We’ve been through one new build home. Overall it was a good experience and we are very pleased with our home. I had the luxury to go to the build every day and managed to catch a few things that would have ended up being annoyances. Since we have moved in there are a number of things we have found that we would want to change in our next new build which will probably be a full custom home. This is a list of things to think about – after reading this list maybe you can plan a little better and catch some little issues in your new build before they become permanent annoyances.
All of your work as the buyer happens before the excavation begins. It should be mostly done before you have a contract finalized. Once you have a final price and start the build there is little you can change without a lot of extra cost.
Location, Location, Location!
If you are buying a parcel in a subdivision, think hard about which one is the right one to buy.
If you are close to a corner, you will likely hear engines revving as cars and motorcycles accelerate from a stop or corner. Mid way along a section of road when cars are coasting is usually the quietest.
If you are close to a corner, think about where headlights will be coming from and where the bedrooms are located… Will headlights be shining in your bedroom all night? Will they swing across your house as people turn the corner?
Think about where the sun comes up and sets… Which way do the bedrooms face and are you OK with sunshine at 5:30am?
Are there any other sources of light that can be disturbing, such so streetlights, baseball diamonds, sports complexes, schools, or parking lots?
Sometimes I thought it would be nice to back into a wooded area. The privacy would be nice but there will likely be a lot more bugs in those lots.
Are you buying in a phase one? While that’s often a good tactic to have property values increase, you need to think about how traffic will increase on your street as future phases are opened. A quiet street now can become extremely busy in a couple of years.
Also consider if you want to have the sidewalk on your side. Many subdivisions only have sidewalks on one side of the street. If you have young kids it might be nice to have the sidewalk running on your side of the street. But in winter you have to keep the snow cleared, and if you have multiple vehicles it can mean you can’t park two deep on your driveway because you have to leave the sidewalk clear.
Where are the fire hydrants? The phone and cable boxes? The transformer boxes? Do you want them on your front yard?
Often inside corner lots where the road bends without an intersection offer a higher number of good aspects. Often they are considered premium lots with an extra cost because they are somewhat pie shaped and may have larger back yards. Corner lots, while appealing for their larger advertised size, don’t really have much more usable space and can have many of the downsides from above.
Chances are you won’t be able to find the perfect lot. But you can make some good decisions based on what you’re willing to trade off.
Also, if you are planning to buy in a subdivision that hasn’t been started and doesn’t have roads or services yet, many of these things you will not know in advance or be able to find out, such as which side the sidewalk will be on or where the streetlights and fire hydrants will be. If these things matter a lot to you, you may need to consider a different subdivision or waiting until the services are installed. While you may end up paying a bit more, you will get what you want. Or you can take a chance and hope that you don’t have large green steel boxes cluttering your front yard!
If you already own a lot or are building on a rural property, you should still consider things like orientation to the sun and traffic patterns, especially at night.
Live In Your Floor Plan . . .
We followed some advice given to us by a realtor friend. Post up the couple of floor plans you’re considering where you live now, and at the end of every day, discuss how you would have lived in the new house. Do it for two weeks. Try to imagine the day you just lived in different weather, times of year, perhaps with a larger family. If you do this for two weeks you will likely eliminate a number of floor plans you thought were quite good. Plus you will likely end up making some changes to the winning plan to better fit your lifestyle.
And while you’re at it, design your basement floor plan! Builders will rough in the plumbing for you in the basement before the floor is poured – if you have a good idea about your plan you can put the drains and vents, and the toilet drain, in the spot that YOU want it versus where the builder thinks it should be. Also design in any wet bar you might want to have in the future, or an (extra) laundry tub.
. . .Then Change Your Plan
Builders will often let you change a plan, within reason. We made a few changes that we are very happy with. There are a number of other changes we would have made had we thought about them.
One of the changes we made for our plan was to create a walk-through closet to our bathroom. For couples with different wake up times having two doors between the bathroom noises and light in the early morning hours helps let the other person keep sleeping. It’s nice for both people.
We also took out a funny angle at the entrance to the master suite. It would have looked really good, but we thought the space would be better used as two small closets. Good decision.
Finally, the entrance from the garage was a short hallway that went into the living room, then into the eating area, then the kitchen. We redesigned that whole entry to put the garage entry right into eating area and kitchen, and to give more privacy to the powder room for our family and guests.
The upgrade I wish we had done was 9′ basement ceilings. It sounds strange to put high ceilings in the basement… until you look at a basement ceiling. Usually the HVAC ducting runs across an inconvenient location in the basement, and there are usually beams and exposed large plumbing that uses up 9 to 12 inches of your basement ceilings. So really, if you build 9′ basement ceilings you will have a full and proper 8′ of usable space when it comes to finishing your basement. Another benefit of higher ceilings in the basement is larger windows which lets in more natural light and helps to make it feel much less like a basement. If you don’t end up finishing your basement, you still end up with an extra foot of vertical storage space which can go a long ways to helping clear clutter.
