Building a new home for the first time? Or doing it again and hoping to make better choices? This story outlines our experience and 7 tips for builder upgrades worth getting.
When it came to planning my wedding I really didn’t care what went down. I was just excited to marry the man I loved, and I wanted a fabulous dress. Whether or not I had bridesmaids, fancy flowers or a tiered cake was not on my priority list. I was no where near being a bridezilla but I think I’m making up for that now as we build a house.
Maybe it’s because I was almost 19 (yes, you can read all about my being a young bride here). Or maybe I just am generally a pretty low-key person. Either way, I think I’m more than making up for it now as we build my dream home. Even though we’re going with a mass builder with pre-made plans, there are still SO many decisions to make and it can be tricky to know which builder upgrades are worth getting.
Knowing when you’ve found “the one”
I’m not going to say choosing a house is quite like choosing the right spouse, but it can be pretty stressful.
We started the house hunting a couple of months ago. And by we, I mean I. Waking up to a new house listed on Zillow was a great start to the day. I toured a few houses with my very patient realtor, but nothing seemed quite right. I actually had more luck browsing previously sold homes to get an idea about what was out there but not on the market. After a month or so I started to feel a bit frustrated and like either I’d never find the perfect house and have to settle for close enough or that the perfect place would pop up but I’d be too scared to go for it. But still, deep down I just knew the right house would appear at the right time.
I’d just finished lamenting to a friend about this fear, but when I left her house I’d decided to go visit a neighborhood I’d seen before and chat with a different builder about their plans. I walked in with one floor plan in mind, and walked out with one I hadn’t considered but had already fallen in love with.
By then my husband miraculously had come around to the idea of moving one more time. Admittedly when we were building the home we live in now, it was suppose to be our forever home. But that was when we had just had our second (and thought to be last) child. And when I was preparing to be a stay at home mom (not knowing my blog would become my full-time job). Now we’re taking everything we love about this home and bringing it along for this new one, but adding some things we wish we had:
A much bigger yard (2 acres as compared to our teeny tiny lot). Slightly larger bedrooms, still all on the first floor. Plus an upstairs playroom and theater room. We will have a study, formal dining room, a huge utility room and a three car garage. So my there’s one for his car, one for his gym and one for me to park. That was just one of the requirements in a place we were looking for.
Once we picked our plans there was a bit of back and forth with the builder about structural upgrades and price (yes, you can negotiate the price of new builds too), and finally we all came to an agreement. This is where my housezilla really started to show. I want to do things right, and right the first time. This means a bit of obsessive research, calculating and planning.
A couple weeks ago my husband and I had our first scheduled meeting at the design center. They’d booked us for three appointments. Three hours at the first one, two at the second and another two at the third. If you’ve ever built a house before you know how these appointments go. There’s an office building full of beautiful options–most of them upgrades that come with an extremely large markup. I spent night after night trying to research what options are worth upgrading with the builder and what upgrades you can do for a fraction of the cost later.
The thing is you’ll come across a lot of articles that say upgrade everything you can now and just wrap it all into your mortgage. But I don’t want to be paying off those upgrades plus interest for 30 years, especially when there’s a large markup (UPDATE: This was a great decision, and a big reason we were able to pay off our house early). So I made a spreadsheet of upgrade wants and estimated costs. We’d already spent a lot on structural upgrades that we knew we wouldn’t be able to change later, so choosing carpet over hard floors for now isn’t a big deal for us.
These were our structural (and lot) upgrades we made:
- Premium lot upgrade (to a larger, more flat lot with nice, mature trees)
- 2nd floor game room
- 2nd floor media room
- Bay windows in the primary bedroom
- Level kitchen island (a custom change we asked our builder to make)
(I totally jacked that sold sign cause ours wasn’t up yet. But don’t worry, I put it back after snapping this photo).
Here’s what we decided were builder upgrades worth getting for design:
–Water softener loop (to hook up our water softener too. A must-have for us). I over-estimated the cost for this, so we were able to add in some other upgrades we liked.
–Getting tile laid on the diagonal (to make the kitchen and bathroom areas look larger). We debated this upgrade depending on price but it came in lower than I planned so we added it in.
–Blinds installed throughout the house. At $2100 I’m still debating pricing this out at Home Depot and canceling this order this week.
–Tub upgrade. A strange priority for us. The design center wanted to charge us $1485 to simply add jets to a tub but couldn’t tell us what tub we are slated to get, or how large it is. Considering you can buy a really nice huge tub for that amount or slightly more, we passed. We asked for a 6ft tub in place of the slated 5ft tub with jets. I did some research and sent some preferred options to the design center in our order preference. They sent that to the builder and luckily they came back with a reasonable price for this upgrade and we went for it.
