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House Plans…Builder Tips to Save

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There are some great looking pre-drawn house plans available today.  In fact, there are so many available, there really is no good reason to start from scratch.  Many of these plans have been built already so the bugs have been worked out.  But what if you can’t find exactly what you want?  Your best option is to find the plan that most closely meets your wants and needs and make adjustments from there.  The biggest tip for saving money…get the CAD version of the house plan.  This will save you big money and time over the length of your new home building project.


Having an architect create a set of plans from scratch can take months and cost tens of thousands of dollars.  Trust me, as a builder, I have been through this.  Your most cost effective option is to find a pre-drawn plan like those here at America’s Best, purchase the CAD file and have your local architect make your modifications.

Most architectural firms have AutoCAD software or a version that is compatible with it.  By having the CAD digital file of your plan, the architect will save a bunch of time making adjustments.  And this is a good thing considering the hourly rate charged by architects.  A good architect is worth every penny but the costs can really affect your new home budget.

Local Codes and Building Practices

Even if you find a plan that is exactly what you want, there will most likely be modifications required to meet local codes.  Because codes vary significantly from one municipality to another, there is no way to include a variation for every village, city or township.  It sounds strange but two adjacent cities can, and many times do, use completely different building codes.  I’ve built new homes in adjacent towns many times and can tell you this is frequently the case.  Even if adjacent communities go by the same code, they will each have specific things they want to see on the plans.  One community may want a door schedule listing door sizes, types and locations.  One village may want plumbing riser diagrams showing how the drains and vents will be installed.  So by having the CAD file of the plan, your architect can quickly add the items the local building department wants to see.

Another reason your plans will need adjustments is for local building practices and techniques.  I’ve built homes in many different states and can tell you things are done differently in each of them.  In some climates, a vapor barrier is used on the face of the studs and others not so much.  In some locations drain tile is installed on the inside of the footing, some on the outside, and in some others the drain tile is installed on both the inside and outside of the footings.  Some of practices are just “the way it’s always been done”.  So, by having the CAD digital file of your house plan, the local architect can make these adjustments easily to match local building practices.

But couldn’t you just leave these off the plans and just tell each trade what to bid?  Sure, but don’t do it.  The house plan is part of your contract with each company that will perform work on your home.  You want the contract, the plans, and the scopes of work and specifications all to match.  Suppose you forget to tell a bidder that you wanted drain tile on the inside and outside of the footings.  Their price would be lower and you might choose the wrong company and worse yet, you may not get both drain tiles installed.

Plan Reproduction

Plan reproduction (a.k.a. making copies) can get very expensive for a new home project.  You can easily spend hundreds of dollars for just making copies of full size plans.  Let’s take a look at how the cost for reproduction can really add up.

If you have the typical 40 trades and suppliers working on your home and you bid each activity out to 3 companies (3 is the minimum recommended), you would need 120 sets of plans.  We put a call into our local FedEx Kinkos and found they currently charge $4.50 for each plan page copy (24″x36″).  This page size is pretty standard for 1/4 inch scaled plans (where 1/4″ on the page is equal to one foot).  This is a bit higher than I have paid in the past from plan reproduction companies but we will use it for this example.  Here is the breakdown for plan copying costs…

  • Assume 10 pages per plan X $4.50 per Page = $45 per Bid Set
  • 40 Activities X 3 Bids per Activity = 120 Bid Sets
  • 120 Bid Sets of Plans X $45 = Way too much!!!

Obviously you won’t be spending this kind of money for plan copies.  You will find other ways to reduce the overall cost but this will take extra time.  You could meet with each company supplying a bid and have them review the plans with you.  This would take a bunch of time.  Or, you could require them to pickup a set of plans at the local copy center and pay for them. This is not recommended with the current state of the building community.  By doing this you will most likely exclude some bidders that might have provided you with the best quality and price.

Your best option is to have your architect create PDF’s (in Adobe Acrobat) from the CAD files for you to email to bidding companies.  It’s really easy (and quick) to convert Autocad files to a PDF’s.  Most trades and supplier don’t have AutoCAD software because it’s complicated and quite expensive ($900-$1000 for the commercial version of AutoCAD).  By converting the files to PDF’s, these companies will be able to open and read them with the free Adobe software.

Of course some of your trades will still want full size, scalable plans.  The PDF version will not allow them to use a ruler to determine lengths.  When I say scalable, it just means they can put a ruler to them and determine dimensions based on the scale of the plans (either 1/4 or 1/2 inch equals one foot).  Although most dimensions are on the plans, it’s sometimes necessary to scale a dimension with a ruler that isn’t on the plan.  For these companies that need the full size scalable plans, you may want to loan them a full size set of plans…but be sure to take a deposit and come up with a due date for returning them.  If you need the plans to give to other bidding companies, you will want them back quickly.



Having the CAD digital file of the plans saves you time and money for distribution.  Rather than mailing the plans through snail mail, which gets very expensive, you can email the PDF documents along with the scopes of work and specifications and bid sheet.  This will save you a huge amount of time and money.

How many full size plans will you need?

It really depends on your particular building department but here are some guidelines based on my experience of building homes…

  • Building Department – requires anywhere from 2 to 6 sets (sometimes each reviewer in the building department gets a set…one for electric, one for plumbing, one for HVAC…etc.
  • On-Site Plans – you will need to leave one full set of plans on site for subcontractors to use.  Unfortunately, some of them will walk away “accidently”.  They will also get damaged in bad weather.  So figure three sets for replacements.
  • Bid Sets – The number you need really depends on how you bid out your project.  I like to send bid packages in emails and then ask the vendors that want scalable drawings to come and review them at my office or on site.  That way, I really only need a couple sets of full size plans for bidding purposes.

When purchasing your plans, any good builder will tell you to get the CAD file.  This may cost a little more upfront, but you will save big on architectural fees, and reproduction and distribution costs throughout your new home project.

Michael Luckado

Michael Luckado has built, remodeled, and repaired thousands of homes across the U.S. He co-founded to help people save money and time creating their dream home.

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