HOW MUCH???!!! (An architect’s guide to expensive construction)

Two remodeled kitchens, side by side — same size, virtually same layout. One kitchen cost $35K to remodel, the other a whopping $175K. What causes some projects to get so expensive?

To a very large extent, dear reader, YOU do. (Well, assuming you’re a homeowner doing a construction project.)

A huge percentage of the variation is due to specific client choices: flooring (sheet vinyl vs. hardwood with multiple layers of polyurethane finish, perhaps with a delicate inlaid border), the cabinets (Home Depot vs. a custom “furniture grade”), the countertops (Formica vs. granite slabs with a detailed edge), the appliances (Sears vs. Sub-Zero), the light fixtures, the wall finishes, the intricacy of the crown and baseboard moldings, the quality of the windows, etc. You get the point. But these examples are only a small portion of the many choices you’ll make.

Then there is your choice of contractor. Let’s face it;  some contractors are just more expensive than others. Sometimes for good reasons, other times not.

For one recent kitchen and bath remodeling project I designed, the clients had gotten one bid of $140K and two bids of $130K. They were convinced that I had overdesigned the project for their $80K budget, until I suggested a contractor who gave them a price of $75K — and did a great job! (No, don’t bother asking me for his name.) The price differences aren’t always so extreme, but are surprising far more often than you would ever guess. On larger projects, I’ve seen variations in the hundreds of thousands of dollars from equally competent contractors.

There are many reasons for prices between contractors to be significantly different that have nothing to do with quality. Overhead costs can vary tremendously. (One person working out of home vs. large staff in fancy offices.) Some contractors are simply more efficient at certain types of projects and can do them almost in their sleep. (I’ve read of a large outfit specializing in bath remodelings that can do them in just ONE DAY!) Another major factor is a contractor’s willingness to “shop around” the subcontractor costs. (Some contractors just take the one price from their tried-and-true sub, who in some cases might be quite expensive.)

There are times when you might want a finicky, painstakingly careful and correspondingly expensive contractor, and other times when this just isn’t the right match for the job. One of your major tasks is fitting the appropriate contractor to the job.

You also could be contributing the high cost of your project by making excessive changes during construction, or by not having made all of the major decisions before starting. Contractors who have to guess at prices will invariably guess high.

When clients want to know at the first meeting how much their kitchen remodeling is going to cost (“You know, just an average kitchen.”) I have now trained myself not to roll my eyes. Until more of the design evolves and decisions have been made, this is a hopeless game. I patiently try to explain that this is like asking, “How much does a car cost?” The only real answer is, “It depends…” meaning — it depends on YOU.

4 Replies to “HOW MUCH???!!! (An architect’s guide to expensive construction)”

  1. Great words of wisdom here. I can hear myself saying the “average kitchen” line myself! And I wish I could have that $75K contractor’s name, but I think you’re sworn to secrecy. Maybe he’s in the witness protection program!

    1. And another valuable contribution that design professionals can make to their clients is a tried and true list of resources!

  2. I just noticed your class @ De Anza College was last Saturday. I am desperately in need of help in making my 2nd fl MV condo into an easy care unit after six years of battling cancer as recently as 1/19/12. After years of being in business and treating clients with the utmost respect, I find dealing with contractors, etc. disappointing. Are you having a class in the near future or something equivalent to a class. Thank you for your attention to my problem. Maria
    PS for health reasons I may have to leave (rent a property) during remodelling.

  3. I think it is insane to pay more than 5k for a bathroom renovation. 75k for kitchen and bathroom? No thanks but thanks, I prefer renting. Also, many of these expensive bathroom projects look odd, i.e. nice tiles etc. and a regular exposed toilet bowl. In Europe no one uses such archaic designs – all toilet bowls are hidden in the wall.

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