Jul 092022

So You Want to Build a House

I loved the experience of building a new home and highly recommend it. That said, as I look back, there are questions I wished I would have asked, choices I might have made differently and requests I wish I would have made. Hindsight is 20/20 right? Keep in mind that my experiences are with a specific builder and may be different depending on the builder you use.

I did a lot of research ahead of time on the new construction options in the area we were moving to. I looked at their websites. I read blogs of people who had gone through the experience before with those builders and I looked at images of finished products to see what made sense for us. Based on what I saw, I had an idea of the layout and square footage we wanted, the must-haves and a list of questions to ask. We took a realtor with us. This is not necessary and she didn’t add a lot to the process. She scheduled appointments and drove us around to different sites. It was more helpful for us because we were not familiar with the area, but if you are looking to build in or near an area where you currently live, it’s not required.

When you are doing research ahead of time, it’s important to remember that the home price listed on the site is a starting price. This means you are taking the very basic model without upgrades. You are choosing by default the cheapest appliances, flooring, lighting, fixtures etc. Our neighbor for example is a manager of a large construction outfit. They deliberately choose many of the cheaper options so they could do it themselves. They chose a laminate countertop and no backsplash, choosing instead to install their own granite counters and backsplash about ten months later. They chose not to have their basement finished and instead did most of that work themselves in year 4 of ownership. We on the other hand chose upgraded granite, a backsplash, a finished basement and a deck. You just have to ask yourself, “How important is this feature now? What is the value added? How qualified am I to do the work, how much of my time will it take and how valuable is my time to me?” We are not capable of doing any of those upgrades, and I would not have wanted to pay for the original product only to have to pay someone later to rip it out. All the while living in a constant state of remodeling. To me one of the great things about new construction is that it’s pretty low maintenance – e.g. you’re not worrying about replacing or fixing old things.

When you are thinking about where to splurge remember to think about the resale value. Are you debating between three and four bedrooms? Go with four. A bedroom can add $20,000 – $30,000 dollars to your home’s value. Don’t skimp on the kitchen. You want the absolute best cabinets offered within reason. You also want the biggest kitchen, biggest island etc. These are all things that are very difficult and very costly to change later. The kitchen is the biggest selling point of any home, specifically for that reason, so your return on investment is excellent. Our kitchen came with a dishwasher and stove. We didn’t have a ton of options for the appliances. I believe it was a choice of white, black, stainless and then an additional option to upgrade the appliances themselves. We got staineless, but didn’t upgrade them otherwise. Appliances are relatively cheap in the scheme of things and not difficult to replace when the time comes. They are much easier to change than say, your bathroom. We did choose an upgrade in our primary bathroom and this is another one I would recommend. It’s really all layout. You can always replace lights, fixtures and tile, but you cannot, without great expense turn your standard shower-tub combo into a separate walk-in shower and free-standing tub or large, Roman shower. Again, bathrooms add a ton of value. If you have options to add more bathrooms, do it.

What are some other things you should consider that are difficult or impossible to change later? You can’t pick your house up and move it so choose your lot carefully. We paid a premium on our lot because it backs up to woods. I love it and would never want to have neighbors behind me again, unless the lot was big and there was at least some tree line to block them. If you do buy a house that backs up to a wooded area, make sure there aren’t giant dead trees that could put your home in danger. If there is a dead tree, request it be removed. If they will not remove it, choose another lot. If you don’t own the tree, it’s difficult to do anything about it. Consider the direction your lot is facing. Will you spend a lot of time outside? How much sun do you want at 4PM if you’re entertaining or eating on your deck/patio? Do you want a porch? We wish we had a full front porch. The elevation of our house (more about that later) did not have an option for a porch. Looking back, we wish we would have pushed a bit harder to make changes to one of the other elevations that offered a porch. Do you want a basement? (Big added value!) If so, think about that when choosing the lot. Certain lots may offer a walk-out lower level, which is awesome. Get the basement finished. If you don’t want to pay for a bathroom down there, at least pay for the plumbing rough-in so it could be added later. That said, bathrooms add big value so probably worth it to do during the build. Also consider how the lot will affect the slope of your driveway. Obviously no one wants to end up with a steep driveway, but we have neighbors here with ridiculously steep driveways that they were not planning on when they built.

