Designing a smaller house is perhaps the best way to keep overall costs down but this article is about keeping the relative cost or the price per square foot ratio down. Most new custom homes in Asheville fall between $150 and $300 per square foot to build. In other words, a 2000sf house built at $150/sf will cost $300,000 to build- this includes all materials, labor and contractor fees, but not land. But why, the reader may ask, are some houses twice as expensive to build? Many people who aren't familiar with construction costs might assume that a good way to save money is to shop for the cheapest builder- but this is rarely a good idea. The cost of the house is dictated almost entirely by the design and selections.
In this article I'm going to discuss 3 powerful strategies to maximize square footage and quality while keeping the price per square foot ratio down. The first 2 strategies, and perhaps the most important depend on smart design. The third strategy depends on intelligent selections of finishes.
Most of the recommendations in this article have the double benefit of keeping construction AND maintenance costs down which is important if the house is owned longer term. There’s a lot of good information here—things that I’ve gleaned from being a designer, builder, home inspector and estimator. I hope this article helps those who want to bring more affordable houses to the market by adding value with smarter design and selections.
DESIGN STRATEGY #1: SIMPLIFY THE FORM
Reduce Foundation Corners. The more corners a house foundation has the more complicated and expensive it will be to construct—from foundation to roofing and framing, to finishes. The simplest and cheapest house to construct and maintain has 4 corners. When a homeowner or architect adds corners to the design it adds costs. The owner should ask themselves these questions: Do the added corners make the house more livable or functional? Do they add visual appeal? Are the additional costs and maintenance worth it? If the answers are no then simplify.
Reduce Complicated Rooflines and Dormers Many new home designs try to mimic the appearance of older homes by looking like they've had many additions over the decades, but complicated rooflines and an over-abundance of dormers drive up construction and maintenance costs. Every dormer in a house is an opening in the roof—which exposes the house to potential water and structural issues. New construction is an opportunity to avoid these issues. After 20 or 30 years the roofline might be modified anyways so it's wise to start with a simpler form.
Reduce Garage, Porches, and Decks.
When it comes to adding value to a home, heated square footage is the gold standard. Garages and covered porches require nearly all the same costs but might only appraise for 30% of what the interior spaces do. Unless the space is easily converted try to limit the scope here.
DESIGN STRATEGY# 2: GO UP NOT SIDEWAYS
Reduce site work, foundation, roofing and other costs.
Foundations and site work are expensive in the mountains which is why this strategy is doubly true in Western North Carolina. These points can not be over-emphasized:
1) Keep construction expenses down by limiting the size of the footprint. (More on why this is true here)
2) Design upward not sideways.
3) Try to maintain the shape as much as possible through all levels.
When a home is vertical rather than horizontal like in this illustration, there are essentially no added roofing or foundation costs. Adding both a second floor and a finished daylight basement in this design is relatively cheap square footage and brings the overall price per square foot down! Elaborate lofts and upper levels that require many dormers are an exception to this strategy.
"Keep construction expenses down by limiting the size of the footprint. Design upward not sideways and maintain the shape as much as possible through all levels."
SELECTION STRATEGY #3: SMART FINISHES
Reducing finishes is a great way to bring down the budget but be aware that if the first two strategies are ignored then odds are the house will still be comparatively expensive regardless of selections.
I would define “smart” finishes as products that are cheaper and are at least as functional as their more expensive alternatives.
Reduce Flooring Costs. Hardwood floors add value and character to a home and in my opinion are good investments. If necessary, money can be saved by putting carpet in the bedrooms. Vinyl / linoleum is cheaper than tile and can be a good alternative for kitchens and bathroom floors. True hardwood floors and carpets are not a good choice in humid areas like in daylight basements—finished concrete or laminate flooring are cheaper and more appropriate options here.
Reduce Brick, Stone, and Stucco. Brick and stone can be 4 times as expensive as other finishes. Be aware that cultured stone (synthetic) and real stone cost about the same. It is cheaper to apply stucco over block walls than it is wood frame walls. For this reason, I would recommend fiber-cement stucco panels over exterior walls if this look is desired- this will reduce construction and maintenance costs.
Reduce Tile. Tile labor and materials costs quickly add up. Tile is typically used near plumbing appliances, like in kitchens and bathrooms, but ironically it's not the best material to repel water. Water can enter through weakened grout and damage subfloors, walls and framing without the owner even knowing it. Acrylic insert showers and tubs are superior when it comes to controlling water because they have fewer or no seams and they have the added benefit of being more affordable than custom tile work.
For bathroom design, wood wainscots are cheaper than tile wainscots.
Another cost saving idea is to opt for the matching 4” backsplash that comes with most countertops rather than paying for a separate 18" tile backsplash.
