I learned the basics of cutting building costs at age 8 when my dad acquired five dump trucks full of used brick from an historic church in downtown Boise, Idaho. My brothers and I spent the entire summer cleaning bricks for 1 cent per brick. Since the company that demolished the building only charged a nominal price for each load, the cost per brick for my Dad was a little over 1 cent.
Over the next year, we built our house; bricked in the front and back. We even had enough brick left over to sell to another builder. I was too young to know how cool our house looked, but when I go back to visit, the look is timeless.
Cut costs, not quality
Over the next decade, we built two more homes. Cutting costs to my father was a way of life he learned from his parents, whose cost-cutting lifestyle got them through the depression unscathed. But my dad had high demands; brick, not siding; walnut kitchen cabinets, a sunken living room with a marble fireplace, Anderson wood windows, and in our last house; 4000 square feet of home on one level; not necessarily practical standards for the average family, but then neither was having 12 kids. (And no, kids aren’t cheaper by the dozen.)
Not every cost-cutting measure my dad used is practical today, including forced child labor, but many still hold true. Here are cost-cutting strategies used by my dad that are practical for anyone building a home.
Save money on land
Any good architect will tell you that choosing your land is the first step to the building process. This is not a step to be rushed. If you are building your own home, a planned subdivision with multiple covenants is probably not a good option for you. However, in any community, many orphan plots of land that lack commercial appeal may be exactly what you are looking for.
My father always tried to locate a larger unwanted tract and then pre-arranged to sell parts of it to other builders. This allowed him to buy the lot size he really wanted and even make a profit on the side.
Save money on plans
If you are looking to cut costs, having an architect draw up your plans from scratch will cost you more that you think. Costs can range from $1.00 per heated square foot upwards to $10.00. Sometimes the cost can be as high as 10% of the home’s value.
When considering cost savings in this area, you may want to work with your general contractor to determine his or her preferences when it comes to home plans. He or she may even have some multiple use plans that fit what you want or need.
There are many sites on the Internet, which offer complete architectural designs and accompanying drawings for thousands of home styles and sizes. Sites such as eplans.com and houseplans.com offer complete plan sets for your home site at prices substantially lower than custom plans.
There is a big difference between a draftsman, an architect, and a licensed architect. Even though Frank Lloyd Wright was only a ‘draftsman,’ hiring a draftsman today can be very risky since key components to your plans may be missing.
And back to your general contractor, he will know good plans when he sees them.
Get a good general contractor
You wouldn’t hire an accountant who had a second home in the Cayman Islands; and neither should you hire a general contractor who doesn’t have ecstatic former clients and a good reputation. Check all references and interview as many home owners that used him or her as possible.
As a rule, hire a contractor who charges you a flat rate for the job over one who charges a percentage of the final cost. The latter has little incentive to control costs.
Do it yourself except when you can’t
With reference to my father, he was not only a good general contractor; he was a competent draftsman as well. Every step of the way, my father would surprise me with the details of home building that seemed second nature to him. From wiring, to plumbing, he not only knew the basics but also was up on the latest innovations and codes.
As kids we knew which aspects of home building my father either didn’t know or didn’t feel comfortable doing on his own because that’s when a qualified subcontractor would show up on the job. Home building is not a time to fake it. Either you know what you are doing or you hire it out.
Fifty years ago building from recycled materials was not an acceptable practice. Used brick was about the only exception. Today, creating structures from the bones and discarded remains of demolished buildings is not only cost effective but also very chic. If this approach appeals to you, work with your contractor to determine what materials in your plans could be suitably exchanged for recycled materials. Your GC may even be aware of commercial remodels or demolitions in the area that allow salvaging.
In some houses, something as simple as the door hardware, can be the signature look for the home. Don’t hesitate getting involved in the process of choosing materials for your home. The difference in price between door handles for example can be quite significant.
Working with your contractor, choose flooring, appliances, and lighting fixtures that are fine for now but can be upgraded later. Between your contractor’s experience and the time you may have to find a bargain, savings on materials can save you hundreds, even thousands of dollars.
The last home my father built for his family in Boise was in an area with a cool summer breeze and an arctic winter blast. To go green, (in those days, it was just called being smart) he installed heavy Anderson wood windows that sealed up tight in the winter and opened like dual wind panels in the summer, inviting the summer breeze to naturally cool our home. He also didn’t scrimp on insulation in the walls or ceiling.
There are many ways today to go green without adding extra cost to your home. The big advantage to solar water heaters, solar panels, passive solar heat, and other innovations is that they pay for themselves with lower utility costs in the years to come.
When to save and when to spend
Many components of modern homes owe their existence to Hollywood. They look real but are just an illusion. Kitchen cabinets that look like custom wood cabinets are often just poorly constructed pressboard replicas that won’t hold up. And it isn’t just cabinets; flooring, trim, doors and door frames, as well as appliances may have the appearance of their quality counter parts but will not hold up under normal use. Your dream home is now a money pit.
Work with your contractor to identify the components of your home where saving a buck is not in your best interest. Also, don’t buy things you don’t really want or need. Whatever you do purchase, ask yourself, “Is this an item I want to finance for the next 10 – 30 years.”
Don’t pay two mortgages
Finally, my least favorite memory; two mortgages could become a financial disaster if your former home doesn’t sell. When we decided to build our final home in Boise, we moved the family into a rental with only 900 square feet while we sold our former home and worked on our new home. By the time our permanent financing came through on our new home, our former home had sold. After experiencing the Little House on the Prairie for several months, 4000 square feet felt as big as the great outdoors.
Don’t gamble with your financial future by trusting that your former home will sell quickly. Play it safe, and do everything you can to sell it now, even if it means living in a rental until your new place is completed.
Your biggest investment
Home ownership by definition is part of the American Dream. However, the rising generations may find it much more difficult than their parents did. Cutting costs and getting creative may become the norm rather than the exception in the future. For now, this strategy translates into more house for your dollar, less to finance, and with the right planning a more livable home.
Kurt Dowdle is a published author, blogger, and writer for home builder Hayden Homes. He is an accomplished violinist who is proud to have all ten fingers after his father introduced him to power tools and finish carpentry at the age of eight.
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