“Old Ways Won’t Open New Doors”

With our first home, we never even thought about our interior doors. It didn’t cross our minds that we could alter the doors; whatever was included is what we’d get. The only “upgrade” that we did was change our pantry door to a French door and I thought I was so clever for having thought of doing that…

A few years into our first home, I decided to paint all of our doors black and, wow, what a difference! That was the first time we realized how a space can be drastically changed just by updating the doors.

We smartened up (a little…) with our second home. While I still didn’t imagine that I could significantly change the doors, we decided to ask if it was possible to upgrade the doors from 7 feet to 8 feet and, sure enough, Mattamy Homes said yes! I’ve talked, in a previous post, about how significant of an impact the added height made to our home – not just from a design perspective but also from a functionality point. We also had the doors painted as soon as we moved in, this time in a dark gray/blue to match the grey tones of the house.

8-foot doors painted in Sherwin Williams Cyberspace

Now, with our custom home, I’m hoping that maybe the third time is a charm. We have forgone our old ways of just taking what is included when it comes to doors; below are some of our changes:

  • We upgraded all of the doors to 8 feet (I wish we could go higher but the prices rise drastically (in the $1,000s) with anything above 8 feet);
  • We chose all solid core doors; no more hollow doors for us;
  • We changed most of the bathroom doors to pocket doors so that we don’t need to account for the space that regular doors take up;
  • Where closets are concerned, we removed the doors altogether to make them feel more like change rooms as opposed to closed in closets;
  • We changed the pantry door to a swinging door – we keep all of our food in the pantry so we’re usually coming in and out of that space a lot – making it a swinging door means the kids can get in without having to ask us each time!;
  • We changed the door leading to our future gym in the basement to a glass door to allow sunlight to enter the space; and
  • The one I am MOST excited about is my office doors, which we changed to steel/glass barn doors!

While I am sure there is a lot more we could have upgraded to our doors, the above pretty much encompasses what was within reach from a budget and accessibility standpoint (our supplier provides all of the doors we wanted except for the office doors). Realistically, nothing is set in stone so, if in the future we decide that we want something even more custom, we could always make changes, one door at a time.

New Home Building Inspection – We hired one and You probably don’t need to!

When we purchased our first home – a new build from Tartan Homes – we thought it would be responsible and prudent to have a home inspection done a week before closing, during our pre-delivery inspection meeting. So we paid the $500 fee and the inspector was there for about 30 minutes – he noticed that the air conditioner (which we purchased through the builder) wasn’t working and he suggested that we ask the builder to add more insulation in the attic – that was it…

The A/C was scheduled to be connected that week, which is why it wasn’t yet working. The insulation was to Code (he noted it, I think, because he was just wanting to find something to critique or suggest)… Needless to say, we did not get a home inspection when we designed our second Production Home through Mattamy Homes.

The reality is, when you have a home inspection, the inspector is reviewing and commenting on the home on that specific day. It is usually a visual review, meaning they aren’t tearing out walls to check for mould or leaks, etc. but, rather, just assessing what they are able to see at that particular moment. So if you have a home inspection on one day, take possession a week later and, a month later, discover that you have a leak behind your walls, the home inspector is not responsible.

As such, if you’re purchasing a new build that comes with Tarion Warranty, my (non-expert!) opinion is to save your money and forgo the home inspection. The reality is, any issues that we had with either of our two Production Homes were raised through the Tarion process. So anything we noticed right after moving in, we noted in our 30-day form and our builder then addressed those items within a few months after that. Certain other non-cosmetic issues that arose throughout the years we were able to raise in our 1-year and 2-year Tarion forms and those too were (eventually) corrected.

Having said that, I definitely see the value of paying for a professional home inspection when you’re purchasing anything but a new build. It’s an added insurance and, often times, the inspector will have a good idea of what questions to ask or what to inspect depending on the age and location of the house. We’ve had friends who came close to purchasing a home that they loved, only to find out that the sellers had not disclosed that a portion of the house had previously caught fire. The inspector noticed some issues in the space and, since he knew what to look for, he was actually the one who asked the seller directly if there had been a fire and the seller said yes and he confirmed that it was due to a faulty electrical wiring! That was enough of a red flag to deter our friends from taking the risk with such a huge investment…

All in all, like most things, there is a right time and use for a home inspection. If you’re buying/building new through a Tarion accredited builder, like we are, then I would suggest saving your money for one of the million other little expenses that come with purchasing a home!

Giving Some Thought to the Electrical Component of our Home

When we built our first Production Home, we had no idea how to prepare for any of the decisions that needed to be made. We just showed up for each meeting with our builder and took their recommendations and advice.

