Cut Costs, Not Quality
10 Tips Help Keep Client Budgets in Line with Needs and Wants

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Uh-oh. You've completed the project-cost worksheet, providing exacting estimates for your client's needs, wants, and specs. You add up the total, and it doesn't bear much resemblance to the budget.

When the budget isn’t big enough for what your client wants to do, don’t despair. By offering creative, thoughtful suggestions and recommendations, you can maintain quality, help them achieve their goals, and create happy, loyal clients. Whether you’re a general contractor with a plethora of subs or a lone subcontractor, these 10 tips can often make big differences in the outcome of your project.
  1. Go back to the beginning. Ideally, much of the best cost cutting takes place in the design phase. Savings made in design will be huge compared to savings later on, when you can cut only relatively small items.

    Whether a contractor works with a designer, is part of a design/build firm, or comes into the project after the design is complete, it pays to pay attention to design. Architects often can design complex ways to make a room or building look a certain way, yet one small change—often a construction-oriented change—can mean a significant difference in the cost to construct the project.

    Learn to carefully analyze the design and common items that can make or break a budget. For example, if the original design calls for stick framing a roof, small changes could allow for use of roof trusses instead. Result: lower lumber and labor costs (while achieving the same type of roof).

    Whenever there is an opportunity, ask your clients to involve you in the design phase, emphasizing the potential cost advantages. And if you do come in after the fact, go through the design carefully before starting to build. If you find things you may be able to build more simply—without changing the design intent—talk with your client and bring up the proposed solution. As with most communications in business, bringing up issues in a cooperative, positive manner—with proposed solutions—will make everyone happier.

  2. Do it later. Figure out which things must be done now and which things can be done over time. For walls, the client might be able to live with white paint now and embark on multiple colors and finishes later. For floor coverings, you could install carpet now and do more expensive tile work later on. If your clients can find carpet they like at home improvement centers, they can trim carpet budgets 30-40%. For wood floors, using pre-finished flooring instead of finished-in-place hardwood can cut 20-30%.

    On a larger scope, determine if there are any parts of the project that do not need to be completely finished and can be done at a later date. These might include a basement, spare bedroom, or deck.

  3. Stock it. If your client can go with off-the-shelf cabinetry, total cost often will be at least half the amount of custom cabinetry. Even in a small kitchen, special-order cabinets easily can amount to $20,000, whereas off-the-shelf products could be $8,000. The same rule of thumb applies to countertops. Think creatively for counters, too: granite tile will produce savings on the order of 40-50% compared to solid granite, even including the cost of additional labor required to install the tile.

  4. Stay straight. Avoid angles and curves, inside or out. When budget is an issue, staying away from these labor-intensive efforts can make a sizable difference--savings of almost 50%. Typically, it is possible to create a visually interesting room or space without angles or curves.

  5. Texturize. Using orange peel or knockdown texture, instead of smooth or custom, will save about 20% on the drywall budget.

  6. Get centered. Providing space for mechanical, HVAC, plumbing, and electrical systems is sometimes a design issue but is often up to the general contractor to figure out in the building process. Centralize mechanical systems and provide chases for HVAC, plumbing, and electrical. By running all of these systems through one central chase (hidden open space), you’ll expend much less in labor for all the trades.

  7. Can the lights. Homeowners can trim the electrical budget 10-20% by opting for one central light fixture in a room vs. several recessed cans. This alternative can be especially helpful in bedrooms.

  8. Keep a high profile. Save high-quality finishes such as granite slab, granite tile, mosaic tile, and crown moldings for the “impact” areas of the home. These usually would be the more-public rooms such as the entryway, kitchen, and dining room.

  9. Finish it up front. Similar to what you can do inside, concentrate expensive exterior finishes on the front of the house and put lap siding on the rest of the home. Lap siding can represent a savings of 50-60% compared to stone, brick, and some stuccos.

  10. Go underground. For residential work in many parts of the country, remember that a basement is a good value. This is one place not to cut costs in favor of a crawlspace. Especially in colder climates, where you’ll need to set the foundation four feet below ground, it makes even more sense to go ahead and create a basement.
Not every tip will work for every situation, but by utilizing these where you can, you’ll likely find that both you and your client will be happier with the building process and finished result.

About the Author:

Dean Bennett is president of Dean Bennett Design and Construction, Inc., a design/build firm based in Castle Rock, CO. Specializing in custom residential design and construction, the company’s projects include remodeling, interior and exterior additions, conversions, basement finishes, landscaping and fencing, and custom finish carpentry.

The company offers concept-to-completion design, including working drawings, blueprints, securing of permits, and inspection coordination. Working with a business model of a single principal on-site throughout the project, from architectural design through final construction, Bennett effectively integrates design and construction while eliminating the need to hire separate general and sub-contractors and architects.

Bennett has worked with a national client base, many who span multiple years, since 1996. He holds master of architecture and bachelor of environmental design degrees from the University of Colorado. Bennett is an accomplished fly fisherman, golfer, skier, and snowboarder and enjoys swimming, running, cycling, cooking, and photography.

He can be reached at (303) 513-2065 or
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