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By Kenneth in Lees Summit, MO on 11/21/2009


This topic over in the Miscellaneous forums (Bargain-faucets) got me to thinking. While my general mantra is that you generally get what you pay for, are there certain instances where it makes perfect sense to plan for obsolescence and simply purchase the absolute cheapest materials you can? I know most O-Bs are drawn to building because they perceive that they can build greater quality for less money, and there are two parts to that equation. The GCs I know will also spend more on finish materials than the building envelope simply because they want the perception of quality, and buyers see finish and not what is hidden behind the sheetrock.

I know early in my build process, a couple of hundred here and a couple of hundred there, all for better quality and it's only a couple of extra bucks in the grander scheme of things, and hey you really only have one opportunity to "do it right" anyway. However at the end of my build I was worried about dimes, my budget was tight and my contingency and fat were gone. And the housing market was starting to crumble and I didn't have a final appraisal. On a side note, I had to get two final appraisals because the lending institution my construction loan servicer intended to sell my mortgage to thought the first appraisal was inflated. When the second came in within a couple thousand, that's when they purchased the paper. And I still had to sell my primary residence, so had considerable cost tied up there.

Anyway, in the above-linked post I advocated for quality over cheap when it comes to faucets. But thinking about it, faucets are one of those items where cheap may be a good alternative. Sure they are temporary, they will fail, and parts to service them will be tough to come by. But who cares? Faucets are something within the realm of the simplest DIY project, when you replace them get the nice ones, and replacing a faucet requires nothing more than the faucet itself (not like you need to replace a vanity, countertop, or piece of cabinetry to get to them). So this is easy in the realm of planned obsolescence to save money today, and in my mind a fine compromise. Now clearly a GC wouldn't do this; they would find the cost savings behind the wall where it isn't visible (and where it couldn't be easily fixed later). Now I might not use this advice for faucets with valves in the walls (shower, tub) because unless you have access panels these aren't so easy to replace, and truthfully this is rough-in phase so your budget probably still looks pretty good.

So for the future O-Bs, where else are there great opportunities to economize (translation: cheap out) by using the cheapest components at the expense of quality. I have perhaps a couple of examples I incorporated in my build:

1) HRV/ERV, in my locale at the time I was building, these were pretty consistently $1,700 as part of my HVAC contractor proposals and these seem to be pretty standard for new construction. I put in the ductwork for intake and exhaust, tied a Skuttle valve ($15) into the intake side, foamed the exhaust side, and saved $1,700. Sure I paid a bit for the sheet-metal ductwork, cast scrap PVC into my ICF walls to accommodate the ductwork, and ran the electrical for the ERV, so I have some cost. However I can retrofit this later for the cost of the ERV itself and a service call from my HVAC tech. Four years later, I still don't have the ERV, but if I wanted to install it tomorrow, I could. If I left out the ductwork I might have saved a bit more, but retrofit would require me to core out two rather large holes in my ICF, and part of my ductwork is behind the finished part of my basement, so this would require sheetrock and finish work, and my retrofit cost suddenly gets prohibitive. Anyway you don't "need" an ERV, what you need is ventilation and make-up air, and I have both.

2) Zone controller. Based on passive solar, my house has drastically different airflow requirements for heating and cooling. We accomplished this with a zone controller and five separate zones of ductwork. Sure I ran the thermostat wire for each zone, but in the end I saved a boatload by eliminating the zone controller for manual dampers. I set them once in the spring, and reset them in the fall, five minutes tops. Sure I lost individual zone control, and as I use rooms differently depending on the time of day this is kind of inconvenient, but hey, that's a big chunk of "$1,000 here, $1,000 there, and pretty soon this is real money."

