It still feels so surreal to say Johnny and I are building our first home. WOW. This home is years, if not decades in the making. It all started with our parents and their dedication to the American dream. When my family left communist Vietnam, they sought freedom, democracy, human rights and the opportunity to create a better life for me. That drive and fire were instilled in us to always work hard, save everything possible and be financially secure. It is wild this is currently our reality.
If you’re new here, Johnny and I started dating in 2010 and we very quickly knew we would one day get married. Buying a home in Dallas has been our end goal for as long as I can remember. In this post, I’m excited to break down what actually building your first home is like. This includes choosing a builder, design options, lot and more. I’ve been getting lots of questions about the financial aspect of buying or building a home and even though we will touch a little on that in this post, we will do a more in-depth post on that once we close on our home and have the full spectrum of experience to talk about. We want to be thorough and as helpful as possible with our advice, so once we close on the house, we’ll have more experience to draw from.
Grab a cup of coffee or tea and settle in. This post will take you on our journey of finding our home as well as have information on what actually building your first home is like, including the ups and downs. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments.
WHY WE ARE BUILDING VS. BUYING
In late 2017, Johnny and I started casually looking at homes in the Dallas area. We knew I would move back to Dallas no later than April 2019 and wanted to be prepared. Being close to our family was always a priority, especially since my Dad is a traumatic brain injury patient. We knew from a young age living far away (more than an hour) from our family would never be an option – plus, we wanted our children to have a close relationship with their grandparents!
OUR NEEDS AND WANTS
I’m an extremely particular person when it comes to where I live. Johnny doesn’t particularly know what he likes, but he certainly knows what he doesn’t like. Combined, we both quickly figured out what we wanted in our first home. Of course, there are needs and there are wants. Finding a combination of both is eventually what led us to build versus buy.
- At least three bedrooms and two bathrooms
- Tons of natural light
- Open floor plan for living spaces
- High ceilings[/one_half]
- A large kitchen island (no cooktop in island)
- White cabinets and countertops in kitchen and bathrooms
- Great room with a fireplace
- At least 2,100 sqft
THE HOUSE HUNT
We officially started our house hunt in late Spring 2019. Thanks to always being financially aware, we had a good idea of our budget and what we could afford. We actually set our actual budget below that. Johnny and I started looking at homes on Trulia and Zillow hoping to find a home we could move into without any major renovations. After about a month or so of very few results piquing our interest and disappointing open houses, we quickly changed course to look at new builds. It became very clear we would get more bang for our buck with new builds and to be a little further from downtown Dallas. The ability to customize our home without the price tag of a fully custom home was very appealing to us.
Some of the major reasons we decided to go for a new build include natural lighting, the size of the homes, higher ceilings and an open-floor plan. We walked into a lot of open houses with deceiving images shot with a wide-angle lens to make the space feel so much bigger than it really was.
CHOOSING A NEW BUILD HOME
Once we got on the new-build train, things started moving along. However, we still had a long way to go. For months, Johnny and I would spend our weekends in our car with snacks. We would drive from community to community, neighborhood to neighborhood looking at spec homes. There are plenty of builders in Dallas and each one offers something different. Some start at a lower price but once you upgrade finishes to what you want, it will cost more than the base price of a higher-end new build. Some builders won’t offer as many finishes or have completely opposing layouts to what you want. Building your first home is a huge undertaking and shouldn’t be something you rush into.
We don’t plan to have kids very soon, but we certainly want to have children in this home. Being in a great school district was very important to us. Most of the cities we were looking at had fantastic schools. Another big factor for us was the proximity to the highway. We didn’t want our main highway to be a tollway and we needed to get able to get to the highway in less than eight minutes. This would severely cut down our drive time to go anywhere in the Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex. My family has always lived close to the highway and it’s made things so much easier.
