Here’s How Much Money You Need to Build Your Dream Home

Updated May 28, 2021

Many people consider homeownership to be part of the American Dream. If your dream goes one step further — you want to build the house you’ll own — then it’s important to understand how much money it costs to build a house.

There are plenty of reasons to build a new house, rather than buy an existing one. To start, everything will be new, from the carpets to the sinks to the dishwasher. And you can influence the design so your house is just as you envision it.

“Our best customers, this is something they’ve been thinking about for a long time,” says Chad Hackmann, partner at Alair Homes Arlington, which provides custom-built homes and renovations in the Arlington, Virginia, area.

Plus, with existing-home inventory low and the median price of existing single-family homes nearing $330,000, according to April 2021 data from the National Association of Realtors (NAR), it might seem cheaper to do it yourself.

In certain situations, it could be less costly to build than to buy. So how much does it cost to build a house? According to HomeAdvisor, the average cost to build a new home in 2021 is $297,953. The U.S. Census Bureau puts the cost higher, at an average of $397,800, and the National Association of Home Builders’ (NAHB) figure is higher still, at $485,128.

Your precise cost will vary depending on factors like the region where you want to live, the square footage you have in mind, and the materials used to build. There’s also a price difference between a custom home and a production build, where developers have planned subdivisions with various lots and floor plans to choose from.

Let’s dive into the details.

Thinking of building a house?

Find a top agent near you who can help.

A team of people that can help you build a house.
Source: (Charles Forerunner / Unsplash)

Getting your team together

Jon Ahern, a real estate agent in San Francisco’s Bay Area, often works with clients who are tearing down properties to make room for new construction — an approach that can have significant tax benefits that make it easier to afford a new house, he says.

Regardless of your approach, here’s his top advice for people looking to build: “hook up with the right real estate agent.”

You should work with an agent who has experience guiding clients through the building process, says Ahern. Not every agent has that unique perspective, he notes.

“A good real estate agent is going to be able to refer you to good, trustworthy vendors,” such as reputable builders, he says.

“That’s part of my job for the last 20-plus years, to find the best people to refer my clients to.”

The home builder your agent connects you with should be able to walk you through the expected costs and timeline in detail. Your agent can also work with you to identify suitable vacant lots or tear-down opportunities.

Cost varies by region

Region is one of the biggest cost factors in building your own home. Just as it would cost more to buy an average house in San Francisco than in St. Cloud, Minnesota, the same goes for building a house in different regions of the country. According to 2019 U.S. Census Bureau data for new single-family homes, the average sale price per square foot was $169.39 in the Northeast, $154.10 in the West region, $106.68 in the South and $114.13 in the Midwest.

For his clients in the Bay Area, Ahern says building costs in 2021 are about $400 per square foot. That doesn’t include the land or ancillary costs, such as hooking up to utilities, drainage, or grading, which could add up to $200,000 for a flat lot.

It’s important to pay close attention to those ancillary costs. For example, if you’re building in a rural area, you may need to consider the price of installing a septic system or sewer hookup, propane for heating, and how much concrete you’ll need to connect your property to the road.

Also, consider local regulations, as residential construction restrictions vary by city, county, and state. Check out the land rules and regulations before embarking on construction. An agent can help with this, too.

Designing a dream home vs. a developed one

It can be enticing to build a custom home on your ideal lot and with a personalized floor plan, but it’s cheaper to go with a developed lot, where you can still have that unlived-in charm. In fact, it can save you up to 15%, according to HomeAdvisor.

It can also save you time, energy, and stress, says Ahern, emphasizing the “stress” part.

“You’re having a well-known — whether it’s a small local builder or a national builder — provide you a brand new house,” he says. “You get a one-year warranty on most items in the house, and then you get a 10-year warranty on structural items. Those are big benefits.”

To design your floor plan for a custom home, hiring an architect will cost about $5,000. However, you can save a bit by working with a draftsperson instead, which will cost around $1,800.