Often times, with Production Home builders, you’ll be discussing any structural issues, electrical choices and plumbing locations all in one (brief) meeting, so the more “preparations” you can do ahead of time, the better. Whether you will be reviewing electrical selections during a more broad meeting or whether you will have a meeting with your builder to specifically discuss the electrical component of your house, it’ll pay to show up ready. Below are some of the ways we will be preparing for making the electrical decisions in our next home.

Print your floorplans

We didn’t do this with our first two houses but have done it with our custom home and it really helps! We printed several copies of our floorplans and used a clean version for each electrical component that we could thing of. For example, we used one copy to set out the outlet placements; another for the light switches; one for the media layout (plugs, speakers, etc.); a fourth for the lighting such as wall sconces, pot lights, pendants, etc. Having each component on separate copies makes it easier to review and see where to change, add, omit, etc…

Consider the use of each space

I cannot stress this one enough! Here are some examples of spaces we didn’t consider when we designed our first two homes:

  1. Stairs
  • The next time around, we’ll be adding outlets at the top and bottom (and middle since we’re going to have a landing) of our stairs so that we can decorate for Christmas to our hearts’ content;
  • We’re also considering adding in-wall stair lighting because, well, why not!
Had we thought of including an outlet at the bottom of these steps (in the little corner nook behind the table) we could used that table more efficiently – maybe added a lamp for ambient lighting, or a charge station for our electronics, or a diffuser for scent..

2. Outlets

  • Pantry – especially if you have a walk-in pantry and plan on storing small kitchen appliances in there;
  • Closets – if your building code allows for outlets in the closet, it would be a great place to hide some of the unsightly items such as wifi repeaters;
  • Bedrooms – consider the furniture layout ahead of time and ensure to place outlets on either side of the bed (a lot easier than running extension cables under the bed to plug in phone chargers and side lights, etc.)
  • Floors – if you know you’re going to have side lamps near your couch, consider placing an outlet on the floor to avoid having a cord running through your living space;
  • Kitchen counters – place outlets as close as possible to the kitchen counters or upper cabinetry – no sense in investing in a nice backsplash, only to have it ruined by the look of electrical outlets
  • Kitchen Island – give some thought to how you use plan on using your kitchen island. If there is seating, you’ll likely find yourself working on a computer there at some point, so add an outlet under the counter near the seating to allow you to plug your laptop (see photo below);
  • Outdoor space – don’t just look down for outlets, consider having them up top (near or in the soffit) – we’ll be adding outlets to the roof of our covered porch so that we can mount space heaters and maybe hang some string lights;
The outlet on our island was close to the fridge which meant I had to run an extension cable across the island, regardless of where I sat

3. Switches

  • Bedroom – we’re adding switches on either side of all of the beds in order to be able to install reading lights that can be turned on/off without getting up;
  • Consider mirror (and other wall decor) placements – we ended up having a light switch behind our entry mirror (photo below) which meant that we rarely turned on the light in the entry hallway;
The light switch behind this mirror rendered the lighting in this space useless (sure, we could have installed the mirror more to the right but then it would not have been centred and would have driven me nuts)

4. Lighting

Don’t forget lighting – all lighting! We never considered wall sconces in our first two homes but there are numerous places – such as this window seat between two bedrooms – where we could have used some extra lighting.

Even with all the preparations ahead of time, I’m sure that once we move in we will find things that we forgot about or regretted regarding our electrical choices but hopefully the above will help us (and you!) to maximize the electrical component of our home.

Things We Omitted in our Second Production Home

When we purchased our first builder grade home, we took all that we could get! Meaning, builder grade mirrors in all of the bathrooms (think – rectangle glass with no frame); cookie-cutter cabinetry hardware; “boob” lights; round doorhandles; basic baseboards and trim, etc.

By the time we purchased our second Production Home, we knew better than to just take what was being offered. Sure, certain things we agreed to pay the inflated upgrade cost because it was easier to have the builder install them (i.e.: we upgraded the baseboards, the door handles (which included matching door hinges and stoppers), etc.) but other things we simply asked to leave it blank and we handled on our own afterwards.

Now – full disclosure – unlike with a custom builder, you don’t save any costs by omitting what a production builder includes. At least with our Production builders, they just scratched our items off the list but didn’t provide any credits for doing so. Even so, below is a list of items we omitted in our second home so as to allow us the opportunity to put our own touch in the house afterwards.

Mirrors

Mirrors are probably the number 1 thing that will give away whether something is custom or builder grade. Production Builders are notorious for using rectangular frameless mirrors in every bathroom. What’s more, they install the mirrors before painting – so if you decide to change it out later, you basically have to first paint the whole wall. There are some great DIYs that can be done to builder grade mirrors (i.e.: to add trim) to make them look more expensive but given the number of affordable options that you can get at pretty much any home store, we chose to omit all of the mirrors in our second home and just installed our own. It made a huge difference!

