Can the average Joe/Jane still afford a home?

6 ways to improve the affordability of a home.

Has purchasing a home become out of reach? The comfortable house with all the features that you want; granite countertops; island range with the stainless steel hood; rustic beams on the ceiling; slick lighting fixtures and bathroom with tiled shower and multiple shower heads.

You know you can’t afford that house because you’ve looked around and nobody’s building homes for anything near what you can afford. It seems the only way to hold down construction costs on a house is to strip all the features away. The only reasonably priced homes for sale seem to be made of disposable vinyl, styrofoam or unattractive piles of brick and drywall.

You’re half right. A typical builder’s “spec” home price gets into the stratosphere when you add all the goodies. But, the good news, you’re half wrong, too! The reason most spec houses get ridiculously expensive is that they’re pretty poorly planned. Plan better and you can get what you want and keep some loonies in your pocket.

Here are 6 ways to beat the high cost of construction and home improvement:

1. Smaller is smarter (really!). Perhaps obvious but, making a home smaller makes it less expensive. But random hacking away with a machete is the wrong approach – we need a scalpel and a surgeon. So think carefully about redundancy – why do you need a dining room AND a breakfast room AND five stools at the kitchen counter? A living room AND a study AND a family room AND a sitting area in the master suite?

Most of these uses can be combined into the same space – one nice large place to eat, for example, and another space for the family to gather or to entertain. When designing your space, think about the furniture and how you arrange it – when you don’t plan how a room is going to be used you often make it much too big.

Carefully trim out the wasted, unused space and put the cash into that homey board-and-batten wainscot or whatever it is you love.

2. Use it where it counts, simplify where it doesn’t. Go ahead, put the granite countertops in the kitchen and the master bath, but not in the laundry room. And your kids can do without solid brass faucets, crown molding, and a hand-painted tile backsplash in their bath. (Go ahead, ask them – they don’t care!)

Same with floor finishing’s and trim, fixture selections. Good stuff in the family room, cheaper in other rooms. Put the money in finishes and fixtures where you’ll be able to enjoy them every day.

3. Design for low maintenance. This one sounds like a paradox: Spend more here to save more later. Cheap siding, roofing, and windows will cost you way more in the long run than quality components will now. There are entire industries built around the hope that you’ll buy replacement windows and a new roof for your house someday, probably much sooner than you think. Even if its not your plan to occupy the house long enough, the new buyers will see that effort and expense was made to select durable components and pay accordingly.

Quality is the tortoise in this race. Do it right the first time.

4. Lower your energy bills – dramatically. This goes way beyond insulation, Argon-filled glass, and geothermal systems, and could fill an entire article of its own. Simplicity is key though. Ensure the home is climate and site specific and don’t try to force it to be too highly energy efficient – as you’ll likely be putting your effort and expense where it doesn’t count as much.

It’s not hard to resolve how your house DESIGN responds to the climate and the site. An example is; don’t put a big wall of glass facing prevailing winter winds where the heat will get sucked out like a black hole. Do put glass on the side where light and warmth can come in and provide passive heat benefits. Also, shade it (with an awning, an exterior architectural shade specific to your latitude, or simply with a deciduous tree!) so it doesn’t bake the interior in the summer.

Do this right, along with energy conscious and careful construction and you get a big bonus – a tight, energy-efficient house that won’t need an expensive geothermal heating system at 3 times the cost of a regular furnace.

5. Boxy can be beautiful. We have millions of really great-looking homes in this country, though most were built over 70 years ago. The designers and builders of the first homes had little choice but to make them simple. In spite of this or, perhaps because of it, they were also elegant and attractive.

Good-looking homes are usually based on relatively simple box forms, properly proportioned, composed, and detailed. Today, many designs compensate for their lack of proper planning by loading the exteriors up with as much stuff as they can – gables, complex roof forms, heroic-scaled arched windows, inappropriate details, etc. Lots of money spent, not much aesthetic quality created and nobody benefits but the builder installing all these details.

A long time ago, some really smart people figured out that if building materials were all designed on a common module, they wouldn’t have to use or waste so much of it. So sheets of drywall and plywood are both 8 feet tall and 4 feet wide. Which works great on an 8-foot x 16-foot wall, but not so good when it’s 9.5-feet x 17 feet. Lots of wasted material and plenty of additional labour to cut and install it. Work with your designer to create a house as much as possible on the established modules of building materials. This saves you money and stops the dumpster from being filled with scrap, so you even save more money on disposal costs!

Simple forms can mean improved aesthetics plus reduced costs.

6. Good design sells. Good looking, energy-efficient, less expensive, low maintenance, smaller homes, sell faster and for better return on your money. Ask your real estate agent.

I’ve had clients inform me that even though they were worried about spending $X to design and build or renovate their home, they were able to sell their home faster and for a substantial amount more than the $X they invested.

Don’t be afraid to invest in good planning and quality components!