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  • Tara Lenney

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).



UPGRADES TO DO WITH YOUR BUILDER


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 cabinets on top. If you have them install the standard tile, they will put the cabinets down directly on your slab and then tile up to them. If you go to rip the tile out later, a few things happen: you risk damaging the new cabinets, your new wood flooring will be installed next to the cabinets, not under them, and then quarter-round trim will generally be needed all the way around your cabinets to hide that transition, making your home look less custom and more like a remodel than a new build. The solution? Pay for the floors only in the kitchen area, take note of the product you choose, and order more of it on your own. A good flooring installer can feather in your new wood floors to seamlessly integrate with what the builder put down. This alone might easily save you $10K on a 2,000 SF area.


Doors. Both interior doors and exterior doors are best done with your builder. In our case to upgrade from the standard interior door to the fancier one we liked was only $495 for the entire house. If you were to replace each door later, each will cost you about $250. Easy math.


Stairs. If you want wood stairs and not carpet, do this with your builder. It costs quite a bit BUT is a huge pain in the rear to do later. With carpeted stairs, the quality of the wood treads (the part you walk on) is much lower since it will never be seen. Ripping all of that out and installing wood treads will damage your stair skirting (other wood parts of your stairs) that will all have to be repaired and repainted. And then you’ll be trying to come up with some magic recipe of how to make the stain match the handrail or other wood floors. Do yourself a favor and bite the bullet on this one.

UPGRADES TO DO ON YOUR OWN


Lighting. OH MAN. Guys, this is a big one. Builder markups on light fixtures are huge. Take the basic fixtures that the builders offer you and select your own lighting to update later, either right away, over time, or only in select areas. Hire an electrician, handyman, or DIY those suckers after you move in. Donate the ones you take down to Habitat or sell them on Facebook Marketplace.


Cabinet hardware. The standard options are limited and expensive, and cabinet hardware adds so much personality to a space. Purchase these on your own and either install them yourself or have a handyman add them for you.


Door hardware. Same story as cabinet hardware. Take the basic that they offer you, then swap them out after you move in. It’s a pretty easy DIY job that you can likely do on your own, or use the handyman that you just hired to do your cabinet hardware!


Wallpaper. Want some cute wallpaper in the Powder Bath or your Kid’s room? Don’t pay the builder. They will charge an arm and a leg to prep the wall to a smooth finish, and then your wallpaper options will be extremely limited. Have them paint the wall a standard color, and then hire it out after the fact.


Flooring. I mentioned wood floors in the kitchen above, but I’ll fill you in on the rest of our plan here. We did pay to upgrade the flooring in the kitchen to engineered wood, and we are doing carpet everywhere else. In the living room, downstairs bedrooms, and study. They wouldn’t allow me to do carpet in the entryway (I tried) so the basic 12x12 ugly tile will be laid down there and then replaced with wood. We are going to do carpet upstairs, so I upgraded that carpet a bit to something more durable and stain-fighting (because kids). But downstairs we are putting the world’s ugliest purpley-brown carpet you’ve ever seen. It’s going to look ridiculous for about 2 weeks, but it saves me thousands so I’m okay with that.


Paint. Most builders will want you to choose 1 color for all of your walls and 1 color for all of your doors, trim, and cabinetry. If your daughter has her heart set on a blush pink bedroom, or you want a moody color in your dining room, or a set of doors painted an accent color, definitely do this on your own. Whether DIY'd or by hiring a painter, it will save you a ton.


THE MAYBE PILE


Painting Cabinets. I know this sounds bonkers, but stay with me. For our house I have my heart set on a very specific color of cabinets that is near-black (Sherwin Williams --- Greenblack to be exact). To have my builder provide me with a similar color (they wouldn’t even do the exact one) was going to add MANY THOUSANDS of dollars to my cabinet price. Like, so many thousands. And, if you’re planning on doing any demo adjacent to the cabinets (like your countertops or backsplash) you risk that expensive finish getting ruined before you ever move in. Um, no. I called some of my favorite contractors and got quotes for half that cost. Thousands of dollars saved and I get the exact color I want. But if you’re into a more standard color like white or gray, totally have the builder do that for you and save the hassle.


Appliances. Most new builds these days come with a decent quality stainless steel appliance package. For most people this is FINE. I just happen to have my heart set on these Café Appliances and I’m willing to spend a bit to get them (hey, we all have our things). I’m having the builder provide the built-in range top, since it directly impacts the sizing of the cabinets that go below it. After we close I will change out the dishwasher, double ovens, and microwave, along with providing my own fridge and wine fridge. The cost for the builder to provide them was nearly as high as the cost to buy them on my own, so I will re-sell the standard appliances and someone in my life will get the deal of the century on some un-used perfectly awesome appliances. That will help offset the cost of purchasing them on my own and I’ll come out ahead of where I would be if I had the builder purchase them.


Tile. There is no polite way to say this – builder basic tile is generally fugly. It’s 12x12, it’s textured, it’s peachy-beige, looks dirty all the time, and it’s straight out of 1991. But demolishing and replacing tile can be messy and time consuming. You may decide to avoid the hassle and select to have the builder do all of your tile. Or you might get selective. Here’s how to decide:

  • If you have cabinets with legs - we upgraded the floor tile in our Powder and Master baths because the vanities in these rooms have legs. To demolish and replace the tile we would either have to chisel the builder basic tile out, or remove the vanities and re-install them. It would cost much more to do this after the fact, so we’re doing it with the builder.

