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newbie here w/a few questions

by tom mot last modified Feb 24, 2005 03:45 PM
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newbie here w/a few questions

Posted by tom mot at January 16. 2005

Hello everyone. This is my first post and I must say there seems to be a wonderful community here. Well, on with my questions:

My wife and I plan to purchase our first home two years from now, and we'd really love to be able to go modern if possible. We spent a year in the Bay Area 6 years ago and fell in love with the contemporary, loft-style housing out there. We'd spend weekends just driving around to open houses, mouths agape at the incredibly cool designs (and incredibly high price tags). And as much as we love the look, we've always thought that these types of residences were, and would always be, out of our price range, as our combined income is pretty low (50-60k). But I'm starting to wonder if we might be wrong about that, and that we might actually have a shot at our dream home, which is why I'm here. I've got a ton of questions, but will start off with a few that I hope you guys might be able to help with:

1. My main question is cost, which I know is very subjective, but hopefully I can get a ballpark general idea. Basically I'd like to determine if it's feasible to have a small (1000-1400 sq ft), one or two story, modern home built anywhere in Austin for 125k or less for the whole shebang. This total would include land and all construction and finishing. I have no contracting knowledge, so aside from painting and very basic diy work (that I could teach myself from a book) I wouldn't be able to do much of the labor myself.

And regarding the home design, we like things open and bright, so there wouldn't be many interior walls, or enclosed space. Everything could be pretty much open save for the bedrooms (or maybe even they could be open), bathrooms, and closets. We'd also like lots of windows, high ceilings, and a layout that, if possible, could give an illusion of greater space that there actually is. There a lot more I could add, but that's just the basic idea we have right now. Not sure if it helps as far as getting an idea of cost, but I figured I'd toss it in.

2. My second question is regarding construction and building materials. Can anyone tell me the pros and cons of prefab, stick, sip, etc.? I'm new to these concepts so any direction on where I can get some info for the novice on this stuff would be helpful.

3. Finally, is there any other advice you can offer the absolute newbie to the world of modern housing, from home design, to costs (how and where to save money), to diy customization, etc.

Thanks in advance and I look forward to learning much more about modern housing!

Re: newbie here w/a few questions

Posted by Mark Meyer at January 17. 2005
[quote:strain format="text/plain"]Basically I'd like to determine if it's feasible to have a small (1000-1400 sq ft), one or two story, modern home built anywhere in Austin for 125k or less for the whole shebang. This total would include land and all construction and finishing. I have no contracting knowledge, so aside from painting and very basic diy work (that I could teach myself from a book) I wouldn't be able to do much of the labor myself.[/quote]

The answer is,yes, assuming you can find a lot in Austin for $15-25K which can be tricky, if a nice area or a decent school is a priority. I wish this wasn't true, but in the last 5 years property values have really skyrocketed. There are lots to be had on the far-east side in what I would call "marginal" areas, but there are some developments happening that will change that area pretty quickly. If you had $100/s.f. to spend on the home itself, minus land and design fees you could make it all happen.

I'm in the process of developing the courtHOUSE into a modular project, which I'm assuming at this point to be in the $90/s.f. range, but am awaiting tighter pricing from the manufacturer. [quote:strain format="text/plain"]My second question is regarding construction and building materials. Can anyone tell me the pros and cons of prefab, stick, sip, etc.? I'm new to these concepts so any direction on where I can get some info for the novice on this stuff would be helpful.[/quote] Pre-Fab (and SIPs which would fall under the pre-fab heading) allows for quicker erection on-site than stick-built, which in an expensive labor market means a cost savings for labor, as well as a time savings. In Austin this is more or less a moot point as labor isn't THAT expensive (not like SoCal) The quicker construction period does offer a cost savings on your higher interest construction loan though. SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels) offer a lot to modern spaces. They are very strong, and so can span the moderately sized open spaces common in modern homes without (much) additional structure. The insulation quality of the panel itself offers a significantly better insulated (and thus energy efficient) wall and roof system than is possible with stick-built. The panels come in large sizes that can go up over the course of a few days rather than a few weeks like with stick-built. The better insulation quality allows for more extensive use of glass as well, as it offsets the energy loss through the glass. I highly reccommend you spend some time reading the threads at SIPWeb.com as there is a lot of good information there regarding SIPs. I work with them extensively and have a SIP project that should be under construction in March if you'd like to check it out.

[quote:strain format="text/plain"]Finally, is there any other advice you can offer the absolute newbie to the world of modern housing, from home design, to costs (how and where to save money), to diy customization, etc. [/quote]

The best advice is to devour all that you can of the blogs hosted here at LiveModern, and to read through the threads here and at FabPrefab.com.

