Have you ever driven by a sign that said “brand new community” and wondered what it must be like to live there? After all, who wouldn’t want to be the first person to live in a newly constructed home? Or perhaps you’re more skeptical and watched a few too many episodes of House Hunters where every option the buyer liked from cherry wood kitchen cabinets to the toilet was an upgrade? When it comes to new construction, are you really getting a custom home or simply what you pay for? I spoke to several buyers in different markets to learn if new construction is everything it’s cracked up to be.
When Baby Is About To Make Three
When fashion stylist Ali Levine and her husband Justin Jacaruso learned they were pregnant, they realized their current home in West Hills, California wasn’t going to work for their family anymore. Their house needed some updates they weren’t willing to do during pregnancy, so they wanted to move somewhere that required no renovations. They purchased the last lot in the first phase of a KB Homes community in nearby Simi Valley.
Then came the fun part for Levine, who really enjoyed choosing the finishes. “I was in heaven. There were three to four styles for each category, which included exterior lighting, garage panels, front door style, kitchen interior, counter, cabinets, flooring, carpeting and lighting fixtures.”
They ended up with both standard and upgrade packages. However, there were still limitations. She explained, “KB painted the house one color and we have the same treatment on every window. We could only choose one cabinet style for the kitchen and bathrooms. And the carpeting is the same in every room throughout the upstairs.”
While they didn’t make any major changes to the interior and have no plans to in the future, they did have to paint before their daughter Amelia Rei was born. Furthermore, because the backyard was delivered unfinished, they have to do it themselves. Several months after closing, their design received approval from the HOA. But overall, the Jacarusos are very happy with their new home.
The Contract Take Over
Public relations maven Marlon LeWinter and his wife Ashley were newlyweds living in New York City. But when they planned to have a baby, they concluded it would be too challenging and costly in their current location. So they headed to South Florida where both of their families currently live.
As their hunt began, the couple realized there were other decisions to make. LeWinter explained, “As we began looking at houses, we knew that some of the older homes really needed to be updated, specifically the kitchens. Something about having a brand new house was very appealing.”
They purchased a four-bedroom home in a Del Rey Beach GL community for several reasons. “There were tons of young families in the same position as us, starting out and having kids, lots of people relocating from up north with the same school of thought as us. There is a nice pool, a gym, an indoor and outdoor basketball court.”
But design choices did not end up being a factor at all. The LeWinters took over a contract for the previous buyer who had to back out for personal reasons. As they explained, it was really to their benefit. “They had put in a ton of upgrades, such as extra high hats, cabinets and an extended patio and driveway. But other choices were limited based on the time frame. However, we were able to upgrade some appliances.”
Other than perhaps additional backsplash options for the kitchen, the LeWinters really liked the design choices that had already been made. They also chose to do some additional upgrades on their own because it was less expensive than having the builder do them. “We added crown molding, put in a beautiful floor that looks like wood but is really porcelain tile. We also added an electric screen to the backyard that can be used when it gets buggy or rainy and isn’t a permanent structure.”
In 2011, Brandy Shuman and her husband purchased a townhouse in a Toll Brothers community located in Chatsworth, California. They loved their home but sold it in 2015 when they decided to move to Denver, Colorado.
The Shumans rented while looking for a new home and became excited when a new community from a major developer started to go up. She told me, “We toured the model homes and absolutely fell in love with one floor plan. So, we got the pre-qualification in order and put down a small deposit ($1000) on a lot that had not yet been released.”
But as construction began—they started to worry. “Going into the paperwork to hold the lot, we knew the size was going to be on the smaller side. But until they physically saw it take shape, it’s was hard to envision just how tiny it actually was. Comparing the lot to the size of the house, we worried the backyard would never even see the light of day, (given the direction the lot faces) nor could we plant a nice tree in the back without it eventually causing problems with the fence lines and such.”
After realizing their backyard would be almost non-existent, they chose not to proceed with the contract. “The houses are right on top of one another and the lot we chose was really more of an irrigation ditch with a little bit of tall grass.”
