# How much does it cost to build a house?

Oh, I guess you need a little more info to fully answer that.

Let’s say that I am drawing my dream house on a napkin. Is there a way that I can get a rough estimate of how much total that it would cost with materials and labor?

Let’s say that I have the square footage. Is there a number I can multiply that by to get an estimate?

Of course, there will be differences if I want solid gold faucets vs. the \$14.95 ones at Lowes, so perhaps there is another multiplier for different levels of flooring, countertops, cabinets, etc.

Can someone point out how to get started, or is building a house such a custom project that there is no way to estimate until I get into it?

Like all other complex projects, estimating cost starts out very rough with rough input then gets more precise with more detailed input. A custom home builder would be happy to look at your plans and give you a ballpark figure. The examples of items you gave are finish items and won’t do much to drive the overall cost. They are fine tuning.

In the area I live there are a couple of custom homes under development that have a sign out front that says, “Custom homes from \$80/sq. ft.”, just as one data point.

The answer is “it depends”.

It depends on where you want to build and what kind of interior or exterior finishes you want. For example, you might be able to build the exact same house for \$150 a square foot in one place and for \$300 a square foot someplace else.

So if you are serious you need to call a few local contractors and ask what the square footage price range is depending on what finishes you choose. They can give you an estimate… but until you submit your design to a number of contractors for quotes you won’t really know what it will cost.

Thanks. So what items do drive the overall cost? I would assume that marble floors throughout the house would greatly increase the cost versus carpeting.

So, custom homes “from” \$80/sq. ft. What would the base package contain? Bare bones I assume, so what would bare bones entail?

If you wanted to do the legwork, you could figure out how much stick lumber you’d need, look up its price, how much drywall, how much plywood, how much flooring, etc and all their prices as well as mud, nails, thinset, concrete and so on and add all that up.

That’s a good starting point. For a home in a pretty nice area where I live (Silicon Valley), it would be closer to the upper end. \$250/sg ft would be a pretty good start. But this is a very expensive place to live, and I’m sure it would be much cheaper in other areas.

I would be leery of anyone who promised to build it for < \$100 sq ft anywhere. You might get a contractor who is going to do most of the work himself instead of hiring specialized tradesmen.

Finish detail is what drives a lot of the cost. If you just look at flooring, you might pay \$5/sq ft for carpet (nice stuff) vs \$10 -\$15/sq ft for hardwood vs \$20 - \$30/sq ft for tile. Cabinet style and material, countertop materials similarly will vary.

Some years ago I looked at pre-fab houses, where big (up to 5 m long) parts are made in a factory and transported to the building site, assembled there in 1-5 days and then the interior stuff can be done at leisurely pace and dry inside, as opposed to the traditional model where you put brick upon brick to build the shell and then do the interior, so I got some basic idea of the cost for Germany (a normal 120 sqm house for a family would be 150 000 Euros).

While some people in Germany prefer “building” their home themselves to save cost, there’s only a limited amount of total cost that can be saved by brute labour, up to 20%. Everything else, most esp. the water and electric stuff, has to be done by certified professionals under German law. If you happen to have not only 5-10 friends willing to pitch in with the pure manual work, but who also happen to be plumbers or electricians and are ready to work for free in their spare time as personal favour to you, you “only” have to calculate the cost of the materials.

Plus, there are official experts who have to sign off your house; that’s why you can’t draw on a napkin and buy lumber and bricks to start with, you need first a building plan that has been looked over carefully by a building statist. (He’s the one who crunches the numbers as to whether the walls will hold up; as such, he comes after the architect has had flighty dreams and tells him why it won’t work, so you might as well skip the architect all together). After you’ve put all materials together, an official from the city office for buildings (or whatever it’s officially called in your area) will have to look it over to see if nobody made mistakes while building and it’s safe for you to move in.

Obviously, those requirements will also vary by jurisdiction, and how much they cost.

Good points about the architectural plans. What you call the “building statist”, we call a “structural engineer” in the US. Plan on 10 -20% of the budget to be in the plans and permits unless you get someone to give you a bro deal on the plans. Also, in many parts of the US, you can do work on your own home yourself (don’t need a license), but you still have to pass inspections (which means it has to be done to code).

Can anyone comment on the cost and benefits of non-traditional construction?

For example, my last three houses have had termite problems, and I keep seeing those ads for steel-frame buildings that claim to be faster and cheaper than regular buildings. They are usually targeted at commercial users, but it would sure be great to have a fireproof and termite-proof house (I realize that there would still be a lot of combustables in it, but I mean the basic framework). But would it be noisy in the wind and rain, and harder to heat and cool, and cost a lot more than the ads claim?

I’m addicted to what my husband calls real estate porn - checking out houses for sale and house plans and planning the perfect home.

One of the sites that I spend a fair amount of time at has a building cost estimator where you choose one of their plans and input a zip code and they figure what the average cost of construction would be - www.eplans.com It’s \$30 bucks but if you’re planning to spend hours costing each item this could be an option.

You people don’t have bricks anymore??

Two cheap models to build your own house (shell) that I saw were:

YTONG blocks*: concrete or similar foamed up so that they they’re light and big, so easy to carry, and very good insulation rates. ** You stack them with 10 strong friends and bind them with mortar. Fire-proof, termite-proof and good insulation.

