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Twelve Must Read Tips before You Start Building Your New Home

Are you thinking about building a new home? Read this post first!

I love working on new construction homes. It is incredibly gratifying to be involved in the design of a client’s dream home from the very beginning and see it through to completion. My favorite part is the space planning because that is when we figure out how the house is going to live. From there, I really enjoy the cabinetry design, selecting finishes, and choosing lighting fixtures, which are the jewelry of the home. In the end, all of the hard work and decision making comes together beautifully, but there are always bumps in the road along the way.

I’ve consulted on several new homes in the Des Moines area over the past few years and have noticed similar issues crop up in almost every project. If you’re thinking about building a new house in the next year or so, this post is for you!

Establish a Vision

white modern farmhouse metal roof

Newport Heights Modern Farmhouse by Blackband Design

Close your eyes and picture yourself living in your dream home. What can you see? How do you feel? Who is with you? How are you spending your time?

For example, you’re cleaning up after breakfast and rinsing the dishes before you head out to start your day. Are you standing in front of a wide farmhouse sink staring out the window into a copse of trees while watching birds flutter around the bird feeder? Are you impressed with the efficiency and neatness of your compact kitchen design? Are you anticipating enjoying one last cup of coffee in your snug dining nook with the morning paper?

Or, you’re at home for the evening, dinner is over, and it’s time to relax. Are you curled up in front of the fire reading a book while your spouse catches up on the evening news? Are you watching a movie with your children snuggled up beside you on a large comfy sectional? Are you browsing the web on your laptop while your kids watch a show?

How do you start your day? What is the first thing you see when you open your eyes? Do you enjoy a long steamy shower in a light bright bathroom? Are your clothes perfectly organized and displayed in a large walk-in closet?

What are the holidays like in your new home? Are you thrilled because you can finally fit your whole family around the dinner table?

Write a journal entry about the experience of living in the different rooms or areas of your new home. Start at the front door (or back door) and picture coming home and moving through each space in your house like you would on most days. Don’t get hung up on small details but rather focus on the emotion – like how satisfying it feels to know your coat, shoes, and bag have their very own spot in your well-organized mudroom.

Once you know how you want it to feel, then and only then, should you start collecting inspiration images. You can do a gut check against each image by asking yourself if it feels the way you want your house to feel. If you don’t get clear on how you want the house to feel first, you will probably gather dozens of images, most of which are completely unrelated to each other. Then your builder and designer will have to play detective to try to figure out what kind of house you really want.

Consider Building a Smaller Better House

I am a huge fan of Sarah Susanka who wrote The Not So Big House. I fell in love with it when I lived in Phoenix and all our friends were building five-bedroom homes they couldn’t afford to furnish or finish properly. It’s a must-read for anyone considering building a new house.

The basic premise is to keep your budget the same while reducing the size of the house you want to build. Unless you have six kids, do you really need all of those extra bedrooms? If you are soon-to-be empty nesters, do you need a formal living room and a family room and a media room? If you entertain a large group once or twice per year, do you need a formal dining room that seats ten? Probably not. Build a smaller house and use the extra room in your budget for thoughtful details like trim work, built-ins, and all those little touches that make a house feel special.

Trim Details in a Not So Big House by Architect Ross Chapin

Exquisite trim details in a Not So Big house by architect Ross Chapin

Hire a Designer First

This point might sound self-serving, but it is completely in your best interest to hire an independent designer who works for you and not for the builder. I plan to write a whole other post on how an interior designer can benefit you during the construction process. First and foremost, your designer is your advocate. He or she will approach the project with the end goal in mind and keep everyone on track to the vision, even when it isn’t the popular thing to do.

tips for building a new home - White painted house rectangular pool night view

Stunning white brick home by Dixon Kirby

If you hire your designer first, she can help you refine your vision, choose your house plan (or better yet, hire an architect), establish a realistic budget, and meet with builders to determine which one is the best fit for your project.

Take Your Time

I can’t emphasize this point enough. Take your time!!! Take a year, even two. Do not rush the process. I promise you will regret it in the end.

There are so many details and decisions – large and small – that are involved in building a house. You need time to mull them over. Do not break ground unless you are 100% committed to 90% of the design decisions. You do not want to be in the middle of framing and mulling over the size of the rooms or debating the placement of doors and windows. This type of indecision will cost you time and money.

Do Not Break Ground Until the Plan Is Final

Once you break ground, the clock starts ticking, and the rush to get the house done is on. You will feel pressure to make decisions quickly to keep everyone on track to the schedule. This is when you will inevitably compromise on what you really want to keep your contractor happy – or the cabinet vendor, or your spouse, or the electrician. That perfect faucet or the countertop or whatever will be delayed or back-ordered, and you won’t be able to wait for it to come in. Get all of your decisions and selections lined up well in advance, check stock, and place holds.

