renovating our new build – what worked and what didn’t
Here’s a post more than one year in the making. Back in June of 2020, we decided to build a new home. We haven’t thrown the terms “Dream Home” or “Forever Home” around, and that’s for a few touchy-feely reasons. Partially because of what I do for a living (Interior Designer), I have approximately 32 dream homes halfway designed in my brain. I have a dream Midcentury Modern house, a dream A-Frame in the mountains house, a dream Modern Farmhouse on an actual farm, a dream Tiny House, and so on. Partially because what is Forever anyway? We plan on staying here for at least the next 15-20 years while we raise our kids. We could live here forever, or life could change.
I’m rambling. My point is, I very strategically did not want to put every design hope and dream I’ve ever had into this house. I want it to be lovely, beautiful, functional, and serve our family well AND be something I can be proud of and want to share with all of you. But I also need it to be done at a price I can afford. That’s why we decided very early on that we would NOT be doing all of our personalization and customization with our builder, and would instead tackle some of the changes and upgrades after we closed with one of our favorite contractors.
At the beginning of this process, I shared our exact strategies for what we would do with the builder and what we would do on our own. Today is Phase 2 to that post – what are we glad we did, and what we would do differently if we had it to do all over again. If you haven’t read that post, you may want to give it a once-over to get some context. I’m going to tell you what we did with our builder, what we did after closing, and whether it worked out.
Cabinetry upgrades with the builder. 100% this was the way to go. Getting the cabinets we wanted with the bells and whistles with our builder was a great decision.
Interior doors with the builder. Our home came with a standard 2-panel door and we upgraded to a 5/6 panel door. It only cost about $500 overall (not per door) so was for sure worth it for the nicer, more detailed door.
Upgrading stairs with the builder. The standard for our house was carpet on the stairs, but we wanted solid wood. This was for sure the way to go, with one caveat. The wood stair treads are solid wood (which is stained and finished on-site), and the wood flooring we installed is engineered (which is pre-finished). Getting them to match was a challenge. With some back and forth with our builder we were able to get the stair treads to match, but unfortunately, the stair rulings and posts were stained a darker color than what we’d asked for. They tried to lighten them, which they did a little, but they’re dark and the always will be, which is kind of a bummer. You can see it in the photo below. Overall not a tragedy but not what would have happened if we‘d done it on our own.
Installing Decorative Lighting after closing. No question about it. Never pay the builder for fancy light fixtures. You can hire an electrician for a day to hang it, or if you’re handy, you can hang them yourself.
Cabinet hardware and mirrors after closing. Yep, still, stand by this! The builder’s hardware options are so limited, it’s best to do it on your own. Just be sure to have them ready to be installed before you move in or you’ll be using spatulas to open your kitchen cabinets.
Door hardware after closing. Yes, but for budget reasons, we haven’t made this swap yet (more on that in a minute). But we’ll DIY this project, hopefully, next year.
Wall paneling after closing. For sure the right move. The builder didn't really offer this anyway. It makes such a HUGE difference in this little powder bath.
Specialty tile flooring and walls after closing. Very happy we did this. We couldn’t get what we wanted with our builder (apparently not a lot of people want pink wall tile. Weird), both in terms of the actual product I wanted and the pattern I wanted the tile laid in. We came back after the fact in the boy's bathroom and master bathroom and swapped out some tile. Our tile guy was great about protecting the tile that would stay, and the end result is stunning, and nothing like you’d expect to see in a builder-grade house.
Appliances after closing. I’m happy to have gotten the appliances of my dreams. We upgraded the range top only (since that was getting built into the cabinets) and took the builder's basic microwave, dishwasher, and double ovens. We were able to sell the builder's basic ones, so recouped some of that money. Overall, it was still less expensive to buy another set of appliances on my own and deal with the hassle of selling appliances than to just pay the builder to do that.
Countertops after closing. THRILLED with this decision. We saved several thousand by doing it on our own, and we got exactly what we want. Bonus – a good friend of mine is getting her house ready to sell next year and wasn’t super picky about the countertop finish, so when our fabricator removed all of the granite countertops from our house, he was able to salvage all of them for my friend to reuse! She’ll get a higher price when she sells her house and I got the perfect marble look engineered countertops in mine. Win/win.
Plumbing fixtures after closing. Aces. Doing all of these on our own worked well for us. Our builder didn’t have access to what we wanted for our kitchen, powder, and master bath, and the cost to upgrade the guest and boys’ bath with them was atrocious. We sold/donated what came with the house, and got exactly what we wanted. This wasn’t necessarily a cost-saving but was the only way to get what we wanted.
