When Iraida and Francisco Carrazco were shopping for a town house, they were thrilled with discovering the Coventry model at Lexington Park in Des Plaines. It was tailor-made for their family, except for one thing. Or, maybe two. Well, make that a few things. Fortunately, their builder, Chicago-based Lexington Homes, was willing to make alterations to the existing home plan to fit the needs of their family, which includes two sons and Iraida's mother, Carmen Morales.
Priorities included adding a bedroom suite for Morales and replacing a tub with a shower. ("Who has time to take a bath?" said Iraida, a working mom.) Three bedrooms were enhanced with vaulted ceilings and the stairway with a railing. The kitchen was upgraded with a backsplash, and hardwood flooring was added.
Gone are the days when it was the norm for a homebuyer to have a choice between models A, B and C and have a clone of every third house on the block.
In this competitive housing market, builders are more willing to alter plans to suit homebuyers' needs. And a multitude of construction products provides so many combinations of choices that your new house is not likely to resemble your neighbor's.
"All builders, large and small, are offering more and better choices," said Stephen Melman, director of economic services at the National Association of Home Builders. "If the next guy is offering choices, I had better do the same to be competitive. So builders are not only flexible, but many have sufficient knowledge about new products to make recommendations or at least offer suggestions and options."
Also, the consumer and the builder are better-educated and take advantage of resources such as more sophisticated manufacturers' websites and seminars at home improvement stores, he said.
Most new homes are production or semicustom, said Tim Costello, chief executive of Austin, Texas-based Builder Homesite Inc., a consortium of 27 builders.
"(The homes) range from 'we'll change the plans somewhat' to 'we'll change anything,'" he said. "Big-ticket changes are structural ones that affect the foundation or roof. The next tier is the kitchen, where you can easily upgrade from $25,000 to $100,000 without moving one wall. The lowest tier is nonstructural changes, which change the look without changing the floor plan."
To narrow choices, Costello recommends touring model homes in your price range, in and out of your target neighborhood. Websites such as houzz.com and pinterest.com can help you define your favorite style so you know, for example, what the builder means when he says "craftsman," Costello said.
Visit builders' design centers.
"There are so, so many floor plan changes and product selections you can make," Costello said. "But design centers have narrowed them down. Many have them online so you can make your decisions at home."
Your lifestyle will dictate your alterations.
"If you have a busy family with kids and dogs, the drop-zone area between the garage and the kitchen is the most important, so it has to be big enough for things like lockers," Costello said. "If you're empty nesters who cook, you can pick the same house but with a big kitchen instead."
If you shop for your own products or bring your own product, tell the builder right away, because even cosmetic changes can trigger floor plan changes. Using your old fireplace mantel from Grandma's old farmhouse, for example, may mean you take the builder's "no mantel" option now and hire a contractor to install it later. But the builder must make the wall wide and strong enough to accommodate the mantel.
Some towns do not issue occupancy permits unless everything is in place. So delaying installation of things like appliances is not always possible.
Ignore room names on the builder's floor plan, said Sandi Priola, designer with Mark David Designs in Lake Forest.
"Just because it's called a library doesn't mean you want a library," she said. "Replace glass with wood doors and add a bathroom and closet to make it the guest room you need."
If you need more square footage, consider using space over the garage, bumping out rooms, finishing the basement or turning wide hallways into lofts.
Another option is to customize the house without altering the floor plan.
"Replace builder-grade countertops or hardware or add things the builder doesn't include, like backsplashes," Priola said. "We completely changed the look of a client's bathrooms by replacing the builder's pedestal sinks with cabinetry."