Just before the Christmas holiday we held a meeting with new clients. A nice couple, moving to the Charleston SC area from a northern state and wanting to custom build their own home. The question was a simple one that received a necessarily less than simple answer - "How much does a house cost to build in the lowcountry?" Truth be told, there are many factors that affect the pricing of a custom built home, and the particular building requirements imposed by building in a southern, coastal locale affect costs in distinct ways. We thought this question was worthy of a more detailed explanation so we've outlined a few things worth consideration …
Let's avoid the sort of “how long is a piece of string?" question by setting a few overarching parameters:
- Pick a good-sized home at 2,500 to 3,000 square feet
- Let us also limit the build to high ground, beach or downtown
- New build rather than renovation or historic restoration
What you pay will depend on the quality of the finishes selected. It is quite common that a client will see a lower, bottom line price at the same time as reading the highest option of finish specifications and believe that the two go hand in hand, so please be careful in your expectations.
Building in some areas of Charleston SC is simply more expensive than others. Areas downtown on the peninsula with difficult parking, tight build sites, limited drop zones and "lay away" areas offer unique challenges for builders. Building in Summerville, with lower living costs and a plethora of track building subcontractors will always be cheaper than building in say, Old Village Mt Pleasant, all other things being equal. Building on Kiawah Island, where it’s a 45-60 minute drive to the building site, with only one way in and past two security gates can add complications for suppliers and subcontractors, often adding fuel or delivery upcharges. Additionally, building in remote areas, such as Wadmalaw Island for example, a long way from where the subcontractors live, is going to cost more than the more conveniently located build sites. How much more is open to debate, but it probably is in the region of 20% or so for labor costs.
The lowest cost option is to build "on grade" or on a pad (slab) on grade and this is the method preferred by most track builders. This option is entirely dependent on the location, and in that extent as the elevation becomes lower costs will rise. As a rough guide the pecking order is: pad on grade, footings and "block work," then lastly piles - driving in piles to be exact. Piles will be used where the ground is soft or where there is risk of scouring waves, as happens in beach locations graded as "V Zones." The spread of cost is about 2 to 3 times, a.k.a. piles are two to three times more expensive as simple "slab on pad" construction, or grade. That is not to say the whole build is 2 or 3 times greater in price, just the footings.
This is probably the area where you have the greatest potential to vary costs in any one location. Remember, time (carrying costs during build) is also an element in the total purchase price you pay, as are ongoing run costs after completion. Faster build times mean cheaper finance and insurance costs. Lower run costs are the same as a cheaper mortgage. "Stick-build" is the typical build method of choice for the lowcountry, using 2" x 4"s for framing and constructing framed walls on site. That is partly historical and partly as it is what the local construction firms are most comfortable with.
- Stick-build – Builders and subcontractors are used to this method and it’s the most popular choice locally. Thermal performance is moderate, wind resistance to local code can be achieved.
- Structural Insulated Panels (SIPS) – There are a few builders locally offering this method. It is typically slightly more costly than the equivalent stick-build construction, but offers advantages of speed (under roof and "dried in" more quickly), high thermal performance plus wind performance and, for downtown at least, enhanced noise control. Homes can be constructed in 75% or so of the time for a stick-build home of comparable size.
- Modular - The design will have compromises, but for those wanting a quick build or a simple design it’s a good choice. You can greatly improve the final product with a good design and finish material selection. For those working to a budget this is a very worthwhile consideration. Homes can be constructed in 50% of the time of a stick build.
So let us try to sum up a few of the points made above. Let us take a build cost of around $250 per foot:
- Build at the beach and expect this to increase by about 10-15% or so.
- Building in a remote location will add say 5 to 10%
- Building with SIPS will add say 2%, BUT will be an improved product, cheaper to operate. In fact, we are building our own personal home this way.
- Building Modular will reduce costs by around 25% and time by 50%. When complete, it can result in a product indistinguishable from typical stick build.
So, using the figures above, the minimum price expectation for a simple and quick build is $180 - $200 per foot. As this becomes more complex if higher finish specifications are selected, it will rapidly rise to a more typical $250 or so with true custom building starting at $280 - $300 per foot and upwards.
NOTE: The final price will really depend on your choices of location, build methodology, finish specifications, contractor choice and timing. I guess that at the end of the day, you really do "get what you pay for" although within that caveat, a little forethought and a constructive conversation with your contractor at the design stage can result in very real and worthwhile savings. LS Construction has experience in all three build techniques and would be happy to discuss your options at any stage of your own project.
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