What to Know Before Your First New Home Design Center Visit

Tile finishes - Blake Lofgren

Before visiting a design center, be sure to have a vision of what style your dream home would express.

Buying your first new home is a dream come true. But it's the follow-up trips to your builders design center that can really fashion that structure to more perfectly suit your family's needs, match your vision, and turn that house into your home.

New home design centers will vary builder to builder and visit experience will be different for all based on the size, type and location of the home you are building. While every design center experience will be different, let’s first walk through what to expect during your visits and the questions you should be prepared to answer.

The Design Center at Estridge Homes in Carmel, Indiana, according to Blake Lofgren, Director of Marketing, measures 2,000 square feet (see photos). It features four example kitchens, which showcase different cabinet styles and colors, appliances, lighting and plumbing. Also included are bathroom areas with various vanities, toilets, tile colors and installation configurations, and freestanding bathtubs.

An area showcases painted HardiePlank lap siding, different brick/stone colors, and window options. In the main selections area, hundreds of options from hardwood floors to granite and quartz countertops, to carpet and backsplash tiles are on display. Also featured are mudroom cabinets, a boot bench, window coverings and an example of a custom closet.

Overall, design centers are set up to help you envision the type of new home you want to create.

Photo courtesy of Blake Lofgreb | Estridge Homes

What is the design center process like?

Most homebuilders set up two to four appointments for new buyers at their design center, and each appointment typically lasts two to four hours.

Estridge buyers, typically make between two and three appointments to complete the selections portion of their build process. The first appointment takes between two and three hours, the second takes around an hour to review the items that needed to be drawn or required special pricing from our vendors. The final meeting (if needed) typically takes around a half hour to sign off on the final paperwork, says Lofgren.

Typically, the buyer will visit the design studio with the sales consultant before signing their contract to help understand what options they will have to choose from and to get a clear understand of what is an included item versus an upgrade, per Lofgren. The firm includes the vast majority of upgrades. Nonetheless, these days buyers are currently spending 5-12 percent of the home's base price on options to fine-tune their new home.

The biggest advice we give our customers when visiting the design center for the first time, says Lofgren, is to have already thought through their home and what the important areas are. Having a good understanding of the look theyre trying to accomplish is key. Our designers can then work to accomplish that look within a customer's budget level. Having a needs versus wants conversation is always a good practice.

Regardless of the size of your home or the builder you are working with, it’s important that you do your homework and have definitive answers to the following questions:

1. Can you clearly define your design style?

Do you like traditional design, a more modern look, or something more exotic? Is low-maintenance a major desire? Check home design websites for ideas and collect pictures, magazine tear sheets, and fabric and paint samples that appeal to you. Then, you'll create a design board showing these color, fabric and product likes -- and the builder's design consultant can help with this. Bring photos of your furniture and even pillow or curtain samples to the design center meeting.

To further help you articulate your design style, mentally walk your new home floor plan. Imagine how your family will live in each area of the home. Picture your furniture in place. Envision the options or elements that would make each area live better for you, such as special lighting in the master bath, extra electrical outlets in the den, a surround sound system in the family room, or a double oven in the kitchen.

2. Do you know what's included in your new home?

Get a list of standard features from your builder and view them at the design center or on the builder's website before your scheduled design center meetings. Walk the builder's model homes. Drive communities developed by the builder to visualize available exterior finishes and colors. Ask about warranties and paint durability. Note which items are easier to do later vs. now. For potential DIY items, such as dimmer switches, compare builder's price to the price of the item at a home center store. Understand what you are going to get and also what else you'll want (or need) to buy.

3. Have you prioritized and prepared a budget?

Start by separating your must-have and like-to-have items on your home design wishlist. Identify items on your wish list that would be impossible or expensive to do after move in, such as structural changes to the floor plan to add a room, expanding the garage or removing a wall, or adding a bay window, ceiling fan box, upgrading kitchen cabinets, adding wood floors, a fireplace, spa tub, or a built-in home technology system. Make another list of features that could be added later or even tackled as more affordable DIY projects, such as decorative lighting, crown molding, faucets, smoke detectors, a smart thermostat, and upgraded cabinet hardware. Some of these things you can address at the design center, but others may need to be tabled, especially if you are on a tight budget.

At the design center, you'll be choosing the exterior colors and material -- think roof shingles and pattern, brick, siding, styles , shutters, etc. -- for your home, selecting cabinet styles, choosing flooring materials and colors, the quality of carpeting and carpet padding, etc.

While looking at additional items you may be able to or want to add, keep in mind that some new home features will add more to the resale value of your home than others.

Many upgrades will more than pay for themselves over time, such as choosing a premium grade of roofing material or higher efficiency kitchen appliances. Somethings might be more affordably done at the time of home construction rather than after move in, such as choosing a double oven, or installing an underground sprinkler system or a full home security system. If the new home has a basement it might be cost effective to have it finished by the builder during home construction.

It's tempting to wrap up as many upgrade expenses in your mortgage, but, remember, you'll be paying off that amount with interest likely for 30 years.

Thanks to today's design and media influences, says Estridge Homes' Lofgren, several items have been increasingly popular, such as [upgraded] lighting, decorative tile, stained beams, engineered hardwood floors, framed decorative mirrors, high-tech appliances and home automation items such as Amazon Echo, Ring Doorbell and Mesh Network wireless systems.

You might also consider some more practical options. Most homes come with a single outdoor hose bib. You might want to have the builder install another one on the other side of the house. You also might want a gas line on the patio for the grill or extra electrical outlets in the workroom or in the garage for the golf cart. Just some things to think about!

Other things to consider when at the builder's design center

When you get to your design center appointment, pay special attention to these areas:

  • Windows. What's the energy performance rating for your home's windows and doors? Do they carry National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC) or ENERGY STAR labels? What's their U-factor, Solar Heat Gain Coefficient, Visible Transmittance, Condensation Resistance and air leakage ratings? Are upgrades available?
  • Insulation. How well insulated will your new home's walls and ceiling be? What's the R-value (thermal resistance) of the home's exterior envelope? Are there options to enhance insulation values?
  • HVAC. How efficient will the standard furnace, air conditioner and hot water heater be? Gas furnaces will have an Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency (AFUE) rating. Central air conditioners are rated according to their Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER). A water heater might have an ENERGY STAR label. What's the capacity of the water heater? Are efficiency upgrades offered? Can the builder also provide a built-in air cleaner and or humidifier.

Roy Diez is a freelance writer and marketing professional specializing in the architectural, building and construction industry. He is a former editor-in-chief of Professional Builder magazine.

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