Build on a Budget

Cut costs when you build or remodel your home

How much will your building or remodeling project cost? Maybe less than you think! Here's how to cut costs without compromising comfort and beauty.

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Estimate Early

Photo of a property and calculator, figuring out and estimating building costs
Estimate costs. Estimate costs. Photo composite by Artist: Dieter Spannknebel / Collection: Stockbyte / Getty Images

Before you get far in the planning process, start collecting estimates. These early estimates will be approximate, but they can help you make important building decisions. Understand the process of building and design. Once you know the likely costs, you can modify your plans to meet your budget.
Building Ideas: "Guesstimate" Your Building Costs

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Beware Budget Building Lots

New construction in a very rural setting
New construction in a rural setting. New construction in a rural setting. Photo ©Rick Kimpel, rkimpeljr on, Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

The cheapest building lot might not be the most affordable. Your costs will soar if your builders have to blast through rock, clear away trees, or provide extensive drainage. Also be sure to factor in the cost of installing public services and utilities. The most economical building lots are often in developments with access to electricity, gas, and public water lines.
Building Ideas: Find the Best Building Lot

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Choose Simple Shapes

Illustration of the primitive hut from Laugier's essay on architecture
Laugier's Primitive Hut is simple. Laugier's Primitive Hut is simple. Public domain image from DOME, digitized content from the MIT Libraries' collections,

Curves, triangles, trapezoids, and other complex shapes are difficult and expensive to build. To save costs, think primitively. Choose square or rectangular floor plans. Avoid cathedral ceilings and complicated roof-lines.  The possible exception? Forget the box and opt for a dome home.

"Think of a soap bubble," says Timberline Manufacturing Inc., maker of geodesic dome kits. "A sphere represents the smallest amount of material surface area needed to enclose a given volume of space....The lower the total outside surface area (walls and ceilings) the greater the efficiency in energy use for heating and cooling. A dome has approximately one-third less surface area to the outside than a box-style structure."
Building Ideas: Monolithic Dome Homes

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Build Small

Tiny house in Portland, Oregon
Tiny house in Portland, OR. Tiny house in Portland, OR © Tammy Strobel, RowdyKittens on, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

When you compare costs per square foot, a big house can seem like a bargain. After all, even the smallest house will need high-ticket items like plumbing and heating. But check the bottom line. In most cases, smaller houses are more affordable to build and more economical to maintain. Also, a house that is deeper than 32 feet may require specially-designed roof trusses, which will make your costs go through the roof.
Building Ideas: Find Plans for Small Houses

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Build Tall

The most affordable houses are compact. Instead of building a single story house that sprawls across the lot, consider a house with two or three stories. The taller house will have the same amount of living space, but the roof and foundation will be smaller. Plumbing and ventilation may also be less expensive in multi-story homes. Initial building costs and future maintenance, however, may be more expensive as special equipment (e.g., scaffolding, residential elevators) may be needed. Know the balance and trade-offs where you live.

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Don't Pay for Phantom Space

Before you choose a plan for your new home, you'll want to know how much space you're paying for. Find out how much of the total area represents actual living space, and how much represents "empty" spaces such as garages, attics, and wall insulation. Are the mechanical systems separate from the floor area?
Building Ideas: How to Compare House Plans

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Reconsider Your Cabinets

Solid wood cabinets are elegant, but there are less expensive ways to give kitchens, bathrooms, and home offices a sleek, designer look. A doorless pantry can hide a corner wall. Consider open shelving or painted or stainless steel cabinets with frosted glass doors. Salvaged cabinets or restaurant equipment may be worked into the design.
Building Ideas: How to Choose Kitchen Cabinets for Home Renovation

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Use Recycled Materials

Chain link and corrugated metal walls of Frank Gehry's home in Santa Monica, California, 1980
Chain link and corrugated metal walls of Frank Gehry's home in Santa Monica, California, 1980. Chain link and corrugated metal walls of Frank Gehry's home in California, 1980. Photo by Susan Wood / Collection: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Recycled construction materials are earth-friendly and can also help take the bite out of building costs. Look for products like recycled steel, pressed straw paneling, and sawdust and cement composites. Also browse architectural salvage warehouses for reclaimed doors, windows, lumber, light fixtures, plumbing fixtures, fireplace mantels, and assorted architectural details.
Building Ideas: Find Architectural Salvage

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Postpone the Frills

While your budget is tight, opt for door hardware, faucets, and light fixtures from your local home improvement store. Items like these can be easily changed, and you can always upgrade later on. The cost of "small" items can quickly add up.

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Invest in Quality

While you can postpone frills like fancy doorknobs, it doesn't pay to scrimp when it comes to features that cannot be easily changed. Invest your homebuilding dollars in construction materials that will bear the test of time. Don't be fooled by sales hype. No siding has ever been maintenance-free, so live within your personal comfort zone - literally.
Building Ideas: Exterior Siding Options


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Build For Energy-Efficiency

A series of roof top solar panels supplies all of the electricity needs for Spring Lake Inn
A series of roof top solar panels supplies all of the electricity needs for Spring Lake Inn in Spring Lake, New Jersey. A series of roof top solar panels supply all of the electricity needs for Spring Lake Inn in New Jersey. Photo © Jackie Craven

Don't be put off by the high price tags. Energy-efficient heating systems and "Energy-Star" rated appliances may cost more to install, but can save money (and the environment) over time. The most economical house is the one you can afford to live in for many years to come.
Building Ideas: Build to Save Energy

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Go Modular

Elevated FEMA Cottage in Mississippi, SUV under the house
Elevated FEMA Cottage in Mississippi. Elevated FEMA Cottage in Mississippi. Photo courtesy FEMA, ID 60113, photographer Candice Burch, 10/16/2012

Some of the most interesting and most affordable homes being built today are factory-built, modular, or prefabricated, homes. Just like the Sears mail order houses from the early 20th century, modular homes come complete with building plans and pre-cut construction materials.
Building Ideas: Katrina Cottages

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Finish it Yourself

You don't need to be a construction expert to take on some jobs yourself. Perhaps you can take care of finishing details such as painting and landscaping. Also, consider postponing some parts of the project. Leave the basement or garage unfinished and tackle those spaces at a later date.

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Consult a Pro

oung woman architect changing architectural drawings at business meeting with client couple
Young woman architect changing architectural drawings at business meeting with client couple. Architects can help with decisions. Photo by Jupiterimages ©Getty Images / Collection: Stockbyte / Getty Images

When money is tight, it's tempting to skimp on hiring a pro. Keep in mind, however, that architects and professional home designers can help you avoid costly mistakes. Pros also have access to money-saving resources that you might not find on your own. To cut your consultation costs, sketch out your ideas before your first meeting.
Building Ideas: Do You Need an Architect?