Buying a new home? Here are 10 questions to ask the builder

Remember to read plans and, if you don’t understand them, find someone who does

 

After all the hassle it takes to get the money to buy a new house – will you get the house you want?

Will you get an interior you like in a house you can afford?

You’ve seen the showhouse but you want changes, whether to fittings or internal layout – can you have them?

The answer is probably “yes” if you’re buying an expensive €700,000-plus house, or possibly if you’re buying a house from a smaller house-building company.

It may be “yes” if you sign a contract to buy early enough, before much of the house is built and there’s still time to make changes.

But it’s likely that you’ll bear any costs that are extra to the basic package.

Can I have a different kitchen to the showhouse?

Developers, in general, are not very flexible.

“The vast majority of developments are selling with the benefit of a showhouse or show apartment,” says sales agent Ken McDonald, who specialises in new homes.

“Most builders try to avoid flexibility, change does make life more difficult. They try to produce a universally popular model with good input from professionals. If they can avoid flexibility, they can avoid delays.

“If a builder buys 100 kitchens, they’ll be at a good price. If someone has a special case for a variation, it could be done and a sum agreed.”

Sherry FitzGerald’s Head of New Homes Ivan Gaine says: “Ten changes in 10 houses is 100 changes on a site, and that can slow the whole process down. Most developers try to deliver the best spec possible and provide limited options.”

He confirms that more options are likely to be offered at a higher price point, however, and that changes will depend on the stage of construction, and the size of a development.

Many offer their customers some variation on Henry Ford’s mantra – you can have any colour, as long as it’s black.

But Wicklow housebuilder Jim Wood says differently.

“We’ve sold 50 houses in Seagreen, and there isn’t a single house with the same fit-out,” he says, about his development high on a hill on the way into Greystones, Co Wicklow. “In every single house, someone has made changes.”

Wood, a relatively small local builder, is surprisingly open to buyers looking for something different to the standard spec, as seen in his showhouse.

His homes – there will be 180 in Seagreen when it’s finished – range in price from €395,000 to €535,000-plus.

One of the country’s biggest housebuilders, Gerry Gannon, of Gannon Homes, is more hardline on choice.

Julie Gannon, Residential Director at Gannon Homes, says: “In Millers Glen in Swords [where houses cost from €292,500], we invest time at design stage in choosing a kitchen style and colour that suits today’s market which, in turn, is complemented with a modern tile style that we feel confident will meet the tastes of our buyers.

“We aim to deliver a home where the purchaser doesn’t need to change a thing. We do give a choice of kitchens in our Belltree development in Clongriffin [prices from €295,000] and 95 per cent of the purchasers chose the cashmere colour that we have in our Millers Glen scheme.

“To ensure we meet our building costs and tight timeframes for completion, we don’t incorporate changes in our new homes.”

Most developers acknowledge that “people love to change things, especially people moving into a second house who know what they are looking for”, says developer Bernard Carroll, whose company Winsac is currently developing Barnageeragh Cove in Skerries, Co Dublin.

But, most share his attitude.

“If someone wanted to change a kitchen before it was fitted, we’d send them to our supplier – but they couldn’t pick another company. If there’s time to make changes, we’d refer our client to the subcontractors involved and let them deal direct; the client would have to pay,” he says.

How energy efficient is the home?

While kitchens are amongst buyers’ top priorities, architect John O’Mahony – the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) vice-president and housing spokesman, and managing director of architect firm O’Mahony Pike – says buyers should focus on more important things such as a home’s energy efficiency.

“Houses are much better scientifically now, they’re a sealed box,” he says.

Because of current building regulations, all new homes must have an A3 energy efficiency rating.

“Buyers should be looking to see what sort of renewable energy is being supplied to a house. There should, for example, either be solar panels on the roof as an alternative source of heating water, photovoltaic roof tiles that can convert sun to electricity, or an air-to-water heat pump that takes heat out of the air.”

Most developers, he says, are putting in Heat Recovery Ventilation (HRV) systems into their new homes as standard (although one in five is not).

Buyers should make sure their homes have one, he says.

“A HRV system introduces fresh air into a sealed building; it takes heat out of the air in the building – from the kitchen, say, or the shower room – and re-uses it, but the critical thing is ventilation.”

With a good system “the quality of air is brilliant”, he says.

You can, of course, open windows in a sealed house to get ventilation – “but relying on natural ventilation gives a poor quality of air by comparison”.

Reduced energy costs, he suggests, could cover the cost of your mortgage.

Cosgrave Homes, for example, puts a lot of emphasis on energy efficiency in its new homes – “Our 205sq m (2,200sq ft) home can be run for under €4 a day,” says director Michael Cosgrave.

“There are a whole series of technologies in new homes – buyers should ask what the heating/energy system is, who’s the manufacturer and make sure they get the maintenance manuals,”says O’Mahony.

How high is the ceiling?

Other questions O’Mahony says buyers should ask include: what are the heights of the ceilings? “They used to be 2.4m (7.8ft); now they’re usually 2.6m (8.5ft). The whole idea is that you want loftier floor-to-ceiling heights to make the house more liveable.”

What’s the orientation?

Ask what your house’s orientation is: Look at the site plan, locate where your house will be and make sure it faces east/west. Ask will there be bigger windows in the side of the house that faces the sun, smaller windows in north-facing walls.

Is there space in the roof?

Ask about the roof space, says O’Mahony.

“A very cost-effective added extra is a roof space with trusses with a high enough pitch (approximately 37.5 degrees) so that it can easily be converted into an extra room. And make sure the stairs are in the right place so you can add an extra flight without interfering with the existing layout.”

Can I extend?

Ask if the house is adaptable.

“Can you add an extension without moving the kitchen? O’Mahony Pike designs houses so they can easily extend at the back,” O’Mahony says. If, in the future, you want to have a wetroom “the builder will have to put in a fall to allow it to drain out – but this might be difficult if your house is mid-terraced”.

How much storage?

What about storage – especially if it’s an apartment you’re buying? See if there’s a space in the livingroom, diningroom or family room where you could put built-in shelving. Look for a good-sized balcony if you’re buying an apartment and, bearing in mind disasters such as Priory Hall, also ask about the building’s fire safety.

A space to gather?

If there’s no fireplace – open fireplaces are not needed in energy-efficient modern houses – where do you gather? Is there a feature wall wired for TV?

Can I look at the plans?

It may seem obvious but “buyers should read the plans for their house, ask for a copy of them, go away and look at them”, says John O’Mahony. “If you don’t know how to read plans, find someone who does, and make sure the drawings are to scale. See if you know anybody – it could be a designer – who can. Ask if the developer has a 3D digital model of the house.”

What certificates do I need?

The one thing all buyers should be reasonably confident about is the quality of their new home, on foot of building regulations brought in since March 2014, in response to scandals such as Priory Hall.

A copy of an “assigned certificate” must be included in the legal documents as part of the closing of a sale. That Building Control Amendment Regulations (BCAR) certificate is a guarantee that the house you’re buying complies with all building regulations.

“I estimate that a single house would have to have had 30 to 35 inspections across all trade and professions – architects, mechanical and electrical engineers, plumbers, etc – by the time it’s built,” says O’Mahony.

“The architect alone would have to do six to eight inspections. All of these people must log and date their inspections and sign a certificate. At the end, an “assigned certifier” – it can be an architect, engineer or a surveyor – must sign a document guaranteeing that the property is built in accordance with building regulations and lodge it with their local authority; no one can move into their house until it’s lodged. There’s a trail of responsibilty.”

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