Published February 13, 2012
All this time you’ve assumed that you can’t afford the home you really want: The cozy, comfortable house with all the neat features that you want to get your hands on, stuff like slate countertops; the island range with the stainless steel hood; the rustic beams on the ceiling. Oh, and some really cool lighting fixtures and a tiled shower with two shower heads.
And you know you can’t afford that house because you’ve looked around and nobody’s building that cool house for less than a biodiesel-powered truckload of Krugerrands.
You know that the only way to hold down construction costs on a house is to strip all the niceties away.
The only reasonably priced homes for sale in your area are disposable vinyl and Styrofoam junk or ugly piles of brick and drywall
You’re half right. A typical builder’s “spec” home price gets into the stratosphere when you add all the goodies. But, the good news, you’re half right, too! The reason most houses get ridiculously expensive is that they’re pretty poorly planned.
Plan better – WAY better – and you can get what you want and keep those gold coins in your pocket.
Here are seven ways to beat the high cost of construction and home improvement:
1) Smaller is Smarter (Really?)
The summit of obviousness, making a home smaller makes it less expensive. But random hacking away with a machete is the wrong approach – we need a scalpel and a surgeon. So think carefully about redundancy – why do you need a dining room AND a breakfast room AND five stools at the kitchen counter? A living room AND a study AND a family room AND a sitting area in the master suite?
Most of these uses can be combined into the same space – one nice large place to eat, for example.
Think about your furniture and how you arrange it – when you don’t know how a room is going to be used you usually make it much too big.
Carefully trim out the wasted, unused space and put the cash into that homey board-and-batten wainscot you love. Or lots and lots of chocolate.
2) Efficient Use Of Building Materials
Way back when, some really smart guys figured out that if building materials were all designed on a common module, they wouldn’t have to use or waste so much of it. So sheets of drywall and plywood are both 8 feet tall and 4 feet wide. Which works great on an 8-foot x 16-foot wall, but not so good when it’s 9.5-feet x 17 feet.
Lots of wasted material!
For the same reasons, structural lumber for floors comes from the mill in 2-foot increments. So whose idea was it to make rooms 13-feet wide? Design your house as much as possible on the established modules of building materials and stop filling the dumpster with scrap!
3) Use It Where It Counts, Don’t Use It Where It Doesn’t
I visited Steve Wynn’s Treasure Island Resort in Las Vegas a few years back and remember how impressed I was that the décor in the bathrooms in the furthest back corner of the casino was just as nice as the décor in the baths up front.
But Steve Wynn has a net worth of $2 billion. You probably don’t. So while I hope you become a billionaire, don’t spend like one just yet. Go ahead, put the granite countertops in the kitchen and the master bath, but not in the laundry room. (A classic “Parade of Homes” head-scratcher, that one.)
And your kids can do without solid brass faucets, crown molding, and a hand-painted tile backsplash in their bath. (Go ahead, ask them – they don’t care!)
Same with carpet. Nice stuff in the family room, cheaper everywhere else. Put the money in finishes and fixtures you’ll enjoy every day.
P.S. – Steve Wynn still has his $2 billion AND a hundred bucks of mine.
4) Design for Low Maintenance
This one sounds like a paradox: Spend more here to save more later. Cheap siding, roofing, and windows will cost you way more in the long run than quality components will now. There are entire industries built around the hope that you’ll buy replacement windows and a new roof for your house someday, probably much sooner than you think.
Quality is the tortoise in this race. Do it right the first time.
5) Lower Your Energy Bills – Dramatically
This goes way beyond insulation, Argon-filled glass, and geothermal systems, and will be the subject of a lengthy article in the near future. In the meantime, don’t make the mistake of designing a home that isn’t climate- or site-specific and try to force it to be highly energy efficient – you’ll be addressing less than half the problem.
The real problem you need to solve is how your house DESIGN responds to the climate and the site. For example, don’t put a big wall of glass facing prevailing winter winds where the heat will get sucked out like a black hole.
Remember your 7th-grade geometry, how a square encloses the most area with the least perimeter. Remember how you thought you’d never need to know that? Turns out it comes in handy! So call up your old math teacher and tell her she can be proud because you’re going to use that knowledge in your house design. You’re going to enclose your new highly-efficient floor plan in a relatively square footprint and reduce your heat loss with fewer building materials!
Do this right and you get a big bonus – a tight, energy-efficient house doesn’t need an expensive geothermal heating system at three times the cost of a conventional furnace. Cha-CHING!
Bonus #2 – that square box is going to be better-looking, too…read on.
6) Boxy is Bee-you-tee-full
We have millions of really great-looking homes in this country, though most were built over 70 years ago. The designers and builders of the first American suburbs were experts at making simple homes elegant and attractive.
Good-looking homes are very often based on relatively simple box forms, properly proportioned, composed, and detailed.
Today, too many designers compensate for their lack of skill by loading the exteriors up with as much stuff as they can – gables, complex roof forms, heroic-scaled arched windows, inappropriate details, etc. Lots of money spent and nobody benefits but the home builder (and the replacement-window guy I mentioned above.)
Keep the house forms simple and you’ll save a ton of green on the building materials. Look to the early 20th century suburbs for inspiration and lessons on the elegant simplicity of the box. You’ll have a better looking home that you can be proud of.
7) Good Design Sells
Speaking of good looking, energy-efficient, less expensive, low maintenance, smaller homes, guess what? They sell faster and for more money! Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!!
My all-time favorite blow-my-own-horn story is of my client who (8 years later) sold his house in two weeks – without a real estate agent – for twice what he paid to have it built. All he did was stick a sign out front. The buyer said it was the uniquely functional and interesting floor plan and irresistible exterior design that sold him on it.
How happy do you think he is that he invested in better design?
Richard Taylor is a residential architect based in Dublin, Ohio and is a contributor to Zillow Blog. Connect with him at http://www.rtastudio.com/index.htm.
Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow.