Preliminary Research

Key points

  • Before you buy, renovate or build a home, you should consider your needs and how you can achieve long-term comfort and energy efficiency.
  • Your research and decision making will influence how well your home suits your lifestyle, how cost effective it is to run, and how sustainable it is over the longer term.
  • Think about your needs, and what you want to achieve in terms of long-term performance. Make sure you keep those goals in mind through the planning process.
  • Make sure you build environmentally sustainable aims into your budget. Sustainable design features might have some upfront costs, but will save you money in the long run. Some can also improve comfort.
  • It is a good idea to seek out a wide range of information: from online sources, in books and magazines, and from experts such as architects, designers and builders. Be prepared to change your ideas when you get new information.

Understanding buying or building a home

Choosing or creating your next home can be a complex process. Where do you start, and what do you need to do before you buy, renovate, or build a home?

This chapter has steps you should consider in your preliminary research and decision making.

Throughout the process, it is a good idea to:

  • do your homework - read through Your Home; search the internet; look through magazines; particularly those that focus on sustainability (for example, Sanctuary, ReNew or Green); visit display villages; explore free energy-efficient Design For Place home designs on the Your Home website; talk to friends who have recently been through the process; attend open houses; and window shop in real estate agency windows
  • seek expert advice early and often - sound research and impartial advice are essential for clear decision making. Early in the process, choose an expert you trust and discuss your progress often, especially when you come across competing ideas, technologies and advice
  • be flexible - you will probably have some ideas at the start, but try not to get locked into particular features early in the process. Evaluate all available options
  • allow your brief to the designer to evolve - you will likely need to revisit decisions made in earlier stages to take into account ideas and information you discover later in the process - update your brief frequently and note why decisions were made or changed.

Step 1: Think about the best home for your needs

Will you buy an existing home, upgrade an existing home or the home you live in now, buy off the plan, or design and build a new home? Do you need a stand-alone house, a townhouse, an apartment, or a home in a community precinct?


Choosing a home type that meets your needs can reduce both your mortgage and environmental impact.

Many people have already decided on the type of home that best suits them before they begin. However, here are some issues you may still wish to consider:

  • Upgrading or renovating an existing home can be a great way to achieve sustainable design outcomes. By retaining much of the existing building fabric, the need for new construction materials is reduced, saving on precious resources.
  • Many people choose to design and build a new home because they feel it has the best potential to create a comfortable, sustainable home customised to their needs. If you want to build a new home, choose a company that demonstrates best-practice construction methods and reuse and recycling of materials.
  • Buying off the plan can be a cost-effective option and you can usually visit a display centre to get a feel for the spaces and qualities of the home. It is critical to choose a plan that suits your block, and it is often possible to make modifications to the plan and specification to improve energy efficiency and sustainability outcomes.
  • Apartments can be an affordable and sustainable option, but the scope for alterations and renovations may be limited by owners corporation rules. That said, many owners corporations across Australia are undertaking innovative upgrades to reduce their environmental footprint.

A street of modern two-storey townhouses with modest courtyards, landscaped gardens and natural shading. 

Medium-density living may be right for your lifestyle

Photo: Simon Wood Photography

Step 2: Think about where you want to live

If you are buying or building a new home, one of the most important decisions is choosing the best location. A home that is close to everything you need, including public transport, saves on fuel costs and helps reduce your carbon footprint.

Choosing the right site is also important. Look out for good orientation for the local climate, and shape and topography of the site that suit the type of house you want to build.

Step 3: Consider the long term

Your home is a long-term investment, so it makes sense to consider how it will suit you, both now and into the future and how you can minimise the long-term environmental impact of your home.

To ensure your home remains affordable and sustainable, ask:

  • How big does your home need to be? Would a smaller home mean you could afford a better location and a more comfortable, energy-efficient home?
  • Does the design use passive design principles to minimise energy use?
  • How do climate change risks affect your home insurance?

To ensure your home remains comfortable and safe, ask:

  • Is there a chance that the design will overheat during increasingly warm summers?
  • Has the design included measures to minimise water use or recycle water for gardens and other uses?
  • Could sea level rise affect your property? Does the local council have any development controls to deal with the risk of increased flooding or sea level rise?
  • Will your home be in a bushfire-prone area?

To ensure your home continues to suit your needs, ask:

  • Could your home be easily modified to suit changes in lifestyle when required (for example, children, downsizing as you get older)?

Step 4: Set your goals

Now is the time to be clear about what you want from your new home. Setting targets can help to inform your brief, and help you to identify suitable properties or establish design targets to achieve the best outcomes.


Your goals should consider the ‘triple bottom line’ – the environmental, economic, and social (lifestyle) performance of your home.

Environmental goals

Minimise energy use and greenhouse gas emissions:

Specify a minimum 7-star Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme (NatHERS) rating for thermal performance. Even higher ratings are achievable in cooler climates such as Canberra and Melbourne where heating is the predominant need. For more information visit Design for climate.

  • Aim for carbon neutrality or better.
  • Choose or retrofit energy-efficient appliances and lighting
  • Ensure your home or design has sufficient unshaded north-facing roof area on which to mount solar panels for hot water and renewable electricity.

