When you’re trying to nail down a budget for your brand new house, “what’s 1 percent in the grand scheme of things?” asks Newark, Ohio, custom home builder Vince Ghiloni. The dollar amount is not much, but, as Ghiloni tells his clients, the purpose is significant. He calls this 1 percent “insurance for the future.”
Getting more specific, Ghiloni says he typically allocates about 1 percent of a construction budget for “beefing up the basics.” He builds a stronger foundation, a stronger and more rigid frame, and he uses more insulation than the local building code requires so that “my houses will look as good inside and out in 15 years as they do the day my clients move in and they’ll use less energy.”
Expressing similar sentiments, Boston custom home builder Tom Silva, who is best known as the contractor for the This Old House television show says, “When the structure is stronger, elements that make it pretty will last longer.” Unbeknownst to most homeowners, he explains, the building code is primarily a safety standard, not a quality one. The focus of the code is the safety of the people building and living in the house, not how well the materials will weather and look over time.
But, Silva elaborates, ” If you over-structure and go a little beyond the building code, your house will be stiffer and withstand more punishment from rain and wind and snow as well as the normal wear and tear that occurs in any house that’s lived in with kids running around and jumping up and down. When a house is stiffer, it’s also more pleasant. When the kids jump overhead, the ceiling fixtures won’t swing and the dishes won’t rattle in the cabinets.”
The four places that Silva encourages his clients to “heavy up” are the structural frame, insulation, windows and the heating and air conditioning system. “Spend a little extra here,” he says, and it “will put money in your pocket.”
Owners are frequently tempted to cut back on these essentials to make the project come in on budget and still get the oak floor and granite countertops. But Silva says, “You shouldn’t cut back. You will save money forever in reduced utility bills and vastly reduced maintenance costs.” You can add the granite and oak floor in five years, but in the meantime you’re “living in a happier and more comfortable house with windows that always work.” In fact, in his experience, five years later, many owners do not find the oak flooring and granite counters so compelling, and they decide to put the money somewhere else.
One place where Silva would “heavy up the structure” but one that most clients take for granted is “what the house sits on-the foundation,” which he characterizes as “a snowshoe for your house.” The cost for extra reinforcing to the foundation footer and wall is inconsequential, he says.
Most builders say that clients usually resist putting money into things they can’t see, but Silva says in his experience people are amenable “when you explain not only what to do but also why to do it.” It also helps when the person doing the explaining, as in Silva’s case, enjoys iconic status as the most trusted home builder in America.
Beefing up a foundation is a good idea no matter where you live, Silva says, but enhancing other basics depends on where you live.
When you have a fairly benign climate, the case in Charlottesville, Va., for example, you won’t benefit from thicker stud walls with more insulation. But, says Charlottesville custom home builder Randy Rinehart, the type of insulation you use will make a big difference in the degree of comfort inside the house. He uses a blown-in cellulose insulation made from recycled newspapers because it reduces air infiltration, which can make rooms drafty in winter. The insulation makes the temperature more even throughout the house, and it deadens sounds from outside.
Rinehart says that clients rarely squawk about the cellulose insulation, which might add $300 to the cost of a 2,500 square foot house. But there can be a lot of soul searching about the windows. When a house comes in over budget, windows are a tempting target because you can substitute cheaper ones and lower your cost without having to alter your design. But, over time window quality will have an impact on the ambience of a space and your enjoyment of it, Rinehart says. Everybody wants big windows that flood a space with natural light. But a cheap builder-grade window is generally less effective in stopping heat loss so you can feel drafts in the winter. In a few years they tend to leak, and the vacuum seals between the two panes of glass often break down so that the panes frost up in cold weather and you can’t see out of them as well.
Windows won’t frost up during California’s mild winters, but the weather there must still be taken into account when choosing them. The salt air, wind and sun can ravage the exterior of houses built near the coast says Frank Fanto of Mendocino. “Some clients want to save money on the exterior to get more sizzle inside, but what you save up front will cost you in maintenance down the road.”
Fanto always recommends clad wood windows (the exterior side of the window is vinyl or aluminum that is finished with a highly weather resistant paint). When clients want casement-type windows, he specs corrosive-resistant hinges and hardware. For the exposed wood siding that is standard in his area, he uses copper or stainless steel nails because the cheaper galvanized type used in most parts of the country will rust and leave stains running down the side of your house.
Though the climate of California is more benign than the rest of the country, the natural disasters-earthquakes, mudslides and brushfires-are more severe. As a consequence, the building codes are more stringent than those in others parts of the country, and “beefing up the basics” is not necessary, Fanto says.
But there are other extras that can enhance your enjoyment of your house. Along with making the exterior of the house weather resistant, San Luis Obispo, Calif., custom home builder Turko Semmes adds extra sound proofing to reduce noise within the house. He routinely installs resilient metal channels to dampen sound transmission in walls between bedrooms, bedrooms and bathrooms, and in the ceiling between bedrooms and noisier rooms below, as for example a bedroom over a kitchen-family room area. For a 2,500-square-foot, two-storied house he says the extra cost for the resilient channels would be about $300 to $500. If you’re considering French doors for the entry to a master suite or a home office, Semmes likes to add a second layer of glass for sound proofing, which adds about $100 to the cost of each door.
Though many clients have a hard time getting enthusiastic about extras that they won’t see, all the builders say they have a harder time with what they can see and are wildly enthusiastic about. The number of decisions that must be made can overwhelm even the most decisive business executive as the number of choices in everything has exploded, observes custom home builder Alan Washak of Columbia, Md. Ten years ago nearly everybody got oak floors. Now oak, maple and cherry floors are standard, and there are plenty of exotic tropical hardwoods to choose from if you want something really different. Once you pick the wood, you still have to decide on a finish and a stain. The oak flooring supplier offers ten stains, and the stair rail supplier offers thirty, Washak said.
Even harder than choosing everything is imaging what it will look like in the finished house. “You can have a very detailed set of plans and a computer simulation, but it’s not real life. Most people won’t get it until they’re standing in it,” Washak says. For the kitchen, where most people spend a lot, he and several other builders said they create cardboard mockups to give homeowners a feel for what the counter layout will look and feel like.