Skip to main content
No. 41, Spring 2003

Figuring the Hidden Costs in Your Building Plans

By Chris Magwood and Peter MackAugust 29, 2013May 11th, 2022One Comment
This article is an excerpt from the book Straw Bale Building: How to Plan, Design and Build with Straw (New Society Publishers, 2000), and is reprinted with permission.
mistingHitting a Moving Target. There is never a single point during the planning process when you can fix an exact budget for your project. Once your plans near completion, however, you have a chance to use them as a guide for estimating both materials and labor costs.
If you find you have missed your budget target by a significant amount, you will have to go back to your plans and start making adjustments. This can be disheartening, but it is better to catch such a problem early than to run out of money before there’s a roof over your head! You may be able to adjust costs without changing your plans, if you commit yourself to finding cheaper materials and hiring less labor. If you do change your plans to reduce costs, don’t forget to work in planning that will allow you to bring your building back to its originally planned size later.
You may discover that you have apparently created plans that will allow you to build for less than what you budgeted. Congratulations! This is every homebuilder’s dream.  Don’t change your plans, however.  When the project is over, you’ll be able to spend a bit more on detailing, furnishing, and landscaping.
It Always Costs More than You Think. The building project that is completed without going over-budget is rare. Your plans will allow you to create a budget estimate, but there will always be unforeseen costs, delays, and problems that will require extra cash to solve. Leave yourself with plenty of budgetary breathing room so you can deal with the inevitable. Try to reserve at least 10 percent of your total calculated budget to cover unforeseen costs.
Pre-construction Costs. The pre-construction costs of your project will not be evident from your plans. These include the price of property, interest on your property payments, building permit fees, driveway allowances, access roads, septic permits, service and utility hook-up and municipal development fees and taxes. Depending on where you are building, these fees can total several thousand dollars and take quite a bite out of your actual construction budget. Wells, septic systems, service entrances, and the excavation/groundwork must all be completed before you actually begin construction and will take another bite out of your budget.

Do you have a misting pump (above), a weed-whacker (right), or enough trowels and wheelbarrows for that big plastering party? If not, better add another $500 to your budget!

Other Hidden Costs. Before you start taking count of the dollars needed for materials and labor, don’t forget to consider other hidden costs you may need to cover.  The purchase and/or rental of tools can add up to a significant budget factor.  Working without the right tools is frustrating and slow, so think your way through the construction process and make a list of what you’ll need. From shovels and picks for digging to carpentry tools and plastering trowels, the list will be extensive and expensive. Keep a bit of your budget set aside for unforeseen specialty tools you’ll need to buy or rent. For specialized tasks– plumbing, wiring, heating, roofing, concrete form work, etc.– weigh the cost of acquiring or renting the appropriate tools and equipment against the costs of hiring labor.  It may be more economical to hire labor.
Storage. Any building project can involve lots of ‘tarping up’ to cover materials from the elements. This can be especially true for straw-bale projects. Invest in enough good quality tarps to cover the walls of the building and the mounds of straw.
Power. Depending on the availability of grid power at your site, you may require a generator for your power needs. Check the costs of purchase and rental to see which is the better option.
whackerTransportation. If you are building yourself, you might find it beneficial to own a truck, van, or trailer that can be used to pick up and move materials. Such vehicles can be sold when you no longer require them, but you will need money to purchase, license, insure, and service them.
Toilets. Unless you are building in a well-serviced area, you will need some sort of on-site toilet. You can rent serviced units, or you can build an outhouse. Rental toilets are convenient and are removed when you are finished with them. They can also be expensive if the project is a long one. An outhouse requires an early outlay of time and money, but you get some building practice, and an outhouse is not a bad back-up facility to have in case of plumbing disasters in the future!
Work clothing. You will need proper clothing.  Buy good safety boots—spend extra for comfortable, well-fitting boots, gloves, and maybe a hard hat. If you are working in an inclement climate, warm and/or waterproof clothes will make a big difference to your ability to work efficiently.  Construction will wreak havoc on your clothing, so buy quality clothes or plenty of cheap, second hand stuff.
Insurance. Construction insurance covers your project in case of mishaps. Rates can vary tremendously, so get a number of quotes, and be sure you are covered for the risks that concern you most–fire, accident, damage from wind, rain, etc.
Sales tax. Don’t forget the tax man. Sales taxes can add a significant percentage to both material and labor costs. Don’t just total up pre-tax costs!
Cost of living. If you are doing your own building, don’t forget to include your cost of living while you are building. Rent and food must be covered, as will all your regular bills. If you are taking time off work to build, these expenses can take quite a bite out of your budget.
An Inexact Science. Unfortunately, budgeting is an inexact science. It is impossible to account for every contingency and glitch that may arise. The further afield you move from conventional construction, the more variables enter your budgeting equations. The only certain advice is spend plenty of time figuring out your budget, and leave lots of room for error.

Leave a Reply

The Alternative Journal of Design and Construction for Dirtbags and Dreamers
Since 1992