6 Ways to Stay on Budget When Building or Remodeling a House

small home on top of calculator_construction budget

One of the first questions a new client asks is “How much will this cost me?” Yet the answer isn’t always clear cut. When it comes to home construction, not only do we face the “unforeseen” — those situations we didn’t plan for when we started the project (e.g. wood damaged by a hidden insect problem) — but the plan often changes during the process because, for example, the clients decide they prefer a higher end product over the mid-range one we initially discussed. But there are some ways to stay close to your budget by factoring the realities of home construction into the plan.

  1. Have a plan! Seems simple enough, but yet often construction starts with many of the decisions deferred until later in the process. Make the decisions up-front, and you’ll stick closer to the established budget.
  2. Include contingency in your plan. Become some costs are unforeseen, it’s better to plan for extra costs, just in case. If you don’t need it, it means you come in under budget. Bonus!
  3. Skip making changes — unless they lower the expense. Changes in materials or adding more work to the project costs more money, and can add up rather quickly. Often the thought is “we might as well add this on…” because “this” may only cost a few hundred, but adding little items to the project adds up quickly. Stick to the plan.
  4. Identify all costs you plan to incur. Keep in mind a construction plan not only includes the cost of building or renovating the home, but also decorating, landscaping, moving costs, temporary housing and a host of other misc. costs you can incur when remodeling or building.
  5. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Sometimes the perfectionist in us comes out, and we focus too much on small details, adding extra costs and energy to the project. But in the big picture, consider if it really matters. Often it doesn’t, and you’ll be just as happy or less likely to think about it in the long term.
  6. Keep the lines of communication open with your contractor. The more the contractor knows about your priorities, and budget limitations, the more the contractor can help you make and stick to a plan.

Overall, keep this in mind: The more specific you are in planning, the tighter your budget remains.

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8 Simple Winter Home Improvements to Save Money and Energy

Person sitting in front of the fireplace

In Iowa we have almost two full months left of winter (and sometimes the cold days extend even further). Those two months, historically, are often some of the coldest months we experience during the winter, resulting in higher heating bills. But there are ways to offset the higher expense with simple home improvements to save money and energy.

  1. Clean your furnace filter once a month during the winter, or purchase a permanent filter.
  2. Reverse the direction of your ceiling fan to push warm air down.
  3. Keep curtains on the south side of your home open during the day to allow sunlight in; this will require your furnace to run less often.
  4. Cover windows and sliding doors with plastic film insulation. It’s inexpensive, easy to apply, barely noticeable and you simply remove it when spring hits.
  5. Turn down the heat at night or when you are not home. Programmable thermostats make this even easier; just set it and forget it. Smart home type thermostats take it even further by learning your habits and how your home operates to figure out how to adjust the heat based on a variety of factors including outside weather conditions.
  6. Conduct a “air leak” test. Light a stick of incense and carry it with you throughout the house, holding it near windows, doors, around vents and electrical outlets, as well as other areas air could be escaping. If the smoke blows back into the house or is sucked out of the house, it indicates a leak. Caulk or use weatherstripping around these areas to cover the holes. Electrical outlets are often sources of heat loss, yet you can seal them easily with an electrical outlet insulation kit.
  7. Turn down your hot water heater thermostat. Most water heaters are automatically set too high. The Department of Energy recommends 120 degrees Fahrenheit. For every 10 degrees you turn it down you save 3-5% on your energy costs.
  8. If you have an older water heater insulate it with a water heater insulating blanket to reduce heat loss.

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Simple Tips to Protect Your Home from the Pitfalls of Snow and Ice

Snow and ice falling around a house

The recent treacherous threat of ice hitting Iowa has me thinking about protecting our houses from the elements. With the expectation this time of year for more brutal winter weather over the next few months, it’s crucial to protect your home. Whether you’re in a new or not-so-new home, snow and ice can wreak havoc on your house if you haven’t taken the time to conduct some winter maintenance.

Here’s what to do to protect your home from the damage of snow and ice.

Gutters and Downspouts

Clean gutters and downspouts — ideally before winter — to prevent water from backing up and ice from forming in them.