Painting walls and cabinets after closing. For sure. The color that we wanted for our kitchen cabinets wasn’t available with our builder, and the closest version to that color was going to cost us an extra $11K. For less than that price we were able to pay a painter to paint our kitchen cabinets in a super custom way (SW Greenblack on the outside but keeping the insides of the cabinets white to show off all my vintage barware and Pyrex), PLUS paint our office, powder bath, master bath water closet, and guest bath cabinet. We couldn’t have gotten the colors we wanted or the look we were after with the builder.
One caveat here is that the paint finish we have will probably not be as durable since we are painting over an existing painted cabinet, rather than the first color going on raw wood. It’s a tradeoff but one we were willing to take. So far, so good.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
Wood Flooring in the kitchen. Guys, I could cry about this…and in fact, I did. I will give you the full saga below, but if you’re more of a TL;DR person – just skip to the end of this section. If however, you enjoy watching a train wreck, read on.
You can almost hear my tears through the computer if you listen closely.
We paid many thousands of dollars to have engineered floors laid in our kitchen and dining area so that our cabinets would be set on the wood, rather than on the slab. This allowed us to have a clean flush look of our cabinets right on top of the floor. It’s a small detail, but one that means a lot to me as a designer. We had our builder lay carpet and tile everywhere else and extend the hardwoods through the rest of the downstairs ourselves. We coordinated with our builder to get the exact flooring product they were getting (let’s call that Floor One), and ordered it at the same time so we could get the product from the same warehouse. It all seemed to be working flawlessly, until…
The tragedy begins when my flooring vendor, who we use day in and day out at TLD, got the spec wrong and ordered us 1750 SF of THE WRONG FLOOR (we’ll call this Floor Two). It was the same look like the builder floor, but it was about 1/8” thicker, which meant it couldn’t be woven into the floor that was already laid down. It got worse when we learned that Floor One was out of stock for months. And with lumber doing what it’s doing in 2020/2021, there was no guarantee we would get it on that date at all.
The end result – we had to BUY more of Wrong Floor Two (and paid for it ourselves, since the vendor would accept no responsibility for the mistake), and DEMOLISH the wood floor that we had paid thousands and thousands to upgrade in our kitchen. Literal money directly in the garbage, to the tune of many thousands of dollars. Plus it delayed the project. It makes me physically ill to think about what a waste that was.
Then to add insult to injury, when we got our shipment of flooring to match Floor Two, a different batch of wrong flooring was delivered; this Wrong Floor Three was neither Floor One nor Floor Two. It was an accident in the warehouse and this rogue Floor Three wood was loaded on the truck. Yet another batch of the floor had to be sent, delaying our project by another week, messing up our schedule, and causing everyone on the Team to have to rush to get things livable by our move-in date. Eventually, more of Floor Two showed up and they were able to start laying flooring.
And at the end of the day, wound up with the quarter-round trim at the base of all of the cabinets, the avoidance of which was the entire catalyst for upgrading the floors in the first place. I’m a depressing mix of angry and sad about this. We could have saved a load of time and money by not upgrading the flooring at all and wound up with the same result.
Is this something that would happen to everyone? No. It’s just a run of bad luck. I was told they were ordering the identical product and I trusted the folks that I’d worked with for years when they told me it was what I needed. Lesson learned. But I feel a version of this is something that could easily happen to someone else.
Bottom line - would I do it this way again? Nope. I would have bit the bullet to pay the builder the absurd amount of money to run the same floor throughout the downstairs, avoid the mess, and be done with it. While I still saved money by doing it this way, it was incredibly stressful and demoralizing and the end result isn’t what I wanted. Is it still beautiful? Yes. Will it serve us well for decades? For sure. Is this a first-world problem? Absolutely. But it’s frustrating all the same.
WOULD WE DO IT AGAIN?
Other than the great kitchen flooring tragedy, I don’t think I’d change how we approached it. We still saved a significant amount of money (in the tens of thousands) by going this route, even considering the carrying costs of an extra month’s rent payment while we waited for the renovations to be complete. It added a month to our waiting time but what’s a month when you’re looking to live somewhere for 20 years!
Hopefully, this helps you out should you venture into the waters of trying to customize a production build! And of course, we are here to help should you ever want to take on this process with the help of a Design Team who has walked through it with clients and for ourselves! Just drop us a line here.