3) I hate to say it here, but I cheaped on my paint. At most major holidays, Home Depot has a sale on five-gallon buckets of paint, $25 off. My exterior paint cost $17/gallon before rebate (Glidden, I didn't even have the budget for Behr) and this was deliberate, as I was watching every dime at the end. However here I am four years later and my exterior paint still looks amazing over the James Hardie siding. I contrast that with the Benjamin Moore paint I used on my previous house and T1-11 siding as I visited one of my former neighbors just a couple of weeks back, that Bennie Moore paint was $35/gallon (very, very nice paint), yet the southern exposure on that house is basically destroyed at one year older. I attribute this to the siding selection more than the paint selection, and again provide a good example of where to make a cost sacrifice (good siding with cheap paint is much superior to cheap siding and good paint). Paint is within the realm of easy for the DIY, whereas trying to retrofit new siding is a tough job. Sure I could have gotten even cheaper paint and saved a bit more money...

4) Landscaping; truthfully you don't need it. I have planted several new trees and have some nicer landscaping now, but this is definitely something that can be added later. For trees, I have found that buying smaller trees (less $$$) actually transplant better and after the first growing season getting established, really flourish. Larger trees seem to have more transplant stress and may actually get surpassed by smaller trees with less stress. As a cautionary example here; I have seven fairly-large trees I would like to remove, and the cost to do so is about $4,500 (several bids, including stump removal). When my excavator was here, removing these trees was a five-minute process, and he hauled off all of the trees anyway, so I wish I would have given some additional thought to landscaping five years ago and I would have saved several thousand dollars today.

5) Door hardware. I used surplus door hardware I got from fleaBay. It is actually pretty nice stuff, and since my house is the only house locally I have ever seen it in, people tend to think it costs much more than it really did as it has a perceived exclusivity (Ken built quality, I have never seen this door hardware, he must have ordered it from somewhere, therefore it must be really nice stuff). Now then if I wanted to install Baldwin hardware later, I could do this at any time DIY (except calling the locksmith to re-key so they all match). So, door hardware seems to be a good place to save money as well.

Note that the common factor where I chose cheap over quality were items that I can replace later (or install later) without impacting anything else. To use a kitchen as an example, I would rather install plywood countertops on top of custom cabinets, because countertops are relatively easily replaced (at least compared with cabinets). Compare this with spending the same money by installing cheap cabinets and granite countertops, I have to remove the granite to get to what's underneath. I would rather cheap on the last items I install than something dependent on other items. Another example would be a less-efficient furnace vs. foam insulation (Icynene or bio-based), the insulation will pay you back every month, the furnace has a finite lifespan and will need replacement 12-15 years from now anyway.

One thing I would caution here is to consider your schedule. Prior to my house build, I was a pretty good DIY kind of person. I always had a home-improvement project underway. After my house build, I was so drained that it took me several years to just get where I wanted to lift another hammer to work on a project here (and I don't even have a hammer, I use pneumatic nailers; but you get the picture).

What examples do you have where "cheap" is a good (and perhaps even preferable) alternative to quality.


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By Kenneth in Lees Summit, MO on 12/3/2009


I thought this topic might generate more discussion ;-(. I have received some private email discussion, and the feedback has been positive, but no new ideas. That said I submit a couple more for your consideration (some I used, others perhaps I could have had I needed to).

I used all decorator series switches (including more than a couple fancy touch-dimmer switches) and decorator-series duplex receptacles (as a side note, all side-wired and not using the quick-wire in the back, which is extra labor). And while an outlet is an outlet functionally, and I am kind of a form-follows-function person, for some reason I have always been enamored with the decorator-series switches and outlets. I just checked Lowe's and verified that in my locale, a single-pole switch is over $2 cheaper each than a decorator-series single-pole switch, and this is a drop in the bucket compared to the touch dimmers. I didn’t check duplex receptacles, three-way switches, or four-way switches, but I assume the cost savings is similar. In past houses, I have upgraded all switches and outlets to decorator series in the course of an afternoon DIY; however I would caution you with electrical work that what you can’t see can hurt you, so be sure to turn off power to those junction boxes before you take the cover off. If I was counting dimes at the end, why did I not cheap out on these? Good question, it is because I had previously purchased large lots from fleaBay previous to actually needing these, so I had already acquired them much earlier in my build (I provided them to my electrician to use). Based on the quantities I had, I even used them in my garage. I sold what I had left over on eBay after I was done, and I sold a pretty large quantity then, as well.

