Congratulations on putting a contract down on a new construction home! The next step is picking out your finishings at your design center appointment a few weeks later.
I was super excited (and super stressed) about our design center appointment. How can I only have 2 hours to pick every upgrade and finish for my home? With a lot of research and prep work, it went pretty well (with only 1 or 2 things I’d do differently next time). So, I’m going to share with you some tips and tricks to make your upcoming design center appointment less stressful and more fun!
How Does the Design Center Work?
The design center is typically an off site office that houses most (not all) of the finishing options for your community. We purchased with Pulte in Charleston, SC, and our design center was in North Charleston, about 25 minutes from our new home. Ours had over 30 cabinet doors to look at; tons of flooring options for carpet, hardwood, laminate, LVP, and tile; and even full kitchens and baths to walk through.
Your appointment will likely be 2-3 hours with a design center associate. They’ll run through every option available to you and all your choices for each of those items. You’ll get to pull flooring, countertop, cabinet, and hardware options to a work space, so you can see how they’ll look together in your home.
For some options, you’ll only have one or two upgrade options, so they’ll each have their own price point (i.e. no hardware upgrade, brushed nickel hardware for $2200 or oil-rubbed brass for $2450). For other options, there are many more options, so instead of pricing out individual tiles, they group the tiles into levels. So, you can pick any Level 1 tile for $300 per bathroom, or any Level 4 kitchen countertop for $5400.
Once you’ve worked your way through all your options, you’ll review what you’ve chosen. If you’re over budget, this is where you will start exchanging items–“I’m $10,000 over budget, so I can live without the hardware upgrade to save $2450. I can get a Level 1 carpet instead of Level 3 to save $1200. etc.)
Once your happy with your choices, you’ll sign a lot more paper work, confirming your choices and the final sales price of your new home. At this point, you’ll be asked to pay a large sum of money towards your home that is non-refundable. For us, it was our down payment. Builders typically ask for that amount up front because they’re having to make a large investment in buying and installing all your finishes. If you walk away from the home halfway through the build, there’s a chance they’ll lose money, if they can’t find a buyer who likes your finishes. So, they take your down payment or other large sum of money as their collateral until you close the sale.
Before Your Appointment
Prepare, prepare, prepare! Some of these questions you should definitely ask before you sign a contract, because the worst thing that could happen is you walk into design center having spent your whole budget on the house, and realize the $5000 you have left is only going to get you a few recessed lights and brushed nickel hardware for your house. If you’ve already signed a contract, go ahead and ask them now! That way you’re not surprised during your 2 hour appointment.
What’s Your Budget?
At our community, our agent told us most people spent $20,000-$30,000 at design center, so we budgeted $30,000 for design center when choosing our model, since we really wanted to upgrade the kitchen. Well, we made it 30 minutes into the appointment at the design center, and we had already spend $20,000 and hadn’t even made it to most of the house!
In the end we added over $50,000 at the design center, and we didn’t upgrade most items (or upgraded to Level 1 or 2, but not 5 or 6). Luckily, we had some wiggle room in our price point to allow us to go over (more about that in second), but it was a terrible feeling sitting in the design center and wondering if I was going to have to give up the quartz countertops I wanted for builder-grade granite or our white cabinets for builder-grade brown because we were priced out.
Here’s another thing we did that I don’t recommend: we ended up signing a purchase agreement at the design center for $20,000 over our total house budget without knowing for sure we could afford it because we hadn’t had our official meeting with our builder’s mortgage broker (they were backed up for a month). I mean, we knew we would qualify for the mortgage because we’d gotten an idea of our max price when house shopping in Virginia. But, we didn’t know if we could afford this new price and keep the lifestyle we wanted to (like, eating out once a week or buying those cute pants on Athleta and not worrying about if we had grocery money this month if I did). Luckily, we got a mortgage broker from the builder to call us a few hours after our appointment and confirm our new numbers were something we were comfortable with. Phew!
But again, don’t let that be you!
Know for sure what your goal price is and then what your ‘I absolutely cannot spend more than this’ price is. I was a stickler for our goal price, but when I saw the things we couldn’t get if we didn’t up the price, I was willing to give up eating out some nights and up the budget than walk away from our dream kitchen.
What’s Included in the Base Model?
Knowing what’s included in your base model is hugely important to know before you make any decisions at the design center. This will help you prioritize your decision making for your upgrades.