Reduce Countertop costs. I do not like the cheapest option which is laminate countertops- water and wood fibers are not a good combination. A laminate countertop could become worthless in 5 years with careless use. Solid surface (plastic) or entry-level quartz or granite are the most functional and maintenance free options for the money which can be bought for as little as $50/sf. Be aware that if $100/sf or more is spent on countertops, the additional expense will not be recovered at re-sale.
Reduce Masonry Fireplaces and Chimneys. Homeowners can noticeably reduce the budget by choosing a wood stove or a factory-built firebox insert over a masonry fireplace and chimney. A wood stove is a great heat source, easier to maintain and requires only a metal flue to exit the roof or the wall.
If an open fireplace is a must, I would recommend a factory built firebox insert which saves the expense of building a masonry hearth, chimney and liner. A wood mantel and surround is cheaper than masonry. If the design demands it, builders can frame a wood ‘chimney’ above the roofline and side it with fiber-cement or wood siding. Stucco and masonry finishes are upgrades.
Reduce Architectural Timbers, Trusses & Brackets. Although these details can be a key part of the mountain aesthetic be aware that they are rarely structural-- the true heavy lifting is performed by hidden standard framing. If the budget needs to come down homeowners can work with their architect and builder to choose a few select embellishments without breaking the bank.
Reduce Custom-sized Windows. Custom-sized windows can be twice as expensive and may require twice the lead time as off-the-shelf windows. If the window package is pricey ask your builder to bid the project using standard sizes instead.
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More people are considering buying undeveloped land in the Asheville area to cope with limited inventory and rising costs. Buying land is a great option for knowledgeable buyers but it is also riskier and potentially more expensive than buying developed land. This article is broken up into the 3 Most Important Things to Look For when buying land in the area. This article is for potential landbuyers and real estate and construction professionals. Make sure you check out the Resources section at the bottom of the article and print out the Buncombe County Development Checklist (also provided).
WITHIN CITY LIMITS:
The big advantage to buying a lot within city limits, aside from location, is that utilities are readily available and there can be big savings here.
There are some things to be aware of though. It is rare to find a good lot selling at a modest price in the city. Remaining lots are steep, odd-sized, and may contain un-compacted fill or garbage. Look carefully for easements on the land which are common in the city.
Here are some resources and typical costs for a 2000sf home in the city:
City Sewer (MSD): There is an initial connection and monthly usage fee (about $3000 for typical home):
City of Asheville Sewer tap (MSD)
City Water: There is an initial connection and monthly usage fee (about $2600 for typical home):
City of Asheville Water Application
Gas (PSNC): If a lot is located in their service area generally they will connect the house for free if your water heater and/or furnace is a gas appliance. Check gas availability for your lot.
Electricity (Progress): Initial connection is free within service area. The builder will need to work with Progress Engineer to establish temporary power during construction. Underground trenching for long distances may cost extra. Progress (Electricity) www.progress-energy.com (800) 452-2777
BEYOND SERVICE AREAS:
Cheaper and larger lots can be found out of town but once a house is beyond service areas homeowners will have to provide their own water, septic system and gas. Well and septic permits must be applied for before receiving a construction permit. Developers beware: A percolation or 'perc' test will determine how well your site can handle sewage waste and may limit how many units can be built on the lot. This is important to know before buying a lot.
Water (Well): Drilling a well for one house could cost $9-$15,000 depending how deep it must go before getting enough water flow. Most springs and rain water catchment systems will not be adequate for year round household water use.
Electrical Service (Progress, French Broad Electric or other): Connections are generally free but Homeowners might have to pay for trenching for underground cable service- if the house is a quarter mile from the road this could get expensive. Speak with an engineer from your utility company. If they say you are responsible for trenching to the house speak with a grader for an estimate.
Back-up Generator: Electrical service is less reliable in remote mountain areas in the Winter (just when you need it the most)-- homeowners in these areas may want to consider installing a back-up generator-- budget around $3000-$6000 with installation.
Septic: A private septic system for a single family home might cost $4500-$7000. A grader or builder can give you an estimate.
Gas (Propane): If the lot is out of the PSNC service area then a propane tank must be purchased or rented. An above ground 500 gallon tank costs about $1450. Renting is only $75 a year except you will pay a higher rate for gas (as of writing $2.25/gallon for rented tanks and $1.81 if you own it. $1125 vs. $905 to fill) Southern States and Blossman are two big providers in the area.
#2: CLEARING, DRIVEWAY, GRADING & EXCAVATION
Our mountainous terrain drives up construction costs. It’s simply more expensive to build foundations on a sloping site made of rock and clay than it is on flat sandy sites. In order to understand why grading is so unpredictable and expensive in the mountains we need to understand what is underneath the surface-- springs, red clay, fill, rock, organic matter, stumps, and other unsuitable soils. The mountains are pretty, but they’re unforgiving-- especially to builders. The more area a development plan covers, the more a project opens itself up to surprises and expenses! Your best resources here are geotechnical engineers, builders and graders who can give you information and estimates about potential costs. An undeveloped lot will usually require the following items:
Clearing: Trees will be cut, stumps removed, rocks broken up and soil trucked off site. The more earth that is disturbed the pricier it will be.
