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A Personal New Construction Story: Part Two - The Design Studio

I know that last time I said that next up was selling our current house...since that sale is still pending I've decided to tell that story when closing has been finalized. That way I can share details about the whole process in a single blog, and I'll have fun "before" and "after" photos comparing when we bought the house to when we sold it.

So in the new construction process, after picking the house and executing a contract the next big step is the design studio - where you choose all your personalized details: color and style of cabinets, specific flooring, style and finish of lighting and faucets. All the fun stuff that people think of when building a house. This is the part that I was really looking forward to! The design meeting usually takes place within a month of when you sign your contract, but the timeline does depend on whether or not your house has been started yet, and also how far out their appointments are. If your home is already partially constructed then they may have already made some design choices that can't be changed, but our house doesn't even have a foundation yet, so we've been able to choose every single structural and cosmetic option available.

Before your appointment they send you a pamphlet of what's standard in their homes, and they encourage you to look up ideas of what you'd like your house to look like. Pinterest is a great tool here, and saving photos to show your designer is a great idea. Here is what's standard in a Richmond American home (Spec Level B)- you can scroll through the different pages below:

I had helped clients with this process before, especially with a lovely couple who built a town home in Daybreak with Holmes Homes who so sweetly let me have input on their choices, and it was very exciting. Most larger builders have a design studio where you go to make your selections, and they have samples of all of their flooring, tile, counter tops, cabinets, and hardware. Some, like Holmes Homes, have several full size sample kitchens and bathrooms that show different tiers of upgrades so that you can visualize your choices easier, with their options elaborately displayed over an entire floor of a building. Unfortunately Richmond American's design studio isn't quite that extensive - they had one full kitchen with some of the mid to top tier selections, and one bathroom vanity, as well as one other set of cabinets. Besides that, they had a sample of each faucet (but only in one finish each), and a room full of sample squares for every type of cabinet, flooring, back splash tile, and counter tops available (there are two more walls of samples than what you can see in the left photo below). Other items such as door handles, interior and exterior doors, and light fixtures they simply had photos of the options.

The typical structure of design studio time is to split it into two appointments. Your first appointment is usually about 4 hours long, and you make all your initial choices - your "wish list" of items. They input all of those choices into their system so you can see the breakdown of pricing, and you can eliminate or change anything that maybe puts you over your intended budget. You then get about a week until your next appointment to think about your choices and make sure that's what you want. This gives you time to do additional research on pricing and options; for example: is it more cost effective to have the builder install blinds, or would you rather hire a company to do them later? One thing to keep in mind is that if the builder does them they are financed into your mortgage, and if you do them later you have to pay out of pocket. But some things are significantly cheaper to do yourself (for example, we're buying our own fridge and water softener).

During your second appointment you can revisit any selections, and make changes as necessary. At the end of this appointment you have to sign off on your design options, and after this point they are very difficult, and may be impossible to change (much like the structural options we made when we signed the purchase contract). The reason for this is because they order the custom upgrades right away so that the build process moves as quickly as possible.

April 15:

The day of our first design appointment. Kyle and I had a pretty good idea of what we wanted, and lucky for us we have almost the same taste in everything. Also lucky for us, because of Covid-19 the designers had put together PDF packets for different areas of options complete with approximate upgrade prices so that we could peruse them to our hearts' content prior to our appointment so that hopefully we wouldn't need the entire 4 hours (spoiler alert - we still needed the 4 hours, and a little more).

Most houses we had seen were 95% the same- white shaker cabinets with either a grey or white counter tops, subway tile, a greyish laminate "wood" floor, and light grey walls. You know the trendy look that's all over the place right now - like this:

Normally I would have LOVED to have this style of house, but after seeing so many of them, I didn't want my house to look exactly like all of my

neighbors' houses.

