This blog was published in July of 2020 and will reflect pricing at time of publication. Material prices can change significantly over time and by region. For more recent tips on building costs in 2022 , click below to check out our webinar with industry experts.
Today we launch a 3-part series on building costs* – what to expect, and what to include, as you weigh what you want to build and what your budget should be – and whether those numbers from other vendors are truly apples-to-apples. When you have your ground beneath your feet, check out Part II and Part III.
Without a doubt, one of the hardest questions to answer in the architecture and construction world is: “How much will it cost?” Invariably, and with good reason, the answer is: “It depends!”
Being able to know the exact expense of building any home at the beginning of a project would be akin to having a crystal ball. And until all of the details are known for a project, what we have is a very cloudy crystal ball. This is exasperating to many who are unfamiliar with construction, as they understandably declare, “but you’ve done this before!” It’s true, we all have, and what prior experience gives us is perspective - on what to anticipate, what issues might come up, and variables, timing, and sequencing that may have to be juggled. The devil is in the details, as they say, and until those details are determined, that devil is kicking up a lot of smoke to cloud that crystal. Enter human nature, and the predictions become even more complex.
The perspective we’ve all gained through experience certainly helps clarify that cloudy crystal ball, and inform solid assumptions on what to expect. The best we can do is make approximations per what we believe the site will reveal, and what we understand a client desires.
The secret to feeling great about building your dream house can be found in the setting (and potentially adjusting) of expectations. Any dream is possible. Knowing which characters you may meet along the way to realizing that dream is what keeps the journey enjoyable.
To answer the, “how much will it cost?” question here at BrightBuilt Home, we try our very hardest to use the information we have on hand to inform preliminary discussions on project costs, and to figure out which of the characters might be on the guest list for the crystal ball (ahhhh when mixing metaphors includes a handy pun!).
In the first part of our three-part series, we’ll look at the first - and often biggest – mystery: the site. Let’s gaze into our crystal ball in order to reveal some of common costs behind those sometimes elusive site conditions...
PART 1: THE SITE
Grade & Ground
As the financial embodiment of the gopher in Caddyshack, what lurks beneath the topsoil can seem Bill Murray-level hair pulling, but it doesn’t have to be. Some simple rules of thumb and investigations can help inform what you might find when the “extra-Vader” (as an area 4 year old calls it) ultimately fires up.
Certainly, the rule of “flatter is better” is, in general, a good one to follow when striving for lower site clearing and excavation costs. It’s not a sure bet that there isn’t ledge sitting just inches below, but if the field isn’t growing a healthy crop of boulders and there aren’t any bald escarpments of shiny granite poking through the surface, it might bode well for site costs. Water drainage on flatter sites is something to look for, however. If things are pancake-flat for some distance, be mindful of how water might drain - and see if you can find out where the water table sits below. If you can’t “daylight your drainage” (meaning you don’t have enough grade drop to drain your foundation footings to a downhill above-grade spot), you may be looking at a sump pump, and it might be tough to guarantee a fully dry basement. For prepping the house site, and accounting for the cellar hole, footing drains, gravel and backfill, plan on about $15-$20 per square foot of footprint. For a 25’x40’ footprint, then, you’ll be looking at $15,000-$20,000 for the basic prep for the house footprint itself - and be sure to account for added square footage for a garage or any outbuildings beyond the house footprint.
Rolling hills aren’t a major hurdle, steep cliffs a bit more so, and yes, anywhere you see that romantic surge of moss-covered rock emerging from the scrubby-tree covered landscape, your brain should probably think, “hmmm…ledge lurks beneath.” Ledge in and of itself doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker, though. Blasting can be expensive, but it’s typically not astronomical, and if you’ve found the site of your dreams, don’t let ledge alone scare you away from making that dream a reality. Just figure on an extra $6k-$18k in site costs, if blasting is likely required (for a typical ~25x40’ home footprint).
Tree-clearing can be another reality for prepping a green site for construction. The extent to which you may have to clear will depend on the grade of the site, where you intend to place the home and any outbuildings, how much yard you desire, and where the southerly orientation lands with respect to the house (and grade). Siting the house uphill from south is best, as the tree heights diminish in the southerly direction - therefore necessitating less clearing, and also potentially affording some views from those nice big south-oriented windows on your high-performance home. Tree growth on some sites can also be forested for either a net-zero cost (they get the trees, you get the site cleared for free), or even in some cases, the trees are valuable enough to gain some income from the site clearing process.
When it comes to trees, how they can be cleared, and what it might cost, though, every single site is different. It’s impossible to put a number to it without laying eyes on it. If you’re looking at a site with some large hardwoods or tall straight pines, you certainly should explore the possibility of bringing in a forester (which the general contractor can also coordinate for you). Note too that if the trees are somewhat scrubby and appear to have shallow root structures, that may well be a signal of ledge beneath the soil base.
