Reader Question: Why Did We Go Custom?

After the last post about the master bathroom at the flip, one of you lovely IGTBH readers (hi, Collette!) asked a question that I haven’t tackled before:

Now tell us why you opted for a CUSTOM everything in here versus getting a high end vanity/sink/top combo from a big box store and calling it good? Those can look amazing, too. Is it truly worth the added labor, expense, etc to go custom? It looks great but so would something else? I understand you were working with CRAZY stuff here, had to work around returns, etc…but STILL. For a flip? Custom? SPILL THE DEETS!

Excellent question!!

We’ve actually opted for custom cabinetry more frequently than we’ve chosen off the shelf.  I know that sounds crazy – I mean, isn’t custom cabinetry supposed to be reserved for people with Scrooge McDuck money?

Not so, I say.

Here’s a little breakdown of the factors we take into consideration when we’re deciding to spring for custom cabinets or buy off-the shelf!

when to go custom

Think about going custom…

1.  … when you’re working around existing, quirky details. Our current flip has some of the quirkiest, and sometimes downright oddest, details that we’ve ever encountered.  For example, take a look at the guest bathroom – it looks like a pretty straightforward, cosmetic remodel, right? 

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That’s what we thought, too.  But when we ripped out that innocent-looking vanity, this is what we found:

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Huh?  What is that weird triangle-shaped obstacle on the right?  Turns out that a short flight of stairs on the first floor of the home causes this strange bump-out under the vanity.  Which means that any store bought vanity would have to be extensively modified to accommodate the bump-out, adding significantly to the cost of the store bought vanity and possibly compromising function.

You can see in the drawing below all of the factors that the cabinetmaker had to take into account when creating the vanity for the guest bath:

guest vanity

And the fun doesn’t end in the guest bathroom.  The master bathroom has odd ceiling angles thanks to the roof line, like this beauty below:

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Since we planned to run the vanity along that back wall, the angled ceiling meant that the far right side of the vanity couldn’t be used for anything where the vanity-user would be standing…like pretty much everything, from brushing teeth to washing face to gazing in the mirror.  So, it seemed like a good use of space to add a sit-down vanity (for makeup, doing hair, ogling whomever’s using the shower) where head clearance wouldn’t be an issue.

The final draft of the cabinetmaker’s drawing takes full advantage of the space that we had, while minimizing the oddness of the slanted ceiling.

master vanity

If we had bought an off-the-shelf vanity, it wouldn’t have been long enough to fill up the wall space and it wouldn’t have been able to solve the issue of the slanted ceiling.  That fact alone made our decision to go custom pretty easy.

But wait, there’s more!  :)

2.  … when off the shelf isn’t THAT much cheaper. There’s no doubt that pre-made cabinetry is almost always cheaper than custom cabinetry.  But when you really compare custom to pre-made, the price difference isn’t always that staggering especially when you take into account that the custom pieces fill all of your needs perfect (while pre-made cabinetry often doesn’t).

For example, the unfinished, custom vanity that we bought for the master bathroom cost $1,109.61.  Not chump change, but also not mind-blowingly expensive when you consider that the cheapest double vanity from Home Depot costs $999 (in the 70-100″ category that we needed).

off the shelf vanities

When you take into account staining our custom vanity, adding a countertop and two sinks, we probably sunk in another $700 into our master vanity.  Again, not chump change, but also not mind-blowingly expensive when compared with cheapest the off-the-shelf option from Home Depot.

3.  … when it makes sense for your project. You can’t cut corners at every single turn and wind up with a finished product that you’re happy with.  Sometimes you need to add something really special to elevate everything else that you’ve done.  This formula has allowed us to create some pretty spectacular bathrooms (and kitchens, etc.) when the foundation of the room is really inexpensive (think subway tile, sinks from a store that sells “seconds and surplus” building items, etc.).

That doesn’t mean that you have to splurge on custom cabinetry, or custom anything, at every turn – sometimes that just doesn’t make sense for your budget, or for the potential resale value of the house.  But in our case, buyers in this neighborhood and price range are going to expect some pretty nice finishes.  Also, we are able to re-use the existing kitchen cabinetry at a huge cost savings.  So, in the case of the master bathroom, we justify the extra $800 we spent for a completely custom vanity for a few reasons: (1) we also got a makeup vanity out of the deal, (2) every detail of the vanity is exactly what we wanted (including the countertops), (3) the vanity works with our angled ceiling and takes advantage of the full wall we had available for cabinets, and (4) I think the master bath (and bathrooms/kitchens in general) is a place where it’s okay to splash a little money around, even in a house that’s being flipped.  An extra $800 in the grand scheme of a renovation isn’t the end of the world, and this snazzy vanity is likely worth an extra $800 to a potential buyer of this home.