Stairs with a 90 degree or 180 degree turn can look beautiful and definitely add some flair if they are in the open. Keep in mind however that moving long or heavy items up a bent stairwell can be challenging. Often times stairs to the basement mirror the layout of stairs to the upper floor. If this is the case in your plan, consider how you will get construction materials, couches, etc. into the basement when you go to finish it. Maybe straight stairs make more sense for you.
Also consider how the garage or front door line up with the basement stairs. If you’re like me you have a lot of tools and a make-shift workshop in the basement, which means you’ll be carrying full sheets of plywood and full length 2x4s to the basement to work on. How many corners will you have to go around, and how much damage will you cause to your main floor walls getting stuff to the basement? Even carrying boxes of seasonal decorations up and down and around corners can be more difficult than necessary with poorly placed stairs.
Which brings me to my next point: Widen the stairs. If at all possible, add 6 or 12 inches to the width of your stairs, and the same amount to the access doors (for basement stairs). You’ll be glad you did when you start carrying things up and down the stairs!
Watch out for door conflicts. Do you have to close one door to open another? Will they bang together if one isn’t closed? We have this situation in the garage entry we modified – it is our fault since we didn’t think through the door plans. It may not be possible to prevent all door conflicts, but at least you will be aware of it going into your new home.
Many home designs have sliding glass doors to the back yard. the standard size is 6′, which leaves just under 3′ for walking through. Consider changing this door to an 8′ sliding glass door which gives just under 4′. Or, switch the sliding glass door to double opening French Doors.
Be Picky About Your Upgrades
Our philosophy on upgrades was to add the things that are nearly impossible to change later on. For instance, we upgraded to 9 foot ceilings on the main floor and an Oak Staircase, since you can’t change the ceiling height later, and Oak Stairs are a major expense.
We upgraded the flooring through much of the main floor to tile because the floor framing is actually different depending on what flooring materials you choose. Properly done, a tile floor should have floor joists on 12″ centers rather than standard 16″ centers.
We added a gas fireplace in the Master Suite since running a gas line and venting through the roof after construction is complete would be almost impossible. The Gas Fireplace in the living room could have been done later, but it was easier to have it all done at once. We also added wall sconces at the sides of each fireplace since wiring them later is a lot harder than doing it when the walls are open.
We added a pantry and computer desk as part of the kitchen / eating area so that the oak cabinets all matched the kitchen.
And we added a floor drain in the main floor laundry room in case there is ever a washing machine flood.
Finally, we put in a Jacuzzi corner tub in the master bath because you couldn’t physically get it in the house as part of a later renovation.
All other upgrades were not done through the builder because I am a handy guy and can do most of it myself at a later date. For example, we left the builder grade carpets and underlay because we have two small kids. We figured in 5 to 7 years the carpet will be due for replacement and at that time we’ll put in hardwood that matches closely to the Oak Stairs.
Adjustments To Your Subdivision Home
It will depend a lot on who your builder is. Smaller builders in smaller towns will sometimes turn a blind eye and let you go and do things on your own. Many of these things are simple changes you can do over a weekend or two with the right tools,or things that the builder can easily do for you.
This is not designed to be a how-to. For the purposes of this article I assume you have the knowledge already or have friends who do. Some of these are demands you can make from your builder… But don’t be surprised if you get a flat “No” when you ask. All of these things should be achievable in a full custom build.
Plan where your TVs will be and add 2×10 vertically at the right height to allow for better and more secure mounting of your TV. At the very least double up the studs where you think the TV will go.
Plan your flooring. I have seen many plans where a builder will put tile in the kitchen, entry, and bathrooms, but all the hallways in between are carpet. Tile is highly personal. Some prefer hardwood, and some prefer carpet. But if you do like tile, plan it out well, because wherever you put tile the floor joists underneath should be on 12″ centers. If you do hardwood or carpet the standard 16″ centers is fine. 12″ centers will prevent your floors from moving and will keep your tile in place and keep your grout from cracking.
Also, across all flooring, tongue and groove plywood should be glued using a high quality wood adhesive and also screwed down. Nails are not sufficient since they will pull out over time and your floors will squeak.
In any new build you will likely have a sump pump. Try to have it put in a corner so you can build a cabinet over it. Sound insulate the inside of the cabinet and you’ll likely never hear it running. And before the concrete basement floor is poured, have an emergency overflow drain installed. Water should flow out this drain into your waste water system before the water rises past the top of the sump pit. It will save your basement if your pump fails or if you have a power failure during a storm. It also removes the need for a fancy battery backup or redundant sump pump to handle these uncommon situations. This is a big deal.