Estimating the cost for improving the grade and/or clearing the trees for a site very much depends on the ground truths. If you’re shopping for land, and aren’t entirely sure what you’re looking at, it may be worth your time and a consultant fee to bring in a local, skilled excavator and/or a logging service, to get a sense of exactly what it might cost to build a home there. As a base number, for some simple tree clearing and basic site prep, a placeholder of $2k - $3k is a good starting point allowance. After that, whether due to blasting or due to a deeper-set house site, things venture into the “it depends” territory.
The length, breadth, and material for driveways can vary widely, and with this variability, the costs. A basic, 50’ gravel driveway (i.e. room for about 2 cars deep, off the road) will likely land in the realm of $3k-$4k. If staying with gravel, every 200-300 additional feet of driveway could be and additional $4k-$9k, depending on contour of the land and conditions of the ground base. If you want to pave the driveway, standard asphalt would be about $4-5k for that same 50’ drive, and about $20-$30 per additional lineal ft of driveway length. For asphalt, you may need to wait about a year from when the initial gravel base is laid down in order to have a sufficiently compacted bed to support the asphalt. Pavers, brick, permeable pavers, and other driveway surfaces are a realm unto their own - and will most likely be substantially more than gravel or asphalt (hence the prevalence of those surfaces!), so if you’d like an alternate driveway, call around to local contractors to get a sense of what those costs might be.
Power, Water and Waste
For planning the electrical service, local utility companies vary - both in their fees and in what they’re willing to offer. Utility companies will frequently provide a service line for up to a given distance from the nearest pole. Long driveways may require installations of additional poles, and given the proximity of trees, it may be worth exploring an underground power line to the house instead. A good rule of thumb for running electric is $15-$20 per lineal foot of cable, from the utility pole to the meter at the house. Generally, lines can be run up to 150’ before requiring a second pole. If additional poles are required (either because of length of driveway or because the main tie-in pole is on the opposite side of the street), allow approximately $1,500 for each added pole.
Whenever a new single family homes is built on a rural, green site, a well and septic system will be required. Predictably, the costs for these systems depend on the conditions of the site.
For wells, depth to drill, and what’s being drilled through, are the drivers for cost. Barring extreme conditions, well costs generally run in the $6k-$10k range. If your town requires fire suppression systems, the added pressure pump might add ~$4k. Water storage can be an option for fire suppression systems too, but this will require some space carved out of the basement to accommodate.
Septic systems span a larger cost spectrum, as there are more variables at play. When planning a septic system, one of the first steps required is soil testing. This largely means soil depth, though the soil composition informs the thinking for leach fields. The best scenario for a septic system is to find a swath of ground that has deep soils (rather than just a few inches to ledge), with good drainage, that is downhill from the house site. The least ideal scenario is one where the septic needs to be sited in shallow soils (requiring a more complex filtration and tanks system), and waste needs to be pumped uphill. The size of the house will also inform the size of septic system required, and it’s measured on number of bedrooms rather than number of baths (most systems are rated as 3, 4, or 5-bedroom systems). The typical range in costs for septic systems, then, can land anywhere from $10k to $25k+.
If you’re buying a site with a tear-down, or with existing well and septic, be sure that both systems are viable and legally-sized before presuming you’ll be able to use them for your new home.
City tie-ins are generally cheaper than new wells and septic systems, but they’re typically not “free” (after the plumbing cost of tying in). Connection or permit fees for utility tie-ins can run anywhere from $5k-10k, for both water and sewer. Call your town planning office or go online to their website (rabbit-hole warning), and find out if there are any impact-fees or permitting requirements (with permit fees) for new water or sewer tie-ins to the city’s grids.
Putting it All Together
All-in, then, a simple, flat site, with a short driveway and city utilities is likely to be at the lowest end of site costs - in the realm of $30k-$50k. At the other end, sites with long driveways (300+ feet), steep, rocky, or ledgy conditions, and thus the need for engineered septics or deeper wells, may have improvement costs that run upwards of $85k-$135k+. The location adage in real estate can often reveal itself in the sale price of land listings, too: a cheap site might signal a more expensive build out. Location is everything for land, too.
Building a new home is perhaps one of the most exciting – and potentially biggest – adventures any one of us can undertake. At BrightBuilt, we aim to help inform those who are embarking on this journey, and to be as thorough as possible in preparing buyers on what to expect for all of the budget variables. It’s easy to fall in love with that breathtaking site that has sweeping views, painting-worthy rock outcroppings, and thickets of woods, but be sure you’re accounting for the infrastructural implications of these features before diving in head first.
If you’re shopping potential sites, or you just want to get a bit more clarity on what your own crystal ball is trying to tell you, we can connect you with local general contractors who can walk your site and offer their well-informed local insights for improvement costs. This is the best way to get an idea of your site ballpark, and it’s typically free.
*Please note that all proposed ballpark numbers in this piece are based on typical conditions, and are drawn largely from Maine-based projects. Costs for other regions in New England and throughout the country may vary substantially.