A rough breakdown of the overall costs of building a home will look like this: Expect 30% to 60% of your costs to go to labor, 30% to 50% to go to materials, and 10% to 25% to go toward administrative, design, and permit costs.

The kitchen you build in your custom dream house.
Source: (Sidekix Media / Unsplash)

Expensive taste means a more expensive home

In Hackmann’s experience, people who want to build their own home tend to enjoy the process. “You build your own house because you want exactly what you want, and you want it in a certain way,” he says. Maybe the size of the windows is important to you, or you want to position the kitchen so it catches the morning sun.

Your interior and exterior finishes will have a huge impact on your budget when constructing your dream home.

Foundation

The average cost to install a foundation is $8,200. While a simple slab is on the lower end, if you want to create a basement (to potentially furnish later), costs increase with more material, reinforcement with rebar, and additional excavation.

Framing

Building your house into your desired shape, a process called framing, costs about $20,000 to $50,000. Since framing often requires wood, keep in mind that lumber prices have been soaring since April 2020, a trend that could make this aspect of the home building cost continue to rise.

Finishes and fixtures

Dreaming of granite countertops for your kitchen? This high-end option will come at a premium cost ($40 to $100 per square foot). Choosing hardwood flooring ($4 to $6 per square foot) will also cost you. Keep these aesthetics in mind when it comes to your budget, especially if you are concerned about resale value.

Type of roof

A new roof typically costs $8,309 to install, but these prices go up if you want options beyond the traditional asphalt.

Thinking about adding solar panels to your new roof? Budget about $20,000 after tax credits.

Appliances

Your new house will also need new appliances, like a refrigerator, dishwasher and washer/dryer. If it’s your first time buying large appliances, it’s a good idea to check out price ranges so you can add these items to your calculations.

Key Systems

It’s not as exciting as choosing countertops or paint colors, but don’t forget about the key systems your home will need. A new HVAC can cost anywhere from $1,650 to $11,000. As for electricity, the average cost to wire a new home is $2 to $4 per square foot. Plumbing is another big line item. New construction plumbing costs can range from $8,000 to $12,000. For each system, your home’s total square footage will be a key factor in determining your overall costs.

Additional features

Maybe you’re interested in personalizing your house? A 10-by-10 deck costs about $2,200, on average. Want a pool? That’ll cost on average $35,000. Need landscaping help? Depending on how much landscaping work your property requires, this cost can range widely, from $1,000 to $40,000 or even more. These features also have additional upkeep costs that need to be considered.

A small house you can build.
Source: (Niklas Tidbury on Unsplash)

Square footage impacts cost

According to the 2019 Construction Cost survey by the NAHB, the average construction cost of a typical single-family home was $114 per square foot. The average new-construction home size is 2,594 square feet, and the total average construction cost is $296,652.

But here’s an important note. Building the house is just one part of your overall costs. You also need to consider the finished lot cost, financing, overhead, marketing, sales commission, and profit. On average, that adds up to a total sales price of $485,128 for a new home in the NAHB’s survey, which bumps the price per square footage up to $187.

How does that break down for the square footage you have in mind?

On average, it will cost you:

  • $187,000 to build a 1,000-square-foot home
  • $280,500 to build a 1,500-square-foot home
  • $374,000 to build a 2,000-square-foot home
  • $467,500 to build a 2,500-square-foot home
  • $561,000 to build a 3,000-square-foot home
  • $654,500 to build a 3,500-square-foot home
  • $748,000 to build a 4,000-square-foot home

Also, keep in mind that building a new house takes much more time than buying an existing one, so you’ll need to make sure you have a place to stay during the building process. From finding the land to breaking ground to finalizing the interior, Hackmann says to figure at least a year. In the Bay Area, Ahern says the timeline is more like 22 months.

“If time is a critical factor in your decision process, then building a house is not for you,” Hackmann says.  

What you can afford with your budget

The nice thing about building your own house is you don’t have to adhere to someone else’s vision. You’re in charge! And that means you can be creative in finding ways to keep your costs down. Here are approaches for every budget:

If your budget is under $100,000

Tiny is big these days! Even Ikea has gotten into the tiny house business. Having someone build a tiny home for you costs about $27,000 to $46,000 — but you can build one yourself for less.