Direct downspouts away from the house so when the snow in your gutters melt, it doesn’t collect around the foundation.

Sidewalks and Steps

Spray a anti-icer/de-icer solution on steps and sidewalks before ice or snow falls.

Melting Snow and Ice

As snow starts to accumulate around your house, remove it from near doorways, window wells and around the foundation. Melting snow turns into water, which can in turn cause water damage to your house.

The Roof

Keep an eye on the snow load on your roof. If your roof sags, or you hear cracking or popping noises, or even if you just notice a large amount of snow accumulation, you may need to call a roofing contractor immediately to clear the snow. Keep in mind your roof can collapse from heavy snow or ice build-up.

Another potential hazard is snow/ice accumulation on trees, which can cause them to fall and cause damage to your house. Keep your trees well trimmed all year.

Protecting Pipes

Disconnect exterior hoses from the faucets, and wrap pipes exposed to the exterior with weather-resistant insulation to prevent them from bursting. When temperatures hit their lowest, it can also help to keep the water on interior faucets running at a trickle, and to keep cabinet doors open to keep the pipes warm. If ever you suspect a frozen pipe, shut off the water main and contact a plumbing professional.


Seal cracks and holes in the walls and around the foundation. Make sure the grade around your house slopes downward away from the foundation to encourage water to flow away from the house. Installing a sump pump in the basement works well as a backup in case water does come in.


Keep a proper amount of insulation in your attic. See this resource for an explanation of how to determine how much insulation you need in your home.

Ice Dams

A note on ice dams: keep in mind that ice dams occur when heat from the house escapes and warms the roof. This causes the snow on the roof to melt and refreeze and create a block of ice that traps water on the roof/in the gutters. This water can leak into the home. Proper insulation, and keeping the gutters clear are keys to preventing damage from ice dams.

For more useful information about home care and improvement follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


Custom Home Trends for 2017

Happy New Year! 2017 has arrived, and with each new year comes changes in the home industry, particularly design and the choice of materials. Because we specialize in custom homes, we want to highlight some of the changes we expect to see in the coming year based on industry predictions. If you are building a new home, or plan to, understanding the upcoming trends will help you to maximize your money to build a custom home utilizing all of the latest technologies and design.

2017 custom home trends

Some of the custom home trends you’ll see in 2017

1.      Terracotta Tiles: Terracotta tiles are predicted to replace the white tones so often seen in modern homes. Laura Macer of Sisalla Interior Design says to expect terracotta tiles that aren’t rustic, but that have a matte finish and will “add character and warmth to interiors again.”

2.      Mixing Finishes: The selection of more than one metal finish is on trend, says Liz Toombs, Owner of Polka Dots & Rosebuds Interiors and Out of the Box Room Design. While in the past homeowners have chosen one metal finish for the entire house, now we’re starting to see how well a combination of finishes can work together. Antique brass and oil rubbed bronze is a favorite combination of Toombs’.

3.      Marble: White and light grey marble will increase in popularity as the material choice for countertops, flooring and tabletops, according to Zillow. Many of the major style resources – such as Elle Décor and House Beautiful – agree with the prediction.

4.      Cerused Wood: It’s a heavily textured wood finish technique that brings out the unique grain of the wood, adding to the color of the wood while also revealing its grain. It’s been used in the high-end markets for some time says interior designer Laura Michael, but expect to see it now everywhere on floors, paneling, tables, chairs and other furniture pieces.

5.      Built-in Bars: Ditch the bar cart, says Zillow, homeowners now desire hosting more classic parties, and instead are choosing to incorporate permanent spaces for entertaining using built-in shelving and small seating areas to make the bar more of a focal point.

6.      Nooks: With the ever increasing stress of our world, nooks appear to be growing in popularity as places you can curl up and shut out the world, or at least get a quick break. With an increasing number of people embracing meditative practices we predict not only nooks to appear more in new homes, but instead of TV and exercise rooms in the basement, expect to see more meditation type rooms dedicated to quiet and retreat.

7.      Technology: We’ll continue to see options for incorporating technology into our homes in multiple ways. IKEA’s SELJE nightstand is one example of one of the newest trends: smart furniture. As millennials desire purchasing homes built around their desires, expect to continue to see appliances and other amenities that connect to the Internet.

