and heritage consultant in Stratford. The aim was to get the “old-looking on the outside” house they wanted, including a grand front porch, with contemporary indoor features that would allow the fiftysomething couple to grow old there.

“The porch was a driving feature,” says Ms. Whitehouse, an assistant professor at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo. “We wanted a house that would fit into Stratford, where porches are a big characteristic of the city’s older homes. You can see your neighbours walking by and say hello. We often end up socializing on the front porch over a drink.”

Another feature is a four-stop residential elevator, providing future barrier-free access on all levels. All the doorways are wide, and the curbless shower room – nicknamed “the YMCA” – is big enough to accommodate a future caregiver.

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The curbless shower room – nicknamed 'the YMCA' – is big enough to accommodate a future caregiver.GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail

“Aging in place seems to be a current trend, but that was important to us because I’d seen my mother in declining health having mobility issues,” Mr. Hunter says. “The elevator was part of the plan from the start.”

The house took 14 months to complete, from the demolition in May, 2020 to moving in July, 2021. The permits were secured before the pandemic, which made the process easier.

The Hunters chose their contractor by sending out a mass e-mail to local builders for quotes before deciding on J W Rose Carpentry Ltd. They were on schedule almost to the end, when supply chain issues slowed down delivery of finishing touches such as faucets and light fixtures.

“Designing a personal residence embodies the client’s own personal and cultural values melded with function, technique and construction,” Mr. Dingman says. “We try to understand the client’s vision and balance that with how we can do it practically and feasibly.”

If you’re considering an urban property to build on, Mr. Dingman advises checking municipal zoning to find out what’s permitted and researching any environmental or heritage concerns about the house you may be tearing down. For a greenfield site – land that’s not been built upon previously, usually agricultural – you need to know if there are environmental concerns around the property. You also need to think about drilling a well, how to handle sewage, getting power to the site, and road access.

“Significantly more infrastructure costs go into a greenfield project versus an urban project,” Mr. Dingman says. “One positive trend is that more owners are investing in sustainable technology, undertaking upgrades in insulation and alternative energy systems such as solar panels, to have a lower-carbon-footprint house.”

Mr. Dingman advises meeting with potential builders to determine whether you’re a good match, as well as checking their credentials and speaking to prior clients.

“The most important thing in building a house is for the owner to have trust in the builder,” Mr. Dingman says. “And don’t skimp on the quality of the construction drawings. The more that’s described, the easier it is for the team to execute the building.”

According to the website of Toronto custom builder Crown Construction, the average cost of building a 2,500-square-foot detached home in Canada in 2021 is between $720,000 and $890,000. It’s generally cheaper to build in smaller towns than major cities.

Luxury home builder Larry Clay, founder and president of Clay Construction in Vancouver, says elements in a custom house will always cost more because it’s a prototype that’s never been built before. Custom home clients are willing to spend more in areas you don’t always see.

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To turn their vision into reality, Mark Hunter and Denise Whitehead worked with Thor Dingman, an Ontario registered designer and heritage consultant in Stratford.GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail

“We always use stair stringers made of laminated veneer lumber, which cost more, but you really notice the difference when you walk up those stairs,” Mr. Clay says. “Solid, no squeaks!”

Challenges around building materials are much the same across Canada and globally, with supply chain issues making it difficult to obtain many materials right now. Mr. Clay says materials need to be ordered well in advance to ensure construction stays on schedule.

“Lumber came down from the super high prices but recently has started to climb slightly again,” he says. “But everything is costing more, from wiring to wages. Labour issues are problematic as there aren’t enough workers to complete the number of homes being built and renovated.”

One issue Mr. Clay faces in Vancouver is that permits take too long, partly due to volume but also because of Vancouver permitting requirements.

“There are lots of rules and bylaws that dictate different requirements for different zones in Vancouver – for instance, how big the house can be,” Mr. Clay says. “Vancouver has its own building code, which complicates things. Fortunately, the city is consulting the Home Builders Association in Vancouver (HAVAN) looking at how to speed things up.”

It’s also more complicated for Canadians to access financing to build their own houses versus buying existing ones, whether you’re in Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary or Halifax.

“If there’s no house, most lenders will not give you a regular mortgage,” says James Laird, co-founder of and president of CanWise Financial in Toronto. “The process is going to be cash intensive, so you need to have some working capital.”

Construction mortgages are the most typical way to finance: the amount you need to borrow is given in stages or “draws” as you complete each building milestone. Those milestones can include when the foundation is poured, when the framing is done and when doors and windows are installed.

“When the house is complete, you can get a real mortgage on it,” Mr. Laird says. “Insurance is another consideration. You want to make sure that the builder and any trades doing work on your property are properly insured.”

One thing that’s not advisable is acting as your own main contractor or hiring somebody who isn’t a professional home builder.

”In that case, you are 100 per cent on your own,” says Kevin Lee, CEO of the Canadian Home Builders’ Association. “For what is probably the biggest investment of your life, make sure you have the proper coverage and are working with a reputable builder.”

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