Pass the Olives

A Jumble of Opinions on Living, Thinking, Reading, and Making Things

Building a Low-Cost House

A picture of nuts and bolts

Getting down to the nuts and bolts

This is a developing list of recommendations for building a low-cost house. I have collected them from a wide variety of sources and edited them to create a reasonably memorable simple list. Everyone’s circumstances, land, location, needs, and druthers are unique, so read these as suggestions, things to consider—carefully.

The advice that appears most frequently or in more authoritative sources, I have moved toward the top.

Keep the geometry simple

Fussy plans, full of curves and complexities, increase labor costs. And according to some sources create a home that will need more maintenance because corners are subject to damage from settling and water infiltration.

Evaluate construction materials and methods carefully

This will be a major cost of the construction and greatly affect the quality of life in the home. It’s important to use the most reasonably long-lasting, but probably not the most expensive materials. Good materials will be more sustainable – last longer in better shape. Less repair and maintenance down the line. If you scrimp on things like insulation you will have higher heating and cooling costs and the living space may be drafty and feel hollow. Unless this really is temporary housing or you plan to build and gradually upgrade, think long term. But while it is more expensive to change construction later, sometimes that is the best option. If you need housing now and have limited funds, you will save money by being able to live in the space as you work on it.

Estimate labor costs carefully

Labor costs can be 55% of the cost of design and materials. When hiring a contractor, get thorough bids. Contractors have been found to charge 10-18% more for small houses because they tend to charge by the job, not the actual number of hours required. Doing as much as you can yourself can reduce labor costs but it can also increase others. There are many jobs that require a professional. In the long-term, you will save time and money if you choose wisely.

Design floor space efficiently

Finding clever ways to reduce the footprint. While each square foot is less expensive than the last, a larger footprint means more cubic space to heat and cool, and more wall space to maintain. And encourages clutter and acquisition.

Look carefully at the costs of design features like open plans

Open plans bring in more natural light and provide a more sociable living environment. But unobstructed spaces sometimes require more structural support across the ceiling. This is less of a concern in a long rectangle as many Tiny Houses are, but in a square or circle, it is a consideration. Having to reinforce the roof to compensate for less support from walls adds cost. Columns can replace the ceiling supports but need to be carefully spaced. Professional help will probably be a good investment in all load-bearing decisions.

Finding the right professionals

Find professionals that share your values and are interested in what you are trying to accomplish and why. The primary contractor will also be hiring and recommending electricians, plumbers, etc. It’s also important that they also understand your values. The contractor should be experienced and employ regular reliable workers. If this is your first project, you want to hire someone who knows a great deal more than you do.

Ask yourself: Are they interested in environmentally supportive building materials and methods? Do they have ideas for reducing costs that won’t reduce quality? Are you talking to the person who will be doing the work? Do you like them? It is totally possible that by the end of your project you will be rather done with each other so you want to start with someone you are comfortable with.