Cabinetry Hardware

Omitting the builder grade cabinetry hardware was another no-brainer for us. Finding something we liked and mastering the art of installing the hardware ourselves (had to make sure everything was level and aligned before drilling any holes!) took some time but when I look back at the kitchen handles in our first home versus what we purchased on our own for our second home, I think this is definitely one of those items that you do not want to compromise on and that is worth omitting if your builder doesn’t offer exactly what you are looking for.

Another reason to potentially forego builder grade cabinetry hardware is because, at least in our case, our builder charged an upgrade fee to mix different hardware (i.e.: pulls on drawers and knobs on doors). So not only did they not have exactly what we wanted, they would have charged us more just to install different hardware (despite the fact that there’s no additional labour involved…).

Bathroom Accessories

Toilet paper holders and bath towel rods are another area where one can easily tell what is “builder grade” and what is custom. Sturdy accessories (as opposed to the cheap plastic-made-to-look-like-chrome accessories seen in builder grade bathrooms) are a great and inexpensive way to add a more personal touch to even the most builder basic of bathrooms. And, as an added bonus, you get to pick where you want to place your accessories!

All in all, I am not one to simply pay for something and not use it. I think that is why, in our first home, I let the builder install everything that was included. I thought it was irresponsible to simply forego something I was paying for (since the builder wasn’t offering a credit) just to then go out and spend more money on a higher end version of essentially the same thing… However, having lived with the above builder grade finishes in our first home and then seen the value added from doing our own thing in our second home, I genuinely believe that these are items that come at a relatively inexpensive additional cost but that offer a lot of value to your space.

Five Upgrades Worth Overpaying For

It’s no secret that Production Home builders often charge a huge premium for upgrades. Things such as extra pot-lights can easily run you $300 per light when you have them installed by the builder. So while it is always important to be selective on what items you upgrade through any builder, it is even more imperative to scrutinize your upgrades when you are buying a Production Home.

After our first home – where we upgraded in certain areas where it wasn’t worth doing (more on that in a future post!) – we learned to be a lot more purposeful in selecting our upgrades for the second home. Here’s a list of some of the upgrades that we did in our Production Homes and that I know we definitely overpaid for but that I would get all over again because I think they are SSOOO worth it…

  1. Eight Foot Doors
Eight foot doors with nine foot ceiling

This is a must any time you have nine foot ceilings (or higher). The visual impact is huge – the higher doors look and feel stately – but they are also very practical. The added foot means you have clear access to an extra shelf in the closets for storage.

2. Hardwood Stairs

Hardwood stairs with white risers

In our first home, we contemplated getting carpet stairs through the builder and then changing them to hardwood down the road. We spoke with a trusted friend who worked in the construction industry and he told us that the work involved to change out the stairs later on (including removing spindles, buying hardwood, etc.) would likely equal to the same, if not more, than our builder’s up-charge – so we decided to just have it done through Tartan at the time. When we bought our second home with Mattamy, it was a no-brainer – we paid the upgrade for the stairs, white risers and spindles.

3. Coffered Ceiling

Coffered ceiling in the great room

Coffered ceilings are a definite splurge item on any build and, even more so, when buying a Production Home. Having said that, we really wanted a statement piece in our family/great room to distinguish it from all the other cookie-cutter designs. And this upgrade definitely hit the mark – people always commented on how nice the ceiling looked when they walked in – it was an unexpected feature in our home.

4. Railing instead of Knee Wall

Railing instead of knee wall in the loft area

The infamous knee wall around the staircase often gets overlooked at the design stage – it’s not until you move in and see how closed off it looks when you look up or down that you realize railings, instead of a knee wall, allow for more light and make the space the look bigger.

5. Free Standing Tub and Glass Shower Enclosure

Standalone tub and glass shower enclosure instead of tub/shower combo

In our first home, we kept the master bathroom basic – we didn’t even add an extra sink. With our second Production Home, because we thought this would be our final home, we really wanted to make the master ensuite a sort of relaxing retreat. We paid a heavy premium for the standalone tub, glass shower enclosure and the tile surround in the shower but I think it was worth it. All of it came together nicely and definitely elevated the look and feel of our space.

As you can see, my top five upgrades are, for the most part, structural items that I know we never would have done ourselves afterwards. And while stairs can be upgraded, coffered ceilings can be added and the tub/shower could be updated down the road, we knew that these were items that offered high impact and that would be – even without the premium charged by the Builder – too expensive, time consuming and difficult for us to contract out later on…

Ultimately, you want to invest (and potentially overpay) in those items that will have the greatest impact on the look and feel of your home and for which you know would be too difficult to do yourself (or even to contract out) at a later date.