Minimise mains water consumption:

Reduce the environmental and health impact of the materials you use:

Economic and lifestyle goals

Maximise affordability, both up-front and in the long term:

  • Choose or build the smallest home that will suit your current needs. A compact, well-designed home will have a smaller mortgage and is less expensive to buy and operate, while providing similar amenity to a bigger home.
  • Ensure your home is as energy-efficient as possible. Investing in energy-efficient design and products will pay you back over time.

Build in the flexibility to suit changing lifestyles:

  • Ensure your home can be modified to meet potential changes in your lifestyle.
  • Plan future additions to accommodate future needs, but build them only when they become necessary.
  • Consider moving house as your needs change. This can yield better triple-bottom-line outcomes than buying or building a larger house now.

A small home is surrounded by a leafy garden area, with lawn and trees for shading. The house has a raised deck with pot plants, and on one side there is a room with vertical windows that open to allow breezes in during the warmer months.

New rooms or extensions can be added to suit changing lifestyles

Photo: Dick Clarke

Step 5: Examine your current home and lifestyle

Your existing home and lifestyle are usually the best source of information for your wish list. Analyse your current home to get a clear picture of what you like and dislike, how each member of your household lives in each space, and how this might be improved in your new home.

Ask these questions

Which rooms do you use a lot, and how might they be improved?

  • Warmer or cooler (better winter sun, summer breezes)?
  • Increased natural light?
  • Additional or improved storage?
  • Better flow and movement (for example, where is there a bottleneck of people trying to walk?)
  • Improved access to outdoor areas or views?

Which rooms do you rarely use, and why?

  • Too hot or cold? Too noisy?
  • Unable to fit furniture well?
  • Could you make them more usable?
  • Could you delete them from your wish list?

How much space do you need?

  • What furniture do you want to keep or buy?
  • What might be a more space-efficient layout?
  • What do you need to store, and what type of space is needed (for example, tall cupboards, multiple shelves, etc)?

Could you consider multifunction spaces?

  • Which rooms work well together (for example, kitchen–living)?
  • Which rooms need to be separated (for example, living–bedroom)?
  • Could you combine compatible activities within one room using purpose-built room dividers or nooks?

How much energy do you currently use?

How would you like to change your lifestyle

  • Would you like your home to include outdoor living spaces?
  • Do you need space for new hobbies?
  • Do you need play areas for children?

A patio area outside a modern home has a slimline water tank to the right side. It has pot plants and an outdoor table setting. There are also bi-fold doors that can open to create an indoor–outdoor space.

Outdoor areas can flow into indoor areas

Photo: Renew (2013)

Step 6: Develop a baseline budget

Affordability is a primary consideration that influences all subsequent decisions about your home.

First, understand your total budget. If you are unsure of your budget, visit your bank or use an online calculator (offered free by most banks) to establish the limit of your borrowings. Always allow for contingencies and hidden costs like stamp duty, bank fees, consultant, and council fees. Some banks offer discounted mortgage rates for homes with good energy ratings and may be prepared to lend more for sustainable features.

Once you have determined your total budget, allocate some of that budget to sustainable features from the outset. Under-budgeting for sustainable features is a common reason for their ultimate omission.


Up-front costs for sustainable features should be balanced against the savings they will deliver over the lifecycle of the home or appliance. Choosing sustainable features will mean you will spend less on heating and cooling your home, and on running appliances.

Also remember that the cost of renovating, altering or retrofitting to improve performance is generally higher than incorporating it in a new build.

Step 7: Start your wish list or ‘brief’

Your wish list, or brief to the building designer, should be an evolving document that records your ‘must-haves’ and ‘must-avoids’, and your general preferences.

People usually find it impossible to find or afford a home that satisfies all the items in their wish list. Prioritise important features on your wish list that are difficult or expensive to add later. Keep your sustainability goals in mind – consider choosing important thermal comfort, energy- and water-efficiency features for less important ones such as rarely used rooms or cosmetic touches. Seek impartial, professional advice on sustainability and lifecycle implications every time you want to make a trade-off.

As well as lists of features and descriptions of building designs, your brief can also include photos you find online or in magazines. Photos – both of likes and dislikes – are a good way to communicate your ideas to your designer.

An attractive home in regional Inverloch, Victoria has timber cladding, and a high-angled, sloping roof with north facing windows to let in light.

A smaller house saves in many ways. The owners of this house used free Design For Place home designs.

Photo: ©Harmony House

Step 8: Get timely professional advice

It is never too early to seek professional advice. Professional advice at an early stage can help to shape your ideas and avoid costly mistakes.

Find an advisor who understands your region and the type of home you want. If you want particular sustainability features or building methods (for example, reverse brick veneer), make sure you find an advisor who is experienced in what you want.

Initial consultations are often free, but this type of arrangement probably limits the advice provided. Paid consultations (agreed fee or hourly rate) usually yield more detailed advice and information. Many practitioners deduct the cost of such consultations from their fees when you contract them for further services.

Step 9: Check building regulations

Make sure you are aware of the planning and building regulations for homes at your chosen location. Your designer or consultant should be able to help, or you can check with your local council. These regulations cover objectives such as ensuring the home meets minimum sustainable design requirements, protecting the amenity of neighbours, and preserving neighbourhood character. If you are buying into an estate, you may need to follow additional estate design guidelines.

Step 10: Find out about the process of designing and building

Before you plan your project, it helps to have an overview of the process and what is involved (refer to Designing a home and Building a home).

References and additional reading

Learn more


Original author: Chris Reardon 2013