To Upgrade or Not to Upgrade: What to Consider with New Construction

02.26.15 | By
To Upgrade or Not to Upgrade: What to Consider with New Construction

Since moving into my new home out in the suburbs, a few people have asked me about the challenges of purchasing new construction in a planned community/tract home. It’s not like building your own home. In fact, it’s kind of like buying any home, but you just happen to be the first owner. If you purchase early enough in the development process, you usually have the opportunity to choose your finishings and materials. We were lucky enough to do so, but we quickly realized that there were limitations. First of all, you have to choose from the builder’s pre-determined manufacturer options. So, if you want specialty cabinets or a specific brand of bathtub, they will typically not allow it and you’ll have to do that work post-construction. Many builders will offer a pretty decent variety of options, but most likely, (if you’re like me) there may be a few things to choose from that wouldn’t be your first choice had you not been restricted. Being a person who has very particular taste, this process was especially difficult for me.

Our home isn’t the most architecturally interesting home, and the inside is even more lacking of character. Even the baseboards look bored (baseboreds – get it?). I thought it would be interesting to share my experience in purchasing a new home and what I did to modernize it and give it some pizzazz. Yeah, pizzazz. Moving on…

I think my master bathroom is probably the best example of making modern decisions during the materials selection process and demonstrates the recommendations we would make to other home buyers going through this same process.

Upgrade one or two things that you know are going to be the most expensive, time consuming and interruptive to replace.
Yep, I’m talking about cabinetry, flooring, countertops… all things that will be disruptive to your life to replace once you move in. And who wants that mess as you’re just getting settled into your new home? Trust me, you will be much more preoccupied with other things. If you want marble, get marble. If you want hardwood flooring, now is the time! Usually the builders will have a lot of options for cabinets, flooring and countertops, since they’re the most expensive things to upgrade. In our case, I wanted completely flat doors, in white. However, this wasn’t an option and so I went with my next best option, which were very dark doors in a Shaker style. In the end, I was able to prevent them from drilling for knobs so I could install my own handles, creating a much more modern look. I’m really happy with how it turned out.

We opted to upgrade our countertops in both the master bathroom and the kitchen. In the kitchen, we went with Caesarstone, which we’d had in our old kitchen, too. And, in the master bath, I couldn’t help myself and we splurged on Carrara marble. In the other bathrooms, we left the builder’s standard white cultured marble.

Tip: See if your builder is flexible—we were able to make sure no one drilled holes in our cabinetry, but not every construction manager will be able to meet your needs. They build tons of homes very quickly and don’t often cater to individual needs of each homeowner. Try to buddy up with your construction manager as soon as possible and constantly keep on top of them, reminding them of your wishes.

Consider not upgrading your fixtures.
Our builder offered us three fixture options: chrome (standard), oil-rubbed bronze, and polished brass. Uh, yeah. No brushed nickel?! Therefore, we felt our only real option was to stick with the chrome, which we could comfortably live with, and change them out slowly, over time. We did the kitchen first, with a matte black Brizo faucet, and after we fell in love with it, we decided to upgrade all the master bathroom fixtures to Brizo’s Odin collection as well. We’re very happy with the result, but not yet ready to move on to any other room.

Tip: Make a note of the brand that of fixtures that your builder installs because not every faucet or shower system will retrofit, so you may end up with some plumbing expenses. I might be talking from experience ;)


Consider going with the standard lighting.
It was slim pickins when it came to bathroom lighting, forcing us to stick with the stock lights that came in our bathroom. However, once we upgraded everything else in the bathroom, the lighting just didn’t look like it belonged. After looking for quite a while online, we decided to get two of these Polar LED Bath Bars by Modern Forms from Lumens. First of all, LED is smart in the bathroom because who wants to be changing tons of bulbs all the time? And, bathroom lights are certainly going on and off on all the time, so I’m down with anything that saves energy. We also looked at these, but felt that the Modern Forms bars appeared to give a little more light.

Bathroom lighting before:


Tip: Make sure you take note and measure the area where your lights fix to the wall to guarantee your new lights will cover the existing hole(s) or unpainted areas. Have some extra paint on hand, though, just in case.


Use neutral and durable materials in a modern way.
When it came to bathroom flooring and tile, the options presented to me were nice, but very expensive to upgrade and I couldn’t justify spending all that money on something I wasn’t in LOVE with. A smarter and more affordable option was to select neutral choices that complemented the marble and didn’t break the bank. The gray ceramic floor tile and white subway shower tile cost just slightly more than the standard choices, so we were able to get a modern look without blowing our budget by configuring them in a stacked pattern. We repeated the stacked tile flooring in all three bathrooms, and went with different white tile configurations for each shower area, making all of the bathrooms feel cohesive, yet each with its own personality.


Tip: When configuring tile layouts with your builder’s interior designer, make sure to get a flooring and tile “map” or layout to sign off on. If you want all your tile stacked horizontally, you wouldn’t want to come in after the job is done only to find it done the wrong way!


Donate stuff.
If you do decide to replace the standard fixtures, it’s a great idea to donate them to a facility like Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore.

Have you bought new construction? What, if anything, did you upgrade? Do you have any regrets… or great advice?

Jaime Derringer, Founder + Executive Editor of Design Milk, is a Jersey girl living in SoCal. She dreams about funky, artistic jewelry + having enough free time to enjoy some of her favorite things—running, reading, making music, and drawing.