For more custom home ideas visit our Custom Home Gallery.


10 Tips for Preparing Your Home for Winter

icicles hanging from roof

Here in Iowa it has stayed quite temperate for December. But as the temps start to fall this week, it’s time to make sure your house is prepared for the cold months ahead. These quick tips will help you easily prepare your home for winter.

  1. Caulk the cracks around windows and doors to prevent air leakage. Caulking is inexpensive and easily applied. While you’re out picking up caulking, purchase thin plastic window film to apply to your windows. Both will help to lower your heating bills this winter.
  2. Insulate! Check the insulation in your attic. Measure the depth with a tape measure, and then determine if you need more and how much with this guide from the Insulation Institute. Also insulate pipes, particularly in unheated areas such as in the attic and basement.
  3. Remove watering hoses attached to exterior faucets and store them for the winter.
  4. Turn off exterior faucets. Drain any water leftover in outdoor pipes, valves, or in sprinkler heads to protect against pipes from bursting.
  5. Clean gutters to prevent an ice dam. Make sure to check that the downpipes are also free of obstructions.
  6. Have your fireplace inspected by chimney sweep, and the furnace inspected by a heating company.
  7. Replace the air filter in your furnace to increase efficiency and air quality.
  8. Replace the batteries in your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
  9. Switch fans to the reverse position to blow warm air towards the floor.
  10. Organize the garage a bit. Place the summer equipment and toys to the back, and place at the front any winter equipment, including shovels and salt – you’ll thank us when the first big snow hits!

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Holiday Safety Tips for the Home

Christmas tree and decorations around a fire_holiday safety

The holiday season is in full swing! While this time should be enjoyable, and an opportunity to reconnect with family, the traditional activities of this month bring with it some home safety issues. We’ve compiled a few risks to keep aware of, as well as the tips to minimize those risks from turning into a major catastrophe.

Fire Safety

First a few facts: Between the years of 2009-2013 fire departments in the United States were called to 210 home fires each year because of Christmas trees, additionally they dealt with about 860 fires each year due to decorations. Electricity and lighting equipment issues were involved in 35% of the Christmas tree fires. In 2014, the top 3 dates for home fires caused by cooking were Thanksgiving, Christmas day and Christmas Eve, candle fires were most to blame on Christmas, New Year’s Day and Christmas Eve.

But there is quite a bit of simple prevention measures you can use to stave off a holiday-influenced fire:

  • Stay in the kitchen when cooking, and keep an eye on the food. If it’s a food item that takes longer to cook, such as a roast, check on it frequently, and utilize a timer to remind you and keep you on task. Sometimes hosts get caught up in talking with their guests or enjoying the ambiance of the party, and time slips by. Wait until after you are finished cooking to enjoy that glass of wine!
  • Keep flammable items away from the stove, including oven mitts, packaging and towels.
  • Keep kids away from the stove while cooking.
  • If you have a real Christmas tree, water it daily, and periodically check to make sure it is not dry. When you feel the needles, they should be flexible, not dry or brittle.
  • Keep Christmas trees at least three feet from heat sources including candles, fireplaces, heat vents and radiators.
  • When decorating with lights make sure they and any extension cords you use are UL-listed and undamaged.
  • On exteriors, use only lights made specifically for outdoor use.
  • Don’t connect more than three cord strands together, and don’t overload electrical outlets.
  • Turn off lights before going to bed, and before leaving the house.
  • Check cords and lights periodically to make sure they are still undamaged and don’t feel hot to the touch.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher on hand, and make sure the batteries are fresh in your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

And if you’re just too busy to read about safety, this video from the National Fire Protection Association sums up holiday decorating fire prevention pretty well:

Minimizing Other Safety Risks

Sidewalks and driveways can become covered with ice and snow during the holiday season, causing a risk to not only you, but also your guests.

  • Apply salt to your sidewalk and driveway right before it snows to keep it from icing over.
  • Wear warm, insulated clothing when you shovel to minimize frost bite risks.
  • Lift with your legs and not with our back when you shovel. You won’t enjoy the holiday season nearly as much if you are suffering from a back injury.

