Before you so much as set pen to paper, there’s usually a host of questions that come up when you consider building a new home. The one question that encapsulates all others is, “How much is it going to cost to build my house?”
When I’m asked this question, my first response is usually, “How much have you budgeted for the project?” Far from being an unpleasant retort, it is a serious question. Often, people will respond with so many dollars per square foot, which, with a simple multiplication by their desired conditioned area – Voilà! – the project budget! But…
Ce n’est pas un budget.
Approaching your project budget in this manner obfuscates more than it accounts for. There are just too many factors that influence the cost of your custom home, but this simple arithmetic persists as a way to easily talk about costs, from rough framing to floor finishes.
In order to meaningfully address such a complex undertaking within the space of a post such as this, we need to set some parameters, because not all houses are located, designed, and built the same. Let’s assume the following.
- Location: Urban, suburban, rural (on high ground)
- Scope: New ground-up construction only
- Area: 2,500 – 3,000 SF (square feet), conditioned
Your budget, and the final cost of the project, will depend largely on two interrelated factors; 1) Size, meaning how much you build, and 2) the Quality of all that you build. Keep in mind that both are more nuanced when taking into consideration areas not part of the conditioned area – porches, decks, terraces, etc. – and the difference between a finely finished library and a bare bones mechanical room. These differences also need to be reflected in the cost.
We have quite a range of options for building sites in the Lowcountry; a dense historic downtown, spacious suburban neighborhoods, meticulously maintained resort communities, prized beachfront sites, and magnificent river marsh locations. These fall into roughly three categories; urban, suburban, and rural.
Urban sites located in downtown Charleston or the Old Village Mount Pleasant have their own unique set of conditions. Limited parking, narrow lots, the historical context, and public design review are just a few issues that present challenges to designing and building a custom home.
Suburban building sites, whether as far out as Summerville or closer in like West Ashley, are generally less expensive, less design prescriptive, more spacious, and easily accessible. The exception would include luxury resort communities like Kiawah Island, that requires a 60-minute commute, security gate passes, specific community design guidelines, and an architectural review board (ARB) that adds costs up and down the project team, from architects and builders to subcontractors and suppliers.
Rural sites located in remote areas such as Awenda to the northeast or Wadmalaw Island to the southwest generally have far fewer design restrictions – unless located in an exclusive enclave – than suburban and urban sites, but their distance from labor and material sources does add to construction costs. It’s difficult to say exactly how much, but it’s safe to assume an increase of 15%.
The cheapest foundation to build is a concrete slab on grade, a method preferred by track home builders here and across the region. If your building site is on high ground and NOT in a flood zone, then this can be something worth considering. The next cheapest foundation is concrete footings – preferably continuous to mitigate differential settling of the building – and concrete masonry units, or CMUs. Piles driven into the ground using heavy equipment is the more expensive foundation, but is also a necessity on sites with soft ground or in “V” flood zones where scouring from flood waters can undermine other types of foundations. For foundation costs only, pile foundations generally cost up to three times that of slab on grade construction.
There are three interrelated factors that determine the cost of your homes structure; method of construction, labor, and time. As a baseline, stick-built is the common construction method here, consisting site built walls framed with 2×4 (or 2x6s) studs at 16” on center, but other construction methods have made their way into Lowcountry, offering faster build times which translates to cheaper finance and insurance costs.
- Structural Insulated Panels (SIPS) – Slightly costlier (2% or so), than an equivalent stick-built home, this method offers advantages of speedy construction, high thermal performance, wind resistance, and, for urban sites particularly, greater noise attenuation. Homes can be built in about 75% of the time for a comparable stick-built home of comparable size, saving a lot of money that gets eaten up by a typical construction schedule.
- Modular – Modular construction methods present can impact design choices, but for homeowners wanting a minimalist aesthetic and a quick build time it’s an attractive option. Savings resulting from this method can be pocketed or applied to other aspects of the home like higher quality finishes, lighting and plumbing fixtures, or more energy efficient windows and doors. Homes can typically be built in 50% of the time for a conventionally framed home.
If we assume that the minimum construction cost for a simple home is around $160 – 180/SF, as the design becomes more complex and higher quality finishes are selected, this guestimate will quickly reach to $250/SF. Highly custom designs and artfully crafted homes will start out around $300/SF and rise as high as a homeowner is willing to pay for more refined details, high performance systems, and luxury items.
All of this is to say that, at best, a ballpark cost-per-square foot construction budget can only give you an approximation at the outset of your building project. You would have to develop a highly detailed set of drawings and specifications describing the level of desired quality, fixtures, finishes, etc. to have a more complete picture of the final cost.
This is certainly prudent when you’re ready for your project to move forward, but if you’re not, doing so could mean wasting tens of thousands of dollars on design services only to find out what you’ve dreamed up is beyond your budget. A low-cost Discover and Focus consultation that includes conceptual level design and preliminary budgeting can help you avoid such a scenario and save you a lot of pain in the process.