What is the Process to Build a Custom Home: First Steps

Small Custom Home built in Timber Frame - Eastern Cape
Designing and building your own custom home can be a dream come true. Get to know the building process before you start

Building your own custom home is an exciting project to look forward to but it can be over-whelming if you’re not sure how the process works, what to expect and who manages what aspects. In this article I will explain the various steps in the process of building a new custom home. My aim is to assist new home builders in understanding how things work. Our company Bosazza Roofing & Timber Homes, builds custom timber homes for clients in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. The building process described is therefore based on our experience here.

What is the process to build a custom home?

Please note that this article will not give you a step-by-step guide on how to actually build a house from laying foundations to securing the roof. It will rather guide you through the first steps and initial processes involved in the project, through to your all exciting moving day. It will help you to understand how and when things happen, who usually manages what steps and what to expect and plan for when building your own custom home.

Part I: First Steps in the Building Process

  1. Research and draft home plans and design ideas
  2. Research home builders and get a rough quotation
  3. Make sure that your home design and budget fit
  4. Finalize your designs and decide on specifications and finishes with detailed architectural plans
  5. Get municipal approval
  6. Apply for utilities and services including electricity
  7. Finalize the quotation and budget with your home builder
  8. Apply for finance if you’re building with a bond
  9. Enter into a written contract with your builder

Part II: Breaking Ground to Moving Day

Your building contractor will then take over to move the project through the following steps:

10. Have your soil tested and classified
11. Register the new build with the NHBRC
12. Establish the building site and begin construction
13. Manage progress reports and payment schedules
14. Manage the variation order process in case of changes and amendments
15. Have the build inspected at key stages through the construction process
16. Complete the building process and acquire all of the necessary certificates of compliance
17. Manage the final account reconciliation
18. Apply for the Occupancy Certificate from the local building inspector

At this point your new custom home will be ready to move into! The final step in the building process comes one month after you have had occupancy of the house. You will:

19. Alert your building contractor of any snags that need to be rectified
20. Pay the final retainer amount

This article is quite detailed so to maintain a manageable amount of information I have split it into two parts:

I: First Steps (Steps 1 – 9)
II: Breaking Ground to Moving Day (Steps 10 – 20) 

Part I

The Building Process Explained: Building your own Custom Home – First Steps

The information in this article gives more detail about each of the steps listed above, as well as advice to help you to understand processes and terms that you may not have come across before. I am writing from the stand-point that you already have ownership of land and possess the title deeds.

1. Research and Draft Home Plans and Design Ideas

Homify offers inspiration for your custom home building projects
Homify offers inspiration for your custom home building and renovation projects

One of the most exciting parts of building your own custom home is designing it exactly how you dreamed it. Unless you’re a property developer you will probably only go through this process once in your lifetime so make the most of it and enjoy the creativity! If you don’t already have some ideas sketched down, websites like Pinterest and Homify are a great source of images for home plans. You can really go all out at this stage. Look at pictures of everything from the layout of the house to the garden, landscaping and internal finishes. Keep a note of things that you like as you can send them to your architect or builder further down the line to help them to get a better idea of what you like and what you’re looking for.

Home Builders offer a Range of Custom Home Designs

Many home builders offer a range of basic designs to help get you started. The designs will be tried and tested to offer you a variety of different lifestyles and sizes of home. The plans may also come with a starting price or guide price. This helps when you’re at the planning stage because you will see what you can get for your money. You don’t want to be designing a five bedroom home with three story’s if your provisional budget will only stretch to two bedrooms.

At Bosazza Roofing & Timber Homes we offer a range of custom timber home designs – meant to offer inspiration. They are a basis for you to work from when planning your new home design.

This Small Custom Home is Built in Timber Frame
This small custom home is built in timber frame and based on our “Mahogany” design
Find designing your own custom home daunting?

If you find this task daunting and prefer to get a professional involved from the beginning of the project then research and find an architectural professional. Spend time on this and be comfortable with who you appoint. Meet with them in person and discuss what you like and don’t like, how you want the house to function for you and what materials you would like it to be built from. Your architectural professional will then complete plans based on this to get the process started.