True story. A client hired me last Spring to help them with their new build. They told me they were breaking ground in July. In June, I started to worry because we hadn’t even started planning the cabinetry design yet, and I knew the cabinet lead time would be 6-8 weeks. They felt like I was rushing them, got upset, and decided to go it on their own. In early August, they called me in a panic because the builder was ready for the cabinets. And, guess what? They didn’t have a design for them yet, let alone have them ordered, built and waiting in the garage for installation. This probably set construction back two months. Luckily they had a house to live in and their builder was a patient man, but this could have been a disaster.

Do Not Finalize Your Floor Plan without a Furniture Plan

building a new house tips - dining nook with windows linear chandelier modern farmhouse Martha's Vineyard

Light-filled breakfast nook by Martha Vineyard Interiors + Sullivan & Associates

A few years ago, I was helping a woman select furniture and finishes for her new home that was already well into construction. She told me all about how she wanted to have her two grown children and their spouses all in the living room together for family gatherings on a regular basis. She also anticipated the family would grow with the addition of grandchildren and pictured everyone being together in her home.

When I drew the furniture plan for her living room (she had built a smaller better house, by the way), we discovered that it was too small by about three feet. It could barely fit enough seating for six people let alone eight or more. If I added more furniture, it would have crowded the kitchen island. There was no way around it. If she had hired us before the plans were finalized, we could have recommended increasing the width of the living room to accommodate more furniture. Or, we could have designed the kitchen differently. But, at this late stage, there was nothing we could do. She was very disappointed.

Do Not Build a House with Some Big Event in Mind

Do not plan for your new house to be ready for your daughter’s wedding or your son’s graduation or some other big event unless you plan to start the process two to three years ahead of time. There is no guarantee it will be ready in time. This piggybacks on the point above – you do not want to rush to get things done. You want it done right. Even if construction is completed on time, there are myriad little details to work out before a home is truly done.

Prepare to Be Brutally Honest

Most of us are raised to be very polite and avoid hurting others’ feelings. Building a home is a very personal experience. It’s also an act of creation and expression of creativity for the architect, designer, builder, and craftspeople involved. But, it’s your house, not theirs. You have to live there for the next ten, twenty, thirty years. As a designer, I may propose an idea to you that I’m really excited about, but if you don’t love it, I need you to tell me – and tell me right away so we can all move on and find a different solution.

One of my clients wanted a very clean-lined house – transitional leaning modern. The builder was a master trim carpenter and wanted to install elaborate trim details throughout the house. It was difficult to tell him no, but if they had given in to avoid hurting his feelings, they wouldn’t have gotten the house they wanted.

Likewise, if you are in the midst of construction and do not like how something is going – the way the tile is laid or the height of a light fixture – say something!! Do not let it go, you will be resentful later, and it will bother you forever.

Avoid Making Decisions for Resale

Emily Henderson Blue Bathroom Fireclay Fish Scale Tile

Blue and brass bathroom by Emily Henderson

Why are you building this house? If it’s your forever home, then stop worrying about resale unless you are going to do something really crazy that will devalue the home and make it unsaleable. But, the blue tile backsplash you love does not fall into that category. Give yourself permission to build your house and not some mystical future owner’s. They’ll probably rip everything out anyway. Making decisions based on resale value is the easiest way to end up with a boring house you don’t really like.

Always Refer Back to The Vision

There are so many options for everything bombarding us in the face all day long – lighting, tile, countertops, you name it. And, if you’re at all like me, you like ALL the things. When you are building a house or embarking on any design project, you need to be ruthless in your selections and constantly asking yourself – does this fit my vision for the house? If you want a classic, elegant, traditional house, then maybe a super modern, black tentacle-like chandelier is not the best fit for your formal living room. It’s ok if you like it, but it doesn’t belong in this particular house.

Add $50,000 to the Builder’s Number

This is a ballpark estimate – it could be $30k, it could be $100k, but it’s definitely not zero. My point is that you are going to go over budget. The builder doesn’t know exactly what you want when he prepares his bid, so he sticks in placeholders for plumbing and allowances for cabinetry, lighting, flooring, etc. He didn’t account for the gold plated faucet, the paneled ceiling in your office, the extra built-ins, or the exotic stone countertop.

Or maybe he did if you planned everything well in advance.

But, let’s say you rushed the process and broke ground without all of the design decisions made. You will have overages, and they will add up, possibly to some astronomical number you couldn’t even dream of.

The only way to avoid this scenario is thorough planning. If you want to get moving without all of the details finalized, then make sure you have lots of cash in your back pocket. There are many elements that can’t be added or changed after the walls are closed up (or would be incredibly costly), and you don’t want to compromise now because you don’t have room in the budget.

I don’t know anyone who wants to remodel their new construction home in five years because they didn’t do it right the first time.

Just Breathe

You are building a house, not ending world hunger. Time, money, and a little creativity can solve just about any problem. Builders and designers are people too, and if you treat them with respect, they will bend over backward to get you the house you want.  After all, their best source of new business is referrals from happy clients like you!


You might also enjoy my post on the worst bathroom remodeling tips you can possibly make. They totally apply to new construction as well.

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