How Much Do House Designs Cost?

We’re going to go through one of the most common questions that we receive when we get a call from a potential client. We want to try and go through this with you today so that it will help give you the confidence to get your project done, to know that you’re asking the right questions, and to develop a project in the most cost-effective manner possible.

So how much does it cost? Once we get an idea of what the scope of work is, we’ll get an idea of how to put it on paper. Once the project is to scale on paper then we’ll know what the quantities needed are and we will be able to give you an educated answer on what it costs to build. Generally, there’s not enough information from the first consultation to tell you what it costs to build. So, a follow up question that people ask, what does it cost generally for design and engineering fees? We’re going to give you a textbook answer, this is qualified because every project is different and the scale and cost of every project is different, but generally speaking for preliminary budgeting it’s a really good idea to use about 15-20% of the construction value for custom home work. And that includes the design engineering, mechanical, structural, and plumbing would also be included in all the soft engineering costs. Now if you have very expensive, high end home, those numbers can change but it’s a good base number to work with. It’s interesting what we’ve noticed is a lot of the times when people are asking us these things they’re doing it from a limited background or understanding of what these projects are. You’ll get a quote from somebody that says  “oh well I had my brothers uncles sister do this for a lot less money”, and what usually happens there is they might draw up a floor plan but they’re not putting together a full set of documents that you can actually use to go get a permit, particularly in Southern California. It might work to go about a project like this in some other states but it doesn’t work well in Southern California. So those numbers are pretty much a textbook answer. And they’re historical, if they’re much less than that we’re not competitive or we can’t provide the services that you’re looking for in order to do the best project possible.

Some of the other items that you need to keep in mind is things like entitlement. Entitlement varies from city to city but in the Los Angeles area, particularly the city of Los Angeles or the county of Los Angeles, entitlement fee’s alone may cost anywhere from 5-7% of the construction value. That is just for the necessary work to run it through all the departments that will be involved in making and improving the project for construction. In some areas and we don’t mean to scare you, but in some areas there are as many as 15-20 agencies that need to be notified and documents that need to be submitted in order for the project to be approved. Now not all areas are like that. It’s just a case by case basis. Also we can assist the homeowner and they can do some of that leg work to help keep the cost of the project down. But we’ll talk about that more when we get into a specific project for you.

Another question that comes up a lot is what’s the difference between design and what we call construction documents or the term would be CD’s to abbreviate? The design/planning package generally includes the site layout to scale, the floor plans to scale, the elevations to scale, typically a color board, and several renderings to identify what the property’s going to look like generally from the street or from street and surrounding area. Those are the kinds of documents that will be used by the planning department possibly at a public hearing or planning commission meeting. Those documents identify what it is that we’re trying to build and the planning department will comment on it and tell us what we have to do or what changes we might have to make in order to get approval from them. Once we have planning approval then we will start what’s called the construction document phase. Construction documents actually explain to the contractor how the work is going to be done and what is expected to be included in that scope of work. In fact one of the items in construction documents, right on the very front page, it will say “scope of work”. This will describe what’s being added, two bedrooms, a bathroom,, remodel the kitchen, whatever it might be is right on the front page. That’s a good way if you’re ever looking at a set of drawings to find out what the scope of work is, just look at the scope of work statement on the front page. Construction documents also include things like structural detailing, architectural detailing of railings, hand rails, stairs, and beams, those kinds of things. It’s much more detailed. Just for example, one of the custom homes we’re working on right now has about 12-15 planning drawing documents. But once we went into the construction document phase the number of drawings grew to about 48 or 50 just to give you an idea. While the front page is defining the scope and scale of the project, the construction documents are identifying how it’s going to get built, how it’s going to be safe, and how it’s going to stand up in an earthquake. Those are put into the planning package and then that gets submitted to the building department so they can review it, comment on it, mark it up, and send it back to us so we can make whatever changes they think are necessary to conform to California building code. Once we’ve made the changes, we resubmit the documents. This sometimes takes several rounds of submission. A lot of times we can get that within one round but just based on the nature of it, it will sometimes take two or three resubmission rounds just to get everything lined up. Remember every one of these projects is a custom project. We’re not building track homes for example, where basically everything is the same except for the site. In this case we’re building and designing based on what you have existing, what you want to add, and it’s going to be different in every case so that may be helpful in terms of understanding what we’re doing and how we’re trying to accomplish it.