A Few Regrets
In 2014, Judy Fishkind and her husband moved from Plainview, New York to a Del Webb 55+ community in Durham, North Carolina. They purchased a three bedroom/three bathroom home with a second-floor loft for several reasons. Primarily, it was in their budget, as they wanted to unburden themselves financially with this move. Furthermore, unlike many people living in 55+ communities, Fishkind still worked full time remotely as the VP of Marketing for a non-profit organization. The layout provided the home office space she wanted. Another draw was the upstairs loft, which has a bedroom and bathroom, allowing them privacy when their children visit. Community amenities including a pool and clubhouse were also important to them. “As many say it’s like summer camp for adults with liquor.”
Like many buyers, the Fishkinds chose both upgraded and builder grade finishes. While she admits to being happy with her choices for the most part, “There were a few things I would have done differently. I should have upgraded the flooring because I’m not happy with the way it’s wearing. The engineered hardwood is awful. It separates and just doesn’t wear well. I also settled on the kitchen cabinets.”
While she isn’t living in her dream home, Fishkind is content with her decision. “These are not custom homes. You get your choices and you make them. I have many friends here who bought a basic home and then gutted and remodeled.”
No Choices Were The Best Choice
If you don’t buy new construction in a pre-construction phase, you miss out on design choices. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be perfectly happy. In 2013, public relations consultant Michelle Pulman and her husband purchased a Toll Brothers condo on the waterfront in Hoboken, New Jersey. Their approach was very practical. “What sold us on this specific property were the amenities (gym, playroom, shuttle service to the PATH train) as well as close proximity to the waterfront and ferry to Manhattan. There were also a number of parks and dog runs within a few blocks.”
Despite the lack of design choices, there were various layouts still available. The Pulmans opted for a two bedroom/two bathroom with bedrooms on opposite sides of the apartment because it gave them privacy when hosting guests. They also liked the size of the space, new appliances and view of the city.
While the apartment didn’t need any major changes, the Pulmans still did a few minor projects such as painting the walls, tiling a backsplash in the kitchen, and swapping out some of the lighting fixtures.
Is New York City Next?
Buying an apartment in New York City is unlike any other place in the world. Traditionally, developers haven’t needed to offer incentives to buyers such as amenities (other than perhaps a doorman) or design choices. But things are beginning to change.
June and Steve Gottlieb of Warburg Realty, explained to me it’s very unlikely New Yorkers will be choosing cabinet pulls or fixtures in a new construction design center any time soon. But developers are beginning to offer buyers some choice, albeit a limited amount.
When the Gottliebs were working with buyers earlier in the year, they showed them a building on the Upper West Side with different options for finishes in the kitchens and bathrooms. Steve also showed a buyer a new development in the Hudson Yards that offered different kitchens on odd and even floors.
However, just because you aren’t presented with pre-construction design choices, doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions to the rule. A good broker or agent may be able to get you what you want if it benefits the developer in some way. The Gottliebs were working with a buyer who had a bottom line and a developer who needed to get the last number in the books. The developer ended up issuing the buyer a $300k “design credit.”
Another interesting example of concessions the Gottliebs have seen is a developer who allowed a buyer to have an apartment prewired for smart technology before the walls were closed up.
New York developers are also trying to entice buyers with more amenities beyond the traditional scope of gyms and swimming pools. The Gottlieb’s sold an apartment at 205 East 59th Street because the building offered an amenity that the buyer, who was pregnant, considered life-changing—a private covered dog park within the building. This allowed her to take care of both her baby and fur child.
Robotic storage is available at the Zaha Hadid designed building at 52 West 28th Street, where Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson recently purchased a $16 million unit. Designed by Park Plus, the storage operates on the same system as the parking does. There is a docking station and storage is then accessed via a private room like a Swiss bank vault. You can even build out the interior of the space. Ever into the details, June noted, “It’s not meant for wine as it’s not individually temperature controlled, but does sit in a temperature controlled environment.”