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How To Choose A Plan For An Affordable House

If you are trying to build a house on a modest budget you are in good company because the majority of people who choose to build their own home don’t have money to burn.  Finding an affordable plan that is right for you is the first step in realizing your dream home and it does take some work.  Hiring an architect or choosing a pre-drawn plan are the most common options for finding a plan. Architects are more expensive because we provide a full range of services.  In addition to designing a good-looking custom home to meet your needs, architects also act as your advocate through the entire design and construction process.  For many people, this is an invaluable service.

If budget is limited and you have a do-it-yourself attitude then choosing a pre-drawn plan is a very good option. There are even pre-drawn plans from architects, though the majority of them are not designed by architects.

Don’t Cheap Out On Planning

An inexpensive plan does not necessarily result in an affordable home.  In the grand scheme of things, the cost of a plan is nothing compared to the cost of building a house.  It’s worth spending the money to get a well designed plan because a well planned house is a more affordable house.  Cost is not a sure-fire indicator of quality, but generally speaking the more expensive a plan is, the better the design tends to be and the more the details have been worked out.  This is important because a good plan can actually save money by limiting changes to improve the design or mistakes that happen because details haven’t been thought through.  Spending to Save should be the mantra when choosing an affordable house plan.


How much you can build?

Understanding just how far you can stretch your dollars is the first step to finding a plan that is right for you. A back of the napkin approach that works fairly well is to divide your budget by the square footage. For example: $500,000 / 2,000 square feet = $250 per square foot.  Generally, the square footage is measured to the exterior of the bulding and does not include the costs of land, permits and fees.  It is just the cost per square foot for the house itself.  Shocking, I know.  Construction is expensive, there are no two ways around it, and it’s good to get used to the real costs rather than the costs we wish it would be.  Costs vary by region, in some regions $250 is more than enough to build a nice home. In others, it might require a few more hundred dollars per square foot.  The best way to understand costs in your area is to talk to local contractors.


Needs Vs. Wants

Sometimes it’s tricky to separate needs from wants, but when it comes to house building, it’s an exercise that can yield big savings.

Start by making a list of needs, those things that are not negotiable. For example two parents with two kids might feel three bedrooms is the minimum and anything less is a deal breaker. Then, make a list of negotiables. The negotiables for this same family might be that the three bedrooms are smaller. Or, if money is really tight the deal breaker above might become a negotiable in the form of two bedrooms vs. three. Finally, make a list of all the wants, the items that you could either live without or that could be built later. This might include a play room, den, foyer, the Martha Stewart kitchen, the spa bathroom or the garage.

Delay gratification

In any plan there are things that could be built or added later.  It’s usually not a big savings, but combined with other strategies, delaying construction can help.  Examples of items that can be delayed include things like a detached garage, a deck, solar panels, or finishes.  Generally, the building shell cannot be delayed, it’s only the accessories that can be built later.

Go Small

Costs are directly proportional to square footage, so building smaller is the easiest way to reduce costs. Most people want more home than they can afford and getting realistic about the budget usually means editing the wish list for a smaller home.  There are other advantages to building smaller besides cost. Check out my article on small homes here.


Go Tall

Two story homes are typically more affordable to build because walls and floors are generally less expensive than foundations and roofs.  If two or more stories fits your lifestyle and your neighborhood it  can save some money.  Taller homes also have the advantage of fitting on smaller lots.

Outdoor Living

Outdoor spaces can become extra rooms. Planning for patios, gardens and seating areas outside can turn a small home into a great place for a gathering of many people.  An outdoor covered patio also expands your liveable space. A patio or deck can be a visual extension of a home that makes it feel much larger.

Innies And Outies

You may have heard that contractors count the number of corners in a home when determining the price.  There is some truth to it, in that the more ‘ins and outs’ and halls and walls in a home, the more complicated it will be to build.  Complication = Cost in construction.  Selecting simpler plans is an easy way to minimize costs.

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You’ve seen the McMansions with the zillions of dormers and roof lines.  Guess what, that’s complicated (Costly)  to build and also difficult to make energy efficient.  I think the simple roof-line is the most elegant.  If you agree, it’s a great way to save money.


Plumbing is a necessary system in any home, but it can get expensive, especially if it is not centrally located.  Shorter lines mean less complication, lower cost, more energy-efficiency and less wait for the hot water.

Combine spaces

​As I mentioned earlier, halls and walls are expensive. Combining spaces is a good way to relieve yourself of halls and walls.  A common example is to include the living, kitchen and dining room in one large space.  The effect is to reduce square footage, which reduces cost.

Simplicity Wins.

I haven’t seen a complicated house plan that was affordable to build, ever.  Simplicity is the guiding principle to look for if you want to build a home that doesn’t break the bank.


Energy Efficiency

Make sure the plan you are selecting is designed with energy-efficiency in mind.  Some clues are south facing windows, thick exterior walls to hold insulation, and area on the roof for solar panels.  This is all easy to build in at the beginning, but difficult to retrofit later.  It will cost a little extra to build this way, but will pay for itself over the long run.  No need to saddle yourself with large utility bills if you don’t have to.

Don’t Be Afraid To Follow Your Heart.

Since building a home is the single largest purchase most of us make in a lifetime, spend the time that you need to make the right decision. Doing your homework will help you navigate the many choices that are out there.  Choosing an affordable house plan is all about making rational decisions, but you will know it’s right when you find one that also speaks to your heart.