What Will It Cost?

Budgeting for your dream home



Whenever a prospective client calls about a project they have in mind, one of their first questions is what to expect their dreams to cost. The answer is usually more than they had imagined. In these introductory phone calls, I listen carefully as they describe what they have in mind, whether for a new house, addition, or remodel. As they talk and I ask questions, I try to get a sense of the scope of the work, and I start to think about what this project budget needs to be. When I get around to asking them if they have a budget, too often the answer I hear is not even close to what I had estimated. Then I wonder if they had any advice before they bought the property that they just closed on. Or maybe some clients think it’s best not to divulge their real budget because they assume the architect will design something way over that anyway. Yes, that happens, but it makes things harder if we don’t start with some realistic parameters.

Just the other day, someone called saying they just closed on a house and wanted to re-do the kitchen, install larger windows in some areas, open up a wall between the kitchen and dining room. I’m thinking this is a $75,000 project, then hear their budget is $30,000. When I explain that this would be very difficult to achieve, they were surprised- “but it’s just one room!”. Not surprising, but kitchens are the most expensive room in the house. Plus new window openings means exterior siding patching, and taking down that wall potentially means some structural work, electrical, patching floors, walls and trim. This was their first house, and I’m sure they were excited by their vision of what it could be. Even using low cost cabinets such as IKEA (we’ve done many kitchens with their cabinets), they would have to select the least expensive appliances, fixtures, countertops, and finishes to come close to that budget.






How do you start estimating costs?


When building a new house, people usually budget in terms of cost per square foot, which is a good starting point, but of course doesn’t take into account differences in land preparation, demolishing an existing house, etc. But for the house, there are some rules of thumb that are useful in planning the project. (Location also matters, it’s certainly more expensive to build here in northern NJ than it would be in the mid-west or south.) Most cost per square foot estimates include finished, conditioned space, so garages and unfinished portions of a basement or attic are usually not calculated in the area. A larger home would typically be less per square foot than a similar quality smaller home. Kitchens and master baths are the most expensive rooms in the house, and there’s typically one of each regardless of the size of the house.

Choice of finishes and fixtures can make a significant difference in the final cost of any construction project.

For example, wood flooring could run from about $8/ SF installed and finished, up to $30/ SF and more for specialty wood products with more customized finishes and patterns. Ceramic tile for $2/ SF vs. marble mosaic for $30/ SF. Make those kinds of choices throughout the house, and you can see how costs can escalate quite dramatically

For the following cost estimates, my reference is an individual architect designed house, not a builder’s cost who is doing a multi-home development. These are (NJ) construction costs, and don’t include land development costs such as bringing in utilities, removing existing structures, architectural or engineering fees, permit costs, landscaping. Make sure it’s clear when you are talking to your architect or builder whether your budget is for the total project costs, or for the construction costs only.

$150 per square foot

Our projects never really come out at this price point, but it’s not impossible. You’ll have to stick to a fairly simple plan, no complicated roof lines, not a single level house. Two story houses cost less per square foot than single story because there is less roof and foundation work for the same total area. You’d probably get vinyl siding on all sides except the front of the house, vinyl windows, modest kitchen and bathroom fixture and finish selections, hollow core doors and builder grade hardware.

$200 – $225 per square foot

This starts to get you into the realm of a more customized, higher quality home. You’d expect cement fiber siding, some brick or stone, clad wood windows, better insulation package, high efficiency mechanical systems, and a much broader range of attractive kitchen and bathroom options, higher quality interior doors and hardware.

$250 per square foot

At this price range, you would start to expect window, siding and roofing upgrades. Features such as custom entry and garage doors, custom designed stair, high end appliances, upgraded and finishes.

$300 + per square foot

These are the homes you see in the design magazines, where seemingly no expense is spared. The exterior may have substantial stone work, slate roofs, copper gutters and trim, sophisticated heating and cooling systems. Custom cabinetry and built-ins, spa like bathrooms, integrated lighting and technology systems. Expect superior workmanship from all the trades. 



Remodeling costs are much harder to calculate on a square foot basis.

There are so many variables in dealing with existing homes, and if you’re just renovating portions of the house, the square foot calculations don’t often hold up. For a full gut renovation, using the new house costs less about $50 – $75 per square foot is a safe bet. Additions run about the same as the new cost figures, but then there are added costs to make new and old come together.

Here are a few common remodel types and cost ranges:

Kitchens range from $30,000 for something not too large or upscale, to over $100,000 for a large, center island kitchen, custom or high end manufactured cabinets, stone counters, full tile backsplash, top grade appliances.

Basic size bathrooms with quality fixtures and upgraded tile on most walls can run $20,000 and up, master baths with separate tub and shower, double sink vanity, heated floors, more like $45 – 60,000.

New decks run $40 – $50 per square foot depending on configuration, material (synthetic decking, or hardwoods like Ipe or mahogany) and railing selections.
On grade paver or stone patios actually usually cost less than decks (no framing or railings needed) and average from $10- 20 per square foot, with some types of stone and retaining walls adding to that cost.


