Finding the Best Home Design Software

How to Pick a Home Design Software Program

rendering of multi-gabled home with colorful plantings along a stone pathway to the wreathed front door
Rendering by Chief Architect Software. Chief Architect/HomeDesignerSoftware.com (cropped) 

For anyone who plans to build a new house, home design software can seem like a dream come true. But with so many programs to choose among, how does the Do-it-Yourselfer (DIYer) decide? Start by answering these questions:

1. What device will you be using?

These days the consumer is in the driver's seat of availability, and remember that YOU are the consumer. Digital products have been reconfigured and repackaged for any "now" device — software on a PC, app for a mobile device, and  "the Cloud" for sharing between devices.

Home design software used to be problematic because highly graphical software needed a lot of memory and power, which was expensive in early computers. These days most everything is visual, so DIY two-dimensional (2-D) and three-dimensional (3-D) rendering software is less of an issue. The device you choose, however, may affect the overall experience you have, so consider what device you'll be using.

System Requirements — Remember wondering if your computer was powerful enough? It used to be that before you bought any software for your PC, you had to make sure your computer system (e.g., graphics card) met the requirements to run the program. These days products are often downloaded from a company website, so the downloading application checks your system before it loads — generally you don't even need to know what operating system (OS) you are using. The speed of your Internet connection, however, becomes the biggest factor in downloading software, which makes the concept of "net neutrality" a more personal and less political issue. Do you pay extra for speed you don't always use? You might like the hands-on CD or DVD you can readily load yourself, but even Amazon.com is turning to downloads.

The Cloud — Cloud Computing is not an atmospheric trick. Some people are intrigued by this way of working even if there is no such thing as a Cloud.  Computer servers and drives are all involved — they're just not in your own home. Some software is "cloud-based," meaning you don't have to download or install much of anything — you are using the "software as a service" (SAAS). So, if you don't mind whether or not your designs and visions are located on various equipment owned by companies around the world, the Cloud is very handy, especially if you want to share your work or use different devices. Depending on security, you could be sharing your work and your home furnishing and appliances tastes and interests — information that may interest a mass marketer — with anybody or everybody.

Free Testing — Since you may be on the product's website, take a look around to see what's offered as free online support from the company. A robust amount of help and suggestions that are clear and well-written may save you hours of frustration. Also, is there a "chat" function that pops up and who is chatting? Before you buy an app for your phone or mobile device, get a free version — you want to be able to easily move objects around on the screen space of the device you already have. For example, you can try out Room Planner by Chief Architect for free — you can't save what you create, but you'll be able to tell how easy or difficult it is to use.

2. What's your learning curve?

Some home design programs can be challenging. Computer novices will need to spend time reading the manual and working through online tutorials. For out-of-the-box simplicity, opt for a basic program with a minimum of special features.

3. What do you want to do?

Do you want to dabble, play, or try your hand at creating the next prize-winning architectural design? A simple program with basic features is all you need to try out your creative ideas. Before you splurge, experiment with a free drawing program like Google SketchUp or bargain-priced software like IMSI TurboFLOORPLAN Instant Architect. You can have a lot of fun using Home Designer® by Chief Architect. It may take a couple of days to get used to how the software operates — home design software seems to have its own language — but once you get the hang of it, the options are engaging.

Or maybe you have a more specific task in mind. It's helpful to know what you want to do.

Draw a Simple Floor Plan — If all you want to do is draw simple floor plans, you might not need a high powered graphics program or software for drawing 3D images. Instead, try an easy, free online drawing tool.

Prepare to Build — Most home design software for DIYers isn't as powerful as the CAD and BIM programs used by architects and engineers. You won't be able to draft blueprints or construction-ready drawings. With some programs, however, you can create designs with enough detail to give your pro a jump start. For example, Chief Architect Home Designer Suite will let you select from a huge library of cabinets, colors, and other features. Choose the entire suite of Chief Architect software and you can also plan complex electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems.

Add Curb Appeal to an Existing Home — Many programs will let you import your own photograph and add new landscape features. However, you really don't need home design software if your goal is to view paint colors or make other cosmetic changes to your house. Instead, choose a paint color software program or even photo editing software.

Create a Presentation — Some home design software is particularly friendly to teachers, sales representatives, realtors, and budget-minded architects who have to present designs to the public. Many programs allow you to record voice narratives and create animated views of finished interior and exterior designs. The virtual "walk-through" has become a very popular feature, and it's completely automated — you don't have to do a thing except create a pathway through your design.

Work on a School Project — If you're facing a tight deadline, pick software that's quick and easy to use. Most school projects don't require enormous libraries of colors and details. Opt for simplicity over bells and whistles. Student designers who enter the Solar Decathlon every other year have varying degrees of success in their digital presentations — often the built structures looks much better than the drawn.

4. What if you hate digital devices?

Not to worry. People were building houses long before the Digital Age. Remember when the vinyl-stickable-Colorforms were high-tech? Well, plastic-on-plastic is still well-suited for virtually moving furniture around a room. Check out Home Quick Planner: Reusable, Peel & Stick Furniture & Architectural Symbols or Room and Furniture Layout Kit by Muncie Hendler. There's something about getting your hands on things, even if they're peel-and-stick-and-re-stick.

FAST FACTS: Top Home Design Software for DIYers

  • Home Designer Suite by Chief Architect
  • Virtual Architect Home Design Software
  • Punch! Home & Landscape Design Essentials
  • TurboCAD TurboFloorPlan Home & Landscape