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Controlling costs of home construction requires diligence

| Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014, 5:18 p.m.
Prime 1 Builders

Controlling costs when building a home is a job that often hinges on per-square-foot estimates, allowances for each room, books that list the costs of everything — even something like architect-builder-owner master classes.

But then, as builders Dan Meade and Joe Cortes say, the prices go up.

“It is more an art than a science,” Greensburg architect Lee Calisti says about the method of coming up with a cost for building a home.

Some costs are fairly consistent. If a buyer goes to a development planned by a builder and chooses one of the plans — even customizing it to a degree — the costs are rather well known.

But a custom design makes matters different. Then, builders, architects, even homeowners say it is important to control the unknown.

• Come up with a realistic idea of costs — and stick to it. Remember, when one room goes over cost, you probably aren't going to make up for it elsewhere.

• Act as your own general contractor and keep a close eye on all the costs.

• Get a builder involved early so planning can be discussed from a practical sense.

The secret generally is controlling the variables in design and construction, South Side architect Gerald Lee Morosco says. For instance, he says, is it fairly realistic to estimate a house can be built at $175 per square foot.

But that doesn't take into consideration any extraordinary desires.

“It is possible to spend $14,000 for all of your appliances — or $20,000 for your range,” he says.

Meade, owner of Prime 1 Builders of Bridgeville, says he has seen “virtually every” home he has ever built go over estimate by 10 percent or more because of “customer-driven” desires rather than necessities or surprises.

Cortes, from a like-named building company from Upper St. Clair, agrees, saying clients are generally budget-driven “until they see something they want.”

The builders and Morosco advocate the creation of allowances for each room so a client can get a feeling of an increase in overall cost by seeing a jump in individual areas.

Rob Johnson says he was able to accomplish that in his four-story condo in the North Side by getting quotes for individual projects and making sure they were met. He says he sometimes hired contractors at a per-hour rate to do specific projects and then watched them closely to make sure they were working.

In a similar fashion, Patrick Krantz says he acted as a “general contractor” when his stylish, timber-frame home was being built in Lawrence County. That went as far as the supervision of the purchase of wood to buying nails in bulk from a local hardware store so he could return the unused ones.

Builders and architects, however, say they have few clients who can spend that type of time overseeing a project. For that reason, they say the cost control comes in discipline and planning.

Calisti says he has developed over the years a “history of trends” in building that allows him to make a fairly accurate per-square-foot estimate. There also is a series of publications used by architects and builders that stays current on costs of items from concrete to rebar.

Morosco also advocates the creation of a “budget worksheet.”

Calisti warns all projects are governed by “size, complexity and level of finish,” with all of those elements affecting one another. He thinks one of the best ways of going into a project is to get a builder in on the plans right away.

“It is a more integrated process, where everybody is on the same page,” he says. It would allow a builder, for instance, to point to potential cost or complexity in an idea that an architect might not necessarily see.

It can help to avoid “change orders” — changes made after the fact, usually leading to unexpected costs.

Change orders take a difficult role in custom-designed buildings, but they aren't much easier in preplanned structures, says Elliot Fabri Jr. from EcoCraft Homes, which makes pre-fab houses.

The pre-fab homes from the South Fayette firm are built from modular sections but can be changed to fit a client's desires, he says. Those changes are easy when done at the planning stage because modifications in the modules can be done with less effort before a house is assembled.

But, he adds, most changes are “done after the fact,” leading to cost increases of about 10 percent.

“It happens all the time,” he says.

Planning is important, builder Meade says, but plans have a way of changing. In his role, he says, he often asks for variables that are acceptable to the client so he knows directions he might have to go.

“You have to leave a contingency for the unknown,” he says.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bkarlovits@tribweb.com or 412-320-7852.

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