Good luck with the process

Mark Meyer

Re: newbie here w/a few questions

Posted by tom mot at January 17. 2005

Thanks a bunch for your reply Mark. Your right on about property values in Austin these days. They've gone through the roof. But actually, I don't think we'll be looking to build anywhere close to downtown anyway. As much as we like the central area (Hyde Park, near-east, South Congress), I think when it comes time to build our home we're going to look far-westward, towards the lakes and country. When we look out our big windows we want to see some trees and cacti, and if we're lucky, maybe even some water in the distance. I have no problems driving 30-45 minutes to town for the chance to wake up to the beautiful hill country scenery. But, land out there raises a few more questions.

I've been looking at lot prices out towards Lago Vista, and I must say, they're dirt cheap (down to $2900 for .20 acre). So cheap I'm wondering if there's something I'm missing. I know some of the cheaper lots have no sewage, so I assume a septic tank would be in order. Any idea how much that would add in cost? But again, there's also some lots around $10k that have all utilities (minus gas). All in all it sounds like we can find a nice lot out that way for a great price. Any thoughts?

Another couple questions pertain to building type/versus cost and the use of solar energy in Central TX.

We definitely know that we want a two-story home to take advantage of the views. Will this have a substantial impact on construction costs? Also, how beneficial/cost effective is solar energy Central Texas?

Thanks again for your advice so far! By the way your courtHOUSE w/studio design is really nice. I really like the courtyard layout, and for some reason it also reminds me of the Hotel San Jose on Congress. I picture a home like that having similar landscaping - very comfortable and great for entertaining.

And just out of curiosity, could that design be modified to have maybe a two story bedroom-wing, with a large master and front rooftop deck up above the two rooms on the far end? With maybe a master bath above the third room? And in order to access the second floor, have the room below it become the studio, with a spiral staircase up to the master retreat? Just some thoughts. And any idea how much of an increase in cost something like that would be?

Again, thanks for you help so far. The prospect that we could make our first home be our dream home is incredibly exciting. I can't stop thinking about it!

Re: newbie here w/a few questions

Posted by Universal Constructor at January 17. 2005

Hi Strain.

Welcome (back?) to Texas.

If all goes well we should be starting 6500 sq. ft of commercial design build out in Jonestown, which might be a nice community to take a look at.

I think I would suggest that you start by writing up a Program with your wife and try and get down all the practical and poetic things you are trying to accomplish. A lot of labor is dirt cheap down here, especially if you are out of town. I just got back from Big Bend and Marfa (where there is another hotel by the same owner as the San Jose Hotel going up) and a lot of the work out that way is concrete block. Good thermal capabilities and cheap to put up.

If you get a solid program and budget together a good architect or designer whose work you like, should be able to steer you through the Schematic Design and Construction Document Phase. Let them help you strategize about construction strategy and follow their advice throughout construction.

Cheers,

Jonathan

P.S. As far as price is concerned you can get a lot out of a commercial palette of building materials/methods vis-a-vis sq. ft. costs...


Universal Joint Design Associates:
Full Service Design and Construction

Jonathan Chertok. Principal
AIA Design Associate
Austin, Texas 1 512 407 9628

www.universaljointdesign.com

Re: newbie here w/a few questions

Posted by tom mot at January 18. 2005

Thanks so much for the great replies! I can't tell you how excited we are to start planning for all of this. We're going to start brainstorming what we want, need, and everything in between.

As far as designs go we're really liking your courtHOUSE concept Mark. It's modern, yet cozy, affordable, and seems to give an impression of being larger than the square footage implies. Hopefully it's a design that can be modified for our needs should we eventually settle on it. Basically we're hoping to have a second floor master retreat in whatever home we decide on. In any case, we'll probably be getting in touch with you before too long to chat about some of that stuff.

As far as budget goes, the less spent the better of course, but I'm hoping that our savings on land costs by finding a lot outside of Austin will allow us to put more towards the actual home. We're also going to embark on an aggressive savings plan over the next 18-24 months or so to build up a decent down payment. All told, if things go our way, we're considering bumping our whole shebang purchase price up to around $160k. But like I said, less is better, but this would likely be the target ceiling that we could live comfortably with.

And Jonathan, thanks for the tip on concrete blocks and commerical building methods. It sounds interesting, but being the newbie, would you mind going in to some more detail, or give some examples as to what we could save on compared to other methods?

Thanks again fellas!

Re: newbie here w/a few questions

Posted by Peter Hoffmann at February 10. 2005

strain,

I just finished my house that I designed last summer (pics at http://www.designaustin.com/800avondale.htm) and it ended up costing $110/sf for construction not including land costs (its in travis heights). However this is for fairly high quality and includes a bunch of bells and whistles (solar panels, zoned HVAC, full cavity foam insulation, reflecting pool etc etc) and I think that you could build a very nice house for substantially less. I think that having a lot evaluated carefully for issues that could generate hidden costs is critical as well as bidding the project aggressively (not conventional wisdom)

I think the fact that you are willing to go further out will help immensely (I'm looking for a lot right now and prices really are ridiculous). The city now has a great solar cell rebate program (my 3kw system cost about $6500) that can be very helpful if you are inclined in that direction (Andrew McCalla w/ Meridian did mine).

anyway good luck,

Peter

Re: newbie here w/a few questions

Posted by Alex Andel at February 10. 2005

Hi Peter:

I have to admit that I am very suprised to hear you say your construction was $110, solar panels and upgrades or not. That seems quite low for a stunning home.

