If you want to experience a positional conversation then watch a first meeting between client and contractor discussing a new build or major renovation. I call it the "redoubt" moment - each party feels totally justified defending their position and at the same moment vulnerable. We are dealing here with the "art of the possible" in that our client wants a home at a good price and standard, and we would like to make a reasonable profit. So just what do we know from experience about the cost of building a home in Charleston?
Going out on a limb, we can reveal some recent (2016) actual cost of building in Charleston. Costs vary for a number of reasons, and they are not always obvious, so let's discuss some of those before getting in to the details.
Building further out of town is generally more expensive, in terms of travel and labor. At some point a contract becomes uneconomic and it is better to consult with a more local builder. For a builder based downtown I'd figure a 10-15 mile radius is probably realistic unless its a large contract. Another factor of location is FEMA flood zone. In terms of infrastructure (piling, washout or scouring, wind rating), VE (Coastal) Zone is the most expensive to build. Next to that, you will pass through AE Zone, which must be elevated to a greater or lesser extent than a X Zone location, where building on or near grade is acceptable. So take the cost of a home in an X Zone and add 5-10% for AE zones and 15% for building on the beach. A last consideration is of local restrictions: Building on Kiawah Island is more expensive than Summerville, in part because of how the site must be treated and the often strict times you can get access. Building in downtown Charleston has logistical problems that get worse as the site gets smaller, or availability of parking or lay down space becomes restricted.
The simplest house is an A Frame shaped roof placed on a box. Costs increase as you add complexity such as porches, dormers, bump outs, etc. Not to say that such features are not warranted or desired, but as the geometry becomes more complex, the costs will rise per square foot. Size also matters, particularly given standard of build - a small house will cost more to build per square foot than a big house. As a simple example, a 600 sq. ft. and 1,000 sq ft. one-bedroom apartment both need only one bathroom and one kitchen but in the latter, the cost is spread over nearly twice the square footage. It's fair to say that building a small home will cost less in total, but more per square foot. For example, a very small home will cost 25-50% more per square foot though the difference reduces as sizes increase. Start adding additional features like brick fireplaces, metal roofs etc. and again costs will creep upwards (though its all a matter of taste vs budget).
Now we are going to go out on a limb here and say that design also should encompass the build methodology. Most construction companies will offer what they are comfortable with and not necessarily what is best for you. We believe differently and are prepared to discuss alternative methods within our own experience:
Stick build - the most common form of building in the low Country, everyone understands this method.
Panelized systems - in our case EcoPanels, giving an excellent insulation standard and rapid build time (3 months for a house!). These systems take some design work up-front but really are a remarkable product. There is no direct build cost saving but operationally you can expect HVAC bills to be 60/70% lower so more cash in your pocket of a bigger house for the same outlay.
Modular - not for everyone and you need to be careful with the design details in order to get a product appropriate for this locality. Install some fittings such as floors on site to get a better visual. Their build speed is remarkable with something like 6 weeks from arrival to completion. HVAC run costs will be the same as stick build. You can expect something like a 20% saving on the final construction cost vs a true custom build and a 50% saving in your finance or holding costs during the construction period. A very worthwhile saving on a $400K or $500K outlay of a typical home build.
This is where costs can really balloon depending on your taste and wallet. Cutting corners can seriously devalue your home, so a balance is needed. If we are building an investment property, then a good quality fixture from a "big box" retailer, such as Lowes, is suitable. Trim work is generally limited to doors and windows and sheet rock walls are the norm. A short term rental can use these, but you are also looking for visual impact so you get into more custom tiles and counter tops from dedicated retailers, and better trim using increasing amounts of poplar and bead-board or ship lap - costs creep up again.
For your own home, these would really be the lower end of the selections with the upper end being realistically two to three times the price. Get in to high-end trim carpentry using exotic hardwoods, coffered ceilings, marquetry floors and you get what you pay for at the end of the day. If your resale is to a client expecting that standard, then you should aim for that level of finish.
Building the home is a part of the process, but a good part of the budget will also be taken up creating the surrounding gardens, pools, garage, driveway, lighting, irrigation. Best leave that for a different blog but take this as a place holder.
Getting to the ground floor level can be an expensive process taking up maybe 25% of your budget, having the building dried-in (completion of framing, installation of windows and roof membrane) will take another 25%. The remaining 50% is what it takes to complete, trim, services, HVAC, paint, appliances ..... all the things that make less visual impact, but in the end create the sense of value in your home.
Now for the reality check - different contractors price in the way that suits their business. "Fixed cost," "cost plus," project management included or excluded ... You really need to be comfortable that the working relationship and basic trust is there and then work out a way that suites you individually. This will be an emotionally charged process so if comfort is not there on Day 1, it's never going to be a good experience.
The table [below] illustrates real costs for a number of recent completed contracts plus a couple, of pending quotations. Each reflects the same contractor profit margin of 15% under similar contractual arrangements. The differences? Location ... Design ... Finishes ... Grounds.
- $225/sq. ft 600 sq ft; downtown new build
- $320/sq. ft 3,000 sq ft; Johns Island new build; private gated community.
- $336/sq. ft 3,900 sq ft; Folly Beach front V Zone private home.
- $195 /sq. ft 1,500 sq ft; 4 Folly duplex AE zone for short-term rental including pools and grounds
- $550/sq. ft 3,000 sq ft; Kiawah Island new build; private gated community.
So how can we sum this all up?
- Choosing a builder: If you have three quotes from three different builders then they should really be within about 10% of each other. If not then discard the highest or seriously question the lowest outlier. Beyond that, go with the builder you feel most comfortable with and do not let price rule, costs will vary throughout the job in any event.
- Determine your build standard: You get what you pay for and the buyer can instinctively "feel" a build standard. Drive around Johns Island at a regulatory 45 mph and we can name every home that is modular, track built, custom built or a tear-down in the second it takes to pass it. For the same reason, if you want to eventually sell, then never build "ugly."
- Beware of "allowances" used to reduce the price of a quotation, check that they are realistic. Once you are way down the line with a builder you cannot change.
- Beware of other hidden charges or poorly specified work. You should have a clear contract and a well defined scope of work and supply. If you tell a contractor you are getting 6 quotes then no one will take you seriously. Preparing a quotation is a lot of work and with a small chance of winning then willingness will evaporate and it will backfire on you.
- Similarly, if you delete items from a quotation then be prepared to take that responsibility on yourself, asking the builder to fit it for free then to take responsibility for its performance is not realistic.
- Guarantees and Warranty: All contractors will provide opportunity for a punch list and guarantee of the work quality. Once completed, additional punch items become your responsibility and a building always needs maintenance so the odd small detail is not always down to the builder to fix going forward.
NOTE: Always negotiate from a basis of fact when bringing a build project to the table and asking a builder to develop a quote. That process is one that can be quite time consuming and no one appreciates their time to be ill used. The best long term outcome is always achieved by being logical, civil, timely and understanding that everyone in the game wants to see a happy client with a good home which we are proud to put our name on. Our team at Luxury Simplified Construction strives to do just that everyday. Have a look for yourself ...
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