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In this report

High learning curve turns-off many users

Interestingly, we noticed that a number of reviewers liked some of these home design software programs in general. However, many users posting to sites such as Amazon.com felt there was too long a learning curve for most titles, and overall, this product category has a higher percentage of low ratings than we've seen in other product categories.

Many of the poor reviews are based on an unpleasant surprise at how long it would take to cover the basics, such as learning to use the software, making a floor plan or designing a unique home. Owner comments emphasize the fact that home design software is not as easy to use as you would expect. That doesn't mean working with these products can't be fun, but it does mean a novice user with little computer-aided design (CAD) and graphics experience will need to dedicate energy and patience to master these tools.

Notwithstanding these complaints, other users and most professional reviews say these home design software programs, despite their faults, are indeed learnable by the average consumer. An article by Sara Schaefer Muñoz in The Wall Street Journal notes, however, that home design software does have its limits. Less expensive programs aren't as able to "create the house's frame, adjust wall thickness or customize rooflines," she writes. Also, programs don't take state building codes into account. (In California, codes are especially strict and detailed.) In an article in Macworld, Greg Miller adds that home design software isn't "designed to produce final technical drawings." Still, the software can improve communication with architects.

While the packages discussed here offer some provision for designing exteriors, the focus of this report is on software with strong architectural and interior-design components, as well as decorating options. These programs allow you to design a home from the ground up, specify the size of rooms, then manipulate virtual furniture, change wall coverings and add decorative items. Landscaping tools, which let you choose plants or create outdoor living spaces, are included in some of the software suites.

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