Price Drivers in Residential Remodeling

Size, Complexity & Finish Level Determine the Cost of Remodeling
Size, Complexity & Finish Level Determine the Cost of Remodeling
Remodeling is expensive! There’s just no getting around it. There are 3 main factors that drive price: Size, Complexity & Finish Level.  We’ll look at each briefly and then also look at ways to minimize the effect of each.
Size The cost to build an addition in the greater Washington, DC area (where I work) starts at about $200 per square foot and goes up to $350 per square or more.  The cost to remodel an existing space starts at about $100 per square foot and goes up to $200 per square or more.  So to build a 20 ft x 20 ft addition, it will cost $80,000 to $140,000.  If the addition includes a kitchen or bath (or both), it will be on the high side of that number and could be even higher depending upon the other 2 factors.  If you’re remodeling a first floor that’s 1200 Square Feet, you’re looking at $120,000 to $240,000.  Obviously, these are large ranges.  It’s the other 2 factors — complexity and finish level that determine where you’ll fit within that range.
Complexity Complexity covers a lot of ground.  Kitchens and baths are complex because of the number of cabinets, plumbing fixtures and connections, appliances, surfaces (tile, granite, glass) and so on.  They will always be on the high side of the range.  For example, a basic bath remodel is a bare minimum of $15,000.  Most bath remodels are closer to $25,000 to $30,000.  High-end baths can be $50,000 to $75,000 or more.  A basic kitchen upgrade starts at about $25,000 and a remodel starts at about $40,000.  There’s no upper limit for kitchens.A rectangular building is easier to build that one with angles and curves — curves are particularly difficult whether you’re talking about a wall, a deck, or a cabinet.  That’s because most building materials are straight.  Obviously, it’s easier to build a curved stone wall than a concrete, metal or wood wall.  Years ago when I was helping a cabinetmaker figure out his pricing, we determined that he needed to double his prices for curve-fronted cabinets.  Installing cabinets and plumbing is more complex — takes more steps — than just putting up drywall.  So kitchens and baths are usually the most expensive rooms in the house.  It’s less complex to tap into an existing waste line than running a new waste line, so it’s cheaper to install a new powder room directly below an existing bath than on the other side of the house.  It’s a long list, but you get the idea.
Finish Level Finish level reflects the cost of the materials and the complexity of installation.  Understanding the effect of higher cost materials is straightforward — granite versus laminate countertops; stain-grade vs. paint-grade windows; hand-crafted vs. stock tile; stone vs. porcelain tile; high-end appliances versus mid-level appliances. and so on.  Complexity of installation refers to design decisions to use 3-part crown molding versus 1-part crown.  The 3 parts represent more material (and more cost) but the real cost usually comes in labor because 3-part molding takes 3-4 times more time to install — and time is definitely money in the remodeling business.  Plus finish labor is the among the most expensive labor in remodeling — finish carpenters are paid more than other carpenters and cabinetmakers are paid more than finish carpenters.  Other examples of more complex (and therefore more costly) finish choices include items such as fancy tile patterns,  multiple shower-heads, 2-sink kitchens, home entertainment systems.  These are all features that add material cost and labor cost to a remodeling project.
But you don’t need to sacrifice your life style or a sense of luxury and quality in order to keep costs down.
First, square footage is overrated!  I can almost always achieve a client’s design goals within the existing footprint or with strategic bump-outs.  Second, it’s usually more comfortable and satisfying to re-purpose space rather than simply add a big addition on the back.  Think of your neighbors who have added large additions only to leave the older portions of the home empty most of the time.  Instead, you can re-purpose old spaces — maybe move the kitchen to where the dining room used to be.  And then the lot can be used to create wonderful outdoor/indoor spaces with a great sense of privacy and serenity.
Second, materials can be used in ways that create luxury without great cost.  In the bath, below, while the finishes look rich, the total cost of the finishes were well below 50% of the total cost (usually finishes are 60-70% of the cost of the remodel)  See Article on Controlling Costs. We used the same travertine tile for all surfaces — this allowed me to get true wholesale/pallet pricing.  There are no fancy patterns or mosaic borders — keeping the cost of tile laying down.  The room is a simple rectangle — the only complexity is added by the angle of  the vanity (not shown).  The fixtures are mid-level — but well designed.  The shower has a single showerhead — a multi-function hand-held on a bar that allows it to be used in multiple ways.  We used a solid-surface shower pan rather than tile for the shower floor.  We kept and re-used
existing doors and door hardware.

Luxury Materials Used Cost-Effectively
Luxury Materials Used Cost-Effectively
Imagine how much more labor-intensive it was to lay the tile in the small powder room below with all the different tiles and patterns.  While equally stunning in an understated way, the bath above, was much less labor intensive than the one below.

Complex Tile Patterns Add Expensive Labor
Complex Tile Patterns Add Expensive Labor
Third, interesting and complex details can be created in less labor-intensive ways.  The wainscoting in the breakfast nook, below, uses the wall as the “recessed panel”.  We used prime 1x stock for the stiles and rails.  The ledge is simple crown with sill material on top.  This design simplified the labor and made the wainscoting detail affordable here and in the dining room.  Additional complexity was added in the home, below through the use of paint to emphasize the architecture (see related article).  Paint is one of the least expensive ways to add detail and complexity to a remodel.

Effective By Relatively Simple Wainscoting
Effective By Relatively Simple Wainscoting
So, when you’re planning a remodel, keep in mind ways to keep down costs while still adding luxury and cost-effective details.
All images courtesy of Braitman Design/Build
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4 thoughts on “Price Drivers in Residential Remodeling”

  1. Hi. I love your website and your design concepts. I have a couple of questions about “bump outs”. When is a bump out no longer a bump out but rather an addition? And when doing a cost estimate, is the cost of a bump out the same as an addition, approximately $200 per square foot?

    Owner of a small 1950’s era ranch in the MD suburbs

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