MAKE A PRIORITY LIST
Since we are paying for a new build home, we got a little pickier on what it needed to come with versus renovating. Our interior designer, Toni from House Sprucing mentioned demolition is expensive, so it’s important to keep in mind what is better to pay for upfront versus paying to do afterward. Of course, there are projects we will tackle once we move in. Here’s what our new build home needed to have:
- Lots of big windows
- A vent hood (no microwave above the cooktop)
- Fireplace [/one_half]
- Free-standing tub
- Large vanity area in master bath
- Clean black & white exterior[/one_half_last]
BE HONEST & DON’T WASTE TIME
I can’t stress enough how being determined is critical in finding the home you want. One website we used to find new-build communities is New Home Source. It’s not perfect and there are definitely new build homes out there that may not be in a community. For example, plenty of new builds do pop up in Dallas as homes get bulldozed down to the ground and the land becomes available, tornado damage, etc. You have to be patient and willing to drive around… a lot.
There were many times, Johnny and I would drive half an hour, sometimes more than an hour (for example a builder only had a home we could walk through in another city, not the neighborhood we would potentially build our home in) only to walk in the front door, be severely disappointed and walk out literally seconds later. It may seem normal to not want to waste the time we drove to look at a house and go through all the rooms, but in reality, that would waste more time. If a house did not have one of our major priorities upon walking in, we would walk out right away. We quickly developed a routine of what we would do to determine if a house was right for us:
- Walk in and turn off ALL the lights
- Check the natural light situation and see if it would be brighter or darker depending on the lot we choose to build on
- Check style of kitchen
- Is there a great room or room with very high ceilings?
- Does the master suite have a large walk-in closet?
- Check secondary rooms
GET FAMILIAR WITH VISUALIZING
One issue with buying a new build home is the home you want might not be built yet for you to see. Many builders will have a variety of homes they can build for you, but you may not be able to physically walk through the one you want. You’ll need to get familiar with floorplans, visualizing and imagining how a house will look on a specific lot. This is one of those things they don’t tell you about building your first home. Johnny and I quickly learned to ask about windows, how big they would be, how close together the neighbors’ house would be and understanding the flow of a house by looking at a floor plan.
If you are a picky person (Johnny and I certainly were) you need to get good at this because the chances of being able to walk through a house that will look like your future home is very rare. This is why “quick build” homes are so popular, but you won’t get the chance to customize.
Also, choosing your lot is extremely important. If you’re picky about light, when building your first home, you need to take into consideration which direction the side of your house with the most windows will face. This could also play a role in how “hot” your backyard or front yard can get during summer. Every house layout and window placement is different so really look at a map and if you can, visit the lot at different times of the day. Most builders will let you switch the “swing” of the house. For example, a floor plan has a kitchen on the left side of the house with the living room on the right. They can flip the entire house so the kitchen will be on the right with the living room on the left.
GETTING INPUT FROM OTHERS
Around the end of June, houses were starting to blend together. I remember Johnny and I constantly asking each other, “Have we seen this one?” “Have we looked at this builder before?” We’re pretty sure we have seen every single new-home builder in the Dallas area in our price range. There was a two-story house we fell in love with. Photos of it are above. The master suite was on the ground floor, the great room spanned two stories with towering windows. The kitchen had a large island with a dining room off the left of it. Not to mention, we appreciated how the Homeowners Association would take care of maintaining our front yard. We actually drove to see this model house, which is nearly two hours away, multiple times. I had ideas for what to do with the living room, kitchen, the perfect dining table.
Super excited, Johnny and I wanted to share this house with our parents! However, none of them would go see it. Why? It was two stories and all four of our parents were insistent we buy a one-story house. My siblings even pushed this, saying we should expand our search. My Mom gave a great example of caring for my Dad. He could no longer feasibly go upstairs and she wanted him to be able to every room in our house without restrictions. She was right. She also pointed out how I already have bad knees and stairs are already a little hard for me, let alone when I would potentially have to chase our kids up and down the stairs.
