The Worst Thing to Ask a Homebuilder


 “What’s your price per square foot?” is an understandable question we hear quite often from prospective buyers as they attempt to understand the custom home construction process. With variable pricing from builder to builder, and levels of customization that require more monetary and time investment than tract built projects, it’s only natural buyers try to use price per square foot as a quantifiable unit of measurement by which to make their decision. 

Although price per square foot can be useful in learning about the general value of real estate and construction in the Lowcountry, or to “ballpark” and determine if a builder has capability to work within your desired construction budget, it is ultimately an ineffectual way to discover a potential build’s true value. 

We understand everyone is on a budget, and we work diligently to educate buyers so they understand the difference between value and price point, and how that difference is not always clearly represented in price per square foot. The following are a few discussion points we offer to prospective buyers gathering information during a builder meeting. 

What square footage was the price based on?

Unfortunately, there is not an industry standard as to what constitutes a square foot. Was “under roof” square footage used in the cost per square foot you were given? Or only heated space? What about the garage? Most builders in the Lowcountry will not include the garage within the square footage used when calculating price per square foot, but yes, a three car garage with a golf cart bay does cost more per square foot than a two car garage. Likewise, a generous stick built roofline, leaving ample room for walk-in attic storage free of awkward trusses, will also affect price per square foot. 

Because various builders count their square footage differently, it becomes increasingly difficult to compare apples to apples and determine true value.

What’s included in the price quoted?

Are all town permits included?  Is a landscape allowance included? Are Architectural Design fees included? Is a Hard Selections Designer included in the cost to help you make finish decisions on budget? What about a Construction Liaison to assist during your build? Does the builder offer a Warranty?

None of these services affect the size of a home, but all are included in Coastal Signature Homes pricing and are reflected in our cost per square foot. 

The Home Type, and Total Size of the Home Matter 

A two story home with a smaller foundation, and efficient use of the space within the roofline for a good portion of the total square footage, costs less per square foot than a home of equal square footage, but  all on one level. Big ticket items that don’t fluctuate much in cost despite the size of home, items like the town permit, utility hookups, the heating and air system, a nicely equipped kitchen, and luxurious baths, are all present in even our smallest of homes. 

Therefore, smaller homes are generally more expensive per square foot than larger homes. As a house gets bigger, the incremental cost for these expenses decreases. 

Design and Other Factors That Control Building Costs, and Drive Price Per Square foot

As one of the larger budget items for every builder, one factor driving price per square foot, is the home’s finished floor elevation and type of foundation utilized in a build. A home built on a slab foundation with one or two steps to the porch will cost less than a home built on a crawl space, otherwise referred to as raised pier foundation. Builder “A” might quote a price per square foot on a low slab. Builder “B” might drive by the lot, see its dramatic slope, determine that the lot conditions require a raised pier, and quote a higher price per square foot to capture that very important detail. 

Sophisticated stick framing and roof design (vs. truss built home design) require more skilled labor and therefore greater investment in framing materials and labor, but result in more artful aesthetics, more flexibility and ultimately more use of the roofline. 

In custom home design and construction, architects try to maximize as much space as they can and that includes ceiling height. This can only be accomplished in stick built framing. Walk around in the attic space of a truss built home, weaving and dodging through the awkward truss system and you will understand what we mean. 

Stick built rafters require multiple cuts, string lines, measurements, more lumber and thorough attention to detail, requiring a more skilled framing crew at a greater cost.

Stick built framing also offers opportunity for change. Our customers can move walls around, take advantage of additional space they didn’t know they had, or have us back to add that mother-in-law suite in the unused attic space a few years down the road. 

In the long run, stick built homes have more valued curb appeal with interesting rooflines, and offer the opportunity for impressive interior features such as varied ceiling heights, beams, vaulted ceilings, and transom windows. These are big design details that drive more cost per square foot than standard 10’, flat ceilings with trusses engineered in a factory, never to be changed. 

And speaking of details, the quality of materials and products used in a home, as well as the quality of the workmanship, affect price per square foot as well. 

Our Andersen 400 series and Marvin Integrity windows are premium products, and though still a very good value, require a greater investment than other window packages. Though an economical choice, lower cost window lines are not known for their aesthetics. Some communities in our area do not allow these window lines because they do not offer the architectural detail required by the community. Our clad windows meet those architectural standards, but most importantly, the interior wood frame and sash offer the highest quality interior finish and flexibility, the best thermal performance, and the exteriors never need painting and won’t peel, blister, flake or corrode.

A tankless hot water heater with a recirculating pump is more efficient, but costs more than a standard 80 gallon hot water heater. 

Poplar interior trim is a more costly interior trim material than medium density fiberboard (MDF), but results in a beautiful finish that feels true to the hand and withstands years of use without needed repair. 

These items are a sampling of quality products factored into Coastal Signature Homes’ price per square foot. 

We use the same trades, with whom we have established years of trusted work processes and quality control measures, to establish our consistently beautiful, high quality homes. This consistency is one of the major reasons we build for a repeat customer each and every year.

Our trades might cost more than a new sub-contractor in the area hungry for work, but our trades’ level of proven craftsmanship, and sensitivity to schedule, are added value our happy customers firmly attest to. 

How Does this Knowledge Help A Buyer?

You can see now that it’s possible, if one wishes, to design a 2,500 SF jewel box with all the bells and whistles of architectural design and top of the line interior features that not only costs more per square foot, but also rivals the total cost of the boxy, larger home down the street that has only production-builder grade features and finishes. 

Work with a Builder you Trust from the Start 

Whether you choose Coastal Signature or another reputable builder in the area, select a builder with a proven track record of helping people design a home and make finish selections within an acceptable budget.  An experienced builder will help you determine the best site placement of your home to help mitigate site work costs and drainage issues, maximizing your budget for the actual home construction. A professional building team will guide you through architectural design to ensure you are not over designing the floor plan and elevations for your desired investment. The design team will also shepherd you through making finish selections within the suggested allowances for your budget, allowing for splurges here and there while making up for extra expenses with careful management of other allowance items.  

Coastal Signature does all of the above within our Design Agreement phase prior to construction agreement. Because carefully crafting the scope, design and details of our homes to fit our customers’ desired investment is something we do every day, our customers confidently move into construction agreement with our firm. We call this process more thought per square foot, an invaluable additional resource that provides our customers a pleasurable journey toward a new home in the Lowcountry.

If you would like to learn more about Coastal Signature Homes and our process, give us a call. We’ll gladly answer any question you may have, tour you through our homes, and introduce you to customers (now our good friends) for whom we have recently built.

Design, NotesAaron- Pixel Freez