This article outlines three powerful strategies to maximize square footage and quality while keeping the price-per-square-foot ratio down. The first two strategies depend on innovative design. The third strategy depends on a frugal selection of finishes.
Most of the recommendations in this article have the double benefit of keeping construction AND maintenance costs down, which is essential if the house is owned longer term. There’s a lot of good information here—things 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 economical designs and selections.
How do I keep new construction costs down?
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. At the time of this writing most new homes in Asheville fall between $225 and $425 per square foot to build. In other words, a 2000sf house built at $250/SF will cost $500,000 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 an excellent 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.
3 Strategies to Reduce Construction Costs
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 Roof Lines 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 roof lines and an overabundance 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 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 no added roofing or foundation costs. Adding 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.
One of the exceptions to this strategy is the single-story agricultural or commercial metal building converted into residences which might be a good option in flat rural areas. See our article ‘Guide to Buying a Barndo‘ for more information about converting metal buildings into residences (Also known as Farmdos and Shouses or Shop-houses).
“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 reduce the budget but be aware that if the first two strategies are ignored, 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 suitable 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. Authentic hardwood floors and carpets are not a good choice in humid areas like daylight basements—finished concrete or laminate flooring is a cheaper and more appropriate option here.
Reduce Brick, Stone, and Stucco Costs
Brick and stone can be four times as expensive as other finishes. Be aware that cultured stone (synthetic) and actual stone cost about the same. It is cheaper to apply stucco over block walls than 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 Costs
Tile labor and materials cost quickly add up. Tile is typically used near plumbing appliances, like 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 knowing it. Acrylic insert showers and tubs are superior in 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. Be aware that if too much money is spent on countertops, the additional expense will not be recovered at resale.
Reduce Masonry Fireplaces and Chimney Costs
If there is any chance that the house may become a long-term rental, it might be best to omit the fireplace entirely.- there are fire and safety concerns regarding solid fuel burning appliances, including the possibility of Carbon Monoxide and Nitrogen Dioxide poisoning – especially when the fireplaces are improperly installed, used, or maintained.
Homeowners who must have a fireplace can reduce their budget by choosing a wood stove or a factory-built firebox insert over a masonry fireplace and chimney. A wood stove is an excellent 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 are 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 vital part of the mountain aesthetic, be aware that they are rarely structural– the actual 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 on the project using standard sizes instead.
These strategies will not work for all buyers and designs (we all like to splurge on some items) however, this guide can help homebuyers and builders make decisions during the design and finish process that will help them achieve their budgetary goals.
Another good option for people looking to build a new home in our area is to buy a larger plot with a smaller or older house that already has utilities. Older plots are often larger and more desirable than in-fill lots. Buying an existing property can reduce the cost of utilities and provide the buyer with a place to live during construction. If this idea interests you, check out our Guide for WNC Homebuyers.
Thanks for reading!
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