Driveways, Parking & Turn-around areas: Driveways must be properly compacted on suitable soil with a gentle slope and proper drainage. Road bond and gravel may not be an option for steeper driveways- asphalt is more expensive and concrete is more expensive still. Remote houses need a parking and turn-around area as well. Mountain driveways may require culverts or even bridges. Driveways can be built cheaply or built to last but they must also be maintained. What will they be like in the snow or ice? Many people don’t realize the impossibility of carving out a 1/4 mile driveway up a hill and scratching out a house seat without encountering unpleasant surprises.
Retaining walls: Any flat area surrounding a house on a steeper site will likely require retaining walls-- and they are very expensive!
House Foundation: On steep sites engineers and surveyors should be employed to find the best location for the house. Many house plans will have to go back to an architect for revisions. A good geotechnical engineer should be hired in almost all cases-- even then surprises below the surface will happen. It is very rare that houses are built on slab-on-grade foundations like in Florida. Foundations in the mountains require footings and foundation walls that are strong enough to retain soil. The walls have to be waterproofed. The surrounding area must grade away from the house for proper drainage. If the site is very steep the house will require an engineered foundation which will mean thicker blocks and footings, more steel and concrete or even a poured concrete foundation.
#3: EASEMENTS, PERMITS & ZONING
At the bottom of this article there is a Development Checklist provided by Buncombe County and it is a great resource for people who want to buy undeveloped land.
There are generally less restrictions in the Asheville area compared to the Northeast or West Coast but buyers from neighboring Georgia, South Carolina and Kentucky may find our regulations and zoning more restrictive.
Contact your closing attorney about deed restrictions or covenants.
To locate a copy of your deed, contact the Buncombe County Register of Deeds office (250-4300) located at 35 Woodfin Street, Suite 226, Asheville, North Carolina 28801.
Easements are rights to your land that have been sold or given to other parties. A utility company may have an easement on a property that restricts the homeowner from building on a restricted area of the lot.. A homeowner may not be able to fence their property because of shared driveway easements with their neighbors.
There are also properties that appear to have water or driveway access but they may not in fact convey to the buyer. Many times neighbors will share the expense of utilities like a well. Casual agreements must be verified or permanently negotiated before the purchase.
A new 2200sf single family house in the City of Asheville could cost around $1800 in permit fees. City of Asheville Permitting fees.
Buncombe county fees generally cost half as much as the city.
Check for flood zones or hazardous waste sites. In all cases potential land buyers should speak with a city or town planner and check the zoning maps and restrictions first- nothing should be assumed. The sensitive homeowner may discover the lot they are interested is zoned to allow slaughterhouses and dog kennels in the neighborhood-- not an ideal designation for sensitive people. The investor may discover that the zoning requires that their lot have 100 feet of street frontage before they can subdivide the lot the way they want to. Make sure the zoning and restrictions will allow you to achieve your goals. See the Development Checklist at the bottom of this article.
Asheville (City) Development Services: This is the city planning office which is located downtown. It’s best to go in person and talk to them if possible. They can usually see you within 20 minutes of arriving without an appointment.
828-259-5946 -- 161 S. Charlotte St. Asheville 28801
Buncombe County Planning & Development The county office is also located downtown nearby. If the lot is located within Buncombe county but outside city limits this is the place to go. 46 Valley St. -- 828-250-4830
The GIS: The Buncombe County GIS is a great free resource for land buyers in the area. This site has maps and filters for easements, flood zones, utilities, zoning and more. Talk with your town or city planning department-- usually they are very helpful.
Buncombe County Register of Deeds office (250-4300) located at 35 Woodfin Street, Suite 226, Asheville, North Carolina 28801.
Utility Companies: Asheville Area Utilities link.
Real estate agents: may have access to plats, deeds, surveys and other information or can make referrals.
Your Builder: If you have committed to a builder, schedule a site visit to discuss construction concerns and costs. If not, you may need to pay a builder, grader or consultant like myself hourly to help you.
Builder Buddy Consulting That's me! I am a pre-construction planner, estimator and consultant and can assist your builder, real estate agent and architect efficiently achieve your goals. 828 335 3930. Jason@builderbuddyonline.com www.builderbuddyonline.com
Geotechnical Engineer/ Surveyors: It may be worth it to have a geotechnical survey done before purchasing the property. They can check for suitability of the soil for the foundation and anticipate rock, springs, and other possible surprises.
Neighbors: Talk to neighbors about driveways access, shared utilities or any other potential issues.
Jason Bellamy is a Licensed Home Inspector and Residential Consultant in the Asheville area.RSS Feed