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  • Tara

7 things you need to know BEFORE you build your dream home

The time has come! You’ve saved your pennies, weighed the pros and cons, hunted for houses on Zillow until your eyes turned red, and decided that your path is building your dream house. Congratulations! You are starting off on an amazing journey that’s going to lead you to your new home.


Maybe along with all of the excitement and joy are a few other emotions hanging on. Fear, anxiety, and a Thanksgiving-sized portion of overwhelm. How in the world am I going to make all of these decisions? How can I keep from going over budget? How do I find a builder that I can trust? And will it all work together in the end, or will I be disappointed that I made the wrong choices and there’s no do-over?

Friends, I’ve helped many clients navigate the waters of building a home, and I have the following advice to offer up to make this process enjoyable and get you the home you’re after.

1. Understand custom vs. customizable. There are two different ways to go about building your dream home, and it’s critical to choose the one that best suits your needs and budget.

Semi-custom homes, AKA customizable homes, are typically found in master planned newer neighborhoods. With a semi-custom home you can expect the builder to provide you with several floor plan options, standard and upgraded material options, and a fairly solid idea of what this home will cost you. You will be less overwhelmed with choices, but typically less opportunities to customize this home to meet your needs. If you stray from the base package, there are costs associated with selecting your own materials, lighting, hardware, plumbing fixtures, etc. Moving a wall might cost you both money in materials and labor, but also hundreds or thousands of dollars in architect fees, long before a slab has been poured. If you’re the kind of guy or gal who strolls into a restaurant and orders a you-pick-two combo without lots of special requests or substitutions, this might be the path for you.

Fully custom homes let you have your cake and eat it too. Your builder may have some standard floor plans to choose from, but may also have an architect they work with that can create a completely unique floor plan tailored to you. And if this sounds expensive, it’s because it is. Just like a custom suit, having your home tailor made to you will cost more. But if you are wanting something unique, if you’re building your forever home, if you’ve been thinking about this for YEARS and know you aren’t going to want to have to compromise on choice after choice – this will be right up your alley.

2. Do your homework. Get familiar with Pinterest and Houzz, my friend, because you are about to be joined at the hip. Pin the heck out of this house. Not just one massive "new house" board, but a board for every different room for your home, both indoors and outdoors. Start to define your style. Know what elements you want to include both in function (we totally need storage under the stairs!) and style (I can’t live without cement tile!). Color palettes, light fixtures, flooring, plumbing, custom features, get a feeling for what you might want in every area.

Walking into a builder’s design center can be a totally overwhelming experience. There’s so much to choose from….and so much of it is eat up with UGLY. The outcome will be infinitely more successful (and less stressful) if you come at it with a clear vision of what you want your space to look and feel like.

3. Beware of upgrades. Upgrades are these sneaky little creatures that promise you the house that you want, ever so slowly, but add up to be a monster of a number and blow your budget. There is often a lot of “sure, we can do quartz countertops!” from your builder during the beginning stages of the process, but 3 weeks later you’ll come to find out that your package only included a level three countertop and a quartz is a level seventeen. I wish I was kidding on that one, but it’s a true story. You need to understand the costs of the items you want, and get it in writing, before you sign all the papers. Stained in place floors? Upgrade. In a herringbone pattern? Big FAT upgrade.

Also ask your builder if you are allowed to provide your own materials and fixtures or if you have to go through them for every purchase. Often times builders will not allow you to source your own products for them to install. That $1000 claw foot tub you found online for a total steal may not even be an option.

4. Factor in a contingency. There will always be costs that you can’t anticipate at the beginning of the project. Your safest bet is to have a reserve of money set aside for these items; anywhere from 5% to 15% of the total cost of the house is common. You can either have this as a reserve in your bank account or have your builder factor this into the cost of your mortgage before you close. That way you can stick to your budget without having to sacrifice the things you really want.

5. Don’t forget the extras. Here’s something that most people don’t know - window treatments are typically not included in the builder’s scope of work. You might find yourself about to move into your new home with nothing between you and your new neighbors but your clear glass windows. Window treatments can easily cost between $100 and $500 a pop, so unless you're building a fortress, you'll need to set aside more than a thousand big ones.

A new floor plan also means that some of your existing furniture may not work in your new home. Since building a new house is the perfect opportunity to change or evolve your design style, I’ve found that most clients don’t love their old furniture once it’s moved into their new space. Be smart and set aside funds for new furnishings for your home. It’s a sad feeling to spend so much time and money on a new home only to fill it with items you don’t love anymore. You shouldn't replace everything you own, of course, but be realistic about what will still makes sense and how long you are willing to wait before your new house feels "done."

6. You will absolutely, 100%, go over schedule. Not once have I had a house delivered on time. Ever. There are so many moving parts to building a home. Some are beyond the builder’s control, like weather delays or items that arrive damaged and have to be replaced. Some are a result of homeowners not making decisions quickly enough when they’re forced to make rapid decisions. Whatever the reason, I’ve found it’s best to set your expectations that your home will be ready 1-3 months after the original estimate. If it comes in earlier, great! But if not, at least you aren’t totally frustrated about the situation. And to head some of the problems off at the pass, ask your builder to give you a schedule beforehand outlining when each decision needs to be made so you can be prepared to make timely decisions.

7. The last 10% is often the hardest. Just like labor, the last bit of the project is where things can be most stressful and relationships start to fall apart. You are eager to move in, you might have movers scheduled and need to get out of your current home, but things just aren’t wrapping up. It’s important to be patient at the tail end of the project, but also to hold your contractor accountable to finishing the job in a timely manner. Before you move in, create a punch list (a list of all outstanding items that need to be completed or repaired) and have a concrete timeframe for when these items need to be complete. This is the stage where strained relationships can lead to halted communication, so be proactive about communicating respectfully and often with your builder.

And, of course, one of the best ways to get the home of your dreams is to hire an Interior Designer for your dream team at the very beginning of the project. Designers not only help you achieve the look you’re going for and pull that vision out of your head, but we have the benefit of experience of having done this many times over. So often clients are intimidated by contractors, don’t know what to expect, or when to push back, or even the questions to ask. Having someone in your corner helps to ensure that you get your dream home without a pile of regrets.

Bonus points if they draw and frame a photo of your house. ;)

Have you built a home before? Would you add anything to this list? Or if you haven’t, what might hold you back from the start-from-scratch approach to a home?

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