building a new home? here's how to hack the Design Center and upgrade process

My working title for this post was “the design center: everything you love is $8000” but I thought that might be a teensy bit off-putting, but unfortunately it’s truuuuuuuuuuuue.

If you’re currently building or planning on building a house with a production builder, I’m so glad you are here! Strap in and get comfy because this is a meaty post full of lots of information. We’re going to tackle what upgrades look like with a production builder, what to upgrade with them, what to upgrade on your own, and how to walk into your Design Center meetings with the confidence to make great decisions.

We are in the process of building a home for ourselves and are working with a local production builder. There are definite advantages to building a home with a production builder versus going fully custom. Production builds are typically faster, less expensive, and you don’t bear the burden of making all of the selections from the infinite options available in the market. The downside of not having limitless options is, of course, that you have limited options. You’re working exclusively within the builder’s pre-approved selections. They have streamlined the process to be efficient and money-making (for them), but there are also ways to make it work for you too.

*While a production build is generally less expensive, note this: they make the MAJORITY of their profit when you choose to upgrade the basic home features they offer. The sticks and bricks of the house have profit built in, no doubt, but where they line their pocketbooks is in design upgrades. They will offer you incentives to entice you into spending more money at the Design Center (and you take every one you can get!), but it's important to keep in mind that the costs are inflated beyond what you might pay on your own. I am not against anyone making a profit, and it’s common practice to add a markup to goods within this industry, but the lack of transparency through how much of a profit they're making is maddening once you know the actual cost of things. Like I do. So please read on to benefit from this knowledge and learn to hack the best house for yourself at the best price!

Even though this is our first new build for our family, we’ve helped many clients over the years build their dream homes. Having gone through this process several times with several builders, we have learned a thing or two about how to make the best decisions within this process. We have learned how to bend what seems like an inflexible framework to work for you, and how to get a house you’re happy with, for an amount of money that will still allow you to sleep at night. Each builder operates a bit differently, however, the processes are essentially the same. We are pulling from our experiences with several builders below.

Once you’ve selected your builder, you will quickly be asked to make every single design decision for your home, inside and out, in a period of about 2 weeks. For most people this feels completely overwhelming! In our experience this unfolds in one of two ways:

The Carmax experience. This is pretty low-key. The builder has some samples and catalogs, typically at the model home, you make your selections from here. Usually a representative from the company is there to help you and you go at your own pace. The options are fairly narrow and not super overwhelming.

Then there’s The Luxury Car Experience, which is what I’m going to walk you through in this post. In this case the builder has outsourced to a company that is tasked with getting you to make all of the decisions. They send you to a very fancy and well lit design center, full of beautiful things and beautiful people. You’re given an extremely tight timeframe (typically 2 or 3 meetings, a few hours each) you are pressured to make the decisions very quickly or face construction delays and additional fees. They use some effective persuasion techniques like, telling you that your upgrade will only cost you 50 cents per month. I mean, if you’re building a house you can probably find 50 cents, right?! Only you make that decision 1000 times and suddenly you have $50,000 in upgrades. Those upgrades will actually cost you $86,000 with a 4% interest rate over the life of your 30 year mortgage. Meaning, you’ll still be paying off that tile that you HAD TO HAVE for 15 years after you tear it out and replace it with something else.

Builders want you to believe that it’s best to have them do every single thing to your house, but friends, there is another way. Often it will be far less expensive to purchase a more builder-basic house and then hire a contractor to make changes after you close on the house. Yep, that means a bit more hassle and delaying moving in a bit, but the trade off could mean, savings in the realm of tens of thousands of dollars. TENS OF THOUSANDS.

This is all my way of encouraging you to make thoughtful decisions about what you upgrade with the builder and what you might come in and upgrade on your own. I’m going to break this down into 3 categories: things to upgrade with the builder, things to do on your own, and the “maybe” pile (where we’re going to have to do some math).


Cabinetry. Custom cabinets cost a boat-load, and for good reason. Quality cabinets designed and laid out well can literally impact your day-to-day life and how you use your space, especially in the kitchen. I could sing this song all day long but, small upgrades in your cabinets will delight you for years to come, when things are right where you need them. They are also not easy to change or add on to after your build is done. Places to splurge here:

  • Extend your cabinets up to the ceiling. Your new build likely has tall ceilings, 10’ in many cases, and the standard cabinets are typically 8’ tall. That 2’ of sad empty space, long filled by baskets of dusty ivy, are an eyesore and a missed opportunity for extra storage. Spend a bit here to extend those cabinets to the ceiling.

  • Add glass fronts and interior lighting to some of your cabinets to display pretty things. This will make your home look more custom and make the whole room look taller.

  • Organization. Spice pull outs, drawers instead of cabinets with doors, built in trash and recycle bins, vertical cookie sheet storage. All of these things will help you make the most efficient use of the space possible. Check out this post for my 10 favorite kitchen cabinet customizations.

Flooring in the Kitchen. If you’re going to want wood floors through your main living areas, know this: the builder will often charge you $20-$40 per square foot to upgrade from tile/carpet to wood flooring. This math is TERRIBLE for the buyer. If you’ve been around here awhile you know that engineered wood flooring can easily be purchased and installed for about $10-12 per square foot. That is a HUGE profit that they are making on these floors. So why have the builder do them at all? Order of operations. If you have them provide flooring in the kitchen, they will lay the floor first, and then set the ca