Making Progress - Tile

So that’s my two cents on the great debate – what has been your experience with pre-made versus custom cabinets?

Making Progress in the Master Bathroom

The last time we chatted about the flip we debated the configuration of the vanity in the master bathroom.  I’m sure you’ve been on pins and needles ever since (wink) just dying to know which option we chose…

Well my friends, the wait is over.  And as an added bonus, you can see how the tile is shaping up.

As a reminder, here’s how the master bath looked before we started ripping everything apart:

original master bath

Here’s how it looked mid-makeover:

master bath demolition

And here’s how it looks today, with lots of finishing touches left to go (like staining the vanity, adding lighting, mirrors, shower glass, paint, hardware…tons of stuff):

Making Progress - Tile

(If you’re curious about the finishes we’re going with, check out the design plan for the master bathroom here.)

I’m absolutely in love with how the vanity turned out. The open toe kick area with the tapered legs might be my favorite thing ever.  And the inset drawers – oh, the drawers.

After all of your great suggestions, we decided to go with Option 1 (see it here) but we tweaked the design to create deeper (but fewer) drawers between the sink cabinets.  Here’s how the final rendering looked:

master vanity

In person it turned out even prettier than I had hoped!

Making Progress - Tile

We plan to stain the vanity – which apparently our painter “forgot.”  I literally almost burst into tears in front of the painter (I blame the pregnancy hormones) when I saw that he had caulked all the seams and prepped the vanity for painting instead of staining.  Luckily, we caught the mistake in time and we’ll still be able to go head and stain it.  Or else I might have flipped.  :)

Making Progress - Tile

You may have noticed the junction boxes for the sconces.  I’m not sure the placement was my best idea, but the wall has been tiled and I’m going to see it through.  You see, there is less room between the left side of the vanity and the shower pony wall than I anticipated, so that sconce is kind of squished next to where the shower glass will be.  And it’s a little closer to the wall-mount faucets than I’d expected so mirror placement might get a little interesting (which is what I was debating here).  Basically, I’m crossing my fingers and hoping for the best.  Would you mind crossing your fingers and hoping along with me?  Much appreciated.

Making Progress - Tile

Here’s a better shot of the herringbone floor tile.  I’m absolutely delighted with how it looks!

master bathroom floor - herringbone

Hopefully I’ll be better about posting flip updates for you guys – things got slow at the flip for awhile so I wasn’t particularly inspired to write about it.  But now things are trucking along!!  :)

How We Find Our Flips

One question that I get asked over and over again is, “How on earth do you find your flips?”

Well, wonder no more – I’m here to give you the nitty gritty on where we find those elusive, ripe-for-renovation-and-resale gems.  The answers might surprise you!

how we find our flips

Flip #1

We're Flipping Out

After we renovated our own home, Jason and I were itching for another remodeling project.  I don’t know what made us think we could flip a house (were we naive? crazy? both?) but once we got the idea in our heads we just couldn’t let it go.  So we set out, trolling our surrounding neighborhoods for candidates (we knew we wanted to stick with areas we were already familiar with).  For two people new to the flipping game, our our local MLS (Multiple Listing Service) where every house in the Dallas-area is displayed (if it’s listed with a licensed broker) was a natural place to start. We had direct access to the MLS at this point because Jason was (and now we both are) a real estate broker.  We found this in-need-of-love home after it had already been on the market for two months and, just a month later in June of 2009, it was ours.  When we turned a profit on the sale we were hooked on flipping houses.

Flip #2

The Flip: The Great Room, Then & Now

After we bought our first flip, we didn’t buy another one for over a year.  Finally, in September of 2010, we bought our 2nd flip – also off the MLS!  This property had already been foreclosed on by the bank and then, because it didn’t sell at the foreclosure auction, it was marketed to the general public.  This type of property is called an REO (which stands for “real estate owned” and just means that it’s a bank-owned property).  Sometimes it can take awhile to negotiate with a bank, because . . . they’re a bank - but I don’t recall us having any real problems.  But figuring out how to de-crazy the living/kitchen/sun room?  That’s another story.

