New Home 101: Designing Your Dream Home, Part 1

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If you need help with designing the home of your dreams, we have you covered. New Home 101 is here to guide you through every step of the new home process.

This article is the first part of a three-part series discussing the designing process of your new home. For part two, click here. For part three, click here.

Now that you have the “business” part of your transaction done and have signed a contract for your new home, you’re ready for what most homebuyers think is the best part about buying a newly built home: choosing optional features. Whether you have a detailed vision of every feature and finish you want, a broad idea of your color scheme or a fixation on one particular item such as having a wine cooler in your kitchen, the design phase of building a new home ranks as one of the most pleasurable activities in the process. Of course, if you’ve opted to build a custom home, the sky — and your budget — is the limit to what design features and finishes you can include. Of course, you’ll also have to consider the land you own and the zoning and permit regulations in your area. 

If you’ve chosen a production builder, the amount of customization you can have depends on three factors:

  1. The production stage of the home you’ve chosen. If you’re building from a set of floor plans you have a lot more leeway for custom choices compared to buying a home that’s partially finished. Depending on how far along the builder is in the construction process, you could be limited to non-structural options or even to just the final paint colors. 
  2. The lot you’ve chosen. Depending on your lot’s size and placement, you may not be able to add certain structural features, such as a three-car garage, instead of the standard two-car garage. The sales consultants at your new home community can help you determine which lot will meet your requirements, so be sure you consider potential structural changes when you choose your lot. 
  3. The level of personalization offered by your builder. Production builders offer personalization across a wide spectrum, ranging from nearly custom to varied menus of choices.

While options vary by builder, buyers that work with production builders can typically select their favorite colors and design style (such as traditional or contemporary) in many key products used in the home. For example, you can likely select styles and colors and/or “good-better-best” options in product categories like these:

  • Flooring 
  • Countertops in your bathrooms and kitchen 
  • Cabinets in your bathrooms and kitchen 
  • Interior and exterior doors 
  • Lighting fixtures 
  • Plumbing fixtures 
  • Hardware 
  • Appliances 
  • Heating and air conditioning system 
  • Paint colors and trim 
  • Exterior materials, such as brick, stone or siding

That list may seem daunting, but remember you have a support team of sales consultants and design center experts to help you make sure that your choices work well with each other and with the floor plan you’ve chosen.

“There are two levels of choices to make when buying a new home,” says Diane Morrison, national vice president of sales and marketing for Ryland Homes in Tampa, Florida. “When you first sign the contract, you need to make choices about structural options such as moving walls or changing spaces, or adding bonus rooms and extra baths. Later in the process, you can choose all the fixtures and finishes, such as flooring, cabinets, counters, lighting fixtures, and hardware.”

Depending on the builder, you may also be able to make structural changes to your chosen floor plan.

What Decisions Do You Make and When Do You Make Them?

Based on all of your shopping online and in model homes and communities, there will come a time when you’ve found the new home you want. What’s next? Typically, you choose a floor plan and lot before signing the purchase agreement or contract for your new home. Next, you choose any structural options, and then you have some time to decide on your interior features and finishes. Some builders, however, may alter that typical timeline for various reasons.

Angel Boales, a sales associate with Meritage Homes in Roanoke, Texas, says their buyers have to pick structural options from the beginning so that the contract can be written and the builder can go to the city for permits based on the square footage and design of the home.

“After the purchase agreement is signed with the structural options, then within fourteen days buyers need to go to the design center for two two-hour appointments,” she says. “We like to schedule these appointments with a day in between so you can look at your choices and your budget before you make a final commitment.”

Dale C. Adams, Jr., new home sales manager of JLS Design and Construction in Maryland, says that once a buyer is serious about purchasing one of their homes, he schedules two initial consultations.

“At the first visit, we spend a couple of hours choosing a floor plan and making changes to the floor plan and getting a cost estimate,” he says. “At the second visit, we go over their new personalized floor plan and look at the new costs.”

Your builder will give you a timeline for when you need to finalize your optional choices, often within two weeks after your contract is signed and sometimes even sooner.

Match Your Floor Plan and Your Options

Whether you have your heart set on a specific feature or multiple features, you need to make sure that the lot and floor plan you choose can accommodate your priorities. Don’t assume you can do what you want with the interior of your home regardless of the floor plan. For instance, you may have seen an oversized island in a model home kitchen and assume you can expand the island in your new home to be as large as you want. However, your builder may not be able to move walls or increase your square footage enough to make an oversized island work in your space.

Take advantage of the expertise of your builder’s sales professional (and, where offered, their design consultants) to confirm whether a floor plan can accommodate the options you want. If not, discuss with the sales consultants if modifications can be made and whether it makes sense to consider other floor plans so that you get what you want. Your sales consultants can also talk to you about popular options and ask you questions about your lifestyle to help you narrow your choices, advised Kira Sterling, chief marketing officer at Toll Brothers, a leading luxury home builder in many markets nationally.

“Take your time so you don’t feel like you’re just settling for something,” says Dierksen, an Epcon Communities homebuyer. “I took two years to look around so I really knew what was available in terms of models and options. You can’t always get everything you want on your wish list, especially if you have to stick to your budget, but you’ll be happier if you know you’ve thoroughly looked around to find the best match for you.”

In addition to consulting the sales and design center staff, you should visit a model or spec home (or both, if available) for the specific home that you intend to build. Many builders also offer digital floor plans and virtual tours in their offices or on their websites that can help you make the match between your ideas and the available layouts.

“We build two or three models in every community, but we try to build every model within driving distance of each community so that buyers can walk through every one of our models,” KB Home’s Tom Silk says. “We also have a digital presentation for every model that buyers can look at in the sales office. I think buyers should look at as many models as possible to develop a list of their priorities and preferred features.”

For more expert advice on buying and building a home, check out the free eBook download of New Home 101: Your Guide to Buying and Building a New Home at

Michele Lerner is an award-winning freelance writer, editor and author who has been writing about real estate, personal finance and business topics for more than two decades. You can find her on Google+.

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