I believe you already tried that, the simplest way of compiling a package from source is to download the source (*.tar.gz or *.tar.bz2), unpack it, enter the directory and do a:
But when you use an rpm-based system, with which I have very little experience, I think important packages should be rpm's too, because then you don't have to vory about dependencies. That is, most apps depend on some lib or other app to be installed, and by using rpm, all this will be checked when you install and it will tell you if something is missing. But if you compile from source the rpm database won't be updated and if you try to install a package later and it depends on whatever you installed from source, you get in trouble. Smaller apps of which you can't find rpm's would be different. Also it shouldn't be too difficult to create rpm's of what you compile. I use a program called checkinstall to make slackware packages of everything I compile, and I think it is also capable of creating rpm's, and it is very easy to use, you just run checkinstall instead of make install when installing and then enter some info about the package after the install.
There are often many options you can use with ./configure. A ./configure --help will show you a list of options. Stuff like --prefix= are often handy, it tell's configure where you want stuff installed. You can often choose features and stuff to be enabled/disabled through configure as well. It takes some getting used to, but after a while it's like "why did I have trouble with this again?".