5 mistakes to avoid when designing a custom home

It's finally time. The kids have moved out/you've landed that big time promotion/your penny-pinching is paying off/[insert significant life goal here] and you're thinking of a change of scenery. Whatever your life's circumstances, you're finally at a place to start thinking about your next home - your dream home - but what do you need to know and where do you start? Like everything in life, a little planning - in this case, some pre-planning - will go a long way in helping you to reach your goals and stay out of trouble.

We've designed hundreds of beautiful, completely original custom homes, and we'd like to think we know a thing or two about what it takes to take a distant dream and bring it closer to a possible reality. We'd love to tell you that every project we custom designed was built. Sometimes, an otherwise perfect fit house plan stays on paper, and other times timing and circumstances keep a project from ever manifesting into a built home. We understand this, and life goes on. However, there are common themes to successful projects that you need to know when designing your own custom home plans.

Here are 5 mistakes to avoid and helpful tips to guide you as you look to design your custom home!Hand-sketching a custom home design

Don't rush into the unknown//Get your facts straight

An unfortunately common (and easily avoidable) mistake we've seen clients make is commissioning us to design a home that's simply way too big. Sometimes, and understandably, a project grows outside a realistic budget. Other times that perfect plan doesn't fit within the constraints of a lot. In either instance, a lot of headache (and money) in revising a design could have been saved by getting your facts straight.

Let's face it. There are so many facets and steps to getting your dream home design from fuzzy thoughts in your head to a building to call your home. There's no way you can foresee every issue and know every step in the process, but careful pre-planning can save you incalculable amounts of stress and very real dollars. At every step of the process, ask questions, and make everyone helping you - especially your builder and designer - are doing the same. It's unreasonable to think that you'll be able to figure everything out on your own, but the more you can do to make sure everyone has accurate information, the better.

  1. Put together a wish list. Give your builder and designer references for the things you like - a houzz ideabook, is a great tool to use to collect your thoughts. Pinterest works great too! The more you know about what you want, the better your builder and designer can help guide the process to match your expectations and goals.
  2. Know your site's constraints. Check zoning, covenants, plat plans for dimensions, setbacks, and design guidelines. If you don't yet own a lot, you'll need to be extra careful to ensure your design will fit when you find it. Pay special attention you have enough room when designing a side-load garage.
  3. Learn about the process of designing and building your own home. This process can be extremely fun and rewarding, but be aware that it can also be as stressful and expensive, especially if you jump into it without reasonable expectations.

Don't under-value the cost of professional services//Assemble a team of experts

We're not the cheapest custom home designers. There, we said it. But like many things, a cheap knockoff is rarely worth it in the long run. We've had several clients find this out the hard way, trying out a project or two with another drafting company, only discovering that experience and quality comes cheap in comparison to the problems that can arise without it! One builder shared with us another drafting company cost him tens of thousands of dollars on one project alone because of mistakes and inconsistencies in the plan. Don't make this mistake by skimping on the professional services required to put together your home! This doesn't mean assuming the most expensive route is the best one, but do your homework and weigh your budget with your goals to ensure you don't end up spending more money in the long run by entrusting your project to someone without the proper experience, competence, and care.

The thing about a service is you are paying for something intangible. With a product, you exchange money for a physical object that you can immediately enjoy. With a service, you're paying for someone's guidance, expertise, and craftsmanship to bring about your goals. You can grab a $5 burger at a local fast food joint with sticky tables OR you can buy a gourmet burger and eat it under the stars by candle-light for $50. Even with similar ingredients - ground beef, a bun, some condiments, and likely the same frozen fries - the value in the high-dollar burger is in the experience. In a similar way, the difference in price between builders and designers is going to be in the level of service, expertise, and competence you'll experience throughout the process. While you may end up with a home either way, a good builder and designer team will help you to cut costs where appropriate, save headaches, and ensure you that your project will turn out successfully.

  1. Research and seek reviews and referrals. Chances are you have friends and family who've gone through this process - ask around!
  2. Find people within the industry to learn about a particular builder or designers reputation. Do they do good work? Are they fair and honest?
  3. Look for experience, with completed projects of a scope and quality similar to what you are looking to do. 

Don't let your dreams grow out of control//Know your budget

I've seen it so many times. What began as a modest home, apparently initiated out of a specific set of design constraints - like a total area based on a price per square foot - becomes something far bigger than was reasonable for the client to afford. Talk it out - with your spouse, your builder, wise counsel - to determine an acceptable range of what you can afford. Ensure your budget goals are clearly understood by your builder and designer and try to start at the low end of your budget - it's always easier to add after your builder has a chance to provide a thorough bid of your plans.

  1. Ask about incidental costs - for plans, overages in design, permits, fees - that may not be included in an initial quote from your builder.
  2. Understand what sorts of things can affect the cost of a project - added time, quality of finishes, changes, unfinished rooms, complicated structural conditions.
  3. Have your builder show you examples of their work they've done that's in your budget.

Don't confuse wants with needs//Prioritize

"We'd like to remove 200 sf, but we don't want to cut room from here, here, or there." We'd all like to have everything we ever wanted with a price tag we can afford. Unfortunately, reality and experience shows that we have to compromise at every stage of life. The same is true when designing your home. That wish list you drafted at the start of this process is going to have to be refined, and sometimes you'll have to go without.

  1. Be realistic. Work with your builder to set reasonable expectations of size and quality and communicate these goals to your designer.
  2. Separate your wish list with needs and wants. You need 3 spare bedrooms, a functional kitchen, and some nice spaces to entertain on the holidays. You may not need a sports court or storage under your garage. A good custom design will balance your goals and ideals with a great plan that you will enjoy for a long time.
  3. Consider planning ahead. If there are some items that you aren't able to add into your project right away, ask your designer to work in a way that an addition is feasible in the future.

    Don't ignore your designers advice//Trust the experts

    Your Aunt Sally is not a builder or a home designer. So when she suggests that you simply must have your walk-in closet access your pantry for a convenient mid-night snack, don't be surprised when your builder and designer raises their eyebrows. There is much to be said about asking many friends for their advice and ideas, but trust your design team. You are paying for their service and expertise - take advantage! Focus more on relating your goals than in dictating specific details. A good designer will understand your priorities and will help you in coming up with a design solution that won't look like it's from another planet.

    1. Ask questions when you don't understand. Sometimes understanding why something is drawn or designed the way it is will open your eyes to see possibilities that you hadn't thought about.
    2. Make sure your builder and designer are communicating well. Both parties have different skill sets and an eye for different details. Take advantage of both.

    Designing a custom home can be daunting but it is certainly doable and the rewards can be extremely fulfilling. The fruits of your diligent efforts to understanding the process, assembling the right team, and paying attention to your budget can mean the difference between a beautiful finished home and a never-realized dream.

    If you are looking to design a custom home, we would love to earn your business and show you our capabilities and expertise. Call us today at 402-445-0489 to set up a free consultation!


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