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Cutting Costs in Home Building Budgets

Your home-building budget may have shrunk in the past 12 months. But you can still get the home you want while spending less.

No one wants to scale back his or her dream, but there may be a way to get most of what you really want despite your thin wallet. We recently asked Mike Stone, a longtime Virginia-based builder and owner of Old Dominion Custom Homes (odchomes.com), about scaling back without losing your home’s beauty, character and efficiency.

Q: If homeowners have to scale back their budgets, which areas should they absolutely not scrimp on when it comes to building materials?

You shouldn't scale back on elements that have a lingering cost effect, including a heating system, windows and doors. For example, while a cheaper heating system may save money in the short term, a less-efficient system continues to cost you every time it's switched on. I'd also be careful about skimping on materials that get lots of use, including countertops, floors, appliances and fixtures.

Q: Wow, that's a big — and expensive — list. So where can homeowners save?

Some of the best places: outside the house, including landscaping, concrete patios and slabs, and even stonework — I'd use manufactured stone for the latter. These areas are easy to postpone and finish within a few years. The same is true with finishing your basement, which is still the cheapest square footage you can build. It can be put on hold and finished at a later date without major inconvenience. Just make sure to have your builder rough-in areas for plumbing. You also can save a ton of money on lighting fixtures. Purchase less costly options now — including pendants in your kitchen or a chandelier for the great room — and swap them out in the years ahead.

Q: What about hearths? Is this an area where homeowners can save?

You know, everyone thinks hearths have huge price tags — they don't. Homeowners can now buy some amazing freestanding hearths, fireplace-insert options, as well as wood-burning and pellet stoves. Just make sure to use manufactured or thin-veneer stone around your fireplace. You'll save a fortune. We've also noticed another trend: not installing a fireplace at all and opting to invest the money saved in a more efficient heating system, such as geothermal or radiant heat.

Q: What area of the home comes with the highest price tag that can be scaled back easily?

That's an easy one: the kitchen. Cabinets, especially if they're custom, will take an enormous bite from your budget. I'd opt for semi-custom, and some stock options aren't bad if you have a creative builder. You also have to ask yourself if you really need the latest-and-greatest kitchen gadgets; their cost can add up in a hurry. That said, don't neglect storage!

Q: Are there any trends in material prices that are worth watching?

Good news: Prices for construction materials have been fairly steady over the past six months. However, the feeling is that material costs will climb again as soon as demand begins to rise. This may be especially true for lumber. I'm biased, of course, but now is a great time to build.

Q: Any innovations in materials that homeowners should keep an eye on?

Frankly, the innovations are fast and furious — one of my favorites is EcoStar roofing, which is a synthetic slate made of recycled plastic. My team is also excited about GlassPoint drywall, which is made completely from recycled materials.

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