Part 2: Smart planning for custom homes and large renovation projects

Candice Mathers of CMR INTERIORS, LLC.


1. Don’t rush into the process without a plan!   If you have NO plan, then definitely hire a designer to help you wing all details that will be demanded from your contractors daily.

However if you want to custom build, and have the luxury of time, pass a plan around for a year before breaking ground letting many eyes critique and make suggestions. Search & bid out all your dream finishes, sinks, fixtures, and price it all for all baths and kitchen details so you can make sure you are within budget.


2. Remember this: Perimeter comes first,  then the interior design. Perimeter is your envelope which are the main characters in your “story”.

Example:  doors, trim, kitchen cabinetry, its layout and feature, baths, stair design, floor choices, hardware and knobs, any moving or extra  window or sunlights, millwork that is built in, A/V and low voltage wiring, etc–all and should flow and work together in harmony for a consistent statement. Then be prepared to spend an extra 75$-100 a square foot typically for interior design once the perimeter is finished.



3. Always have extra funds, because you ALWAYS spend more upgrading, especially when working with a spec builder on a custom home. Have a fairly large contingency budget for any extra unexpected costs that come up with renovating, or upgrades of at least 50-150K–for larger homes. For smaller homes, 30-70K. The truth is when you build custom, most contractors price their goods based on cheap materials from the local depot and if you don’t want those items you are going to pay for a change order. And if you don’t plan well and dislike all of the builder’s choices —all those change orders per room will easily add up to be thousands and thousands of dollars.  It’s common because the client doesn’t like what is normal and wants something they see in all the design magazines.  Those items are far more expensive than standard spec house goods from the local depot. Furthermore,  there are price increases on nearly every product every year at the Merchandise Mart showrooms, for carpeting companies, for kitchen and bath cabinetry and plumbing fixtures, and other high end showrooms many other companies.


4.  Hire a designer with project management experience,  before hiring the contractor. Why?   Because your contractor will need a specific and detailed set of plans to bid the job correctly and so will subcontractors if you want to do contracting on your own!


5. Good Designers have quality subs and contractors. The client doesn’t have to take their suggestions but things tend to run more smoothly when true professionals work together. These large projects require major coordination, and effective communication for a fantastic result.

6. Less Space is MORE. More character or architecture vs vast dry wall and extra rooms that are costly to decorate is always my advice. When you custom build you pay more than your neighbor who simply took and ugly house and made it look better in taxes. Many people don’t realize they pay a premium in taxes for insisting on having a new house. New homes are taxed at a higher rate and property taxes are ridiculous in the suburbs and city of Chicago. They certainly never go down.  

All these factors should be weighed when building. I say renovate over building custom and build smaller. These ridiculously sized homes are over with. They are super high in utilities, property taxes, and design costs. It’s better to have a smarter layout, then a larger one. If you must build your dream home, ask yourself if you really need a living room and formal dining room? Why not just have the house be more kitchen centric, with a large kitchen, eating area and huge family room, and skip the formal dining room and living rooms that rarely are used anyway. This is the new trend in home building. Have a large unfinished basement when you finish that is not taxed,  and work with an architect to get something a little smaller, cozier, but with all the storage you could ever need.

7. Bidding: It’s not who is the cheapest of the 3 bids. Learn the right way to work with contractors:  “How to hire, manage and fire your contractor” by Carmen Amabile . It will give you more confidence to deal with your builder and make sure you hire the right one too. Very  important.

8. Make sure you are clear on your builders/contractors policies on change orders, how emergencies will be handled, who the emergency contact is, have all phone numbers, and have a clear understanding of who will be on the job site daily, who is responsible on their part, and understand the chain of command on the job site. Again, READ the book listed above please. You will find it very helpful.

9. Don’t buy the lot until you know you can secure the financing. In this new market, its not so easy to secure financing for building. Make sure you do this in the right order. Don’t take financing for granted anymore.

10. Dream big for your custom home or renovation but also be smart about it. It takes diligence on your part to do all the legwork in order to do it right. Your designer/architect/contractor are all separate pieces of the pie,  and can work together,  but they still need accurate budgets, definite plans,  so be focused like a laser –and get your end of the work done upfront– so you know what to delegate to others so that they can be a successful partner for you.

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