Do a walk through many times in your head about how you will live in the new house. How you will turn on and off lights as you enter and exit a room or turn everything off for the night. Determine where you will want double or triple switches. It’s a small price to pay to get electrical where you want it. There is nothing worse than having to cross a dark room to turn on a light because you missed a switch.
Make sure light switches are on the correct side of a door opening!
Put in closet lights. It makes a huge difference. If it’s too expensive, you can just do it in the main entry closets and not bother with bedroom closets.
Wire in under cabinet lighting in the kitchen. Even if you don’t install it during your build, wire it. It’s a cheap addition later that changes the look and feel of your kitchen.
Have plugs wired to the kitchen cabinet tops. If you have electrical outlets up there connected to one or two switches you can easily plug in LED upward facing accent lighting in addition to your under counter lighting.
Consider outdoor lighting as well. Where will your deck be? Do you want motion sensor lights all around, or just in the back yard? Many builders give you one light in the back yard. That’s likely not enough if you’ll be there after dark. Consider adding more when you build.
Also consider lighting in your garage. If you do any work in your garage you probably want to have more light than whatever your garage door opener can provide. Two or four basic light sockets can make a huge difference to your after dark use of your garage.
Low Voltage Wiring
I have a passion for electronics. I also have a passion for construction. Due to this I have a lot to say on low voltage wiring in the home, including internet wiring (CAT5e or CAT6), Cable/Co-Axial cable (RG6), phone lines, and wiring for an alarm, home automation, and audio/video.
Due to the size of this post, plus the size of the topic of low voltage wiring, I’ll cover them separately in an upcoming article.
Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC)
The most important thing I can say is DO NOT HAVE BEDROOM COLD AIR RETURNS AGAINST A BATHROOM WALL! This is because you will be sound insulating the bedroom walls and a cold air return cannot be insulated. Even if you don’t insulate, the noise from the bathroom will find its way into the wall cavity through the cold air return vent and the wall can act as an amplifier. It just shouldn’t be done.
My preference is to ensure that bathroom and laundry room heat vents are not on the floor. The vents should be placed just above the baseboards to ensure no water ever drips into the HVAC pipes. If vents MUST be on the floor in the bathroom, try not to have the vents right beside the bath or shower where a shower curtain can drip into the vent.
Make sure that all pipes are well anchored and will not be touched by drywall. If either of these occur you will hear the expansion and contraction of the pipes during winter heat cycles.
Makes sure all the HVAC pipe joints are taped with proper silver duct tape (the shiny stuff, not the normal fabric duct tape) before the walls are drywalled.
This is a weekend project you may be able to get away with if you have a small builder and make friends with them. There is nothing destructive about insulating and it doesn’t hinder any work the crews do. However, plan it with your builder so you insulate at the right time. For example, interior insulation must be done after HVAC, electrical, and plumbing are done, and obviously before drywall. It can be a very short opportunity window that you have so try and schedule a weekend with your builder before drywalling starts.
We used Roxul Safe’n’Sound insulation. It is excellent sound insulation. If you don’t have Roxul in your area, there will be other options available. You need to look specifically for SOUND insulation though, not heat insulation. They’re different.
Insulate all bedroom walls, ceilings, and floors for sound wherever there is another room next to it. Bedrooms on the top floor don’t need to have ceiling sound insulation since the ceilings will be insulated in the attic. For bedrooms where there is a living space below, the ceiling of the room below should have sound insulation, resilient channels, and 5/8″ drywall. For optimal sound insulation you can use an acoustic sealant between two 5/8″ drywall sheets.
Bathrooms should be insulated as well, but you can be a little less careful with bathrooms. Anywhere there is a drain though, wrap the drain pipe or fill the ceiling joist and any interior stud cavity with sound insulation.
For bathrooms on the living floor you should consider sound insulating walls and ceilings so that bathroom noises don’t carry through the rest of the living space.
Finally, if you have living space above your garage, add layers and layers of insulation into the garage ceiling. If you don’t you will have cold floors in that living space. This is an easy and low cost addition to make, whether you or your builder does it.
Ceiling Finishes And Bulkheads
Kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room ceilings are normally finished in a non-textured flat finish and painted white. The remainder of ceilings are finished in one texture or another. Textured ceilings are easier and faster for a builder to do, and can look quite nice.
Find out where the flat ceiling will end and where the textured ceiling will start. In our case, our kitchen, eating area, a small hall, and a portion of the living room ceiling are all one single ceiling with no natural breaks. The builder plan called for flat ceilings through the kitchen and textured through the rest. That would have created an artificial line somewhere across the entire ceiling where the texturing would start. It would have looked terrible. I was able to easily convince our builder to make that entire portion of the ceiling not textured, and it looks fantastic.
