15+ Design Decisions To Get Right for Your New Build

Plus, a hard truth on your intended deadline.

Home Exterior with Stone, Cedar Shakes
Photo: Brian Bieder; Designer: Maggie Griffin Design

When it comes to finding the perfect home, many choose to build rather than renovate these days. The ability to customize every corner is truly a gift, as many renovators will attest. But with the benefits come inevitable moments of stress and self-doubt as homeowners face an overwhelming number of design decisions. We've been there!

Though these choices can feel small, experts say it's essential to be mindful during the process. "You will be living in this home for the foreseeable future. Every decision requires thoughtful choices and foresight," says Andi Morse, Founder & Principal Designer of Morse Design. "You want the home to grow with you and your family's needs. Consider where you might be in a couple of years so you can build a home that will last a lifetime."

For designer Maggie Griffin of Maggie Griffin Design, getting to the heart of what you need day-to-day is essential. "Try not to focus so much on trendy photos and instead really consider the way you live in a space," she says.

If you're not a design professional, we know it's easy to feel overwhelmed by the process. If you're currently building or plan to in the future, read on: We've asked top experts in residential new construction projects to share sage advice you can trust.

Plan for 1 to 3 Years and Expect Delays

The new build process depends on several factors, including the size of your build, the level of detail, material availability, and weather events. When estimating the length of a project, Charleston designer Megan Molten encourages her clients to get a one-year lease, while Griffin expects at least 18 months from planning to completion — though every project is different. For Morse, allowing anywhere from 1.5 to 2 years is safe. "In today's world with COVID-19 delays, everything is taking longer, including new builds," she says.

Brimingham, AL Garden Curb Appeal
Robbie Caponetto

Select a Team That You Love

President of Our Town Plans, Suzanne Stern, says that many talented builders and designers are capable of designing homes. "I think one of the most important things that can ensure a positive experience is selecting a designer and builder whose business 'style' suits the homeowner's," she says. Mark Danuser, owner of Tatum Brown Custom Homes, agrees. "Hire the contractor and interior designer you fit with personality-wise because it is someone you will spend a great amount of time with," he says. "Not only is this experience probably the biggest investment you'll ever make, but a home is very emotional, and you want to have the right team on your side."

Don't Rush Through Pre-Construction

Danuser believes not spending enough time in the pre-construction phase is an avoidable mistake. "The best thing you can do is spend as much time with the plans, architects, landscape architects, and designers as possible," he says. "In most cases, people that rush through plans lose time on the back end because it was not properly done in the beginning. We always encourage our clients to let us be a big part of the construction process from the start, so we can help them with those decisions and tell them what to look for."

Ask Key Business Questions and Avoid Change Orders

While many focus time on design choices, understanding the invoice and financial processes is crucial, Stern says. "In addition to having a clear understanding of what their allowances are and what constitutes a change order, customers need to be comfortable with how and how often draws are requested, what invoices will be presented, and how," she says. Avoiding the dreaded change order is also essential. "Take your time and get everything worked out before the first shovel hits the dirt," Stern says. "Many times, time and money that's invested in planning ends up saving much more in the long run."

Be Patient and Trust Your Professionals

"Patience and planning are key to making it through the building process," says Abbe Fenimore, Founder & Principal Designer of Studio Ten 25. "You will be anxious to start, but do your best not to rush others as they prepare every detail to create your new home. It takes time, and you want to ensure to give each step the attention it requires."

Morse believes that patience is imperative, too. "Be patient, especially in the COVID-19 world," she says. "Try your best to go with the flow and remember that issues are best resolved with time and patience. Hire a designer that you trust to guide and advise you; they aid in working with a builder, which ultimately helps the entire process feel less stressful!"

Living room with floor-to-ceiling window
The floor-to-ceiling windows and continuation of materials blur boundaries between indoors and out. Dane Tashima; Styling by Raina Kattelson

Find Time to Enjoy the Process

Sherry Hayslip of Sherry Hayslip Interiors says that you should have a positive experience with proper planning and budgeting. "Create a realistic budget with the knowledge that it will likely cost more than you initially think. And, most importantly, enjoy the process," she says.

Griffin agrees. "Just know it's going to cost a little more and take a little longer than you originally thought," she says. "But when all is said and done, you'll be so happy! Enjoy the process, and remember that it's supposed to be fun, too."

