Ever considered building a house from scratch?! We did and we lived to tell about it so keep reading for all of the details below!
It’s been a few years now since we moved into Our Austin Casa! It was a journey that began when we decided to move back to Austin from Los Angeles and continued as we began our house search from 1500 miles away. We considered renovating, but building new ended up being a better choice for us. I have had a lot of people message me about building a new home and the subject always seems to come up in conversation, so I thought I would share some of the things we learned along the way.
In the end, would I recommend building? Yes! If it’s in your budget and you have the time to wait, there’s nothing more satisfying (at least to me) than to get to design a space that works uniquely for your family’s life and personality.
Build New or Renovate?
First, I have to answer this question because I get it so often! Whether it makes more sense to build new or to renovate will likely depend on the cost of land in the city where you live and the age and changes needed for a renovation.
It costs roughly the same amount to build a house no matter what city you live in. The cost of labor will of course fluctuate and access to materials can change costs, but generally it’s the same process and the same materials so you’re going to get about the same cost, give or take 20%.
Land values on the other hand vary greatly across the country. It is wildly more expensive to own 7000 square feet of land in Los Angeles than it is in a Phoenix suburb. In these cases, renovating becomes a more economical solution.
What are the Downsides to Renovating a House?
During our house hunting, we found a beautiful 100 year old craftsman style house in a neighborhood we loved! We took our builder by to get an idea of what it would cost to renovate and found out that it would be roughly the cost of building new. When you’re renovating an older home, you have to keep in mind that you will likely be replacing things like plumbing and electrical. You’ll be doing that all while not trying to destroy the entire house so you’re paying more to carefully remove and existing system plus replace it with a new system. With a new house, it’s a blank slate. If you don’t have to add square footage, renovations can be a lot more affordable.
Building on a new bathroom alone is a cost of $50,000 to 75,000 depending on the size and finishes. A kitchen renovation is anywhere between $60,000 and 125,000 depending on the size and finishes and appliances used.
Lastly, there are always going to be surprises and added costs in a large-scale renovation. New builds are a little more straight forward since you’re starting from scratch.
How Much Does It Cost to Build a New House?
On the low end, it costs around $150 to $175 per square foot to build a new home. If you’re using high-end tiles, light fixtures and other finishes you might be looking at closer to $225-$250. The highest end builders in big cities can charge up to $500-$1000 per square foot.
Ready to build? Here are my 10 tips for building a new house:
1. Discuss you’re non-negotiables with your spouse / partner / co-signer up front. When we were designing our house with our architect, Aaron and I decided that we each got to choose three things that were our biggest priorities and wouldn’t be compromised on, but that meant everything else had to be on the table for discussion when push came to shove. (You can read what each of our three priorities were here.) Everything can’t be of equal importance, because you’re going to have to compromise somewhere, but giving some serious thought to what’s the most important to you makes sure that your priorities and opinions get heard and incorporated, too.
2. Make sure it makes you happy, not the people on Pinterest. Maybe not everyone deals with this as much as someone who posts her life on the internet, but it’s so easy to look at Pinterest and think “Oh everyone is doing white kitchens right now, I should have a white kitchen.” or “Everyone is doing brass fixtures so my fixtures have to be brass.” It makes for some very homogenous design. Instead, pay attention to what you gravitate towards. What makes you happy? For me, it was stacked tile, incorporating lots of succulents greens, and pretty light fixtures.
3. Be willing to compromise for the sake of budget. Money is a super personal subject and for good reason, but I will just say this: We were very diligent about not going over budget, and we didn’t. Actually I think we finished a few thousand under budget. Were there plenty of opportunities to splurge? Of course! But it wasn’t worth adding any kind of financial pressure for the sake of thicker wood treads on our staircase or fancier lights. Know what your number is and stick to it.
4. If in doubt, choose one standout or splurge piece in each room. Speaking of staying on a budget, this is one way to make sure that the design makes you giddy with happiness but doesn’t keep you up at night over the cost. In each room there was a place where we agreed to splurge and then we designed everything else around that one element with our budget in mind. In the guest bathroom, it was the terrazzo floors. To save in that space, though, we went with a much cheaper 2×8 tile than the Fireclay 2×8 that we used in our Master. In our kitchen, it was the 48″ range that was the splurge, but we saved by using paint grade cabinets instead of stain grade.
5. Have weekly meetings and open lines of communication. There are so many moving parts to a massive project like building a house and so much can get lost on email. Make it a point to get together with your contractor face to face once a week. We didn’t do this until about halfway through our project, but realized when we did that we could have saved ourselves hours of emailing and a few miscommunications.
6. Make sure you like who you’re working with. Speaking of weekly meetings, you’re going to be spending a lot of time with your builder so make sure the person on your project is someone that you can talk to and that you just generally like. We met with a few builders in the process, but one in particular Aaron and I have said to each other on multiple occasions, “I’m so glad we didn’t go with him!”, just because conversations were already kind of strained just in the preliminary talks. Waller Build built our house and I would highly recommend them. They’re hardworking, trustworthy guys that we were glad to be in the trenches with.
7. Above all it has to function. Hopefully it’s stylish and aesthetically pleasing, but it has to function for your life or it will drive you crazy. I marinated a lot on the function of the floor plan, where I wanted us to “live” during the day and where to allocate space and for the most part it has really served us well. Our laundry room, though, for example is upstairs and while it’s nice that it’s out of sight, we have noticed that we aren’t as quick about doing laundry because we just aren’t upstairs very much. Our playroom on the other hand was designed differently than I originally imagined. It’s an open space with only two walls and I though not having a door on it would drive me crazy but it’s actually my favorite room in the house! We spend so much time in there that it’s nice not to feel closed into one room. So much natural light floods in and you still feel connected to what’s happening in the kitchen and living room.
8. Always get multiple bids. Most builders will break everything out for you line by line which is great. (For example, framing, roof, plumbing.) It allows you to see where they are comparable and where prices might skew more drastically from each other. For example if you get one bid where the framing is $20,000 more than another bid, you can ask why the price might be more expensive. A lot of times they might be taking a more high end route or using upgraded materials. Either way, it allows you to evaluate that choice and possibly cut costs by downgrading.
9. There’s more to do once you move in. Oh you thought you were done when you got the keys? Whether it’s something that you include in your original loan, or something you save for separately, don’t forget, when all is said and done, you’ll have a house to furnish and a yard to landscape.
10. It’s just a house. I’ll say it one more time, it’s just a house. You might live in this house forever or you might sell it in 3 years. It’s not worth fighting with your spouse, losing sleep over or financial stress. Make the best decisions you can and then remind yourself it’s all going to be okay. It’s just a house.
All photos of our home by Katie Jameson