by Nanci Hellmich
There’s no place like your dream home. That’s what Grace and Joe Simcoe have found. When they were in their 50s, the couple decided they wanted to move from Baton Rouge to Lexington, Virginia, when they retired.
But they couldn’t find a house they loved, so they custom built their dream home in the Shenandoah Valley. Their 4,500-square-foot Prairie-style residence has everything they want at this stage of their lives: two huge porches with mountain views, a large kitchen with a cathedral ceiling and beams, a main-level master bedroom, and a comfortable guest suite.
“Home is important to us,” says Joe, 60, who is retired from the insurance business. It’s a place where “our children and friends can come and feel welcome.”
“It’s a special house. It has a character all its own. We are always glad to be here,” adds Grace, 60. “It has met every expectation that we had.”
That’s true for others too. Sue Viray and her husband Rico, who own an advertising agency in New York City, split their time between an apartment in the city and their dream retreat about 90 miles away—a 6,780-square-foot residence with expansive windows overlooking the Hudson River in Saugerties, New York. The setting is “magical,” Sue says. “It’s beautiful every season. It’s amazing.”
For many people, owning their dream home is part of living the American dream, says architect Fauzia Khanani, the founder and principal of Foz Design in New York City. She designed the Virays’ home. It allows you to have all the things you always wanted in a house, she says. It’s an idea that many people are introduced to at a young age. “In second grade, our teacher asked us to draw our dream home.”
Your home represents you, says Baton Rouge-based architect Kevin Harris, author of The Forever Home. It’s where you invite friends and family. It’s where you go to rest at the end of the day. It’s where you recharge and find motivation to go back into the world. It becomes part of your identity, says Harris, the Simcoes’ architect.
Government statistics show about 158,000 custom-built homes were started in 2015, out of the 713,000 single-family houses that were begun that year, according to the National Association of Home Builders. But not everyone starts from scratch. Some people renovate and add on to their current residence to create their ideal nest.
So how do you begin to make your dream a reality? For most people, it starts with their budget, Khanani says. Clients often tell her how much money they have to spend. “Part of my role is to help them come up with a realistic project and budget and then try to gain savings here and there in the process.”
Many people plan for construction costs, but they don’t consider other expenses such as the cost of hiring an architect or engineer or building a septic system or digging a well, she says. More people today are thinking about how much space they’ll really need, Khanani says. “Bigger is not always better.”
Bruce Graham, a CAPTRUST financial advisor in Greenwich, Connecticut, encourages his clients to be realistic when building or renovating. Some people add extra rooms expecting their older parents to move in or their adult children to vacation with them, but that doesn’t always happen, he says.
People should also consider resale, he says. If the property is a unique “statement piece, then finding someone to buy it later may not be easy.”
From an investment point of view, Graham reminds his clients that real estate prices are cyclical. “Many people think they’ll build it, and it’ll be an investment, but real estate has fallen in the past, and at times, it has fallen sharply,” he says.
Graham also makes sure his clients aren’t over-invested in real estate. So if they have multiple homes, such as an apartment in New York City, a beach house, and a mountain retreat, then he advises them to adjust their investments in stocks and bonds accordingly, putting less money in real-estate-related securities.
“Whether you’re building a $1 million or $10 million home, many of the issues are the same,” Graham says. “Often it costs more than you think, takes more time than you think, and is more stressful than you think. You will need to make a lot of decisions.” But for many, the joy of having something of their own creation makes all the effort worthwhile, he says.
The Simcoes spent more than they expected, partly because they decided to upgrade many features. They didn’t want to cut corners in the place where they hope to spend the rest of their lives, Grace says.
The details matter, Joe says. “All the little things create a quality, comfortable, livable home.”
Jeri and David Kelly, both 65, of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, built a 6,000-square-foot Victorian Greek Revival house designed by Harris. The beauty of a new house is you can get the look of an older one without the maintenance problems, says Jeri, who previously remodeled two older homes.
The Virays, who are both in their 50s, say their home on the Hudson River came together exactly as they envisioned. There’s a guest wing so family and friends can have privacy as well as a huge kitchen where “everybody congregates, and we have cooking competitions,” Sue says. “When we have the house filled with 25 people, it still doesn’t feel that crowded, and when the two of us are there it doesn’t feel empty.”
Before she starts a design, Khanani talks to her clients about their vision: how many bedrooms they need, whether they work at home, what hobbies they have, how much they cook, how they entertain, and if they expect aging parents will live with them at some point. “It gets pretty detailed,” she says.
Some clients bring photos they’ve found online or in magazines or books. Often they have ideas for some of the finishes, and they may have an idea of some of the spaces they want, but they don’t usually have a layout and a plan, she says.
“One of our clients came to us with 10 books on renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright. They had marked pages and pages of houses that they loved. After talking with them at great length, we figured out the aspects of every one of those pictures that they liked. Without replicating it, we used those ideas to influence the design of their home,” Khanani explains.
If you’re planning your dream home, other things to consider include:
People have to think about where they see themselves in 5, 10, and 30 years, Khanani says. Her firm recently completed a dream home for a family of five who live outside Chicago. “They were thinking about their present day life, near future life, and life as seniors and how the space could accommodate all those periods.”
Clients often are interested in incorporating green and sustainable practices in their home, including using more efficient insulation and energy-efficient HVAC systems, Khanani says.
Aging in Place
Many people plan to remain in their homes for as long as possible, which Harris calls “grace in place.” To make that easier, doorways can be built wide enough to accommodate a walker or a wheelchair. “We can incorporate an elevator into the design or create space where we can add one later,” he says. Features that support aging in place have little impact on initial construction budgets, but their absence causes problems for people as they get older.
Often clients want their dream house to accommodate their passions. For many that’s cooking and entertaining, so they build both outdoor and indoor kitchens. Harris recommends that the outdoor kitchen be located near the indoor one to reduce duplications such as having two refrigerators or freezers.
People who are passionate about restoring old cars may opt for a shop where they can work. Avid gardeners may build a gardening shed or greenhouse, he says.
Harris has noticed that his clients are more likely to use the exercise room if it’s accessible to their bathroom or master bedroom suite. In one case, the homeowner can see the door to his exercise room in his bathroom mirror.
Hiring the Right Contractor
When custom building, it’s important to select the right builder, Harris says. Some aspects to consider: the contractor’s personality, reputation, experience, price, work quality, and ability to complete the project in a reasonable time.
If you have a place you identify with, it will be your forever home, Harris says. “It doesn’t have to be a mansion. It doesn’t have to be huge. It just has to be you.”