Designing a Vocation: Geist resident finds career path in custom-building her own home


By James Feichtner

Some people spend their whole lives trying to find a suitable career path, but for Geist resident Natalie Zaun, she literally built the occupation she now flourishes in. Zaun, a former English teacher and stay-at-home mom, recently discovered her potential to design homes as a customer looking to build her own custom home.

“It’s kind of funny how this started,” Zaun said. “I used to be a junior high and high school teacher. Over the last few years my husband and I were deciding whether or not to buy an existing home or build a new home. He twisted my arm into building a home, which I’m grateful for now.”

Throughout the several month design, Natalie and her husband went through the typical process of creating a custom-built home. Their builder, Jeff Yancey of Cicero-based J.A. Yancey and Associates, was all too familiar in dealing with clients in the custom-built real estate.

“Every customer is heavily involved in the process so there’s no option to have someone else do it for you,” Yancey said. “The biggest thing for me is when a customer builds a house it is a very stressful process.”

While working with Zaun, Yancey realized that she was different than most customers in her design approach. She had a natural knack for design.

“Natalie’s function or fit of what she likes to do is her design flare and picking out things and making things work,” Yancey said. “Her role fit naturally. I would say that she has a good eye for design; colors, layouts and functionality.”

“I’m particular about what I wanted,” Zaun said. “If we’re going to build a custom home we’re going to do it exactly the way we wanted to do it. Some customers will look more specifically with an architect to help design plans, but this is something that I developed an interest for on my own and just had specific ideas about what I wanted.”

Zaun moved in to her newly built home in August, but while building the home, Yanecey and Zaun realized they might make a great team the collaboration the two shared.

“We mutually started talking about, ‘Hey Jeff, I think you need my help,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I think I may,’” Zaun said. “I think (custom-building) turns people off because it can be incredibly overwhelming, but if people can have an experience where I can kind of hold hands with somebody along the way then I think it takes away some of that overwhelming feeling.”

Zaun was then hired on in April and began working with Yancey. To date, the duo have created two homes together with more in the works.

“We have two homes that we are getting ready to start,” Zaun said. “One is on Morse Reservoir and one is in the West 86th Street area. We have a pile of about four homes right now that we’re working with customers on the designs of their homes.”

Since working with Zaun, Yancey said feedback has clearly shown her potential in his business such as freeing up time for him to focus directly on building.

“With building a house, you have to weigh that time and that time is not always there to cuddle the customer,” Yancey said. “She is able to do that. She really lets me focus on building the home and she guides the customer through the whole process. Natalie came on halfway through (a) house and that particular customer wished she would have had someone like that through the start.”

For Zaun, her newfound career has offered her a chance to expand her creativity through her customers.

“I love it because I find it opens my mind up to different ideas, which I think is fascinating,” she said. “It allows me to challenge myself to look at things the way a customer may look at it.”

While Zaun says she may have never thought of pursuing a career in custom-home design, she admits it may have been a hobby she never had a chance to try.

“Is it fair to say that home design was kind of a hobby? Perhaps,” Zaun said. “(I spent) countless hours (watching) Home and Gardens TV and Houzz. Sundays me and my husband would visit model homes to get ideas just for fun. I’ve always had that interest in the back of my mind so to be able take that interest and build a home and then make a career out of it is a pretty cool opportunity for me.”

All about Zaun

Family: “I’ll be 43 in December and have been married to my husband, Brad, for 21 years. My daughter Anna is 13 and my son Matthew is 10.”

Favorite hobby or past time: “I enjoy playing tennis, being active outdoors and spending time with my family and friends.”

Favorite room or feature of house: “I have a few favorites, but enjoy the uniqueness and functionality of the breezeway.”

Favorite vacation spot: “Lake Michigan. We have been visiting the Saugatuck area for the last 24 years. I love the quaint town and freshwater beach.”

Favorite aspect of the Geist area: “Having access to being on the reservoir is great. It’s the many great families that we have become friends with though that I enjoy the most about the area.”

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