We added in a few other things like blinds inside the back door, a pots and pan drawer under the oven, and some $77 sponge holders under the sink. Adding in the electrical upgrades (prewiring for our projector, surround sound and extra ethernet/CAT5 and extra outlets) and we were still below my preferred budget. Last minute I wound up adding in three pennate lights over the kitchen island and it put us a little over but get this…
Total, I was hoping to stay below $10k in design upgrades. Going in I didn’t want to mention that and make everyone laugh (the average customer spends around $50k+ in upgrades). Our designer told us we set a record for the least amount spent on upgrades for a Coventry and I’m pretty darn proud of that. I think we also set the record for being done the quickest. We chose everything so fast we were able to cancel one of our 2 hour appointments. We came in a little over $11k but we got all of our priorities and a little more.
Advice for visiting your builder design center
1. Research as much as you can, ask for pricing
Builders can be so secretive about prices beforehand. I asked for a price list before going in and ours told me they didn’t have one, and that they don’t have a website. In this day and age I feel like that is just cray. It’s not just Coventry that works this way though. Plenty of builders have a similar process. Gehan did give us a price list once we were under contract so we had a general idea. But if your designer doesn’t do this, there are other ways to be prepared…
2. Go to a design center preview
This was a HUGE help for me. I went up the week before our deign center meeting with my realtor and though we didn’t get to see upgrade prices, we did get to see all of our builder’s standards. So I was able to pick out our carpet, kitchen cabinets, counter tops, and other things without agonizing over each decision with a designer over my shoulder. I told her what we’d already picked out, and we tweaked a few things. For instance, the carpet I initially chose was too yellowish. And I changed out a large tile backsplash for subway tile.) This also made it so the first five hours of design meetings was done in just two. Our designer called my husband and I a treat!
3. Decide what you want at move in vs what you can wait for
We spent way more on structural upgrades and knew we’d hold off on plenty of our design upgrades. We knew the upgrades that were must haves for us (like the perfect tub, and a water loop) and waited on others. One of the most expensive upgrades when you’re building is flooring. Since we are having a baby we decided to hold off on getting hard floors throughout until she’s walking. And enjoy the carpet for a few years. Then upgrade to the flooring we really want for a fraction of the price later with cash.
4. Phone a friend (or an expert)
I called a few local electricians and floor people to get prices on upgrades we may want later, and to get an idea on what’s worth doing now. I was told TV mounting prewiring is a waste of money, but audio prewiring is absolutely worth doing now (though still ridiculously overpriced). A couple examples of expensive upgrades you can DIY: Light dimmers were $230 from the electrician. You can buy your own dimmer switch for $13. A peep hole for the front door is $105. You can use your own drill and put a peep hole kit in for $9. An in-home surge protector is $800 from the electrician. The exact same one is $129 at Home Depot. Each basic ceiling fan was $395 from the builder. We can get much nicer fans and install them ourselves after the fact for much less.
5. Have an idea of your style
I’ve read it’s good to have an idea of your style beforehand as you help make your design decisions. My design style is “Traditional classic with a touch of modern.” It’s pretty redundant but it makes sense in my head. I didn’t want to go super modern and all white everything. I want my kitchen to look pretty and charming, but not extremely memorable. We want them to like it, then forget it the moment they’ve left (catch the reference?). This is one reason I went with a beveled subway tile backsplash, but passed on laying it in a herringbone pattern.
6. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and get answers in writing
There were quite a few things we were unclear about that made a significant difference in our design costs. We thought the home was prewired for ceiling fans, then were told it wasn’t, then finally told it was. We were initially told the home would have brick and stone on the front (which I was really excited about). Then at the design center they said stone accents were a $2500 upgrade. I clarified with the builder’s agent and she confirmed the stone is a requirement for the neighborhood. And therefore not an upgrade.
We wound up saving about $3000 in design upgrades just asking for clarification with these things. We also considered ripping out the tub after moving in to put in our own. But luckily they worked with us on getting the one we wanted even though it didn’t initially appear to be an option.
7. Don’t overthink it
I’m normally extremely indecisive, but with these choices it was easiest to go with a quick gut decision. The longer I debated a choice the harder it was. Mostly because there aren’t really wrong choices or many things I’ll regret. There is one decision I made that I changed before our last appointment and that’s having a 60/40 split in my kitchen sink vs a 50/50 I previously chose. I couldn’t remember how it was set up at our current house but I do like having one larger side.
I know this is A LOT of information but I hope some people find it helpful. We still have a long way to go (we haven’t even broke ground yet). But I thought it would be fun to document the process from the beginning. I searched and searched for something like this before our first design meeting and didn’t really see much information out there. So hopefully this can help someone else with similar questions.