Almost everyone that is considering building a custom home today asks the question:

“How much does it cost per square foot?”


Our response is “what is a square foot?”


As custom builders our work, and the cost of our work, is not described exclusively in finished square feet but instead by the details, finishes, complexity and components that are not included in finished square foot measurements. Examples include porches, garages, unfinished basements or vaulted ceilings.


As building designers, however, we need some idea of cost per square foot so that our new design will better match the project’s budget goals.   We use the “factored square foot method” to try and answer the cost question while in the design phase.


Imagine a one-story home that has 2,000 finished square feet.  It is built on a slab or over a crawl space, and has 8’ flat ceilings, no garage, no porches, and a truss roof without an attic that could become finished space. Compare this home to another that also has 2,000 finished square feet. But the second home has a full walk-out unfinished basement, a Timberpeg greatroom with exposed timber rafters vaulted to the roofline, a wrap-around porch, an attached two car garage, and a large unfinished attic with dormers that’s ready to become a spare bedroom in the future. Both homes have 2,000 square feet finished, but they are very different construction projects, and will have very different costs to build.

Here are two examples of recent projects. Each began design using the Factored Square Foot estimate and the eventual contract cost landed in the mid-range of Cost per FSF:



We use fractional multipliers to describe areas that require work, and add to building cost, but that are not considered finished, conditioned square feet.  The result is the Project Square Feet or Factored Square Feet.

This number is a better measurement of what the house will actually cost .


This method of estimating is not intended to be an exact science but is a good predictor of total job cost. Once the project is designed then S&R will provide a detailed line-by-line estimate to establish the actual cost to build based on the final specifications and details selected by the owners.


Today we find that a quality custom home designed and built by S&R starts at about $180 per factored square foot (if there is significant finished area in a walk-out basement) and can easily exceed $250 per factored square foot, or more, depending on the features a finishes.




What makes one project cost $180 per factored square foot while another is $250? Mostly its features, finishes, and specifications, but it can also be design complexity. Simpler houses with fewer corners and uncomplicated roofs usually cost less. Houses with a significant finished terrace (walk-out basement) level will typically be at the lowest range of cost.  Larger houses almost always cost less per factored square foot than smaller houses because there is an economy of scale in custom building – houses only have one kitchen, one well pump, one driveway, etc.  regardless of whether they are 1,500 square feet or 5,000 square feet.



From $180 to $210  EXPECT:

High quality, low U-factor windows such as Marvin Integrity, Jeld-Wen Siteline or Anderson 400 series – all are wood frame windows with low maintenance exterior cladding.

2x6 Wall construction with a green building certified Grade 1 level insulation and sealing package

Lifetime warranty GAF or equal roof shingles

Poured concrete or superior wall foundations, insulated according to NGBS guidelines

Enhanced foundation waterproofing practices

Engineered floor joists and durable resource efficient sheathing materials

Pre-finished fiber cement siding

Solid hardwood flooring in the main living areas with carpet for bedrooms and LVT for baths

Solid wood kitchen cabinets with level 1 granite tops

Solid core hardboard interior doors with Emtek  hardware and nicely profiled trim.

15 SEER, or above, heat pump system properly designed for comfort and efficiency

Fireplace (wood or gas) with attractive detailing

Wired for technology including user-ready wifi throughout the house and a basic security system

Exterior porches incorporating pressure treated materials and attractive detailing



From $210 to $250  EXPECT All of the above plus

Enhanced fenestration specifications

Upgraded insulation system using spray-in-place foam and sound isolation throughout

Upgraded finish roofing specifications

Stucco, stone, brick or cedar shingle siding for portions of the exterior

Upgraded kitchen with semi-custom cabinets,  Level 3 countertops and high-end appliances

Solid wood or MDF interior doors

Solid wood flooring throughout the house with ceramic tile at all baths

Upgraded interior trim details including expansive mouldings and wainscot paneling

TIMBERPEG construction for portions of the house

Dual-fuel or Geothermal HVAC system with multiple zones

Fireplaces in multiple locations with upgrade detailing

Upgraded light fixture and plumbing fixture budgets

Upgraded security system features including cameras and intercom

Central vacuum and other upraded low-voltage systems such as surround sound and home theater

Upgraded porch and deck detailing using masonry, synthetic or exotic wood decking


Over $250  EXPECT All of the above plus

Even better quality for all specifications and fixtures

TIMBERPEG throughout the house if desired

Radiant floor heating or more sophisticated HVAC system

Metal, cedar shake, or synthetic slate roof

Custom cabinetry and more built-ins

Custom closet interiors

Larger budgets for plumbing, electrical, and other fixtures.

Lightning protection and other specialty systems including photovoltaic solar, smart-house technology, or elevator.

Stucco, stone, brick or cedar shingle siding for the entire exterior

More design complexity and more complex roof systems




The features and options listed above are just a sampling to give an idea of what to expect in a given price range. In reality, a custom home is a series of trade-offs that maintain the budget. Almost no one’s budget is large enough to get everything on their wish list. By prioritizing the features that are really important, and knowing how much they cost, an owner can pick and choose the features that will make their home special and still reach their budget goals.

© 2017 Hypefire Marketing/Smith & Robertson

1128 East High Street Charlottesville, VA 22902  434-971-7026

2018 Smith and Robertson, Inc.