  Something else that’s asked often is how do you identify the quality of a project. Well one thing would be room size. Not only the footprint or size of the room. For example, a master bedroom may be as small as a 12x12 in a small project  or it might be as large as 18x20. We’ve seen some even larger. If it gets any larger than that it’s more like you ought to have a pool table in there and a couple of other things because it gets out of scale. Also the vertical volume of space is important. The higher it goes typically the more it costs to construct but it gives you a grandiose scale. The ceiling on a typical home is eight feet but in some places it’ll be nine, ten or even eleven. Even if you look at turn of the century homes it wasn’t uncommon to have a 12 foot high ceiling. Of course this impacts the cost of HVAC, which stands for heating, ventilating, and air conditioning. The higher it goes the larger the volume, the more square footage you’re dealing with, and a bigger carbon footprint you generate. These things all need to be looked at and considered. Also materials and finishes need to be considered in the budget. Flooring for example, could be wood, tile, marble, and carpet. For wood floor you can get a pretty good grade wood floor at $3.50 a square foot, but you can also spend as much as $28.00-$30.00 a square foot. Now obviously it’s really nice to have a high end teak floor but that might actually be more expensive than the numbers just stated. There are different levels of material and different costs for installing and we take a look at that with you. Good quality generally pays for itself over time. There’s lifecycle cost to think about, the higher the quality the less maintenance you have to do. But you have to keep in mind your overall project budget when you’re looking at those things. Just a couple of other examples of big item quality would be windows. We can help you select what type of windows. Prices on windows can vary from as little $300 for a standard window all the way up to $3,000 for the same sized window. And there’s lots of choices in between. It’s a nice place to use a few extra dollars to generate a higher quality finished product. But it has to be looked at very carefully with the rest of the budget. Another example would be balconies. You can do standard wood balcony railing which is typically the least expensive and can be built on site or you can pick things like glass railings, frameless glass railings, and if you want to spend more you can even pick remote controlled glass railings that go up and down as you need to keep the weather and the wind off your balcony. So there’s all kinds of different levels of quality and materials you can use. Also for example, you can go with a standard roof material which will last you typically about 30 years or you can beef it up and get a 50 year roof with custom clay tile roof or multi-level. But the prices go up as you move up the scale in terms of quality. It has to fit into the overall project and budget to make sense.


  “What are the impact of the city fees?”, is another common question. That’s really going to depend on your specific location, your city, whether you’re in the city or in the county. But some examples are whether or not your project happens to be a high fire zone. If so there are now plant material restrictions for reducing fuel for wildfires. There are also exterior requirements for fire proof materials, sprinkler requirements may increase, fire truck access in high fire zones with a fire truck turn around, those are all specific requirements for particular sites. Another item that will come up are school fees. It depends on where you are but you may have one set of school fees but you have two school districts. So you may have the pleasure of providing some additional funds for the grade school and the high school. That you have to check locally to find out for sure what those fees are. The good part about the school fees is that they are a one-time fee. It’s like a developer fee and they charge it based on the size of the project. Typically they don’t come into play until 500sf or more, but every city is different and the circumstances change. Some of the other things you will want to check or we will check with you, are there  there special fees associated with water connection. For example, there’s one very unusual circumstance here in Rancho Cucamonga. North of the 210 freeway they have fees associated with the drainage of the 210 freeway. So if you want to add to your house and you’re on the north side of the 210 freeway you’re allowed to add up to roughly 650sf before that triggers or kicks in. Once that kicks in, there’s a fee based on the amount of square footage or street frontage of the particular piece of property. So you help pay for the drainage of the highway and  that’s basically called a developer cost fees.

Impact of city fees and some things you might not realize that may come into play are water connection fee. If you’re going to put in a tankless water heater, the size of the service gas might need to be increased and the water meter may need to be increased. Those are some of the subtilties we get into in the design development as we move further in your project. Some other things are power connection cost and off-site improvements. Off-site improvements is a very important one. We had a client look at a project they were going to develop on a single-family residential lot in Fontana. They bought it for a great price but when they turned around they realized they were going to have to put in $250,000 worth of road improvements. All of a sudden the project didn’t make economic sense. So, we strongly recommend before you get fully committed, if you’re looking at a piece of property to purchase before your purchase it talk to us. Maybe we can help you even just on a limited consulting basis to do a quick review of what the requirements are particularly with respect to special city fees and off-site improvements. One of the other questions that’s asked are the impact of the site conditions on price of the project. That’s getting pretty specific but a couple of general things to keep in mind, the steeper the property, the higher the cost in developing the foundation and structural engineering for the property. We can build just about anywhere you want but that’s very important. Something else that’s really important are soils condition reports. Soils conditions or a soil engineer will identify the size and type of foundation necessary for your site. There’s lots of different types that we work with typically, residential we’ll be able to work with a pad footing, slab on grade, or raised foundation. Those are pretty standard and we just get a soils report to determine how much load the soil will accept to support the foundation for the structure we’re working on. Very important to do that early on in the job. And that is site specific. Some other things like the view are very important. You get the right view in the right location in the home you will maximize it’s value. The home we’re here in Rancho Cucamonga, that was in a development tract, unfortunately it doesn’t take advantage of the view of the beautiful mountain to the north of us. We do get to see it when we’re outside but unfortunately we don’t get to see it in the living room, which is where we would have put the living room so you can focus on the nicest elements of the site. That’s one thing you get to do if you’re developing a custom home that you don’t if you’re buying a track home.

So we hope this has been helpful. Keep checking back for more posts!