Brass Tacks

by Jim Cooper

BUILDING TO FIT
YOUR BUDGET

Help your dream home
toe the bottom line

This classic Brass Tacks column first appeared in the June-July 1995 Issue of Log Home LivingLH0300P12_1800

A builder recently presented a bid for a log home to customers who had already purchased a package and had blueprints in hand. They had sold their home to buy land and were temporarily renting in anticipation of their new home. In their enthusiasm, they overlooked one factor—construction cost. After presenting his bid, the builder was stunned to find a $100,000 gap between his bid and his customers’ expectations.

The builder shook his head and said, “I didn’t sell him the package. He just gave me a set of blueprints and a list of what he wanted, saying he needed to get started right away. Can you believe someone would buy land, sell their house, move out and make a down payment on a package without even an estimate of finished house costs?”

Few people are fortunate enough to be able to walk into a builder’s office and say “Build it!” without considering costs. Most of us must live within some sort of budget, building our dream within financial boundaries. Because of the nature of custom home building, it’s important to define those boundaries before making any irreversible commitment of funds. Often it’s necessary to whittle away at some of our dream to fit it within financial boundaries.

The first area to look for budget-saving cuts is in the size of the house. Although it may seem obvious, reducing square footage is often overlooked. Occasionally, people fall in love with a design in a magazine and have to have it, even though they may not really understand what they are asking for.

One of my customers had to have a particular home that was well beyond her finances. The house was for her and her husband and the occasional visit from children. The main feature of her dream home was a “country” kitchen, so-called because  it was the size of some of the smaller countries in eastern Europe and Africa.

“I need this room to hold family and friends when we get together for the holidays,” she said. When she told me her family size, I suggested that the country kitchen in the plan would hold her family several times over. Even cutting it in half would allow plenty of room for additional grandchildren.

“It’s got to be able to hold a big dining room table,” she insisted. “It doesn’t look that big in the floorplan.” The reason was obvious: The rest of the house had been sized to keep the country kitchen in proportion. The master bedroom was the size of an aircraft hangar, and you could hold sporting events in the master bath.

Finally, I took her to one corner of my great room and asked her to stand there while I walked across the great room and out onto the back deck. From the far edge of the back deck, I shouted, “This is enough room for your dining room table, isn’t it?”

She looked at me quizzically for a minute while the dimensions sunk in and then exclaimed, “Oh my!”

Actually, her problem—understanding dimensions—is not uncommon among log home shoppers. Many haven’t a clue how big a 20-by-40-foot area really is. When discussing a floorplan with customers, I try to show them a room of a similar size or pace off an area to indicate size when discussing their floorplan. The result is often a plan with fewer square feet.

Also, I point out that reducing square footage actually saves money four ways: reduced material cost, reduced labor cost, reduced utility costs (you don’t have to heat and cool it) and reduced maintenance costs (you don’t have to clean it).

Another way to cut costs is in the way the square footage is used. In conventional housing construction, there’s a saying: “It’s cheaper to build up than out.” This occurs because building “out,” or increasing the overall dimensions of the house, adds to the costs for excavation, foundation, walls, floor systems and roof systems. Building “up” or adding another floor level to the house, adds the costs of another floor system and may add a cost for second-story walls, but it doesn’t increase excavation, foundation or roof costs.

This rule applies to log homes with some qualifications. In log building, adding a second level of log construction can raise material and labor costs substantially. Maneuvering logs on scaffolding is time-consuming. Labor costs often run higher than for single-story log homes, depending on how your builder bases his bid. Confining logs to the first story and using log or wood siding on second-story and dormer walls can reduce costs.

Framed gables may be less expensive for the same reason, especially where cathedral ceilings are involved. Again, it depends on how your builder bids the job. If the bid is based simply on the square footage of the home, there will be no cost advantage in using framing. However, if your builder bases his estimate on construction time or breaks the construction process into components that are priced individually, the savings can be substantial.

The shape of the home can offer opportunities for cost saving also. Many log home enthusiasts love designs that feature prows, log bay windows and nooks and crannies everywhere. Their enthusiasm is often jolted when they see the construction bids. Cutting corners in log home building is not necessarily a bad thing when those corners are log. Simplifying the outline of a house to consist of four to six corners often results in several thousand dollars in savings, as well as yielding a greater proportion of usable floor space.

Roof systems offer another potential area for budget paring. A roof framed with heavy timbers and covered with cedar shakes or metal can represent more than a quarter of the total house cost. The roof system affects the budget in several ways.

First, complex roofs cost more than simple roofs. A single ridge line with gables at either end will be much less expensive to build than a roof with multiple ridges. In recent years, there has been a design trend toward roofs that look like mountain ranges with peaks scattered among a tangle of intersecting ridges. In log homes, just as in conventional housing, such elaborate designs send costs soaring.

Second, a heavy timber roof is usually substantially more expensive than a roof made from conventional rafters. So-called built-up roofs are made by erecting heavy timber rafters or purlins and covering them with wood tongue-and-groove, a vapor barrier, insulation and sometimes additional framing, followed by sheathing. Tarpaper and shingles or slate are placed on the sheathing. As an alternative, structural insulated panels—foam sandwiched between layers of sheathing—may be placed atop the structural timbers. In all of these cases, material costs are significantly higher. Also, special engineering fees are often associated with such roofs.

Making substantial budget cuts doesn’t always mean making permanent adjustments to your dream home. In some cases, you can reduce costs just by electing to postpone installing some of your dream features. A classic example is in the use of wood tongue-and-groove. Home buyers often add significantly to the cost of their home by insisting that every exposed surface in the house be covered with wood.

Using tongue-and-groove instead of drywall throughout a moderate-sized house can easily add $7,000 to $10,000 to its cost, because material costs are seven to 10 times higher. Installation costs are also greater. Nothing prevents a home owner from using drywall and simply replacing or covering it with tongue-and-groove at some future date.

Hardwood floors and whirlpool tubs also offer opportunities for upfront cost-cutting by postponing their installation. Hardwood floor

s run three to four times the installed cost of moderate grade wall-to-wall carpet. Consider carpeting until finances allow the luxury of hardwood.

When postponing such items, however, it’s a good idea to consider future plans. For example, if you put off installing a whirlpool tub, go ahead and frame the subfloor for the future tub, making sure no joists will interfere with its plumbing.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask the advice of your builder or log home sales representative. Most are very familiar with budget-based modifications and will have good suggestions. By listening carefully and using common sense and self-discipline, cost cutting need not become an exercise in “cheapening” your home, but rather a way to pack greater value into fewer dollars.

Jim Cooper is author of Log Homes Made Easy: Contracting and Building Your Own Log Home


Loel Barr illustration