East London based architectural professional, Russell Boucher from Pursey & Boucher Architectural Services shares his thoughts on this below:

”Every building project should start with an architectural professional who can offer advice and guidance throughout the design phase, local authority submission phase and construction phase. Every site is different and so even though you may already have a plan, consideration of slope, orientation, budget, style, building regulations, future planning, materials and personal taste are just some items that the architectural professional should guide you through. Building your own home might only happen once in a lifetime so getting the right professional will be critical in making the project successful and fun.”

2. Research Home Builders and get a Rough Quotation

When you have an idea of what kind of home you’re looking to build (including an approximate size), start to research home builders in your area. Contact them and get a rough estimate of what it will cost to build your home. At this stage it won’t be possible to give you a finalized quote because the specifications haven’t been decided. But this exercise is good to help you get an idea of costs early on. It is also good to meet with a few home builders to make sure you choose the right company for your project.

Find out what is included in their estimated cost and what additional expenses they foresee. For example, the initial estimate will likely cover the building of the house and basic finishes. It may not include engineers and architectural fees, NHBRC registration, landscaping, fencing, conservancy tank and more. These are all costs that are associated with building your own custom home and should be taken into consideration when working out your budget.

Choosing the Right Home Builder

Infographic: Seven Questions to Ask Your Home Builder
It’s vital that you choose the right home builder. Ask these seven questions to help you to get to know them.

There are a lot of home builders operating in the Eastern Cape and it can be hard to decide which builder to trust with your project. I have put together a short list of questions to ask when you first contact them, to help you see if they are suitable to complete your home building project:

  • Are you registered with the National Home Builders Registration Council (NHBRC)?
  • Are you a professional member of the Institute for Timber Construction (ITC-SA) or similar, regulatory body?
  • Do you have experience working with banks if I am applying for a bond?
  • Can I have the contact details of some of your recent clients to ask them for a reference?
  • Can I see some of the home building projects that you are currently working on or have recently finished?
  • Are you able to provide me with all of the Certificates of Compliance that I need to submit to the municipality at the end of the build?
  • Do you have comprehensive insurance in place?

Any home builder worth their weight will be happy to answer your questions. They will have good references from past clients and will show you examples of previous projects.

3. Make sure that your Custom Home Design and Budget Fit

Now that you have a custom home design and a rough quotation (as well as an idea of the extra costs involved), you can look at the project as a whole. Does your house plan fit within your budget? It’s time to get serious and make sure that you have a realistic budget and plan.

Sit down and decide on your budget. Are you paying cash or getting a bond from the bank? How much will the bank lend you? How much personal capital are you prepared to spend on the project? Always plan for there to be extra expenses and do a “worst case scenario” of what you can spend.

Now look at your plan and estimated costs. Do the two fit together? If there is a discrepancy between your budget and plan then you may consider reducing the size of the house. You can always add on at a later stage. If you need assistance with this get an architectural professional involved.

4. Finalize your Design – Decide on Specifications and Finishes with Detailed Architectural Plans

Now is the time to consider the finer specifications and finishes for your home so if you haven’t yet connected with an architectural professional – do it now! They will work with you to get down to the nitty-gritty decisions; from the materials that you want to build with to the flooring product and colour, from your built-in cupboards down to the toilet roll holders and towel rails.

Do… decide on your preferred finishes and fittings at this stage

Do not… leave it to the builder to decide these things down the line

An example of Architectural Plans for a custom home
Here’s an example of detailed architectural plans for a custom home

It is vital to get detailed, professional plans drawn up. Your architect will draw up a full floor plan and elevations with dimensions as well as electrical and plumbing layouts. Both your nominated home builder and engineer will work from the plans.

A lack of plans or plans without detail can cause problems during the building process. A professional home builder works specifically according to your plan. If the plans raise questions rather than giving answers, your project can see delays. If the builder must call you to make decisions along the way (and wait for your decisions to be made), time will be added to the building process. In a worst-case scenario, the builder might make decisions for you to save time, leaving you with something that you don’t like or want.