Flip #3

Take a "Before" Tour of Our Third Flip

Ah, I remember buying good ol’ Flip #3 – it’s one of my prouder moments.  We saw this house pop up on the MLS (are you sensing a theme here?) and immediately put in a lowball offer.  We hadn’t even seen inside the house, but we knew that if we could get it for our offered price it would be a great deal.  The house was being sold as an estate, and the heirs countered our offer – I told them we would consider their counter-offer but that we would then have to make the sale contingent on a home inspection.  Surprise, surprise, the house was suddenly ours!  We officially bought it in June of 2011.

While I wouldn’t normally recommend buying a house sight unseen, without a home inspection, we felt comfortable enough with the price and our knowledge of the area to believe that our budget could absorb any unexpected “surprises,” such as needing foundation repair (and it did), a new roof (and it did), or plumbing problems (and it had them).  And even though our purchase of the house wasn’t contingent on the home inspection (i.e., we couldn’t back out or demand a lower price if we came across something scary), we did make sure to have the house inspected before we started construction just so we knew exactly what we were dealing with.

Flip #4

Time For Another Flip?

You guessed it – we bought this one off the MLS.  It was originally listed with a very ambitious asking price, and it sat on the market for 6 months.  The price was reduced drastically and the house was relisted, and then we came along and got it for way under list price – a great deal.  I think the completely weird sun room and lone full bath scared people off.  We bought it in February of 2012 and it’s still one of my favorite projects.

Flip #5

Fifth Flip - Before

So this is where we throw you a curve ball – we didn’t buy this house off the MLS.  By this point we’d been flipping houses for a few years and we had the confidence to search for homes through avenues other than the traditional MLS method – foreclosure auctions, word of mouth, mailings, etc.  The owner of this home built it back in the 70’s and was ready for the house to have a new life, so when he received our mailer he gave us a call and we worked out a deal that suited all of us.  We were kind of shocked that something as simple as sending out a letter gave us an opportunity that we wouldn’t have otherwise had!  We bought it right around the time Peanut was born, in May of 2012.

Flip #6

It's Great To Be Home - "Before" Photos of Our 6th Flip

This is another house that we pounced on the instant it was listed on the MLS, before anyone else could take a look at it.  I remember that Jason and I went to scope it out in shifts because it was after Peanut’s bedtime so one of us had to stay home with her.  It  was pitch black and even with a flashlight we could tell that the kitchen and addition were not cute.    Because of the low ceiling in the addition I was convinced that it had a flat roof – since it was so dark that I couldn’t see the roof line from the backyard we resorted to stalking an aerial view of the house through Google Maps to confirm that yes, the addition had a flat roof that we would have to deal with.  Boo.  But, we were able to take that yucky fact into consideration when we put in our offer that night.  We closed on the house just a few days before Christmas in 2012.

Flip #7

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Here’s another curve ball for you – we found this flip through word of mouth!  Our neighbors knew that the owners were wanting to sell so we were able to negotiate a deal before the house was listed for sale.  We actually bought it back in the summer of 2012 and Jason’s sister lived in it for about a year before we began the remodel.  As an added bonus, the house was literally right across the street from our own home so we could keep an eye on things just by looking through our windows.  :)

Flip #8

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Our 8th flip, that we’re currently working on, was also found through the MLS.  We tried to buy it the first day it came on the market but we were beat out by another offer.  Luckily, that contract fell through and we were able to snatch up the house.  It was a little awkward trying to poke around the house before we bought it because the (very sweet) owner was always there.  We bought it just before Thanksgiving in 2013 and took possession the next month.  It feels like this flip is dragging on forever since we’ve had random delays like a tree falling on the house and flaky cabinet guys (just to name a few), but barring any disasters this baby should be on the market before our real baby arrives in May!

I know people often feel like it’s impossible to find great deals on homes if they’re listed for sale to the public but that’s just not true!  Clearly the MLS has been our best friend when it comes to finding flips since 6 out of our 8 flips have been found that way.  You just have to be ready to pounce on a deal when you find it (sometimes within hours), have your finances in order so that you can make a genuine offer, and not fall so in love with a house that you’re willing to compromise your budget.

As for other methods of finding flips, word of mouth and mailings have worked for us – although not with the same rate of return.  We’re currently negotiating on another home that we found through a mailing that we sent out so if that deal works out it might up our percentages in the mailing arena.  :)

We have bid on several homes (and lots) at the Dallas County foreclosure auction but those haven’t worked out for us yet (I’ve been meaning to write a post about auctions, maybe I’ll get on that) – and several times we’ve dropped out in the middle of the bidding process because the price has gone above what we’re willing to spend.  Foreclosure auctions don’t always guarantee great deals!

That’s it!  So far we’ve found our flips through the MLS, word of mouth, and mailings.  Are our methods what you guys expected?

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