These dwellings typically sit on trailers, so they are mobile. Tiny houses are generally considered to be less than 600 square feet.

You do need to find or rent the land to place them and meet the building codes of that area, but they are an affordable option.

However, if you want higher-end materials and luxury appliances or want to further customize, tiny homes can run up to $150,000, as seen in the ones built by Tiny Heirloom and featured on HGTV’s Tiny Luxury.

If your budget is under $150,000

If you don’t want to go tiny, you can still save money by going small. Small houses are about 1,000 square feet and cost about $125,000 to build.

These homes typically consist of two small bedrooms and a living space. They may also have one bedroom, with roomier common areas or bathroom space, or three small bedrooms. The exact cost and what you can get will vary depending on the region where you’re building, as well as the materials and labor costs.

Another affordable option is a pole-barn house — a barn-like structure supported by poles driven into the ground. As with any house, the price will vary greatly depending on size and location, but you can expect a pole-barn house to cost roughly $113,000. That includes the house itself ($60,000), plus other costs like plumbing, permits, and electricity. The total doesn’t include labor, however.

Another idea that could work with your budget: shipping container homes. Yes, shipping containers are not just used for transporting goods on ships, trucks, and trains; now, they’re being used as trendy — if a bit blocky — homes for people looking to occupy a smaller footprint. Basic homes can run from $10,000 to $35,000, while larger homes may run closer to the $100,000 to $175,000 range.

If your budget is under $200,000

On average, you can build a modern home of about 1,000 to 2,000 square feet with this budget. This equates to a one- to four-bedroom home, which can cost as little as $90,000 (but up to $500,000). So much depends on how you use the square footage you can afford!

If your budget is under $300,000

You can get up to 3,000 square feet of construction with this budget. A three-bedroom home would fit into this budget, as the average cost is between $180,000 and $400,000 to build, or you could bump up the high-end appliances and finishes on a two-bedroom home.

Another option is a modular home, a type of living space that comes pre-assembled. These homes typically cost about $100 to $200 per square foot, which translates to an average of $270,000 for an 1,800-square-foot home.

If your budget is under $400,000

For this budget, you could build a four-bedroom home, which typically costs $200,000 to $500,000, or up to 4,000 square feet.

If your budget is under $500,000

With a budget of half a million dollars, you can more comfortably construct a four-bedroom home, or up to 5,000 square feet. Or you could go for a smaller home with more luxury — think granite countertops, hardwood floors, and high-end appliances.

If your budget is under $1 million

With this cushy budget, you have a lot to work with. This is where you can construct a 5,000-square-foot home or a luxurious smaller home with aspirational flooring, design, cabinets, and appliances in a more expensive region of the United States.

A scale used to decide whether to build or buy a house.
Source: (Piret Ilver / Unsplash)

Is it cheaper to build or buy a home?

If you’re experiencing sticker shock as you peruse available houses, it’s not just you. Existing-home sales have reached a historic high of $329,100 in March 2021, according to the NAR.

But more than likely, the cost of building your own home will be even higher.

“Right now, I would say it’s probably more expensive to build,” says Ahern.

The average sales price for a newly built home sits at $485,128, according to the NAHB. The U.S. Census Bureau’s March 2021 numbers are a bit more competitive, with the average sales price at $397,800 (and a median at $330,800).

One way prospective homeowners can control costs is to have a fixed contract with the builder, so if the price of materials continues to go up, the consumer won’t see the impact, Ahern says.

But if you’re looking to build, factors like quality, newness, and design may rank above cost on your priority list. After all, it’s hard to put a price on that feeling of knowing you’re the home’s first owner — and that you brought it to life.

Whether you’re looking to build custom or on a developed lot, or if you’d like to buy an existing home, a top-ranked agent can help you.

Header Image Source: (R ARCHITECTURE / Unsplash)