We operate by sound advice given to us by professional roof inspector Leon Ferreira, from the ITC-SA:

“DON’T make a plan, READ the plan”

Make sure that your plans allow us to do our best work for you.

5. Get Municipal Approval

Once you have approved the plan in writing, your architect will take them to the local municipality for approval. Depending on the efficiency of the municipality you can wait anywhere between 30 – 90 days for this. You will also have to pay a deposit for the application and your architect should guide you through this process.

6. Apply for Utilities and Services including Electricity

It might seem really early to be doing this, but we recommend applying for the essential utilities as early as possible to ensure that they are in place when you need them. This is especially important in the case of electricity.

We recently built a custom timber home in Chintsa where there was an issue with power supply lines. Our clients applied for electricity to be supplied to their home as we started building at the end of January 2018. We took four months to build the house which was completed in May. There was no electricity on site during this period which meant that we had to rely on the good grace of helpful neighbors or use generators throughout the build. The electricity issue was solved in September and the Occupancy Certificate was only signed off in October.

The example above is a worst-case scenario but shows how the lack of services can delay your project (and moving day!) unnecessarily.

Don’t get me wrong, we’ve also had instances where setting up utilities is a breeze. But our advice is to get the process rolling as soon as possible. You as the client are responsible for this as well as the cost of setting up your accounts.

7. Finalize the Quotation and Budget with your Home Builder

Now that you have a detailed architectural plan and have decided on a lot of the specifications of your home, you can get a full and detailed quotation from your chosen home builder.

Our advice is to make sure that the quotation includes everything. You don’t want to get half way through the job and realize that you haven’t made an allowance for your conservancy tank or something else vital to your home. Here’s a little guidance on understanding your home builders quote:

A Guide to Understanding your Home Builders Quote

You should request an itemized quotation from your home builder to make sure that there is no confusion about what is included and what isn’t. If the quote simply says “Quote to build House Smith” with a price at the bottom – run away! There should be a comprehensive amount of information included. Not quite down to listing every screw, nut and bolt used but enough information for you to understand exactly what you are getting for your money.

Start of construction on a custom timber home
Don’t just get the basics included in your building quotation

First thing’s first the quote will list the most obvious building elements including the construction of the foundations and structure, roof, internal and external cladding, ceilings, decking and balustrades. If your builder is working from a detailed plan they can quantify and put a cost to these.

When it comes to items such as the windows and doors, plumbing and sanware, electrical and lighting, flooring, built in cupboards and tiling you will likely see a Provisional Sum (PS) or Prime Cost (PC) amount.

What does Provisional Sum (PS) and Prime Cost (PC) mean on my Home Building Quote?

Provisional Sum (PS)

A PS is an amount of money included in the quotation that makes an allowance for materials or work which cannot be specified exactly at the time of quoting. For example, you may want to tile a splash back behind the stove but you haven’t decided on the exact size of the area to be tiled. Or perhaps you haven’t decided whether you want the broom cupboard behind the back door. A provisional sum will often be calculated according to a square meter rate.

Prime Cost (PC)

A PC amount is an amount of money included in the quote to purchase a specific item such as tiles, taps and bathroom fittings, light fittings or flooring. We include these items in this way because you probably won’t have chosen the specific items when we sign the final quote, but we have to make an allowance for them in the cost. Our practice is to let clients know what their PC amount is say, for san-ware, and send them to our suppliers to choose the items that they want. If you spend the exact amount that we provisioned for on the fittings, then the quotation will stay the same. If you spend less (or more) the cost to you at the end of the job will reflect this.

Handling Fees

PS and PC amounts (depending on which specific item they are) may also have a handling fee attached to them. This is to cover costs incurred by the builder when facilitating that portion of the job. An example of this would be that we, as the  builder, will collect the san-ware from the bathroom supplier, transport it to storage or site and store it safely until it is installed.

If you’re working with an experienced contractor, they will have a good idea of what things cost and the provisional amounts should be relatively close to what you end up spending. We base our PC and PS amounts on mid-range quality goods which gives you a fairly flexible amount to work with. Ask your home builder what quality they have based their prices on – some builders may base them on bottom of the range. If you make the decision to overspend on PC amounts then the additional amount will reflect on your final account. If you have gone over budget your home builder should verify that you are aware of this and make sure that you’re prepared for the additional cost at the end of the project. We deal with situations like this by running a “Variations Statement” which I will chat more about in Part II of this article.

