You’ve been dreaming of designing and building your own custom home for years and you have lots of ideas. But if you’re like most potential homeowners, you also have limitations, like a budget, building site parameters and some community or zoning restrictions. You know you need to marry your dreams with those realities but you don’t want to give up on your idea of a dream home. Now is the time for concept-building.

A concept is a mental vision of something that comes from combining all its particular characteristics. Building your custom home concept is the stage that comes after daydreaming but before committing to the final blueprint, and it is one of the most important steps in making your dream home into a reality.

For our purposes, concept-building means gathering all the specific characteristics that define your dream home. So first you need to pull all these ideas together into one place. Think of these characteristics as falling into three main categories:

Function: What particular functions do you want your home to perform? Who will live in the home and how might they need to be supported? Are there family members, for example, who are elderly or have disabilities that will influence how the home functions for them? What kinds of everyday activities should it support? For example, if your family likes to entertain, how do you prefer to do so–casually outside on an outdoor kitchen style patio or in a formal dining room? Think of all the ways you want your home to function now and in the future and write them down.

Features: Features are the prominent and specific things that make a house unique. These aren’t necessarily the things that change the way a home functions but they do make it distinctive. What design elements have always appealed to you? Do you love the sound of a fountain in your backyard? Have you always wanted a grand foyer with an elegant curved staircase? Built-in bookshelves to house your library? Gather up images of the kinds of house design features that really appeal to you.

Feeling: What kind of a feeling or atmosphere do you want your home to evoke? This is the design and style element of your concept. Do you like a sleek, modern style or is a more traditional, classic look what you are after? Once again, pull together images of the styles you like. Rip pictures out of magazines or start a Pinterest board. The main goal is to just start collecting images in one place where you can go back and share with your architect and builder.

Once you’ve pulled together these ideas you can start to refine them until you’ve identified the elements that are most important to you. Then work with your architect and builder to work out which of these elements will fit into your budget and how they will be shaped by other constraints. Creating your custom home concept can be a lot of fun but it is also a very important and practical activity because it will help you both organize your ideas and better communicate them to your building team.