Ceiling height. we have 9 foot ceilings. That is something I would have never thought about prior to owning this house, but I would never go back to a standard eight foot ceiling. We didn’t choose the ceiling height, mind you, it was just something builder offered as an added feature. My point is, ask the question, “How high are the ceilings?”. Ideally they’re 9ft or higher at least on the main floor. Do you need an extra garage? We did not, but it’s something to think about. Does the builder drywall the interior of the garage? Do you to pay extra for a side entry garage?

Consider whether you want to add windows. Some number of windows are standard, but there are options to add more. We did not add windows, but sometimes, I wish I had added another in the primary bedroom because I could have looked out on the woods from that room. If you get a basement, get an egress window. Not only does it provide a safe exit from that level, but it gives you a lot of natural light. How about a fireplace? I personally have little interest in a fireplace, but if you want one, now is the time. Consider the rooms where you want a ceiling fan. Those need extra support, and while you can do it later, it’s better to do during construction. Similarly, make sure that you have designed your light placement to allow for pendant lighting over your kitchen island. Don’t overthink electrical outlet placement, but take the time to consider where your televisions might be, where you might have a desk or plug in Christmas lights if you had a lighted garland on your stairway. Consider where you might want a security camera or whether you want a sound system. Finally, do you want a deck? Our deck is very important to us. I spend a lot of time there. We decided to have the builder install a deck, but if I had it to do over, I would have had an outside company do a deck with composite decking as opposed to wood. At the time, I would have probably thought the cost too high.

Okay, now on to choices that you won’t live with forever. Paint. Our builder offered one choice for all interior walls, and once choice for interior trim. By that I mean not that I had only one color to choose from, but rather that the color I did choose was the choice for everything! Suffice it to say, choose something neutral, giving the most weight to the first floor. It’s easy enough to repaint a bedroom or bathroom later. It’s much more work to repaint the kitchen, dining, living area and stairwell which likely have connected walls. I would also categorize flooring as something that is easier to switch out. This is something else where I wish we’d have had more time to consider choices vs. quality and expense. For example, we chose a middle-of-the road level of carpet and I feel like the quality was poor. Should we have paid for the highest quality? Would it have been THAT much better, or conversely, should we have gone with the cheapest carpeting knowing it would need to be replaced within a few years? Our mid-level carpet and padding, in high-traffic areas, looked okay for five years. So take that into consideration. Touch the different samples and weigh those choices. On the other hand, our entire first floor is LVP. That has held up wonderfully and I wish it was in every room. Finally, and I know I have talked about this in another post, landscaping! I highly recommend getting the full yard sodded instead of seed. If the builder does not offer that option, get the contact information of the landscape company prior to install, tell them what you want and get a price. Growing some or all of your lawn from seed sucks. This builder does sod in the front and seed on the sides and back. It is totally worth the extra cost to get all sod. Ask the same company about adding extra flower beds or trees if you’d like them. Again, this is a choice that make sense financially to do at the beginning when the lot is all dirt rather than later.

Let’s talk about finishes. Obviously choose what you like. My only advice here would be to look up images of kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms, baths and so on to make sure you know what you like vs. what’s on trend. You want to find a good balance between personal taste and what’s hot at the moment. The main reason being that you want what you like, but you don’t want to be so far behind the trends that you’re making choices that are ten years out of style. Maybe you’ll find new ideas you never even considered. Take pictures of things and colors you like. Get paint swatches. Lay them out, make a binder (haha). This will help you when you go to make your choices.

What is an elevation? Each builder has several home options to choose from. For example, our home is called “The Venice”. However, the Venice may have five or six different elevations. Inside, the layout and square footage may be identical, but the roofline and exterior homestyle are completely different. For example, one may have a porch while another does not. The roof height, trim, window size and placement all make each home unique. We chose the most unique elevation for our house and I love it. It cost more, but in my opinion was worth it so as not too look like everyone else’s. I would say curb appeal adds 5% to your home’s value.

Ask these questions (some of these are repeats):

  • Is there an HOA? If so, what does it cover?
  • Where are my outdoor water spickets, and how many are there?
  • Is there an option to change this doorway from a single door to a double? (We did this on the second largest bedroom and it looks awesome.)
  • What types of warranties are offered on the home? Pay special attention to big items like foundation, roof, furnace, HVAC, plumbing, electrical and driveway.
  • New houses settle. Is there a warranty that provides carpet stretching or drywall repair?
  • Is getting the full yard sodded and option? If not, how can I get a hold of the landscape vendor to arrange that?
  • How high are the ceilings?
  • How many trees come in my landscaping package? Are they guaranteed for one year?