So we decided that we wanted darker brown cabinets, not the shaker style, but we liked the raised panels, with a white counter top, and lighter cream or what they call "greige" walls (between grey and beige). We also fell head over heels for these champagne bronze faucets, so a lot of our design choices centered around this theme. Here are some of our initial selections:

April 16:

Normally the designer inputs your selections as you're making them, and you can see the total as it adds up. Design selections get expensive FAST. But because of some of the Covid-19 precautions they're taking, clients are no longer allowed to touch anything, so every single thing we wanted to look at during our appointment had to be taken out by Abby, which means she had little time to input our options into the computer. So the day after our appointment we got an email of the breakdown - totaling $57,041. *Jaw drops & laughter ensues.*

Needless to say, we had to make some compromises. The average home in our neighborhood adds about $28,000 in upgrades. Most houses also don't finish the basement though, and we are finishing ours, so it was expected we'd have a little more than that figure, but $57k was NOT what we had in mind.


Note: All builders have a threshold at which you have to put down an additional deposit on your home. When you first go under contract you have to put down what's called earnest money, usually anywhere from 1-3%, but after the design appointment there may be that additional deposit called a personalization deposit at Richmond, which is often dollar-for-dollar beyond the threshold. They do this because they're paying for upgrades for the house right away, so if you don't purchase it, they want your money on the line. The line at which we owe an extra deposit in our case is right around $19k. So if we stuck with the $57k, we would owe a whopping $38,000 at the end of our design appointments. All of that money goes towards your down payment (and any extra is refunded to you) at closing, but it's still a big chunk of cash.


April 22:

The second design appointment. They were hoping we would only need 2 hours, but considering we needed to cut such a large amount in order to stay in budget, and the most expensive items are counter tops, cabinets, and flooring, which we could really only consider while in the design gallery, we needed all the time we could get. Some changes were easy to make - we eliminated the speaker system that we had wanted in a few rooms, we got rid of the cultured marble surround in the master shower and the euro glass door (I was sad to lose that door!), we opted for one step down on the interior paint packages, and we swapped out the kitchen faucet for a less expensive champagne bronze faucet. Other changes were more difficult - we reconsidered ALL of the counter top options (ultimately we stayed with a quartz counter, but chose an option that was two tiers cheaper than our original selection), we changed the carpet in the basement to a standard carpet option, and we also reconsidered all of our other flooring choices (but in the end made very little changes there).

When all was said and done we landed somewhere around $38k in gallery upgrades (compared to the original $57k), which was MUCH closer to where we wanted to be. I was pretty proud of us for accomplishing the feat of cutting out almost $20k in costs. It is usually wise to concentrate your upgrades on the kitchen and master bath, and if there are any items that you for sure plan to upgrade later that are cheaper to do initially. For this reason we did get the upgraded cabinets (dovetail construction, with soft close doors and drawers), and the upgraded appliance package (convection double ovens, and built in gas range with cast iron grates).

Here are some of the design options we ended up with:

I always thought that choosing design options for a new construction home would be so much easier since I could choose them all at once, meaning everything would match and go well together, instead of doing little upgrade projects sporadically throughout the house - and in some ways it was easier, and it was a lot of fun. It was also a LOT of pressure, and I have decided that I've a very visual person. It would be great if builders had a program designed where you could plug in your options and see them all together in a 3D rendering of your house, but alas, that's not how things are yet. Ultimately, because of this we decided to hold of on choosing a kitchen back splash until after the house is done; I need to see sample tile in the kitchen once it's all put together to make that choice. But I am very happy with what we have chosen, and can't wait to see the finished product!

PROGRESS REPORT: We got a call Monday that the hole is dug for our house, the footings are poured, and the foundation walls were scheduled to go in yesterday! YAY! Next step - we have our pre-construction meeting with the superintendent scheduled for Friday where we go over our house specific plans, our plot plan (where the house is located on the lot), and what to expect going forward in the building process.

In selling our current house in West Valley - we're mostly moved into our rental, and the appraisal came back at value on Monday, so we're just waiting for the buyer's lender to give us the clear to close. We'll be closing by 5/19 on that transaction.

Stay tuned for more updates!


I also realized that I didn't share the floor plan of our house in the first blog - so here it is! We won't have a covered patio, but will have a 10' x 15' deck. We will also have the coffered ceiling in the master bedroom, and the basement is being finished, complete with plumbing for a kitchenette/wet bar, and we'll have cold storage that extends out under the front porch (not pictured in the floor plan here).


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