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 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 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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