Building in Santa Fe – The Handiwork of History, the Pursuit of Permits

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For these new Santa Feans, the welcome signs are abundant on the Santa Fe Trail, but the challenges of building and settling here are not quite as apparent. Long time residents of Santa Fe know what those challenges are, but often they too revisit the “new home” dream. It seems that there is always another view to be experienced in Santa Fe; another corner of light, another house to recharge your Santa Fe life. Whether it is a newcomer or a Santa Fe regular, the journey that all must take to build in Santa Fe is a trail that will test your judgment and pull on your purse strings. But, if you want it, it is within reach. You might begin your journey by checking the current “Open House” listings and seeking out the selection of builders’ “Model Homes”…and then take off on your first tour. The grand event for viewing the work of many local builders is the annual Haciendas…A Parade of Homes. Sponsored by the Santa Fe Area Homebuilders Association, each year in August for three consecutive weekends as many as 45 model homes are available to tour. These homes represent all price ranges and even include remodel work! For new arrivals in particular, such a tour is likely to reveal some surprises. For example, the fact that those earth-colored dwellings glimpsed from the highway are really not all the same.

Santa Fe homes stand in a number of distinct styles – styles shaped by the history and the isolation of northern New Mexico. The prevailing styles today are Pueblo and Pueblo Revival, with their rounded forms; Territorial with its more formal brick cornices and extensively sculpted wood trim; and Mediterranean or Mission-influenced structures with their tiled or tin roofs. In your mind, try all of them on for your sense of space and your lifestyle and make sure that you take a long look at the floor plans as well as the outside structures. That’s a sound starting point for your building adventure.

Bringing your preferred style or combination of styles to a “site” is another breakthrough step. In New Mexico virtually everything begins with the land. It is where you are, what you become part of, and what you view that makes a house a home in Santa Fe.
Local builders, architects and Realtors unanimously agree that “good views” should be at the very top of the smart buyers list. And then these experts add some other “musts” to the successful search list – good lot (easy to build on) and good location. Finding that perfect three-way combination may not be as easy as it has been in previous years. Vacant land with all those “goods” is most certainly becoming more precious throughout the Santa Fe area. Today it’s likely that a search on your own will not get you there. But fortunately, professionals like the Realtors at Santa Fe Properties can cut the shortest path to the remaining “good” sites. After all, knowing where the land is, and selling it, is their business.

At Santa Fe Properties, the realty world has even taken the concept of “resource” a step further through their “Builders Showcase” – putting land buyers together with a select list of Santa Fe builders who cover the full range of home styles and building technology. These are the professionals who are known for the creativity, quality and exemplary business ethics brought to Santa Fe home building.

Of course, if you would rather race than “resource”, you could simply purchase your land, pace it off and then jump into the process as your own building contractor. It’s a move that many have taken…and many have regretted. For it now seems that the days of people who are their own contractors are pretty well gone. So many of the rules and regulations have simply changed. Those waters can’t be navigated as easily today as they were in the past.

Waters. That could be a deft way to allude to the paper flow that aspiring builders must now face if they want to realize their dreams in Santa Fe. Check out the City of Santa Fe’s extensive Building Permit Applicants document from the Planning and Land Use Department and you will know why it is now more practical to leave the building to your builder. Or, if you still have a strong desire to wear that hard hat, move on to meetings with the city’s Building Inspectors, Zoning Inspectors, Electrical Inspectors and Mechanical Inspectors. Prepare for possible Technical, Grading and Drainage, and Traffic reviews. Huddle with our Land Use Department and Archaeological Department. It’s all in the system. But surprisingly, it’s a system that most Santa Feans heartily support because it is the stronger-than-steel paper barrier that protects us from urban sprawl and permits us to hold on to a bit of our history, our architectural traditions, and our views…that much longer.

If and when you have finally decided to work with a builder, connect with one who mirrors your sense of style and one who is not only educated to the Santa Fe permit process but will live up to the land-linked heritage behind the permit rules.

The builders represented by Santa Fe Properties support that approach as they point out that the land – its topography, the views it offers, and its natural environment – will tell you what you can and should do. To put it simply, the style and size of your home should fit the lot and seamlessly merge with the land. In more and more of Santa Fe’s new subdivisions that basic principal is anticipated through building “envelopes” which place homes in the best positions – best for the land, for the view…and for your neighbor’s view. “The envelope please” is a phrase you might wish to remember when you review all the covenants of a potential site – covenants that may prevent a pitched roof, put a ceiling on how high you can build, how far you can extend, and what and where you can add. Covenants that figuratively and literally cover a lot of ground. But it is ground that will be yours and ground that will be a part of the community for many years to come.

Consider yourself completely and joyfully involved after you have selected “your” site. So involved that it might be prudent to now recall the 1-2-3’s of the actual process – 1.The Land, 2.The Building Program, 3.The Budget.

Your builder, of course, provides the basic road map to construction. And taking that path is serious business. Many builders in Santa Fe even recommend that you interview up to six of their colleagues to find the one that matches your building goals…and your budget. A call to the Construction Industry Division and the Better Business Bureau to inquire about potential complaints filed about a particular builder will further ensure a productive and pleasant experience.
Once again, your Realtor can be an invaluable resource – they will connect you with the different levels of builders and the one that offers the right “comfort level” at the fairest price for his or her product.

The contract you hammer out with the builder is vital! In Santa Fe, as in other areas of the country, the three most common types of construction pricing methods are: 1.Cost Plus 2.Cost Plus with a Maximum Ceiling, and, 3.Fixed Price. Hard experience tells us to avoid the potential pit falls of a Cost Plus contract. This may be the easiest path for a builder who does not have the time or the expertise to front-estimate a project but it is an alarmingly “open” path for the buyer to take. Cost Plus with the addition of a ceiling, however, can move you away from that rambling road and set your journey straight with a real fence against budget over-runs. Fixed Price is another viable alternative because it simply means that you and your builder have established an exact price for the entire project.

The challenge of the Fixed Price arrangement, however, is in the “ifs” … “if” your builder is a good manager – and “if” you are just as accurate in specifying exactly what you need. It all takes talent and teamwork.

Building your own home is a seductive process. The biggest risk to your budget and the project itself comes in making changes to your design once construction has begun. Moving a window or making a change in the choice of materials can result in substantially increased costs. With a knowledgeable building background, your Realtor can play a critical role as council to you and liaison between you and your builder. An experienced Realtor can help you stay objective and ground you in what really matters.

It seems there are varied opinions in Santa Fe as to how, and to what degree you should utilize an architect, or whether you should tap into this resource at all. Many of the builders in Santa Fe continually demonstrate how smoothly the synergy of architect and builder can work, making this choice a sound option. Often times a client will choose to use a builder’s design rather than hire an architect – it is much less expensive and a good design is every bit as productive. Using the expertise of an interior decorator is also a valuable resource – they generally have very good insight into room design and traffic flow. Whether you choose to work with an architect, or elect to go with a builder alone, make sure that you are thoroughly and thoughtfully involved as a planning and decision-making member of the project team. Be there physically or through written instruction when choices and changes are to be made, when sites are to be checked, when materials are picked and when things go right – or wrong. Your voice must be heard if your special dream is to be realized.
Almost everything, it seems, is driven by the art of listening. A builder who really listens to your dream. An architect who listens to your personal style. And a Realtor who listens to who you are, where you want to be and how you want to get there.