Planning to or in the middle of building your first home? Make sure you read this lessons from a first-home builder!

My husband and I have been house hunting for quite a while. Like… a few years. Earlier this year, it happened. We finally scored a high enough priority number (yes, hubby had to sleep out for a night and line up for a priority number) and signed a contract for our own little patch of Australia. The land is in a new development and isn’t registered with the council, so technically it’s not ours yet, but we’re still slap-bang in the middle of our hunt for the right builder, and man have I learnt A LOT. Some lessons are from the wisdom of homeowners gone before, and others after mistakes made from our ignorance. Here are just a few of those (and I’m sure I’ll be adding to this list as time goes on):

Accept where you are

An older relative asks: “When are you going to buy a house?” and I used to choose between the following answers:

a) None of your business.
b) When we win the lottery.
c) When I get to access that inheritance you promised me [grin slyly and drum fingers suspiciously].
d) When I’ve stopped spending all my money on dresses I don’t need.

Ok, fine. I always answered with b). But I’ve had to bite my tongue a few times because a), c) or d) often feel like appropriate responses when people ask. It irks me that often, people who barely know you are always asking what you’re going to to do next. When you’re dating someone, they ask when you’ll get engaged; when you’re engaged it’s when you’re getting married; when you’re married they ask when you’re having kids; and when you give birth, they ask you when the second child is coming and (failing any of that happening) when you’ll get yourself together and purchase a permanent home, like a good, responsible adult should.

Except these days it’s not that simple. Less than half of 25- to 34-year-olds now own their own home, compared to 61 per cent in 1981. The truth is, breaking into the property market is harder than it used to be, even with a dual-income. That said, it’s not impossible.

Don’t let the pressure get to you. Just be grateful for where you are today, and learn to embrace it. You are where you are, and that’s perfectly fine. Don’t let questions about when or what you intend to tackle next distract you from what you’ve already accomplished. 

It doesn’t matter whether you’ve saved 2% or 20% of your deposit or rent one property vs owning a whole portfolio compared to other people your age; your journey is your journey and no one else’s. Accept where you are right now and focus on the things you can influence to move you forward.

Advertised project home prices doesn’t mean jack $#**

When we started this whole “shopping for a house” business, we waltzed around display homes dreamily thinking that many of them were totally in our price range. It wasn’t until we sat down to look at the fine print that we realised homes cost at least an additional 20-30% (or add about 1/3 of the base price on top) thanks to upgrades — of which there will certainly be several, since some builders don’t include tiling, carpet, fly-screens or half-decent lighting in their base price. And don’t even start me on site costs. Even builders that claim to offer “what you see is what you get” pricing will cost more if your land has anything more than a 30mm slope.

You would think “base price” meant the price of a basic house. But it doesn’t. One builder who had gorgeous display homes eventually revealed that their price didn’t include any flooring. No tiles, no carpet. For another builder, “base price” includes flooring but no kitchen cupboards. One builder will include insulation, and another won’t but will include air-conditioning. The disparities between one builder’s inclusions vs another’s does my head in.

Their advertised prices and “summer packages” are designed specifically to bamboozle you. Why has no one created an app to simplify this comparison process???

Photo of Kurmond Ruby kitchen
See this gorgeous 40mm white stone bench top? That’s not included in the base price. It’ll cost several hundred (maybe even thousand) dollars to get it.

So, when you see a display house you like, don’t just get the floor plan and standard price list. Ask for a list of inclusions as well and another list of the upgrades and pricing you would need to design the exact same home you visited. Some builders are completely transparent about this and others keep their inclusions list close until you pay them for a tender (I walk out of their office when they say crap like that).

Kurmond, for example, gave me the standard floor plan for a display home in Kellyville, and then another sheet with the modified floor plan of the display home and the full list of upgrades. To give you an idea of how misleading it all is, the cost of all the extras to get the “base price” Kurmond house looking like a “display home” house was over $70K. That’s not to mention the site costs and council fees, which can go anywhere from $15-$40K. That’s almost $100K extra than whatever’s was on their standard price list.

