10 Tips for Selecting and Budgeting for Upgrades

Welcome to the fourth post in my New Construction Home Blog Series. In this post, I’ll be sharing my 10 tips for selecting and budgeting for upgrades. If you haven’t read my post explaining all about upgrades I recommend you check it out first here.

When the time comes, you will likely be visiting your builder’s design centre to make your structural and design selections. The design centre is lovely, there will be lots of pretty things to look at and it’s really easy to get carried away looking at all the beautiful samples.

It can also be incredibly overwhelming.

You will be asked to make a lot of decisions, usually on the spot. You will likely get tired, grumpy, and you might even end up forgetting what decisions you made (only to be surprised when you walk in you home for the first time).

Here are my best tips for staying sane, focused and on-budget when making selections and choosing upgrades.

1 – Collect Inspiration Images

Making your design selections is essentially designing your home. Instead of walking into the design centre with no idea what you like, it’s helpful for both you (and them) if you have some ideas to work with.

Pinterest and Houzz make this really easy – create a board/idea book and save images that you like. Pay special attention to the flooring, kitchens, and bathrooms – as this will be where you make the majority of your selections.

After you’ve saved a bunch of pictures, look for patterns. My inspiration board was pretty much all two-toned kitchens with dark floors and white countertops so when I got to the design centre I knew exactly what to look for.

2 – Create a list of all upgrades you’re considering

If your builder gives you a list of optional upgrades that’s great, if they don’t, you can still make your own. Look at your floor plan and think about each room, how you will use it and what you would like them to have.

Do you want crown molding above your kitchen cabinets?
Do you want a larger shower instead of a bathtub?
Do you need an outlet outside for holiday decorations?
How about air conditioning?

Write down everything you can think of and decide if they are “must-haves” or just “nice-to-haves”.

3 – Get prices in advance

The design consultant at our builder’s design centre may have regretted it, but she gave me her email address at our first meeting. Before making our stage 1 selections I sent her the list of all the things on our “structural” wish list and asked her for pricing, which she seemed happy enough to send me. We were then able to discuss what upgrades we really needed before making our final selections.

4 – Don’t be limited to what the builder offers

Your builder’s design centre will have lots of samples for you to look at, but what if you don’t like any of the options? Before you select something you don’t love, see if they can source something else.

We knew we wanted to upgrade to granite countertops in our kitchen, but I hated all the granite options at the design centre. I did some research and our builder was able to quote a price for us from their fabricator. We also had them source a different hardwood flooring for us (that didn’t go as well, but I’ll talk about that later).

Probably my biggest regret in our selection process was that I didn’t think of this when we were making our structural selections. I took the floor plan as set in stone, with us only being able to make the slight modifications mentioned by the builder like removing a door here or there, or replacing a bathtub with a walk-in shower.

We hated the placement of the gas fireplace in the floor plan, so we opted to not install one, but we could of had it moved to a different location like one of our neighbours. We also never considered having our builder omit the walls we just removed in our main floor renovation.

Sometimes the answer will be no, but it doesn’t hurt to ask – right?

5 – Do your own research

I’m not trying to suggest that you builder is try to rip you off, but I do think it’s worthwhile to do some research and price comparisons. If the price for an upgraded bathroom vanity is way more than what you would pay for one at a store, it might be worthwhile to wait and replace it later.

This is how we decided to select one of the standard kitchen cabinet styles and paint them ourselves to get the solid colour look we wanted. This was a more cost effective option than upgrading as we were willing to do the work ourselves.

On that note: don’t forget to consider the labour costs when comparing prices!

6 – Embrace Spreadsheets

Yup, spreadsheets are key. My family teases me all the time for having a spreadsheet for everything, but at the end of the day that’s how I could estimate how much all these potential upgrades would cost us.

We could quickly compare the total cost of our potential selections by easily adding and removing upgrades. I used Google Sheets and created a shared spreadsheet everyone could view and edit.

7 – If you have a tight budget, pick your upgrades strategically

If you have to be strategic about your upgrade budget, I suggest investing in the structure before the design. You can always make it look pretty later but moving a wall or rearranging a bathroom is easier and (from what I can tell) cheaper if you do it while the house is being built.

The shower we added instead of a tub/shower combination (before the glass was installed)

With your leftover design budget, think about the stuff you can do yourself, or do later and also the convenience of the builder do things.

As an example, taking possession of our house and then having to replace all the carpet with hardwood would have been really inconvenient for us. Even though we could have saved money by doing it ourselves, we opted to pay our builder for that upgrade.

8 – Aim to have two separate design appointments, one to look and one to decide

If possible, try to make at least two appointments for making your design selections. On your first appointment do not make any decisions, just try to collect as much information as you can. Look at all the options, write down names and pricing and take photos of the stuff you like.

You may find that your builder doesn’t offer anything that matches your design inspiration (or maybe they do, but it’s outside your budget). Don’t make a rushed decision. Go home, regroup and search for new inspiration with your available options in mind.

Make all your decisions in a second appointment after you’ve had a chance to think about everything you looked at.

9 – Document everything

Once you’ve made your selections, your builder should provide you with a document that lists them all, usually as an amendment to your purchase agreement. While this is important for keeping track of your costs, it doesn’t necessarily go into a great level of detail.

Having photos of the different selections you made (especially cabinet doors, flooring, countertops and tile) means you won’t be surprised if you get delayed a few months and forget what “Reeds Brown 13” looks like.

Here’s my cautionary tale, if you followed along with our main floor renovation, you might remember the drama with our hardwood floors.

When we made our upgrade selections in November 2012, we picked an engineered hardwood floor to be installed on our main floor and in two of the four bedrooms on our second floor. The colour was called “Woodstock” and was a medium brown colour.

Fast forward to seven months later when we had our pre-possession inspection. We walk into our soon-to-be new home and the floors look more red than I had expected. Is that the colour we chose? I thought it would be more brown. No one else notices so I drop it and am disappointed that we made a selection that I didn’t end up loving.

Fast forward again to February 2018 when we are about to begin a renovation to remove a wall on our main floor and we need to purchase more flooring to match our existing hardwood.

While visiting a local flooring store I saw a sample book for our flooring and noticed a second colour, Gunstock, that was significantly more red and, sure enough, matches the too-red flooring that our builder installed.

gunstock (left) compared to woodstock (right)

This was a totally honest mistake by our builder, Woodstock and Gunstock are very similar names, and the actual flooring looks very similar. I didn’t mention it when we moved in because I was going from memory alone, and assumed I had just remembered the colour wrong. By the time I had realized it was actually a mistake, it was too late and there was nothing that could be done.

Take notes, take photos, double check all your selections are correct when you do your inspection.

10 – Be nice

You know that nice person who helps you make your decisions at the design centre? It’s not their fault that your house was delayed because of a trade strike, or that the builder was late applying for a permit, or that the city has rescheduled an inspection.

When things go wrong and you want someone to blame, don’t take it out on them. Even if the mistake was theirs, being nice will benefit you. Take it from someone with a customer service background – you always aim to treat everyone with respect, but you will go above and beyond for people who treat you with respect in return.

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