“Additional” Items that are Essential to your Custom Home

When you first got a rough estimate of how much your new custom home would cost to build, it is likely that your home builder gave you a guide price or a starting price. This generally just includes the basics of building the house and the PC/ PS amounts as discussed above but be aware that there are other items and costs that are essential to building your home. Below is a list of items that are essential to include in the quotation:

  • Registration of the home with the National Home Builders Registration Council (NHBRC)
  • Engineers fees
  • Roof inspection and Certificate of Compliance
  • Architectural drawings & municipal submission (if this has not already been dealt with along the way)
  • Clearing of the land
  • Soil classification
  • Termite treatment
  • Sewerage conservancy

Optional Items that just Make Life Better

There are also some optional extra’s that just make life better. These are not essential to the initial phase of building but it’s worth considering carefully whether you need them included in your quotation:

  • Earthworks and landscaping
  • Retaining and boundary walls
  • Fencing
  • Paving
  • Rain water tanks, plinths and pump system

If you’re planning on building with a bond, we recommend including EVERYTHING in the quotation so that you potentially have access to all of the capital that you need whatever your final decisions.

Whether you’re building with personal capital or with a bond always use a contractor who is transparent about costs. Make sure that you are happy that your quote is comprehensive and includes everything that you need.

8. Apply for Finance if you’re Building with a Bond

If you are building with a bond rather than paying cash, you can approach the banks now that you have a definitive amount that your home will cost to build (in writing). Banks and home loan companies require a full application and quite a lot of supporting documentation so you will need to work with your chosen home builder for some of the documents including:

  • Letter of confirmation for the Contractors Liability insurance cover
  • Engineers appointment letter
  • Building contract
  • NHBRC enrollment certificate

These documents are fairly self-explanatory and should be provided by your home builder. The bank may require the home builder to sign additional documents. My advice is to try not to get frustrated if this process seems to be a lot of to-and-fro-ing between you, your builder and the bank because it will be worth it if you can secure the funding that you need for your custom home project!

I just want to emphasize at this point that you really need to ensure that you are covering all costs when you request the bond amount.

9. Enter into a written contract with your builder

The final point in this article is already mentioned above but it is important even if you’re not getting finance for the build, so I wanted to emphasize this. Ensure that you have a full written contract with your builder. You don’t want to imagine there being problems during the project but unfortunately sometimes there are. Protect yourself and your home builder by entering into a written contract that dictates what happens in the case of a dispute or unforeseen incident.

Our practice is to co-sign the following documents with clients before a project commences:

  1. A copy of the full, detailed quotation (with a reference number)
  2. A building contract

Keep a copy for yourself and your home builder will keep a copy on file.


I hope that this has helped to explain the first steps in the building process when starting to build your own custom home. Some of the steps I discussed may happen in a slightly different order (or alongside each other), but they are all important steps to understand when building your own custom home.

If you feel any doubt or concern I would always recommend consulting with a professional. Get in touch with your home builder, architect or a professional project manager. Any of these people will be able to help and advise you about the building process.

My next article will feature steps 10 – 20 (listed in the introduction to this article) – from when the builder breaks ground, to your all exciting moving day!

If you would like to add your thoughts or think that we have missed anything important please share your comments below.

7 thoughts on “What is the Process to Build a Custom Home: First Steps

  1. Thank you for this detailed explanation. What regulations need to be considered if building outside a municipal area? I would like to buy a plot in a rural area and build a few one-bedroomed cabins and a small house.

    1. Hi Charl,

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment on our article. Apologies for the slow reply – I would recommend getting in touch with an architect or a local regional planning consultant to assist with this. The regulations will depend on the zoning of the property.

      I hope this helps!

  2. Thank you so much for sharing the info. It is going to help me a great deal as I had no idea where and how to start as I have been thinking a lot about building a house instead of buying one.

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