  • If they have what you want for a decent price – I found a basic subway tile from the Design Center that I liked for our Guest bath and Kids bath. The cost to upgrade each tub surround was actually a bit less than what it would have cost to get the builder basic tile and have it replaced with something similar. Lower cost + lower hassle = no brainer.

  • If they don’t have what you want – I have a vision for what I want the boys’ bathroom floor and the kitchen backsplash to be, and the builder doesn’t offer it. Simple as that. I’ll take the basic 12x12 and change it out later to get just what I want.

  • If the cost of what you want is a trillion dollars – I wanted an accent wall tile in our master shower. Nothing crazy, and the tile itself wasn’t too expensive, but it was a “Custom” to use 2 different tiles in one space. The cost to do this was super high, about double what it would cost on my own. Hard pass.

Countertops. We have engineered quartz countertops in our kitchen now, and I can’t imagine life without them due to my love of wine and marinara sauce and my small children. The cost to do this with the builder was higher than what we typically spend with our usual countertop vendors and it wasn’t 100% the pattern I liked (nor can you see a full slab; only a small sample). The cost to do it on my own will be about 1/3 less. The plan is to replace the builder basic counters in the Kitchen and Master after we close. BUT I did go ahead and choose something I could live from the base-level selections with for awhile just in case. For the other bathrooms, that seemed like more trouble than it was worth. I selected a simple white cultured marble (that looks like quartz but isn’t as stain-resistant) for those spaces and just upgraded to a thicker edge for a very small fee. You may be TOTALLY fine with the countertops your builder is offering, so this is entirely a personal call.


Plumbing fixtures. Similar to lighting, the builder is probably only going to offer you 1 style in 1 finish. Many builders use Moen, which makes a good quality product, but doesn’t have the wide range of finishes and styles that some other brands have. I know I want brass fixtures in the kitchen and master bath and Moen doesn’t offer brass. So I’ll take the freebie ones and replace them with what I want later. But this gets tricky in the showers, because each brand has unique shower valves (the plumbing part that goes in the wall and delivers the water to the pretty part, or trim, that you actually see). Replacing with a different brand can mean replacing the valves, which might turn into having to get inside that wall that you just tiled! We decided to keep with the standard in all the showers, knowing that we are rebuilding our master shower walls anyway (as I described just above under tile).





Congratulations with making it this far! I know that was A LOT OF WORDS and you might have come up with more questions than answers. Now that you know where you might want to upgrade and where you don’t, here’s what you should do before you go to your first Design Center meeting:


  1. Set a budget. Before you see all the pretty things, decide what your tip-top price is on your house and stick to it. That might mean $5K in upgrades or $50K depending on your situation.

  2. Allocate your budget. Decide roughly how you’ll spend your upgrade money towards the areas that are most important to you. For me, that was the kitchen first and the master second. I love to cook and I knew getting the kitchen exactly how I wanted it would bring me happiness for years to come. I budgeted about 50% of my upgrades to this space, 25% to the master, and 25% for everything else.

  3. Research what renovations cost. Use Home Advisor or Angie’s list to help you understand what the costs will be in your area to change things after you own the home. Look at the cost of tiling, wood flooring, lighting, and countertops to give you an idea of what you might expect to spend later. Put it in a spreadsheet or make a list and bring it with you to the design center.

  4. Know what you want before you go. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you will want to pull together a Mood Board with inspiration images of what you want your home to be. When presented with 1000 tile options you will be dumbstruck and no longer know what you like or who you are as a human. This Mood Board will be your guide and keep you from making decisions that don’t work cohesively together or that just aren’t you. If you don’t know what a Mood Board is, or know how to make one, check out this post.

  5. Ask them to price multiple options. Most builders want you to pick everything out in meeting #1, and then spend meeting #2 finalizing your decisions. Use this to your advantage. Ask them to price multiple scenarios for you at meeting one, then sleep on your selections, and then make final selections in your second/last meeting. Only after learning that the shower tile I wanted was $7K did I really feel confident to pass on it and decide to tackle it on my own.

  6. Take photos of everything and take good notes. Trust me, you will not remember your name at the end of that first meeting. Your brain will be mush and you will not be able to form words. Take photos of every single thing you select, and things that you like, and write down as much as possible. You will hopefully get a few days or a week between meeting 1 and meeting 2, and you’ll need to be able to recall this info to make good decisions.

  7. Triple check before signing on the dotted line. Bless them at the Design Center because they do this all day every day, but they are not perfect. Often times they have to enter your selections into multiple systems, and it’s VERY easy for mistakes to be made. We spent 30 minutes of my 2nd meeting reviewing and confirming our choices, and then 2.5 HOURS reviewing the paperwork. I found several errors and things that needed to be clarified. The Design Center associates try very hard to get all of these details right, but we are all human. This is your house and you’ll be living in it for a long time, and ultimately if you sign off on a mistake it is going to be very difficult to get your builder to make it right.

  8. Pay for another meeting if you need it. Like all businesses with high-pressure sales they are going to warn you that if you don’t decide RIGHT NOW it is going to cost you fees. But friend, if a $300 fee is going to give you the time and space to make a 30 year decision, then take that hit. It is so much better to spend $300 on what is in actuality an insurance policy on your happiness and comfort level than to rush a decision and regret it.


Three cheers to you for making it to the end! I hope this helps you to feel less overwhelmed, more confident, and excited to plan your new home! And of course Team TLD is here to help if you want to bring in a pro and save your brain cells!

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