The same way that faucets can be replaced without affecting anything else, light fixtures offer this same opportunity. I spent a good amount of money on light fixtures, and it shows. However I have already replaced some that I really liked with others I liked better. It was kind of an impulse purchase that went, hey, that would look really good in our dining room. I already have one that looks really good in the dining room, but I like that one better, so I bought it. If I knew I was going to upgrade later, I certainly could have saved a couple of bucks on that first one ;-). However I could also upgrade them without impacting anything else.

Another place to save money is on ceiling fans, you can buy cheap or you can spend a ton of money. Because we have always had ceiling fans in the bedroom, I decided I would put in a really nice one because I wanted quiet. While I really wanted only fans with a K55 motor for the master bedroom and the great room, I actually went one step down on the motor size. Everywhere else got nice-grade fans, but nowhere approaching K55 motor fans. These big-motor fans move a ton of air and are whisper-quiet, like silent quiet. Well it turns out that the reason we always have ceiling fans in the bedroom is because my partner likes the “whoosh” noise, it helps her sleep. The big electric motor doesn’t make any noise, so it just doesn’t work for her. Hmmm, I wanted silent ;-). I would suggest that if you intend to use ceiling fans, these are something that can be easily upgraded later as well and that good ones cost significantly more than builder’s grade. If you aren’t putting in ceiling fans today, but you plan to in the future, make sure your electrician knows, so he can provide wiring to control the light and the fan separately (wiring behind sheetrock is a tough retrofit) and that he can adequately brace the fan to secure to the structure itself (big motors such as K55 are heavy, you really don’t want them hanging solely by the junction box). Again this is money saved today that can be easily upgraded later without impacting any other portion of your house.

And actually one I implemented but forgot about; closets. We put a lot of thought into seemingly thousands of details, but one detail we kept putting off was closets. Sure we had them, but how did we want them configured? Have you seen those ads in magazine for those fancy closets? We knew we wanted that, but you still have to have details of what you need here. We had a great walk-in in the master bedroom, but it was just a completely empty space. No hangar rods, no shelves, nothing. We bought some plastic shoe racks and a couple of mobile drying racks to hang clothes. However this gave us time to figure out exactly what we needed, and then how to best configure it. We later purchased modules from IKEA, and the closet today is as nice as any I have seen from vendors at the home show that charge much, much more. Now one might suggest that IKEA is cheap and not quality, but I would suggest that their closet systems are as good as anything sold for much more money. We thought about using our cabinet-maker, but he had an 11-month backlog at that point. However this is still an opportunity where you can do it later, within the realm of reasonable DIY project effort and timeline, and is an end point.

Back to landscaping. Normally they put down sod, but truthfully you can establish a pretty nice yard from seed for considerably less. It is definitely higher maintenance and higher risk of failure, but once established, you will never know. Cutting your exterior landscaping budget (as suggested in my earlier post) may not make your neighbors very happy, but one of my neighbors commented this year on how nicely my landscaping has filled out. It is nice to see they noticed the change, although they probably laughed at some of the sticks I put out and called trees.

Beyond this, I am really at a loss for further ideas where cheap might be preferable over quality. If you notice some of my ideas aren’t necessarily cheap over quality but are flat-out eliminating items you can install later (ERV, zone controller, closet, landscaping). Perhaps if you were really tolerant, you could live without automatic garage-door openers and maybe finish flooring (if you don’t mind the aesthetic of OSB or plywood, but you could certainly install this with only impacting furniture placement)? So while a lot of this is nickels and dimes, just how much savings potential is here? Well just eliminating the HVAC equipment was definitely into four figures, and looking at my lighting and finish electrical (decorator series and touch dimmers) expense that could have been another four figures, and plumbing could easily be another four figures, landscaping another four figures. Hey, $1,000 here, $1,000 there, and pretty soon we are talking real money ;-).

