We're over budget! Now what?

Being over budget is definitely a set back. There are ways to get back on track. It happens most of the time because people want what they want and need to see on paper what they can get for the amount of money they have to spend.

As an architect, I have the enviable position of judging how far I need to take a design down the path of, these are our hopes and dreams, before we have The Talk of reality. The timing has to be right, somewhere between, That’s looking cool – and – I love, I love it, I love it, I want to build it right now.

I am just working through this process with a current client of mine. They came to me with a floor plan they already laid out. I made simple revisions to make the structure more efficient. A little flip-flopping of spaces that made more sense to the way things would actually work in the house. Then some pushing and pulling to set us up for a more balanced looking front elevation.

The budget they set is appropriate to support the floor plan they brought me. The exterior look of the house they like and the siting of the house on the land they bought took us beyond the budget. It’s not that I didn’t understand this, and we discussed it at length during a design meeting. But here’s the thing, my job is to provide a service to my client. I absolutely will not take them down a road that is so far off from their budget that the only way to fix it is to start from scratch.

If I wait too long there is too much disappointment. However, there is another scenario where if I pull back too early in the process there’s this sense that maybe I’m not listening or not understanding their vision. Also, in design, there are some very good things that can come from going too far. You might get to a point where you can pull back in some areas because you got to the one sweet thing that deserves all of the attention and you modify accordingly.

Regardless of all the design and feelings talk, we're over budget. Now what?

There are surprisingly few things that control the bulk of the cost in a project:

Size: This is a no brainer...sort of. The smaller the house, the less it costs. As a general rule of thumb this will serve you well, but specifically, no two square feet are created the same. Reducing 10 square feet out of your kitchen compared to reducing 10 square feet out of the middle of a bedroom is comparing apples to oranges. You have to use your brain when reducing square footage.

Material: The materials you choose can make or break your budget. However, the exterior materials are FOREVER. These materials protect your structure and your entire investment of your home. There are a couple ways to save here. Surprisingly, brick is one of the most economical and still the most reliable exterior material.

Allowances: This is the number one area for pitfalls, arguments and angst. What’s a good allowance for say, appliances? Well, how big is a bread box? Getting a bid with a good allowance package is the biggest favor your contractor can do for you. Be sure to do some shopping so you know what things you like cost. Again, choose one or two places to splurge and cut back on the rest. These are typically places where you can upgrade in the future. This area is also easily manipulated. Always pull your bids apart and investigate what your allowance is for each category.

Complexity: This does make a big difference. There is an old story that you pay more for every corner in the foundation. This is a solid theory, not because of the concrete costs, but everything that follows from it. A corner in the foundation translates to corner trim in siding, a change of direction in brick, more shaping for the mason in stone. Cutting subfloor, sheathing and interior trim. The roof line will follow and you end up with valleys that need flashed and you will pay more for shingles. All of this comes down to labor costs and waste.

Any interruption of roof trusses or rafters marching across in an orderly manner is going to cost you money. The most expensive and the most important part of a roof is where two planes come together. Also, dormers are incredibly expensive. Used correctly, in the right proportion, it could be the one thing that sets your house apart. Please, please, please do not use false dormers. They are too expensive to just plop up on a roof top and you’re not fooling anyone. They look dumb. (said in a kind, loving, but firm voice…)

Simple shape and correct proportion is always less expensive and always looks better too. The best way I know to save some money AND have a simply beautiful house is to choose 2 elements you want to express. I suggest one lovely material you want to highlight and one physical element – maybe the entry, or the stair well, or a well proportioned (real) dormer that will make the dining room soar. You need some rest in design.

The process I use when the project is over budget is to review each of these categories. The clients and I sit down in a meeting with the drawings in front of us and, one by one, we make informed decisions.

These recommendations obviously only pertain to the design process. There are also areas where your builder can work on price. The caution here is this: Some disreputable builders will gloss over this process. They will tell you only what you want to hear. It is so easy to tell a client, “Oh sure, we can build it for that.” or “We’ll be close.”

Let me tell you, once you are under contract and in the ground only to find out you cannot finish this project within your budget, you will wish you were sitting in my office with paper and pencil making hard decisions when it is cheap.

It is hard. However, the clients I work with are used to hard work. They have all worked hard in their lives to get to this point. Keeping a project in budget is something I take seriously. You should too.

- Sheri


As Founder and Principal Architect of Springhouse Architects, Sheri’s mission is to lead Clients through the building process with the Clients in control and Springhouse as their guide, advocate and ally.  With over twenty years experience in Residential Architecture, Sheri brings knowledge and confidence to your custom home project.

Lisa Saldivar