If you are hosting guests, plan for any special safety needs they may have.

  • Child-proof your home with door knob covers, cabinet latches, oven locks and plug protectors, if you are planning a visit from young family members.
  • Both children and older adults benefit from the addition of a grab bar to make it easier for them to get in and out of the bathtub. Also to prevent falls on wet surfaces, place a bath mat on the bathroom floor and a non-slip mat in the shower.

Happy Holidays from our family to yours! Enjoy this month safely, and for more great home advice follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


Study Says Remodeling Prevents Falls; Preparation an Even Better Solution

Elderly couple walking_prevent falls with remodeling aging in place solutions

A study in New Zealand suggests remodeling may prevents falls, and home improvements could be a worthwhile investment for older adults, helping them to not only reduce injuries, but in turn their medical costs. The study shows a 33% reduction in medical spending related to falls.

Thinking Ahead

An even better plan than waiting to remodel during the later years is for younger to middle age adults to focus their home remodeling and home building efforts on aging in place. Unfortunately, 78% of homeowners have not remodeled their homes in preparation for aging. Yet, 61% of homeowners age 55 years old and older, plan to stay in their home indefinitely.

Remodeling to age in place can improve a homeowner’s chance at enjoying their home at all ages. The cost of considering aging and disability accommodations can be cheaper and easier while you are in the building stages than having to remodel later. Or if remodeling a home to provide accommodations, it’s easier to complete the changes before they are urgently necessary.

Simple changes to make your home more livable for many years to come:

  • Place the washer and dryer on the main level.
  • Install pocket doors or wider doors in case you or a family member needs to use a wheelchair or a walker.
  • Improve the lighting on both the interior and the exterior.
  • Install a zero-step entry outdoors
  • Add handrails to steps and staircases
  • Install slip-resistant surfacing on steps and other outside areas such as decks
  • Add grab rails in bathrooms
  • Install lever handles on faucets, doors and windows
  • Select a cooktop with front controls
  • Install a curbless shower with a handheld showerhead
  • Choose remote-controlled products, such as window shades
  • Install shelves at a height you can reach them without standing on a stool or ladder.

If you’re building a home, some of our plans incorporate aging in place design including the Country Living Plan and the Tulip Tree Lane Plan.

We also recommend reading the following books for ideas on how to make your home more livable at all stages of life:

Knack Universal Design: A Step-by-Step Guide to Modifying Your Home for Comfortable, Accessible Living »

Residential Design for Aging in Place »

Universal Design for the Home: Great-looking, Great-living Design for All Ages, Abilities, and Circumstances »

This guide from the Iowa Program for Assistive Technology is also helpful:

Practical Guide to Universal Home Design »

See a selection of our custom home designs in the J. Thompson Builders Custom Home Gallery


8 Tips for Remodeling with Kids

child sitting on a couch with puppy

Remodeling with kids presents issues those remodeling without children under foot don’t have to deal with. Minimizing the impact of a remodel on every day life becomes key in a household with children. Yet, the remodeling process is ripe with the unexpected no matter how well you plan. Living through a remodel with kids in the house is possible, and these tips show you how it can be done well.