I would recommend that if you choose to sacrifice quality for cost, don’t settle for “cheaper” because you may never actually replace these items and then you get to live with stuff you don’t like. I would go “cheapest” and put it on a schedule for upgrade/replacement and actually budget for these (time and money). Believe me, at the end of your project your budget is very tight, and the appraiser isn’t likely going to notice these finish items and start deducting unless you go hardcore (such as eliminating finish flooring). If my appraiser would have asked, my answer would have been something along the line of "my plumbing fixtures are special order and I didn't order them soon enough, I didn't want to hold my entire project and occupancy based on a handful of fixtures, here are the ones I ordered [show pictures], and in the interim my plumber has provided these temporarily." So, even if arises the rare occasion your appraiser does notice, you have an answer prepared.


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By David in Greenville, SC on 12/3/2009


Hey Kenneth,

I should have replied sooner as I think this is a great post and topic. However, taken strictly on the basis of cheap versus quality, I think you covered most of the things that were easily replaceable. And if not easily replaced at least easy to live with or live without! When thinking along the lines of what could one save big bucks on if need be, well after construction had started, the only two things thing I could think of that you hadn't mentioned was carpet and appliances. If the original plan specified hardwoods and money was tight you could always use carpet throughout initially and replace with hardwoods later. Not as easy a fix as switching out a light fixture to be sure. However, it could be done and the up-front savings could be in the thousands of dollars!

Appliances are another area where significant money could be saved upfront. Maybe you really want that 36" Wolf range but the $6,000 plus price tag is more than your budget can bear. Instead, install a regular 30" GE, Frigidaire, etc... range in a modified sink base cabinet (or just use filler panels) then later on, the cabinet can be removed and the countertop trimmed back to accommodate the new range when you have the cash. Other appliances aren't nearly so much work, but can yield hundreds or thousands in up-front savings. For instance, you can buy a $300 dishwasher initially and then later splurge on that $1,200 model you really wanted.

Of course, all these methods require spending more money overall in the long run. However, when watching every nickel and dime to try afford the home in the first place, it just might mean the difference between finishing the project or running out of money before the end.


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By Rachal in Janesville, CA on 12/4/2009


The vanity I want for my master bath is $1,600. That includes countertop, sink, fixtures and medicine cabinet. I know I could get much cheaper through Home Depot or craigslist. I'm worried that I would never get around to changing it. Do you guys consider bathroom vanities as something that can be replaced later?

Also, there is the issue of "later". The list of DIY projects that I have for later is growing by the day. There is no landscaping budget, and besides the beds I literally have zero furniture for our move-in. At this point, the house is going to own me for a couple of more years. If I pay $1,600 now for the vanity I want, then that extra money will buy me at least one weekend in which I can actually enjoy my house instead of being a slave to it. 

Do you think that there is a price tag that can equal a free weekend? What is that number? Is a couple of days of work worth $200 to $500 savings? I know that $1,000 savings is something I'll give up three or four days for. 

Your thoughts?

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By Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 12/4/2009


Vanities are definitely an item that can be replaced relatively inexpensively as long as you plan the plumbing you want and the space required ahead of time. Some vanities require faucets in the walls. The cheap temporary vanity will certainly have the faucets in the cabinet base. 

While the furniture style "fancy woodwork" vanities have been very popular for the past several years, watch the kitchen-and bath-trends. There is currently a move towards a more "simple" and sleek cabinet style, and fancy woodwork "furniture" cabinets in the kitchen and bath may go out of style soon.

