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How Much Will it Cost?

Home pricing is a complex subject. Below are some insights on how professional builders determine the details needed to answer that question.

A question builders get from a lot of potential clients is “What’s the per-square-foot cost of your homes?” Some clients arrive armed with numbers gleaned from Internet articles, and their family and friends input on what they think prices should be. Others quote realtors who appraise and advertise houses by the square foot or are looking to make a sale on a property.

It’s an understandable attempt to simplify a complex subject—but when it comes to highly personalized custom homes, this approach is too simple.

Production builders do often price homes by the square foot. What the potential client may not have considered, though, is that these companies are simply product manufacturers. They build the same plans over and over, and at a higher volume. Like car manufacturers, they offer relatively few models and limit the number of options available for each. This allows them to calculate the cost of each model and option to the dollar, leaving little to the imagination.

Custom building is different. Each home is a prototype that is unique and meets a client’s individual tastes and desires. While professional custom builders rely on proven, scientific management systems to finish a home on time and budget, creating an accurate budget is as much craft as science. No responsible builder will quote a per-square-foot price without more information because doing so would risk misleading the client.

That’s because a custom home is not a product; instead, it’s the physical realization of a particular client’s vision on a specific site. Because each client’s dream is unique, the only way to estimate the cost of its realization is to have a thorough understanding of what is going to be built.

To start with, there needs to be an understanding of what the client means by square footage. Do their assumptions include the garage, unfinished basement or attic space, decks, patios, and landscaping? Also, do they understand that prices for excavation, utilities, permits, and engineering vary greatly, depending on the site and the jurisdiction in which they want to build?

Once the assumptions and variable costs have been clarified, a professional builder should ask for a more specific overview of the home the client is envisioning. Is the architecture, design, and floor plan complex or simple? Is it a traditional mountain cabin with a post and beam framework, or a modern structure with a flat roof, lots of glass, and minimal trim? Does the site require significant excavation, retaining walls, and will the home have multiple levels? Access to the site and staging area is another factor that could add to the cost of construction.

Finally, there needs to be a definition of the level of interior finishes the client wants. Some people give a nondescript answer like “medium.” While that’s too general, it is a good place to kick off a more detailed conversation about expectations. A professional builder can help refine those expectations by starting with some questions, like the client’s preferences regarding levels and types of appliances, plumbing fixtures, stone and tile, flooring, windows, interior millwork, exterior siding, etc. The answers will create a dialog of cost vs. what is of value to the client.

After sorting through the topics above, an experienced builder may be able to show a prospective client plans and photos of similar homes we have built in the past. They can access historical data and can often provide a ballpark estimate of what the probable cost to build that home with their specifications would be.

The key word in the above paragraph is “show.” This can’t be done over the phone. The clients need to spend some time with the builder before they can offer a realistic idea of what the client can expect for their budget. This is time wisely invested.


Warm Regards,


John Brink
Brink Custom Homes
P.O. Box 1902
Tahoe City, CA 96145

(530) 583-2005 – phone
(530) 583-4405 – fax