  1. Make plans for meal preparations. Lacking a place you can prepare meals, particularly over several days or weeks, is stressful for families and impacts your budget. Instead of eating out or opting for delivery every day, create an area where you can prepare meals, even if they are prepared simply. A small refrigerator, microwave, hot plate, and a microwave can function almost as well as a full kitchen. Within your remodeling budget, plan for take-out meals as they will be necessary at times.
  2. Incorporate “ease” whenever possible. Use paper plates and disposable utensils for mealtimes, for example. Don’t make any extra work for yourself.
  3. Keep routines as consistent as possible. Children thrive on routine, so keep meal times and bed times as consistent as possible, as well as establish areas they can perform regular daily activities such as playtime or homework.
  4. Prepare your child for the change by sharing information early on in the planning stages. Remodeling includes lots of noise and other activities that young children won’t understand and may even feel scared of, but an ongoing discussion and reassurance go a long way.
  5. Include kids in the process. Children of all ages can help make decisions when selecting colors and styles of products. Older children can even pick out the paint color for their room, or help in other decisions. Letting your child have some ownership in the process helps them feel more connected to the project.
  6. Curtail your stress. Kids react to your stress level, but if you take measures to keeps yours at bay, they adjust better to the change. This may mean taking a break for a massage or knowing when in the midst of the chaos to step out for a break, breathe and restore your sanity.
  7. Always keep safety in mind. Kids are known to explore, and remodeling presents several safety issues. Dust and the chemicals used in products in the remodeling process affect the health of the household air, tools become attractive (but dangerous) toys for young ones, and sharp objects such as nails are often scattered around a remodel job site. It’s important to understand and prepare for these hazards to keep your family out of harm’s way. With older children this may mean simply using barriers and signs to keep them out of rooms, but younger children may need to be removed from the home entirely during the remodeling process.
  8. Choose the right contractor. Select a contractor who understands the unique challenges presented when a family with children is undergoing a remodel. Certified, qualified contractors, with a good history and a low injury rate, and those who have experience working with families, are better options.

Learn more about us and our services.


Room by Room Electrical Considerations for Remodel Planning

Picture of electrical plugsMost homeowners who’ve lived in a home for awhile realize there are ways they would have wired the home differently if they had either been involved in the process initially, or even if they were, if they knew what they know now they’d probably do at least a few things differently. Fortunately during a remodel is a good time to look at making some changes, but regardless electrical placement should always be considered as part of the remodeling process. Here is a list of what to consider when planning a remodel to make sure you have easy access to electricity in your home.

For Safety’s Sake

It’s best to work with a qualified, licensed electrician to ensure the electricity is installed correctly, and that all necessary permits are pulled.

Install ground fault circuit interrupters (GCFIs) in the bathrooms, kitchen, garage, exterior outlets and anywhere water could come in contact with electricity. GFCIs shut down the power when an irregular current is detected.

Older homes may lack proper grounding, a protection from electrocution that channels the current into the ground; electricians can install grounding.

The safety of your home and family is at stake as improper electrical wiring can result in damage to appliances, electrical fires and electrical shock. And if the electricity is not installed correctly and within code it could affect your ability to make a claim on your homeowner’s insurance and or you may be forced to spend money later to bring it up to code before you can sell the house.


While older homes may lack grounding and the use of GFCIs, they also often lack adequate power. Today’s appliances and electrical devices demand more power, and your home may be due for an upgrade. For example, some homes are using 120V electrical outlets, while most major apliances require 220 V.


With it’s many small and large electric appliances you’ll want to make sure you plan for plenty of outlets in the kitchen, particularly around the island where you’ll do much of the food prep. Consider the layout and where you might need higher amp plugs for your refrigerator, stove and microwave.

Living Room

With the increasing amount of electronics we use on daily basis, and the need for those devices to charge, plan for plenty of electrical oulets in corners and in the center of each wall. Consider the placement of outlets for where you might want to place decorative items including those that are only used temporarily, such as the Christmas tree. If you are hanging a flat screen TV on a wall, you’ll want to make sure to install a plug directly behind it.


Install plenty of GCFI plugs around the counter and sink areas, making sure the plug locations won’t require you to drop the cord across the sink.


Install electrical plugs on each side of the bed where your night stands sit for lamps, alarm clocks and other electronics. Consider if you have any use for plugs in your closet – for vacuuming for example, or for extra light, or even for a small office or reading space if your closet is large enough.


Place an outlet in the center of the ceiling for a garage door opener (if it’s not already installed), and also make sure there are several outlets positioned along the corners and in the middle of walls so they are easy to reach if you are using electric tools, using a shop vaccuum, etc.


For holiday decorating, install outlets under the eaves; connect the outlet to an indoor plug so you can turn the lights on and off from inside the house. Use GCFI outlets on exterior outlets near the ground; position several of these around the house’s exterior to allow for the use of various landscaping tools and other tools.

Home Office

Install plugs at desk height versus on ground level to make access to plugs more accessible.