Bigger isn’t always better.


Thinking about how much space you really need, rather than working from pre-conceived notions on a total square footage is another way to keep costs down. I’d always prefer to see the size of a house reduced where possible, to allow for higher quality construction and finish.

It is difficult to accurately estimate the cost of a project before there is an actual design and detailed scope of work. But a little advance research can go a long way to making sure you are embarking on your project with realistic expectations.

I sometimes refer to split levels and ranches as “The Other Mid Century style”. They may not quite call to mind the classic mid century modern houses that have become so desirable, but with a little imagination, they do offer a great opportunity to create a modern home for this century.

I grew up in a 1958 split level house in suburban Philadelphia, and I remember even as a child recognizing the distinctively different feel from my friends’ traditional colonial houses. The more open plan, cathedral ceiling in the living room, and the 50’s decor seemed so cool by comparison. And the half flight up to the bedrooms and half flight down to the playroom seemed so easy compared to the conventional three level configuration.

Split levels and ranches became popular during the post WWII suburban expansion and reflected a desire for a more modern style home. The splits worked well on sloped or smaller sites, offering an open layout, yet more compact than a spread out ranch. In some homes, the arrangement allowed for cathedral ceilings in the living room since there was not a second floor above.

Somewhere along the way, split levels became something of a pariah. These houses generally lack both the design sophistication of a classic mid-century modern house from the same period or the character and charm of a traditional Colonial or Tudor. When found in neighborhoods with high land values, they often become tear downs that make way for more conventional Colonial style mansions. But from my experience and what I hear from local realtors, there is a growing demand for more modern homes, and these splits and ranches may be the best bet short of building a new house from scratch.

The split level modernization projects I’ve done have mostly included additions and exterior “curb appeal” makeovers. A common addition is adding a level above the one story portion, usually for a master suite and other related spaces. Addition on the back can create a larger kitchen or family room space. One project completely re-conceived the idea of a split level, and resulted in a dramatic home with the different levels intertwining in unexpected ways.




Englewood Cliffs, NJ

This client had hired an architect who completed the plans for a second floor addition. However, the client wasn’t happy with how the outside was looking, and asked us to re-design the exterior without making any big changes to the plans. The biggest design change we made was to change the gabled roofs to hip roofs, which immediately created a better resolution between the two wings of the house, and established consistent horizontal lines to the wall surfaces. The entry was given a cantilevered canopy, the bay window squared off, and the break up of materials further accented the horizontal connection between the volumes.

Tenafly, NJ

In this project, the client wanted to add a larger kitchen and family room to the back of the house, along with a new deck. This freed up space for a powder room and large pantry area at the living level. At the upper level, the space was reconfigured to provide a more generous master suite, eliminating one bedroom. A new bedroom and bathroom was added to the lower level in the area that had good window exposure. The existing entry sequence from driveway to front door was unwelcoming and included an un-needed circular driveway that was too close to the front door. Our design included a re-working of the front landscape.

This house already had hipped roofs, and our window and material choices helped to further modernize the overall look of the house.

These elevations show a different approach to material choices that I had presented, but the client opted for the black and white approach. 

Summit, NJ

The owners of this house had outgrown the space and embarked on an ambitious plan to enlarge the home and create a more modern expression. The neighborhood was full of these same style homes, but one by one, they were being torn down and replaced by the traditional style homes that developers were putting up around the state. For this project, we kept the original foundation and basic premise of the split level, and proceeded to create a modern home more in keeping with the mid-century spirit of the original. We had to submit for a variance to move the garage entry to the front of the house, and among the comments from various township departments was this very gratifying observation.

“The Historic Preservation Commission commends the owner and Architect for their proposed transformative design of one of the tract mid-century split-level homes- typical of the neighborhood- into a modern home in keeping with it’s mid-century influence. As an expression of its own time, the diagnosis is properly scaled to the neighborhood, and successfully addresses the site conditions, and utilizes material appropriate to their proposed use. We also like that the proposed design resists the common ersatz new-traditional inclinations that are becoming common in this neighborhood. No objections.”

The stair down was reconfigured to make a better flow from the new mudroom off the garage as well as new basement space under the rear addition. Setting the master suite second floor addition back from the front allowed a high ceiling area in the living room.

Scotch Plains, NJ

These owners lived in the neighborhood and were looking for an opportunity to create a modern, larger home nearby. This property met their need in terms of the location and the property size and character, and included a forlorn split level house that could easily have been a candidate for a tear down. Instead, we decided to retain some of the basic structure and proceeded to make additions and reconfigure space to create a home that took advantage of the various levels in ways that added to the interest of the architecture- resulting in a design that couldn’t have been achieved if a new two level house had been built instead of retaining the split level structure.

The two patios at the back also reflect the split-level nature of the house. The connecting stair follow the interior stair form the kitchen to the lower level dining/ living/ guest room spaces.

The lower level now has two stairs down, one from the entry foyer, one directly from the kitchen. The balcony space above acts as a private congregating space for the family, with a piano tucked in.

See this full project here.