Don’t remember the company name anymore, but they offered what basically looked like hollow LEGO blocks made of styrofoam. Again, you and a bunch of friends stack them together with the nubs, put a couple of steel sticks inside for support, and when you’re finished, call a truck with liquid concrete to pour inside. Presto, you have a well insulated building with concrete and styrofoam very cheaply. (How it looks and feels like is something else…) Again, the styrofoam gives good insulation.***

• YTONG is a brand name. I’m not associated with them nor shill for them. I don’t know if cheaper knock-offs exist.

** Craft teachers like to use them when you want to teach making statues from stone, because it’s cheaper and softer than a block of marble.

*** With the laws about saving energy passed several years back, all newly built houses have to meet strict standards about how much energy is used for heating and cooling, so insulation meeting those standards is always key.

So called wood framed ‘stick’ construction is the rule in the States. I wish we built homes like those in Germany, instead of a home with an expected lifespan of a century or two, my 1985 US home only has a 60 year lifespan.

When I worked in Germany, a fellow American came over with pictures of the framing stage of his new home - our coworkers teased him by telling him “We see the box your house came in but where is the house?”

When I told an American contractor friend about YTONG construction and a concrete attic floor in Germany, he just shook his head in disbelief.

I’ve heard really good things about Blu-wood. It’s stick lumber that’s been treated to repel termites and resist moisture damage. It’s a dollar or so more per foot so it adds quite a bit to the materials cost but supposedly you save in the long run, not having to worry about infestations.

No, there are no bricks anywhere in the United States. We build everything out of mashed potatoes and yarn.

Actually, pre-fabricated houses in Germany are also made with wooden frames. The method of building with frames is centuries old in Germany for poorer people who couldn’t afford a whole-wood or whole-brick construction: they build simply the frame and filled the rest with what was available. (Today these “Fachwerkhäuser” are highly prized antiques).

That the average German still thinks of only bricks as proper house-building materials is partly tradition partly good ad campaigns by the building industry and a thorn for the wood builders who try to convince the public that wood is just as good as bricks. However, we don’t have termite problems, and wood is treated to be F30 category at least (that means it withstands fire for 30 min.) as required by law (done by soaking with a special salt solution).

Um, why? What’s so strange about that? Oh wait, it wasn’t invented in the US and is “green” (better insulation) so obviously nothing for real Americans. My mistake.

Well, if the first alternative to wood that an American doper thinks of is steel, then bricks are apparently not a common building material (anymore), right? I’m just going by what your people are saying.

Brick houses are still stick built. The brick just acts as the exterior shell. I don’t think they’re considered more termite resistant than other wooden homes.

You mean the facade is brick, but the house itself is wood frame? I was talking about full-brick houses - you lay one brick upon the other, bind them with mortar to build a full wall, leaving holes for windows and doors. No wood necessary.

In Germany, sometimes pre-fabricated wood frame houses are sometimes covered with brick facades, while full-brick houses on the other hand can be covered with a facade of wood, next to full brick houses with just a facade of bare bricks, or paint (caulk), next to full-wood and frame wood houses with a facade of painted or naturally weathered wood.

So the facade itself isn’t always a sure indicator what the house itself is built of…

Brick in general has fallen behind both concrete construction and pre-fabricated houses because of the cost of labour: it takes skilled workers to build a wall straight, with the right amount of mortar*, and strenghtening the holes for windows and doors so nothing buckles. That’s more expensive than just pouring concrete or assembling ready-made walls in one day. Using bricks only for the facade on a cheap house is also cheaper than building full brick.

If the OP has the opportunity, either by working with an outfit like “Habitat for humanity” or similar, or by getting lucky and get hired for a few months to work with a contractor, and therefore gets the chance to learn actual brick-laying himself, he only needs the bricks and mortar and can provide the skilled labour himself.

If the builder is unskilled however, I would advise against just stacking bricks - you don’t want one wall to break down or be forever wavy because you were just learning the skills.

Companies that offer a full house with self-work option to lower the price, like the ones I mentioned, usually also offer workshops on the weekend so people can learn how to deal with the YTONG blocks, or how to nail plaster boards straight to the beams for the interior etc.

*neither too much nor too little, and mixing the mortar correctly - one common way that corrput building companies in lesser countries cheat is by using more sand in mortar or concrete mixtures, making the buildings less stabile than the numbers expect.

One other factor the OP has to consider: cost of living. If you have a dozen strong, moderately skilled friends willing to spend several weekends helping you, you will be finished earlier than if it’s just you and your wife labouring away on the building site. If it’s the typical couple, estimates are 1 to 1.5 years of every weekend and all holidays spent working. After such an ordeal many people are burnt out. And where do you live during that time? Usually you quit your rent contract to start paying off the building costs, so for over 1 year you will live in a tent on the building site without amenities like flowing water, showers, a kitchen, electric lights, working from dawn to twilight in hard manual labour on the weekend, and in the summer evenings after a long day at the office, too. Many people underestimate just how grueling that can be, esp. if they are not used to hard physical work.
A pre-fabricated house lets you live at least in a dry place, and you can do one room after the other, instead of everything at once.