If you’re seriously thinking about building a custom home, visiting an open house can be a big help. But it takes a bit of mental preparation to get the most out of the experience.

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Q: I occasionally see promotions for builders’ open houses around Seattle. Is it worth it to visit an open house if I’m considering building a custom home?

A: If you’re seriously thinking about building a custom home, visiting an open house can be a big help — but it’s not automatic. It takes a bit of mental preparation to get the most out of the experience. Otherwise, there’s a good chance that all you’ll come away with are some home decorating ideas.

Here are some tips for preparing yourself so that you come away with a better idea of what you really want in a new home.

Make a list. Before you visit an open house, make a list of the things that are most important to you. Look for those first. You may want to have a secondary list of items that would be nice to have — but cover your essentials first.

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Look at the layout. It’s easy to get swept away by dramatic flourishes and shiny surfaces, but what you need to figure out is if the design of the home fits your lifestyle. Check out the flow of traffic from one room to the next. Are the rooms located where you’d want them? Do you want easy access from the kitchen to the family room? Do you like an open floor plan, or do you prefer having rooms clearly set apart from one another?

Spend time in the kitchen. This may be the most critical room in the house for you. Think about how you plan to use your kitchen. Will it be primarily a workspace? Are you planning on doing gourmet cooking?Will your kitchen be more of an entertaining room? Do you like the way the kitchen is set up? Does it feel like a comfortable place to cook or entertain? Don’t get hung up on appliances yet. That can come later.

Check out the “non-sexy” spaces. Everybody looks at the kitchen, family room and bedrooms in a model home, but other areas are critically important, too. Is there adequate storage space? How are the hall and bathroom closets? What about the laundry room? Is it conveniently located? Those may be areas that guests never see, but you’ll use them regularly.

Record what you find. Touring an open house can be eye opening, but it can also give you a lot to remember. Use your smartphone to capture images so you don’t have to rely on your memory. You may even want to measure certain rooms and write those figures down so you’ll know if your furniture will fit.

Reconnect with the builder. Often, the important questions we mean to ask don’t pop into our heads until after we’ve left. Don’t ignore them. Write them down and call the builder after the open house. Not everything you need to know is visible. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about warranties or design options.

The key to a successful open house visit is doing a bit of homework before you show up so that you know what to look for.

Brooks Powell is the general manager of Powell Homes and Renovations and a member of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties, and HomeWork is the MBA’s weekly column. If you have a home improvement, remodeling or residential homebuilding question you’d like answered by one of the MBA’s more than 2,800 members, write to homework@mbaks.com.