Can you share any secrets of that low $/sf? Did you act as your own general? Is the second floor made of cardboard and chewing gum? :)

Thanks,
AA

Re: newbie here w/a few questions

Posted by tom mot at February 14. 2005

[quote:phoffmann format=text/plain]strain,

I just finished my house that I designed last summer (pics at http://www.designaustin.com/800avondale.htm) and it ended up costing $110/sf for construction not including land costs (its in travis heights). However this is for fairly high quality and includes a bunch of bells and whistles (solar panels, zoned HVAC, full cavity foam insulation, reflecting pool etc etc) and I think that you could build a very nice house for substantially less. I think that having a lot evaluated carefully for issues that could generate hidden costs is critical as well as bidding the project aggressively (not conventional wisdom)

I think the fact that you are willing to go further out will help immensely (I'm looking for a lot right now and prices really are ridiculous). The city now has a great solar cell rebate program (my 3kw system cost about $6500) that can be very helpful if you are inclined in that direction (Andrew McCalla w/ Meridian did mine).

anyway good luck,

Peter
[/quote]

Wow! Your house is amazing. I really like the multi-level look. Is it 3 stories? And I can't believe your square foot cost was so low. I remember showing my wife those pictures a few weeks ago. Her exclamation was - I want that house!.

I'd also love to hear how you managed that. When you say construction costs do you mean from start to final finish? Did you have to act as GC or undertake portions of the construction yourself? And as for solar, I really like the idea, but I'm still a little unclear on how the upfront costs and long-term savings compare to conventional power.

But again, wow. It's incredibly exciting to think that such beautiful homes can be done for a price that's reasonably attainable for regular folks.

Re: newbie here w/a few questions

Posted by Peter Hoffmann at February 24. 2005

Thanks alxandl,

To start off it was not easy. I did use a general contractor but probably hit the market at the right time. The basic things I did to keep costs in check:

1. I made a list of 30 contractors that had been recommended by someone, then bid the project to all of them. 12 submitted bids. I then narrowed it down to about three contractors and negotiated prices down where possible.

2. I did the project on a cost plus basis, which takes away a lot of risk for the contractor who can then eliminate padded safe estimates. I also gives me control over every line item. If something came in high during final sub bids I was able to either change to something different or otherwise redesign around a high cost item.

3. Lots of research on all components. For example I bought all my plumbing fixtures from Franz Viegener in Argentina through a distributor in chicago. They make modern, european engineered fixtures at then very good prices ($125 for a sink faucet set vs. $500 plus for something nice from local distributors) and their service is excellent (shower controller probably was demaged by my cheap but terrible plumber but they sent replacement right away. All my door hardware is Schlage elan from home depot ($23 vs $150 plus for clean design elsewhere)
And so on. Takes a lot of web browsing but savings can be substantial.

4. With cost plus, my contractor did not take a profit on some materials, allowing me to find the best prices for some items. For example my sliding glass doors some of which are very large (16' x 9) would cost a fortune if you go straight through normal channels. I found two manufacurers that had the quality and sizes I needed (Fleetwood and Acadia) and then negotiated with all the local factory licensed installers. Amazingly there was a $14,000 difference between local vendors for exacly the same product and service. I also saved money by buying the frames only from Fleetwood and bought the glass separate myself (I did take advantage of my contacts from working for a large commercial arch firm on this)

5. Use local materials wherever possible.

6. The whole back side of my house is hardie board. This stuff is cheap and durable and if you dont apply it like a cheap builder (8 exposure) but go down to 4 or some pattern it can look very good.

7. Think about construction process. Talk to subs about areas that seem too high in cost. Stone masons dont like to haul stone up three stories. Framers dont care and bounce around on rickety 2x4 scaffolds all day long.

8. Dont single source anything, have several suppliers compete for everything. If you spec something that only one local vendor/sub supplies you will pay out the nose.

9. Make compromises where reasonable. Originally I wanted a stone fireplace and chimney. $15-20k. I then found a huge and nice looking metal unit from lennox for $1500 installed. No brainer for my design.

10. Do whatever you can yourself. After talking to a bunch of conrete stain and score artists who wanted about $4/sf I went to the local concrete supply store and bought 5 gallons of euco industriual concrete floor sealer for $60(?) and rolled it on in a few hours on the weekend.

11. Most important: work with a contractor you trust, not the one with the lowest price. The guy with the lowest price will eventually get the balance of the money from you and deliver lower quality.

And so on. In the interest of full disclosure my cost was a bit lower because I did some things like pour my kitchen counters and all my sinks out of concrete myself. But everything was done on weekend while still working full time.

Anyway if you have any specific questions feel free to email me at phoffmann@designaustin.com

Peter

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