Sometimes things are included that you wouldn’t have expected. For example, our home came with recessed lights in the kitchen and in the master bath, as well as ceiling fan hookups in the family room and master bedroom. That was great for us since we planned on upgrading those! Those included items would have cost us $1000. Here are the things that were included in our base model that we weren’t expecting:
- Ceiling fan mounts in our living room, master bedroom, and back porch
- Recessed lights in our kitchen
- Hardwood floors or laminate in SOME of the first floor
- A decent amount of CAT6 wiring and wireless access points
However, most of the time, there are things you don’t expect to have to pay for at the design center. For example, appliances are not included in the base price of most new construction homes. You want a stove–here’s the package you can add on. Here are a few more big surprises to me when it came to what’s NOT included in our base model:
- Gutters (apparently normal in the South; for us Northerners, we were shocked we had to pay extra for gutters)
- Door and window framing and wall trim molding
- Cabinet hardware
What’s Your Style?
The 2 hour design center appointment is not the time to fight with your spouse (or yourself) over if you want white cabinets or gray in the kitchen. There are simply too many other decisions you have to make in such a short amount of time.
Have a basic idea of what colors you want for cabinets and flooring, what kind of hardware finish you like, and if you want carpet or hardwood upstairs. That way you can save your time for debating the 30+ tile choices you will have for each bathroom (yes, there really are that many tile options–at least there were at Pulte).
What Are You Willing to do Later or DIY?
An easy way to save money is to know what you are you willing to upgrade later or what you are willing to upgrade yourself. For example, we’ve installed a backsplash before, so when we were faced with a minimum $600 for a backsplash we didn’t love, it was easy to skip that upgrade and for us to plan to do it later. Same with cabinet hardware–I hated the knobs and pulls that were options at the design center. So, we’ll be installing those ourselves when we move in.
Don’t forget that those things you plan on doing yourself will still cost money in the future, so either put that money aside in your moving budget or plan on waiting a few months until you can purchase what you want.
What Are Your Must Haves and Like to Haves?
Walking into the design center with a ranked list of your must haves and nice to haves will make the whole experience MUCH easier. That way you can price out that dream kitchen on the top of your list (like we did) before you move on to the upgraded guest bath (nice to have for us). Don’t have more than 3 or so items on your Must Have list because depending on the price, you may only get a few of those things.
These were our Must Haves:
- Upgraded kitchen (white cabinets, quartz countertops, exterior venting hood, gas stove)
- Hardwood/Laminate/LVP on first floor
- Ceiling fan hookups in all the bedrooms
- Recessed lights in the living room
And, here are our Nice to Haves:
- Frameless shower door in our Owner’s Bath
- Upgraded tile in all the bathrooms
- Upgraded vanities in all baths
- Upgraded carpet padding on the 2nd and 3rd floors
- Extra parking pad off the driveway
What Do You Not Want?
Knowing what you don’t want to upgrade at your new home helps you make easy money-saving decisions during your design center appointment. It was super easy to make no decisions. ‘Do you want to add wood floors to the 2nd and 3rd floor for $8000?’ No. ‘Do you want upgraded tile in the laundry room for $1000?’ Nope. ‘Do you want to drywall the garage for $3000?’ No thanks. Just saved us $12,000 🙂
Questions to Ask the Builder Before Your Appointment
Feel free to ask the builder’s real estate agent or your design center representative any questions prior to your appointment, if they’ll make you feel more comfortable before your appointment.
I will say, builders are super protective over options lists and pricing sheets, so you may not be able to get all the information you want. We were given a copy of brochure containing some of the options after we made our appointment, but never got a list of the prices.
Here are some questions we found helpful:
- How much do buyers typically spend on design center?
- Can I visit the design center before to help make decisions?
- Are there other model homes that I can walk through to look at options before my appointment?
- Do you offer _____ as an option at the design center (for me it was a stand alone tub, and the answer was no 🙁 )
You probably won’t get all the answers that you want, but you’ll at least have a little more information to prepare with by asking these questions ahead of time.
Don’t Forget the Cash!
As I talked about above, make sure you have your down payment (or whatever amount your builder has designated) ready to wire to the builder at your design center appointment. You’ll need to give that to the builder in order for them to move forward with your home. A lot of builders don’t apply for the permits for your home until your options are chosen (they need the final electrical plans, gas lines, and any other structural additions in order to submit the plans to your city or county).
So, make sure you have your payment ready to go on design center day to avoid any delays to your home.
The design center appointment can be a very stressful experience, but it should also be a lot of fun! You’re picking out the things that will make your new construction home ‘you’. Have a little fun with looking at styles you love and ones you may not have thought of. And, enjoy daydreaming about what your new home will look like in a few short months!