Design centers: Dizzying design options for custom home buyers
A variety of faucets help homebuyers decide which combinations work well together at Cambridge Homes' World of Cambridge design center in Elgin. (Lake Christiansen/Chicago Tribune photo / April 1, 2010)
"Believe me, I've seen it," says Litton. "One couple brought in a big table so they could match their flooring and cabinets. But, this is good; it helps us help them." As the manager of Cambridge Homes' World of Cambridge design center in Elgin, Litton guides new-home buyers through the product-selection process. Like most builders, Cambridge staffs its center with interior designers.
For buyers of custom homes, the design center visit may include floor-plan selection, too. At Orren Pickell Designers & Builders' Imagine Showroom in Northfield, designers help buyers fine-tune their plans, then choose products and finishes.
"It's like a mini Merchandise Mart," says Pickell showroom manager Tom Hackett. "We try to jam-pack in as much as we can so people can see lots of options. We're always remodeling it to keep it fresh."
Many builders include landscaping and hardscaping packages at their centers, too.
The more homework you do before your design-center visit, say the designers, the smoother the process. They encourage you to visit their model homes and Web sites, peruse magazines and collect pictures of rooms and products you like and don't like.
"If we can ask what it is that you like about a picture, it helps us narrow down your decisions so you don't have to look at thousands of products," says Hackett. "Pictures help because what's ‘storybook style' to one client, for example, is something different to another buyer."
Buyers' first reaction to design centers, say the designers, is awe. Overwhelmed by the dizzying array of metals, ceramics and woods, their eyes glaze over as the hands on their stress-o-meters spin out of control. Take time to acclimate, the designers tell them.
Nowhere is it written that you must make all the decisions in one visit. "After about three hours, you're worn out," says Toll Brothers sales manager Ashley Sims. "Then, maybe it's time to sleep on it."
Litton recommends you make at least one "browsing visit" before sitting down with a designer to make decisions. Bring your camera so you can review products after you get home.
Many designers give buyers charts to list their "must-haves" and "maybes" and tally their total prices. Most builders have standard choices that keep the buyers within their "allowances." Upgrades, though, add to the bottom line.
Make at least one of your design-center visits during daylight hours, say the designers, when you can see products' true colors.
Some buyers are super-decisive, report the designers, pointing to a room vignette and saying, "I want that." But, most take advantage of the designers' guidance in order to juggle their likes and dislikes.
"There are so many choices to make, you get ‘analysis paralysis,'" says Michael Cason, who bought a condominium from Magellan Development in Chicago in February. "There are 80 shades of every color, and that's just the paint. I'm a financial planner and my wife is in marketing, so we're not designers. We were glad to have the benefit of (designer) Lee's (Okamoto) experience."
Okamoto says she asks buyers "how they live, work and play, because it all makes a difference. A surgeon, for example, might want to come home to warm colors instead of lots of stainless steel. Or, an empty-nester couple who is buying here after selling their house in the suburbs wants this to be their hip-and-happenin' place."
Many buyers have a prized possession they want to work around. For Cason and his wife, Jane Dretzka-Cason, it was a painting. For another, it is a chandelier from a previous house or Grandma's cherry highboy.
"I have dogs, so I wanted to be sure to pick out flooring that would work for them, but also be beautiful," says recent Toll Brothers buyer Mary Weinberg. "The designers helped me make practical choices."
Most designers have a proven product-choosing order. Litton says she starts with the kitchen. "It is the center of the home and sets the tone," she says. "Then, they choose flooring, then bathrooms. Then, the rest kind of falls into place."
Along the way, the designers joke that they double as marriage counselors for couples who cannot agree. Cambridge has a "man room" with a television for spouses who "really don't care," reports Litton.
When a buyer's want list exceeds her budget, designers recommend ways to cut back. Agonize over the crossing-the-Rubicon decisions and relax with the revocable ones, they suggest. Paint, for example, is a cheap and easy change, but replacing cabinetry is an expensive and hefty afterthought.
Another way to trim the budget is to consider lower-priced versions of your gotta-haves, like stainless-steel appliances that are not top-of-the-line or stone countertops that are only 3/4-inch thick.
Okamoto tells budget-strapped buyers to concentrate on rooms their guests will see and upgrade private rooms later. "For now, put the granite you really want in the kitchen and use a less-expensive type of counter in the bathroom that no one sees," she says.
Some buyers save money by engaging outside designers to help them make the right decisions the first time around. Within the builder's limits, the designer can help you choose some of your own products. Then, suggests Highland Park-based designer Laurel Feldman, consider checking out the showrooms at the Merchandise Mart Design Center in Chicago, so vast that it has its own ZIP code.
Although you must enlist a designer to shop the Mart's upstairs showrooms, its first floor (LuxeHome) is open to the public. Ditto for the Mart's next sample sale on May 14 and 15. "Not everything at the Mart is high-end," Feldman tells novices.
Bottom line, the design-center concept is orchestrated to ease the home-building process and keep construction on schedule.
"I've built custom houses and remodeled before, so I know how much running around and phone calls are involved," says Weinberg. "The center made it all so much easier and took less time. I wasn't limited to (the products) they had, but could use their samples and play with them until I made the right choices."
Don't let the deadline pressure get to you, advise the designers. In the grand scheme of things, choosing the wrong towel bar isn't the end of the world.
Besides, adds Sims, "Everything comes back in style eventually because there are only so many ways the manufacturers can make things. Remember brass? It's back."