Home & Garden: Top Building and Design Decisions for a Getaway House

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In many ways, the design and construction process for a second home can be more enjoyable and carefree than for a primary residence. By building your retreat from the ground up, you get to maximize its R&R potential. Whether kicking back means quiet, leisurely weekends with a good book or action-packed family escapes with barbecue marathons, mountain hikes and lake toys is up to you.

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Building your getaway home isn't all fun and games, however. You'll need to make practical decisions about its design and finishes, taking into account you won't be living there full time.

"The differences between a vacation home and a full-time home are very personal, so I'd encourage anyone considering one to spend some time thinking about how they live differently while they are there," says California-based Ward Young architect Aren Saltiel. "You may spend more of your time at a vacation home socializing with family and friends, or relaxing on your own."

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Here are 11 design and building considerations to ensure your getaway home is a haven, not a hassle.

Durability

Prioritize systems and materials that are low in maintenance and high in durability, so you don't spend your entire vacation troubleshooting and performing repairs.

"Budget is always a consideration," says architect Ibrahim Greenidge of Brooklyn-based BOLT Architecture. "I suggest investing in the highest quality, most energy-efficient systems [mechanical, electrical and plumbing] you can afford for a vacation home that is comfortable in any season and also won't cause you headaches down the road."

Use of Space

How you use interior spaces on vacation is different from your day-to-day life, with more focus on leisure activities and less on pure functionality. Saltiel suggests prioritizing comfort in shared social spaces, for example, and deemphasizing storage and closet space because you won't keep all your belongings there.

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"There's definitely a trend towards smaller, more utilitarian bedrooms and bigger, more connected and comfortable living spaces," he says. This different use of space can significantly change how you approach the overall design and layout of your getaway home.

Seasonality

Your primary home needs to be comfortable all year long, but that may not be the case with your second home or cabin.

"Consider the season you'll be spending a majority of the time at this home," Greenidge says. "If it's winter, then efficient heating will be a must-have. If it's summer, then maybe you forgo heating in the short term to prioritize the installation of an efficient cooling system."

If you're planning to use your second home as a winter retreat, Saltiel suggests installing a heating system that can respond quickly when you arrive, like forced air heat.

Views

You may be lucky and enjoy sweeping views from your full-time home. More likely, your "view" begins and ends with your neighbors' yards. If the land where you plan on building your vacation home features scenic views, maximize them. Orient the home in the most panoramic direction and place the windows to frame the most stunning vistas.

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Remote Technology

Smart technology that offers remote access to systems like lighting and HVAC is becoming increasingly common in full-time homes, but can be especially useful for a second home. "Give serious consideration to creating a smart home which allows remote functionality to access lighting and mechanical systems during seasonal changes," Greenidge says.

Remotely adjusting the temperature can prevent damage from frozen pipes, for example, and switching lights on and off after dusk can deter break-ins. Remote access also lets you prepare your getaway home for your arrival.

"If the home is in a colder climate, you should consider a heating system that you are able to access remotely ahead of time," Saltiel says. One possibility: Hydronic heat with app-based or WiFi controls.

Getaway Goals: Guest Traffic and Interior Finishes

Your full-time home may prioritize function over fun, but your second home is all about your definition of play. Keep that in mind when choosing where to skimp and where to splurge on interior finishes.

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If your goal is to regularly host friends and family, opt for durable flooring that can withstand lots of guest traffic, and sturdy furniture that converts into extra sleeping and dining space. If you can't wait for indulgent self-care weekends, spring for bathroom luxuries such as a deep tub or sauna.

If the perfect getaway means hours of uninterrupted time preparing gourmet meals, consider state-of-the-art appliances and finishes and perhaps an outdoor kitchen.

Emphasize the Outdoors

With extra time to relax at your second home, the outdoor living spaces are just as important as the interiors. Make the most of your natural surroundings by building patios, decks and porches that seamlessly extend your indoor spaces.

Invest in inviting outdoor furnishings, fire pits or outdoor heaters, or an open-air kitchen. You'll enjoy them whether you have guests or you just want a quiet retreat for yourself.

Rental Opportunities

Many homeowners mitigate the cost of building and maintaining their getaway home by renting it as a vacation property when they're not using it themselves. "If you plan on opening the home for rentals, consider details that make the rental more appealing," Greenidge says. "Just be sure you're OK with things getting damaged or stolen."

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Opt for multipurpose furniture and an open floor plan that allows plenty of flexibility on how many guests you can sleep. Make sure the finishes, from countertops to plumbing fixtures, are durable enough to stand up to the hard wear of strangers. And if you plan on renting to larger families or groups, be sure the septic system can handle it.

Ease of Shutting Down Systems

All good things must come to an end, including vacation. You'll likely close up your second home at least once a year for an extended period, and your systems should be designed to make that process quick and easy.

"Think about setting up the plumbing system so that it's easy to drain," says The Money Pit podcast host Tom Kraeutler. "And remember that in some colder climates, you'll have to run the heat every day at your vacation residence, even when you're not there, to avoid damage, so invest in a low-maintenance but reliable heating system."

Security

As with smart technology, home security systems are particularly important to consider for a cabin or vacation home that's left unattended for long periods.

If your getaway home is in a remote location or you plan to trick it out with, say, a high-end entertainment system or top-tier kitchen appliances, Kraeutler says investing in a trustworthy security system with remote cameras to keep your eye on things may be a priority.

Future Flexibility

Changing up your primary residence as your household expands and contracts is common, but your getaway home is often a labor of love that may stay in the family for generations. Keep that in mind when coming up with a design. Go with a flexible floor plan that adapts to the changing size of your family and evolving interests and activities over the years.

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