When you're building a house, the first step is to find (and buy) a lot, and the next step is to find a plan. That way you can be pretty sure that the plan you select can actually be built on your lot. Building lots usually have a number of restrictions, the most significant at this stage are the setbacks: how far away from the edges of the lot you can place a building. If you have a lot selected before you pick a plan, you know how wide and deep the house can be.
In our case, we bought a wedge-shaped 1/2-acre lot. The front of the lot is about 140 feet wide, and the lot narrows to about 65 feet at the rear. We have setbacks of 20 feet at the side of the lot, 40 feet in the front of the lot, and 35 feet at the back of the lot. So we are limited to plans that are no more than about 65 feet wide, but depth isn't really an issue since the lot is 250 feet deep. We can't go overboard, but a 65-foot width limit gives us quite a bit of space to work with.
Once we knew the width and depth restrictions, the real hard part of selecting a plan starts. Megan and I have spent a huge amount of time looking at builder models and existing houses to determine what we like and don't like about interiors. We prefer craftsman-style or--even better--shingle style. We want a 3 1/2 or 4 car garage. And we want the master bedroom with either two or three bedrooms upstairs, and a single bedroom downstairs. I need a big space that is isolated from the rest of the house for a workshop.
We initially thought that last requirement--the workshop--would be the hardest to fulfill. We started by looking for lots that would support a separate out-building. Fat chance. Developers today do everything they can to ensure that all houses in the development look the same. To build a house with a detached garage or workshop would mean we had to move too far out in the boondocks to find a development with few restrictions.
I was talking about this problem with one of my co-workers. He suggested building the garage with a floor made out of Spancrete panels. Spancrete is the same stuff they use to build parking garages, so we could build a basement under the garage to house the workshop. What a suggestion! A basement under the garage is perfect for a woodworking workshop. It's isolated from the rest of the house. It has plenty of space. It meant we didn't need a separate outbuilding, so it really made the prospect of building a house possible for us.
So we started looking online for house plans. If you haven't started looking yet, you'd be amazed at the number of plans available online. One of the bigger sites, ePlans has thousands of plans. Others with a good selection include Global House Plans, Cool House Plans, and the Plan Collection. These sites have a great selection of plans, but not necessarily a selection of great plans. We found a couple of sites that had plans that were a little more unique.
The first is Vintage Cottage House Plans, which has a fewer number of relatively unique plans. They've got some shingle-style plans, some craftsman plans, and a bunch of "cottage-style" plans. Architectural House Plans is another interesting site. The site contains plans from architects, some of whom had plans featured in The Not So Big House, by Sarah Susanka. Our favorite on this site is the Maple Forest.
After looking at the plans at every one of these sites--actually, I think we looked at every plan at every one of these sites--we still couldn't find exactly what we were looking for. So we chose to hire an architect or designer.