Also, in our kitchen area we have a bulkhead that would have run across a portion of one wall where the upstairs bathroom drains had to run. Instead of having an 8′ long bulkhead in the middle of a 20′ wall, we had the builder extend the bulkhead to run the entire length of that wall. It is obviously a bulkhead, but it looks like it belongs there and wasn’t an unplanned add on. If you miss this in your planning, don’t worry, it’s something that can quite easily be added or changed later.
Other Changes For A Custom Build
For a standard builder home, chances are you won’t have much influence over these items so I’ve listed them as custom build things to consider. You can ask your subdivision builder about them, but I would guess most will look at you funny and then say “No”.
Casement windows (open with a crank) are all the rage. While they are reportedly slightly better for resisting break-ins, I believe this is mostly a sales tactic. While they may better resist prying open when closed and locked, when unlocked they can still be pried open just like any other window. Plus, if someone really wants in your house, they will break the glass in any type of window and get in. Or they’ll use the door.
Builders will often put casement windows on the front of the house and standard sliding windows on the sides and rear. In our next house we will change this. We will have proper “double hung” windows that open from the top and bottom. These windows help with air exchange when both bottom and top are open. Hot air goes out the top, cooler air comes in the bottom. It creates air circulation in the room and helps reduce the need for air conditioning in the summer months. They had this figured out in the early 1900s yet somehow we lost sight of it…
I would also consider tinting all the windows. Tinting reduces the ultraviolet penetration into your home. It helps keep natural wood and fabrics from fading, and it helps reduce heat in the house. The downside is that it darkens the interior a little, and it is a different, more reflective look from the outside. It’s not a bad look at all, just different.
Normally the builder doors are fine. They are typically hollow core doors which means sound will transfer through. If you want to minimize sound transfer, consider switching to solid core doors for the interior doors with triple hinges rather than the standard double hinges.
We have personal experience with our builder who installed the cheapest asphalt shingles they could buy. It is quite a cost saving for them to use cheap shingles, but it may end up costing you in the long run. First, cheap shingles are rated for lower wind speeds which means you have a higher chance of shingles blowing off in a strong wind. And if you plan to stay in the house you’re building for quite a while, cheap shingles will need replacement after 10-15 years where the better ones will last 15-20 years.
I had a roofer once tell me that the minimum code of 3′ for ice damming prevention is not enough. He insisted on doing a double row of ice dam material taking it 6′ up from the gutters. I don’t know if it was necessary or not, but we never had a problem when I know our neighbours did…
Pex is the new norm for supply lines. It is easy and fast to work with and doesn’t require soldering. Leaks are uncommon as long as you use commercial grade clamps and spend the money on a high quality crimping tool. In our home, I built a manifold that attaches to the wall near the hot water tank. I have split the house into two sides, so that the upper floor master bath, main floor laundry, and powder room are on on set of shutoffs in the basement, the upstairs main bathroom and the kitchen are on another set of shutoffs, and the outdoor taps are on yet another shutoff. The reason for doing this is that if there is ever a leak or need for maintenance, half the house can be shut off and drained while the other half remains fully operational. In addition, it makes it very easy to drain the outdoor taps for winter if all you need to do is turn off the basement shutoff and drain just those lines.
It’s normal to run 1/2″ supply lines to all the fixtures in the house. For most things this makes sense and provides more than enough water flow. However, it takes a long time to fill a Jacuzzi tub using 1/2″ pipe. In our next build, I will run dedicated 3/4″ hot and cold supply lines to the Jacuzzi tub with proper 3/4″ taps.
I will also run 3/4″ cold lines to all the outdoor taps to increase the number of sprinklers that can be connected to a single tap. Or better yet I’ll put in a sprinkler system…
And put lots of outdoor taps. Plan out where you might ever want hoses, and put a tap there. Even if it doesn’t get turned on it may one day be useful. I am not a fan of taps in the garage. Many builders put them there, but I don’t know why. Most need for water is outside the garage, which means you’ll be running a hose underneath the garage door. Plus often there is sufficient clutter in the garage that getting to the taps becomes a chore. Put them outside.
There is a lot of information here. For me, the three most important things in this list are these:
- Put 9′ ceilings in your basement
- Insulate your bedrooms for sound (and do not put bedroom cold air returns against a bathroom wall!)
- Plan your electrical and lighting
An honourable mention goes to insulating the ceiling of a garage where there is living space above.
I hope you take a few things from this and are able to improve your own build. Please see the next post in this series – Notes For A New Home Build – Low Voltage Wiring
If you have things you think I missed, please add in the comments!