Yay. ?

But relax kid; you don’t have to buy your dream house tomorrow.

If I could sum up my house-buying journey to date, it would probably look a little like this:

1. Spend years collecting "dream house" ideas on Pinterest. 2. Realise your ideas would mean having a mortgage until 2185. 3. Stop looking at dream house ideas. Eat lots of chocolate instead.

Thankfully, my husband is the numbers guru in our family (sure, I’ll have design + layout + colour schemes… but make me count and multiply? Um, no.). He is constantly calculating and recalculating what we can afford to spend on our first home. He gives me excitement with a steady dose of realism.

The truth is, there are ways to keep costs down, even when you’re going with a project builder. Sometimes that means making a hard call on what you can live without, or simply choosing to do some things after they hand over the keys. Sure, moving in to a place with a tiled alfresco and built in BBQ would be fab, but just know the builders add their margin (approx 30%!) to both the cost of labour + materials, so it’s more likely to be cheaper to go with someone else. The key is being firm about your budget is (i.e. what you can afford in your monthly/fortnightly repayments) and look for ways to work within it.

Design and materials matter – do your research

It wasn’t until we started looking at land location and floor plans that we really took into consideration the importance of natural light, including when and where it entered the home and how to maximise it. We had many an argument about south vs north facing lots (we came close to putting on offer on a west-facing off-the-plan house but am so glad we didn’t). Then hubby found the Your Home website – a government resource that has incredibly helpful information for builders and renovators about how to create environmentally sustainable home. Highly recommended reading!

Talk about an educational process! The list of things you should consider include which side of the house to put your living areas so you make the most of natural light and heating in the winter, and where to place windows and doors so you get great breezes in the summer.

Keep in mind display homes are 1) not necessarily facing the same direction your block of land is, and 2) are almost always lit by a million down lights in every room to make them look brighter than they would be in your own home, where you’d want to rely on sunlight. You want to find one that suits your block and won’t cost a fortune to heat or cool. Not all builders are flexible with their plans, so it is good to know these things before you shortlist.

Create systems for the chaos (there will be chaos)

There will ultimately come a time you’ll feel somewhat overloaded with information.

Lucky for me, my husband accepts my need to systematise big challenges, and I’ve put almost every (useful) bit of information into about half a dozen Google spreadsheets.

Create a system for storing and sorting information that works for you – whether it’s a spreadsheet of shortlisted floor plans, a Pinterest or Houzz board of your preferred window fittings, bench tops, landscaping or colour schemes, or (go old-school, like me) and stick magazine clippings in a folder. There’s a lot of detail to wade through… so this will help you if you want to be thorough.

Mountains are climbed using small steps, not giant leaps

Building a new home is a massive undertaking, and the amount of new things you can learn (about the purchasing process, let alone the building one) can be daunting. I’m terrified because we haven’t even made up our mind.. and there have been so many nights where I’ve felt completely overwhelmed with information, and have wanted to crawl under a rock and let someone else make the decisions for me. Thankfully, there is a wealth of knowledge, wisdom and generosity in other home owners (the Homeone Forum is a godsend – truly!!) 

But I know when it’s all done, this is an achievement we’ll be very proud of, and that our family will be better off from. It can often feel like an uphill slog, but the views on the way to the top are certainly worth it!

Have you built your own home? What did you learn in the process that you wish you knew before you started?

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2 Comments

  1. This is such a brilliant post! We haven’t built, but this is the reason we bought a pre-existing house. I know some people love the freedom to customise their own space but I’m one of those people who find it very overwhelming! I saw my parents go through this when they built their own place 8 years ago and it was a very sobering lesson in the way that the additional costs can add up. I hope you continue these posts through your building journey – it’s fascinating stuff to watch from the sidelines!

    1. Oh it’s overwhelming alright! Up until this time last year we were tossing up between buying an existing house vs a new one; hubby really wanted to try building. I figure both options present their own types of stresses. Meanwhile, I swear there is money to be made by the genius who works out how to help people calculate/sort through this builder’s inclusions/additional costs rubbish.

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