Steel City Sanctuary: A Dream Home in Pittsburgh

There’s something about Pittsburgh that makes it feel like one of America’s most miraculous of cities. For one thing, it seems to be an open study in contrasts. Each of the four seasons makes their mark in earnest with warm summers fit for watersports, vibrant autumns with their glowing colors, chilly winters covering all with a lovely blanket of snow and rejuvenating springs full of bloom. Then there’s the city’s history from its boom time as a steel production center to financial struggles followed quickly with an amazing renaissance currently attracting both businesses and artists. The cultural scene has never been more happening than it is now, whether you’re bar hopping in Market Square or chasing down opera and gourmet foods in the Strip District. The economy is being buoyed by financial firms, tech startups and health care hubs. It’s no wonder more and more people want to make the city their home.

If you’re fortunate enough to be coming to Pittsburgh with the aim of building your own dream home or even remodeling an existing property, congratulations! It’s so exciting to be able to design the perfect vision to dwell within as you grow with this amazing city. But it’s also important to temper that excitement with some practicalities. You don’t want to go into the process blindly lest you unexpectedly run into headaches down the road. It’s nothing to stress too much over, though. With a little bit of sound preparation, you can ensure that from buying a plot to engaging a builder and architect to slapping on that final coat of paint, the journey to your dream house can be a thoroughly fulfilling one.

The Plot Thickens

The very first thing to consider when looking to build your own home is just where you want to do it. When it comes to Pittsburgh, you can be looking at anything from a Downtown loft to a more suburban setting with stunning city views up on South Side Slopes. Where to buy your plot? One important factor can be proximity to work. Is your job near the city’s center or is it one of the industrial parks ringed further outside the city? Will things like school districts factor into where you stake your claim? Or perhaps you simply need to be in a more lively neighborhood where everything from top chef sushi to live music can be within walking distance. The old saying “location, location, location” is as much a matter of taste as anything else, so be sure where you build suits your taste.

Now that you know the area, it’s time to survey the actual land itself. Pittsburgh has its flatter areas and it has loads of hilly areas. If you’re choosing to purchase a plot situated on a slope, you’ll want a surveyor’s report to see what challenges, if any, can come from building there.

If you’re looking to renovate an existing home, you may also wish to consult with an engineer and make sure the structure you’re buying is in reasonable shape. Take at least a preliminary look at what local codes have to say about zoning. After all, you wouldn’t want to have your sights set on building an inground pool only to find out they aren’t allowed on your block for some reason. Be sure to engage a real estate agent and ask them for a lot of guidance on these sorts of questions. All the extra research you can do on your own will only help you that much more.

Time for a Building Partner


Once you’ve made the decision about where to build, the next step is to look for a reputable home builder in the Pittsburgh area. You’ll want to be sure they have a lot of experience, a robust portfolio of finished products, are bonded and insured and also have worked with the type of design you’re interested in. Take the time to interview a few folks. Even chemistry between client and vendor is critically important with such a huge undertaking. Keep in mind that your builder will be more than a construction contractor. These are the folks who will help guide you through regulatory red tape, assist with budget decisions and even help secure the right architect for the project. More than any other professional relationship you will make in this process, the one you have with your builder will be the most important.

And as mentioned, when it comes to budgeting, partnering with a builder will be key. These are the folks who will be able to give you estimates on everything from the per-square-foot cost variances in different neighborhoods to breaking down what different types of materials will do to your budget. While modular designs may be more efficient and economical, your project may demand a more traditional “stick-built” construction that may make things more expensive. While not a financial advisor, a builder with a good nose for costs will help bring your dreams into reality while not being unrealistic about what makes sense for you and what doesn’t. They might even be able to point you in the direction of decent local lenders as well.

The Design Stage

Perhaps the most thrilling part of building your own home comes in the design stage of the process. Here’s where your dreams are literally unfurled on paper. You’ve gone through all the “must-haves” and “nice-to-haves” on your dream home list and you’re ready to see what an architect comes up with. As always, choosing the right partner here is key. Most reputable builders will know a few talented local architects they have worked with before. Again, take the time to interview a few of them, to look at their portfolio of finished homes and to be sure that the vibe between you feels right.

Once you have secured an architect you are comfortable with, prepare to have some very thorough discussions — and to make a few concessions. As mentioned, a good builder will make sure you don’t construct anything that either isn’t feasible or runs afoul of local zoning laws. That doesn’t mean you have to give up on your dream, just tweak it a bit. A clever architect will find alternatives when certain obstacles come about. Perhaps a problematic stretch of driveway can become a charming garden path. That hard-to-do wraparound veranda may yield to a more feasible deck perfect for cookouts. What matters is that the spirit of your vision always remains and that your design partner takes pains to always stick close to it.

Finishing Touches

It will come as no surprise that there will be a slew of subcontractors coming in both during construction and after the builders have gone. Think everything from plumbers and electricians to painters and carpeting companies. It’s great when you have a builder who can recommend top folks in the vicinity, but make sure every one of them is in good standing with both Pittsburgh and the state of Pennsylvania, properly insured and bonded. From there, do the rounds to make sure all your utilities will be up and running once everything is set to go. Water and sanitation services, power, ISPs and even home security systems are all best taken care of before you even get the keys. That will make your first day in as comfortable as possible.

In the very end, you’ll want to do a thorough walk-through of the house. You want to be sure that everything is just right before you say goodbye to all those contractors. Inspect the paint lines in every room. Try out all the faucets, flush all the toilets and make sure the dishwasher and laundry properly fill. Plug in a portable device to test out each of the outlets. Give close attention to how all flooring is aligned. And be sure that tiling in the bathrooms and kitchen are properly fastened. It may sound very tedious but let’s face it — you’ve worked hard to get here! Crossing the finish line needs to be just as strong as every other step in the process. This last bit of due diligence will almost definitely save you trouble after you move in.

Welcome Home!

It’s over! You’ve got the keys, the furniture has been moved in and you’re cooking your first meal in your new home. Now be sure you’ve got all the various warranties in order, place the deed and other important documents in a fire box and keep all the vendors and contractors you feel good about in your contacts. Because the truth is, you may need them down the road. Even though you’ve created your dream home, you may always want to add more down the line, especially if you plan on starting a family. Will you need an extra room for a nursery? How about pouring concrete for a little basketball court in the back? Needs will change as will tastes. Your adventure in home building never has to truly end!

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