When planning for that "must have" future expensive upgrade, keep in mind whether or not it is "trendy" and if you are sure you will still want it when you can actually afford it.


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By Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 12/4/2009


One place where I am considering going "cheap" is on my kitchen cabinets at the time of construction. In my case, this will not be a waste of resources other than labor. 

When I initially build, I don't plan on finishing the future kitchen in the walk-out basement, or the kitchenette in the above-garage "apartment," or the future bathrooms in these areas. Later, when I can afford to finish these areas, I am considering moving the less-expensive cabinet boxes from the primary kitchen to these "extra" kitchens, and putting my "dream cabinets" in the primary kitchen.

So while it may make sense for most people to go cheap on the countertops and expensive on the cabinet boxes when they build, I may actually go the opposite route. I'll go ahead and get the expensive countertop and use cheap boxes (perhaps IKEA), and then using "free labor", will replace the cheap boxes under my countertop with high-end custom boxes with the silent hinges, pull-out drawers, glass-front doors, and other conveniences and stylish enhancements. I'd then re-use the old cheap boxes to finish the basement and garage kitchens and bathrooms.


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By Kenneth in Lees Summit, MO on 12/10/2009


Therein is one of the cautions I included when going down this path, the list of projects that isn't complete in your "new" house that would be unacceptable if you were buying a spec house or custom house. When people buy "new" houses they aren't looking for projects. I know before my house was completed, I had a target (get my Certificate of Occupancy) and I had incentive (I had another house that needed selling, and two house payments is an obvious drain on your finances). However, once I moved in, my projects accomplished pretty much went to zero. You are tired at the end of this, it was a full-time job in addition to the one I already held.

A vanity is an easy replacement though. There are several topics on floor before cabinetry or finish floor after cabinetry on this site, and there are valid opinions on both sides. If you intend to replace your vanity, I recommend you fall on the finish-floor-before-cabinetry side of the fence. Also, for projects I made the sacrifice for cheap (such as my closet), I might put in a vanity or couple of shelves made out of scrap OSB from my build job; I found when I had nothing, I tended to place those items higher on my priority for fixing (replacing) later.

I have lived here four years, and still have some projects I am working on. I probably have at least one or two more years before I get to completion. As an example, my eating bar in the kitchen is OSB and I have a slab of 3' x 12' solid-surface countertop still on a pallet in the garage. The OSB was intended to be a template, and I wanted to try a couple of different shapes and dimensions. I have settled on the one I want, but I just haven't fabricated the solid surface to this shape yet, and now that it's winter this definitely doesn't happen until next spring or summer. Now how many people would live this long with an incomplete kitchen?


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By Jeff in Hartland, WI on 12/13/2009


Great thread!

I agree that landscaping is something you can put off. But some will build in pre-established neighborhoods where the neighbors have gone overboard on landscaping. We happened to fall into that category. We put the lawn in late in the year (Labor Day), and it came in great. Our landscaping plan shows a number of beds, but we only prepared those in the front of the house. We figured we would leave them empty until next year. But then we saw the season-end sales at local nurseries. By the end of October around here, nurseries are clearing out anything they have left in stock at 75% off. So we put in about 50 perennials, shrubs, and even a couple of small trees for $500. Stock was fairly limited, but everything still has the normal warranty. 

Closets are another area to save some serious cash. You can outfit a house full of closets with a shelf and a pole pretty cheaply. But we wanted better storage space, so we chose to build our own units out of melamine shelving. Not as polished as California Closets, but who cares? They're closets.

If you're really a glutton for punishment, mill your own trim. I bought 2,800 board feet of rough cherry at a local sawmill, and milled all of our trim myself in the basement beneath the garage. Savings? Probably at least 75%.