Prioritize Your Kitchen and Primary Bathroom

"Splurge on your kitchen and [primary] bathroom," Morse says. "You will spend so much of your time in both of these spaces, so design for the long term. Make them as impactful as you can within your budget. I also recommend splurging on the lighting throughout the home. This detail can make a home feel and look more custom." Fenimore suggests choosing updated and classic finishes, creative storage, and beautiful lighting for these spaces to make them feel special. "Save on guest bathrooms and laundry rooms by installing budget-friendly and timeless tile designs to keep cost under control," she says.

Blue and White Master Bathroom with Trellis Clad Walls
Laurey W. Glenn; Styling: Buffy Hargett Miller

Splurge On Well-Made Cabinetry

"Splurge on a good, solid cabinet company," Giffin says. "Save on plumbing fixtures and lighting — there are a plethora of pretty options that won't break the bank." Danuser values well-made cabinetry, too. "The most impactful design elements are cabinet details, reflective ceiling details, and lighting design," he says. "The least impactful component is hardware, don't overthink something as small as this that can easily change."

Incorporate Character-Rich Details

"Details are important," Griffin says. "Choose millwork, architectural details, and cabinets that feel like the style of the home," Griffin suggests incorporating reclaimed beams, inlaid brick floors, and unique moldings to add a feeling of uniqueness and warmth. Morse says details such as wood floors and specialty lighting can accomplish this, too. "All of these (or even just one) can infuse more charm into the finished home," she says.

Select Durable Materials—Especially for Busy Families

According to Molten, a family home cannot just be beautiful — it must also be functional. "Our use of durable finishes and textiles ensures their spaces are livable and realistic for their families," she says. "Our clients always appreciate this in the end."

Think Less About Paint and More About Furniture

Molten thinks homeowners often spend too much time on paint color selection. "If it's really giving you a hard time and you just can't decide, paint everything white," she says. "You can always paint rooms and add wallpaper later." She also believes too little time goes to space planning and furniture. "You need to think about furnishings from the very beginning when the architect is drawing up the plans," she says. "It affects everything from which way the door swings, the placement of the fireplace, width of the kitchen island, etc."

2021 Idea House Porch Fireplace Seating Area
Marta Xochilt Perez; Styling: Page Mullins

Plan For Electrical and Gas Lines to Boost Curb Appeal

"Curb appeal is one of the most impactful elements of a new home," Fenimore says. "Even if you aren't able to achieve every item on the wish list, plan for future expansion by adding the necessary electrical or gas lines. This will save you money down the road and prevent you from having to remove any existing elements to make way for the addition."

Allocate Funds to Landscaping and Outdoor Living Space

"I wish I could say that the most impactful design element is something I incorporate in my house plans, but truthfully, it's landscaping," Stern says. "My father taught me this lesson early on, and it's true: Great landscaping can make even the most average house look good, so spend the money and do it right – you won't regret it."

Danuser recommends thinking about outdoor living spaces, too, rather than other areas of the home. "Outdoor kitchens and living spaces are always something worth splurging on. When it comes to saving, don't overthink secondary spaces such as the garage, guest bedrooms, or even the formal dining room you will only use once or twice a year," he says.

Invest in Quality Construction (What You Can't See)

"As a plan designer, I always advocate for splurging on the best construction you can afford," Stern says. "I know that can be hard when so much of a house's structure will never be seen, but a well-built home should give its owners a certain peace of mind." Hayslip agrees. "If your HVAC doesn't function correctly or your floors slant and your doors won't close, you won't be happy in your home, even if it looks pretty," she says.

Be Thoughtful About Electrical Outlet and Light Switch Placement

Something as small as outlets and light switches can have a significant impact, says Fenimore. "Scheduling a walkthrough with your builder and electrician is going to save you frustration and expensive add-ons once you move in," she says. "Consider other details like exterior downlighting, landscaping lighting, and hidden outlets inside of your bathroom drawers to keep cords organized and easy to hide.

Mid-Century Modern Open Kitchen
Eddings scored an antique Belgian pendant light at the Original Round Top Antiques Fair. “You can also scour eBay to find lighting,” she suggests. Molly Culver

At the End, Bring in Finishing Touches

The last design elements to consider are the finishing touches, Molten says. "Most new build homeowners are thinking big picture items, but it's the little details that make it feel the most complete and like a home. After we install lighting, rugs, and furniture, we style our client's homes down to the candles, vases, and bowl on the coffee table." Molten's top styling tips? She always includes greenery — real or faux. "Greenery is always the element that makes a space come alive and gives it that character that makes it feel cozy, complete, and lived in."

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