What is a Production Home?

Production Homes are what I call houses that are built by developer/builders. The ones who build large-scale shoebox developments – the big names that come to mind in Ottawa, ON are Mattamy, Minto, Tartan, Urbandale, etc. Some refer to them as Community Developers, Builder-Grade Homes, Track Homes, Cookie-Cutter or Construction Builders… Essentially, a developer will take a large piece of land, divide it into dozens (if not more) individual lots and build a community of houses which can include a mixture of single, semi- and town (or row) houses. In order to make the project feasible, the developer will usually have a set number of models/floorplans for you to choose from and there is very little flexibility with making structural changes to those plans.

Pros of buying a Production Home:

There are many good reasons to buy a Production Home – I should know, we’ve bought two in the last decade.

For starters, when you buy a Production Home, the builder will usually require a deposit (often it is less than $50,000.00CDN) which you can pay over a period of months; thereafter, unlike when you’re building a custom home, you have very little additional costs until the home is actually complete and you arrange for a mortgage to finalize the transaction.

Time is also a big reason people are attracted to Production Homes. Generally, by the time you choose your lot, plan and pay the deposit, there is anywhere from a 6-12 month waiting period where you get to see your house being built. For many, this allows you time to save and prepare.

Finally (although there are many other reasons to like Production Homes), knowing that you have a set number of floorplans to choose from makes the initial design stage very easy. You don’t have to worry about number or size of windows, price per square footage, wall locations, etc. because those things are generally pre-determined and cannot be altered. For those that do not want to be bothered with the nitty-gritty details, Production Homes are the way to go.

Cons of buying a Production Home:

In my opinion, the biggest turn off for a Production Home is sharing your street and community with dozens (if not hundreds) of other houses. It sometimes really does feel as though the houses are built one on top of the other. By way of example, two regular Production Homes will usually be separated by maybe 8 feet of distance – enough that you can walk through the side of your house but not quite enough that you aren’t able to see what your neighbour is having for dinner or watching on television… The size and congestion within the community also spills onto the streets, especially during the Canadian winters when street parking becomes nearly impossible due to the already tight space on the roads and the growing snowbanks.

My second pet peeve with Production Homes is the inability to change almost anything structural within the house and the finishes on the outside of the house. If you’ve ever driven in these communities, you know that the exterior of all houses – regardless of the floorplan or model chosen – usually all look alike : a specific type of brick/stone mixed with vinyl siding on the front of the house and then the three other sides of the house are usually vinyl siding or an aesthetically similar look to vinyl siding. While you can somewhat pick the ratio of brick to siding (normally there will be a number of exterior elevations available for each model), the color scheme and materials used is the same for all houses within that community.

Cost can be another deterrent with a Production Home. While the ability to only have to pay a deposit (that is often less than 10% of the purchase price) is very appealing – especially when we were first time homebuyers – the flip side of this convenience is the fact that Production Home builders will generally charge a huge up-charge for any upgrades (i.e.: app. $350 per potlight). In our experience, it meant that we would usually choose a base finish that was included in the price (such as a pedestal sink in the powder room or basic plumbing fixtures), with the intention of changing it and making it our own later. So we effectively paid for things that we intended to throw out at a later date – not very cost efficient when you look at it that way.

Debunking the most common Production Homes myth:

Too many times, I’ve been told not to got with a specific builder/developer because they have a bad reputation and a history of shady work. Don’t be fooled by this!

One of the many ways that Production Home builders/developers are able to keep their costs down and actually make money in these projects is to subcontract the majority of the actual build to other contractors. The reality is, in Ottawa anyway, it doesn’t matter if you choose Mattamy, Tartan, Minto or any other of those big developers because, chances are, they are all using the same or similar subcontractors to do the work. You may end up with a wall that is crooked or poorly installed tile or a host of other problems that are not actually a reflection of the developer that you choose but, rather, the trades that have done the work.

For example, our first home was a semi-detached built by Tartan Homes. In general, we did not have any issues with house – it was built and functioned as we expected. Our neighbours, who had a similar model, spent months making appointments with Tartan after they closed to rectify issues in their home. Our second home was a single family house built by Mattamy Homes – I kid you not, we were the only house in our entire Mattamy community that had our siding fall on all 4 sides of the house at least 5 times! We spent the better part of our first two years in the house contacting Mattamy to have them do the repairs.

The fact is, my lack of problems in our Tartan home and my siding nightmare in our Mattamy home is not a reflection of either developer per se – it is simply luck of the draw.

My best piece of advice when choosing a Production Home builder is to focus on all other things (cost, location, model, design, etc.) and not dwell too much on the “word of mouth” reputation that they may have.