Consider carefully everywhere you would possibly want a light switch. While planning the remodeling project inspect all lights, and make sure they work; it’s easier and often cheaper to replace them during a project as opposed to later. Evaluate if you need more outdoor lighting for safety as well as decorative purposes.

Ceiling Fans

If you want to install a ceiling fan, consider that it usually requires specific wiring, a switch and a mount for stability.

TV and Internet

Consider the type of providers you’ll use for TV and Internet. They all use different types of wiring, and access points and this may affect the location of wiring.

Home Theater

Consider the positioning of speakers and other home theater components in evaluating where to place outlets and wiring in order to hide wires and cords as cleanly as possible. Fortunately there are also now many wireless systems on the market.

Smart Home Automation and Security

If you wish to install a smart thermostat, any home automation system, or a security system, you will most likely need to upgrade your wiring or have the home wired specifically for the system.

Thinking about a remodel! Learn more about J. Thompson Builders.


11 Ways to Save Money on a Kitchen Renovation

An August 2016 Realtor.com article explains the realities of the cost of a kitchen renovation. It’s not cheap… the average price of a minor kitchen remodel is $20,122 with a major renovation averaging $60,000. Cabinetry is the bulk of the cost – 29% – while appliances (14%) and countertops (10%) account for much of the cost as well.

The general recommendation is to spend 5-15% of your home’s value on a kitchen remodel, but many homeowners spend much more. And while you will get some of that money back – minor remodels return about 83% back when the home sells and major renovations return 65% – consider that you won’t see a full return of the money you invest.

But can you make decisions so you’ll spend as little as possible but still have the kitchen you desire? We think so! Here’s what (and what not) to do:

Make a budget: Yes, we know, this sounds simple. But it’s surprising the amount of homeowners who approach a kitchen remodel with little idea of what they will or can spend. It’s also wise to add at least 10% onto your budget, because most homeowners go over budget, often because of unforeseen expenses.

Choose your contractor wisely: A kitchen remodel is a large investment. It makes sense to partner with a contractor who you can trust, and who understands your vision. Don’t choose the first option you find, but instead ask for recommendations from trusted family and friends, and select someone who has experience with kitchen remodels.

Plan well, and then plan some more: You should spend at least 6 months, if not more, planning and researching your kitchen remodel. Otherwise you may choose materials or a layout you don’t end up liking. Instead research thoroughly any material choices and the pros and cons of your different layout options.

Utilitze technology: Instead of relying on rough sketches homeowners today have access to 3D drawings and other tools that ensure you can visualize the space before the project even starts. This will help you to plan, and prevent you from making choices you’ll regret later.

Choose basic appliances: Yes, we know, those high-end professional appliances are enticing. With that six-burner stove, you’ll be able to host a lavish Thanksgiving dinner this year. But most people don’t need such fancy appliances on a daily basis. Go basic, and you’ll save quite a bit of money.

Skip high-end materials: In general, it’s best to skip high-end materials altogether if you are working to maintain a budget. Quartz is a less expensive, lower-maintenance material than marble, and if you need to go even cheaper laminate is much cheaper and newer styles look strikingly similar to stone countertops. Also keep in mind that if you choose higher end materials, you won’t necessarily get a higher return on your investment, particularly if the homes around you don’t have such high-end materials.

Don’t follow trends: If you follow the trends, it’s likely your design will look dated sooner. If you stick with classic elements, your remodel won’t affect the home’s resale value for many years.

Don’t move the location of the sink or appliances: Moving plumbing and gas lines costs a significant amount of money. But if you keep the layout the same, you’ll save quite a bit of money, often thousands of dollars.

Don’t remove walls: Often homeowners want to open up the space. While open floor plans feel more spacious, removing walls is quite the process, particularly if it’s a load bearing wall or has pipes or wires running through it. A cheaper alternative is a cutout.

Opt for track lighting over recessed lighting: Recessed lights require holes to be cut in the ceiling, electrical wiring must be run, and the ceiling has to be repaired. But track lighting requires much less in terms of installation.

Remodel in stages: If you’re budget is on the lower side, spread out the cost by doing some of the work later. Backsplashes can be installed later, and so can hardware.

Get inspired! Take a look at our Custom Home Gallery.