Builders are experts in building houses and developing communities. They don't have as much expertise in selecting cabinet styles and colors, flooring and more. That's why many builders have a design center staffed with interior decorators to help home buyers select options to customize their houses to fit their personality and budget.
Builder design centers are a great resource for home buyers. If you're undecided about a new versus existing home, the design center can help you compare options you can bake into your mortgage compared to the time and cost to renovate an existing home.
A good design center can help you estimate the cost of upgrade options so you know the real cost of the house you want to buy. That's an important factor in selecting your builder because some are transparent about costs and others hide the true cost of their homes (read: Where is My Dining Room Chandelier).
In this article we explore:
- What is a Builder Design Center
- Different Builders, Different Design Centers
- Where the Design Center Fits in the Building Process
- Preparing for Your Visit to the Design Center
You've picked your builder, the community where your new house will be, the model and building lot you want plus structural changes that affect the building permit. Those are important decisions but they're just the beginning of the building process. There are still hundreds of decisions to make before you move into your house.
Even more challenging, you might not know what to factor into most decisions. For example, when I recently replaced my toilets I didn't have time to research and shop for them. Fortunately I knew what was important. I told my plumber I wanted comfort height toilets that were easy to flush (why I hated the toilets installed by the builder) and water efficient (learn how Saving Water at Home Makes WaterSense). Yes, I also gave him a target price.
The design center is where you select upgrades to replace the fixtures included in the basic model. You'll have an interior decorator to guide you and many of the options will be available for you to view and touch. The most common design center options include:
- Cabinets and appliances– for kitchens, bathrooms and laundry rooms, picking your style, height, hardware and organizational features.
- Countertops and backsplashes – plus sinks and faucets.
- Bathroom fixtures – mirrors, toilets, bathtubs, showers and their wall finishes.
- Flooring – from carpeting (and pad thickness) and laminates to hardwoods and tile.
- Doors, stairs and trim – from the front door to interior doors, stair railings, baseboard, crown molding and more.
- Lighting and fans – for the kitchen and dining room, bathrooms and bedrooms.
- Window treatments – from window sills to shades and curtains.
Builders with larger design centers may offer more options for closets, media centers, garage storage and generators.
Maybe you never heard about builder design centers before searching for a new house. What's important to understand is that builders use design centers very differently. You might be disappointed if you expect one thing and experience something totally different. That's what happened to me when I bought a house from Richmond American Homes. Familiar with Fulton Home's design center (13,000 sq ft), Richmond's home gallery in Orlando (roughly 1,00 sq ft) felt absurd … prompting this article.
There are three types of new home design choices when working with a production builder (if curious, read: Custom Home Builders: Who They Are & What They Do).
- Defined color packages – are offered by builders like Lennar (shown above). Their “Everything Included” approach simplifies the home buying process. The biggest benefits are fewer decisions and buyers understand the total cost up front versus sticker shock after visiting the design center.
- Design center upgrades – are selected by buyers at the builder's design center. Buyers should prioritize options based on how easy or difficult it is to replace items at a later date. Adding more living space is the most important while flooring and lighting are replaced all the time. These design centers should be around 2,500 sq ft to provide a reasonable set of options.
- Semi-custom homes – are offered by builders committed to enabling home buyers to personalize their entire house. These builders offer many more options like kitchen cabinet organizing gadgets, closet storage choices and more. The Toll Brothers are a national semi-custom home builder and Fulton Homes outside Phoenix, Arizona is an example of an outstanding regional builder.
The buying process used by most production home builders is rather odd. You pick your lot, house style and features that need to be incorporated into the building permit. For example, my house included the optional 3-car garage, a study (my quilt room) instead of the 4th bedroom plus a “club room” which I've turned into my home office (see below).
Here's valuable information to help you guesstimate the likely cost of your home before you sign that contract.
|Design Center Characteristics||Industry Range|
|Design center size (sq ft)||From 1,000 sq ft to 13,000 sq ft; 6 center average 6,900 sq ft|
|Scope of product options offered||5 product categories to one center with furniture & accessories|
|Number of design center visits allowed||Most 3/more visits; some open to the public vs exclusive to buyers|
|Cost added to house/lot price||Typically 10% up to 25% for buyers downsizing/buying 2nd homes|
|Help preparing for design center visit||None to center orientation, lifestyle questionaires & online option checklists|
|Extra design center services||Vignettes with products like wood/tile floors, 4 levels of cabinet quality|
|Fulton Builders hosts public browse nights twice a month|
|Add-on services for window coverings, furniture selection, paint consultation, space planning and more.|
PS One thing I learned was Toll Brothers designates April for a yearly cleanup of their design centers. Outdated products are dropped to make way for new models at this time and remain in place for a full year.
Some builders will give you a brochure or video to watch before you get to their design center. The best preparation I've found is Fulton Home's website. They not only help you compare communities and floor plans, which most builders do. They enable you to browse hundreds of products they offer as builder upgrades and they show you what the standard product is if you don't pick something else. This transparency is a welcome resource for home buyers unfamiliar with all the products and decisions they'll be faced with at the design center.
So how do you prepare for your visit to the design center? These steps will help you identify and prioritize the options you should focus on during your visit to the design center.
- Determine your budget – You know how much you've already spent for your house plus structural changes and the lot where it will be located. While you can roll the cost of upgrades into your mortgage, that only works if you qualify for the higher amount you'll need to finance.
- Review your lifestyle – Think about where you spend most of your time today and how that might change if your family grows in size. Consider what options will help you save time if that's important to you (it's my top priority). If your dream is to work at home, make sure you know where that will happen and add wiring for the lighting and technology you'll need to use.
- Pick a color pallet – Don't worry about accent colors yet. You need to decide if you want to use warm (beige) colors of cool, gray colors. This will affect your choice of cabinets, countertops, flooring and more.
- Research pricing for your top 10 options – Visit a flooring store and see what your favorite flooring costs (materials and labor costs per square feet). Do the same for cabinets (cost per linear feet) and countertops (cost per square feet) at a local kitchen and bath showroom or Home Depot. This will prepare you to negotiate lower prices at the design center if they're prices are higher than retail (learn how I did this in Replacing Cheap Kitchen Cabinets).
- Prioritize your wish list – As you dream you'll put lots of options on your list. Most home buyers don't have an unlimited budget so you'll have to prioritize. Separate needs from wants, and then consider options that you could easily upgrade in a few years … like flooring and light fixtures.
If your builder doesn't provide an guidance or checklists before your design center visit, use the checklists on the Fulton Homes website. While learning the products that are standard with your house won't apply, you'll learn how the dining room chandelier should be coordinated with light fixtures in the entryway and stairs.
For each of the categories, click through and review the options listed. Add them to your list if they're important to you. If you're not sure the list is comprehensive enough, search for better checklists like 44 Homeowner Electrical Checklist Tips.
PS Your design center experience is a good predictor of how your end-to-end building experience will go. While my experience working with Richmond American Homes was unacceptable, it's given me the knowledge to help home buyers find builders who deliver a better customer experience.