Johnny and I actually stopped looking at houses for about two months. We were sold on this house but that was it. Let me tell you, even in Texas where everything is bigger, finding a one-story house with three bedrooms and all of our requirements in our price range felt impossible.
FINDING OUR FIRST HOME
In late September, I had stumbled upon a few listings on a new home website. It was Monday and late in the day, but I persuaded Johnny to make the drive with me to go see these two homes. The first builder we looked at wasn’t bad, but they didn’t have the house we wanted to build available for us to walk through. We left after spending about 20 minutes in the neighborhood looking at some other homes. We drove to the next neighborhood and realized it was right across the street from a high school. Uh oh. This was a no-no, especially in Texas where high-school football reigns supreme. We could kiss getting in and out of our house in the mornings, afternoons and Friday nights goodbye. If that wasn’t frustrating enough, the leasing office wasn’t even open.
We sat in the car and I quickly pulled out my phone, scanning to see if there was anything else we could look at to make the drive worth it. There was something a little outside of our comfortable budget nearby. Johnny and I both agreed we might as well check it out. As Johnny drove into the neighborhood we got deja vu. In early June we had driven to this neighborhood! We were getting anxious since we were afraid we had seen these houses before and checked them off the list. When we walked into the leasing office, we found out we had indeed been there before, but we never got to see houses because they were not built yet!
We gave the sales manager our list of requirements and she said she had just the house for us. I still remember when she pulled up the front and thinking, “That’s cuter than I thought.” We walked into the house, saw the living room below and immediately thought, this is it. The best part is it was almost 7 p.m., it was dark and yet our hearts were skipping beats.
So now what?
We came back the next day to check out the house in natural light. We drove around the neighborhood to look at available lots and figure out which one would be best for us. A few months prior, we had figured out being on a corner lot would be best in terms of lighting and space. We wouldn’t have another house, especially a potential two-story house, blocking our light. Once we knew we loved it, we brought our parents to see it. They all loved it.
DESIGN DECISIONS FOR THE CONTRACT
Our builder had a few design choices we needed to make when signing the contract. Most will require you to choose an elevation, which is what your home will look like. For example, you may choose to build a particular style home, let’s call it The Modern. But there is The Modern A, The Modern B or The Modern C, all with distinct, unique differences. Sometimes the roof is pitched differently, sometimes there’s a porch or a covered front door. The style and elevation you choose will be on your contract so you need to make those decisions right away.
There were a few other decisions we needed to make before signing the contract. The house we chose came with an option of having large picture windows flanking our fireplace instead of the smaller square windows in the photo above. Other decisions we needed to make were if we wanted plumbing for a sink in our laundry room, a second sink in our second bathroom and the addition of any floor plugs in the house. We got all of these.
GOING UNDER CONTRACT
We got moving with our loan officer to get pre-approval letters sent to the builder. On October 19, 2019, we signed the contract to begin building our first home. The entire process took a few hours. If you have a realtor, I highly recommend bringing them to this to be another set of eyes and ears for you. This was the biggest thing Johnny and I have ever done together! We drove to the lot to see where our future home would be. Usually, when you go under contract, you have to pay earnest money (the amount depends on the value of your home). With our builder, if we didn’t get approved for the loan, we would get it back but in most cases it is nonrefundable. It’s basically a security deposit the builder holds onto while they build your house since you don’t pay for or own the house until closing. Your earnest money will go toward your down payment.
Johnny was smart enough to ask if we could split our earnest money into two payments. We could afford to pay it in full but it is always nice to not have to do something all at once. It never hurts to ask!
I hope this lengthy, detailed post was helpful and can be a resource for you as you embark on the journey of building your first home. There are definitely things we wished we knew but it’s all part of the learning process. Stay tuned for the next part, which will include our hard task of tackling the design center and choosing all the finishes in our home! If you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments and I’ll get back to you!