Jeff

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By Joe in Hermiston, OR on 12/15/2009


Jeff,

Did you say "basement beneath the garage"? How does that work? I'm thinking 'serious' hillside. Just curious. I've got a hillside lot I'm planning to build on in a couple of years and am always looking for new ideas. Thanks

Joe

   


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By Kenneth in Lees Summit, MO on 12/15/2009


Suspended slab, much like a parking garage, only on a lot smaller scale. Call a structural engineer; around here you won't get a building permit on this without a stamp. I have seen it used several times in residential applications, none on sloped lots where it would make the most sense.

One house that had suspended slab had 10,000+ finished s.f., completely unfinished basement (another 5K+ sf potential), $2M. I guess the extra dollars to say you "could" finish the basement under the garage was important? I might suggest that for $2M you start to not care about details and how much they might cost. Actually though, this house was a case study in how GCs might cut costs vs. quality:

1) 400-amp service. Don't look too closely though, as it's aluminum and not copper coming into the panel. And count the number of circuits, two big 40-panel commercial boxes, but each one was less than half full. I have more circuits for 25% of the total square footage.

2) Great countertops, cheap boxes. Commercial-looking appliances, but I wonder how many circuits came into the kitchen for countertop appliances? Given the total number, I am guessing few.

3) Minimum level of forced-air furnace and AC, no upgrades for efficiency. Five of each; you might think a monthly electric bill on a house this size would be substantial (I can only guess). I found my HVAC tech was willing to upgrade to 90+ furnaces for the same installed price because he could direct-vent them, and thus reduce his labor. I s'pose the GC used a different HVAC tech. Five zones of HVAC might sound good, but the airflow rates to ensure consistent temperature across the individual zones didn't happen.

4) 2x4 stick framing, fiberglass insulation. Wow, $2M and you get 2x4 stick framing and standard R-13 insulation?!?!?!

5) Open the service closets (not all of the HVAC equipment was in the basement), and the drywall was hung, not taped, not finished, not painted. Come on now, how much more "cheap" did you hide behind the drywall?

6) One (yes one) 40-gallon HWH.

7) Every column in the basement had to have the concrete slab torn out to place a footer for the column. The concrete was replaced. I would think a skim coat across the top so that this error was covered up might be in order, but I guess people buying $2M probably would finish the basement anyway and not see this glaring omission (that was later corrected).

8) The designer clearly did not read Better Houses, Better Living, as I identified literally dozens of livability items that would make the house so much better, most at no cost. 

9) This buys you $2M of spec. There are a lot of lessons to learn about how to cut costs when looking at spec houses. Sure was pretty though, but pretty was only skin deep.

 


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By Jeff in Hartland, WI on 12/21/2009


Hi Joe,

Ken is right. It is a suspended slab, similar to what you would see in a parking garage. I bought "pre-cast, pre-stressed, hollow-core planks" from a local company named Spancrete. Here's a brochure that describes the system pretty well. The cost for the planks was about $10 per sq foot of the garage. Engineering, including the stamped plans, is included in the cost. The foundation walls were poured 10' tall, 12" thick, with a ledge for the concrete planks. Once the foundation cured, Spancrete delivered the panels, set them in place with a crane, and "grouted" between the planks with concrete. I had the roofers lay some rubber roofing material over the planks, covered that with 2" foam insulation panels, and then had the concrete guys pour a 4" slab on top of the insulation.

It's the cheapest square footage I have in the house. The planks cost about $10 per square foot. When I add the cost of the waterproofing, insulation panels, extra slab for the workshop floor, and additional concrete for the foundation walls, the total cost for the workshop goes to about $20 per square foot. For me, it meant an extra 930 square feet for less than $20,000.

I added a couple of pictures to this post: one of the panels being placed, and the other of the (almost) completed workshop. I've had three cars parked in the garage for several months now: no cracks or any other noticeable sign of stress have appeared.

Jeff


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By Joe in Hermiston, OR on 12/25/2009


Thanks Jeff and Ken,

      This sounds like just what I was looking for.

Joe

 


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