How to Build for $38 per sq ft….really?

August 12, 2011Resources
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We are often asked about our competition’s “$38/square foot” price and how they can do it. First, just to let you know, they really can’t do it and when they advertise that, it’s really just smoke and mirrors – a way to grab your attention and lure you into their regular product. Besides, most builders only offer one or two at this bargain bottom price, although some of their typical approaches to budget building are discussed here.


For example, with regards to foundations, there is little that can be done to make this cheaper other than getting rock bottom prices from subcontractors. Some companies even cut back on the use of structural steel to cut down on the price. Just because an engineer will sign it off, it doesn’t make it right. While other companies have whittled the price down so low that companies can’t make a profit and have either stopped doing work for the contractor, or have actually gone out of business as a result of the low prices.

As for concrete and steel that go into foundations, the contractor is really held to a standard set by the IBC (International Building Codes) for the home. Builders can get very aggressive with the cost per yard or how much steel cost, but these are commodity products, with margins that are so low on those things, that no real “amazing” savings can generally occur. One way a builder can cause you problems is by not allowing a sufficient amount of concrete in his standard price to build your home. This leaves customers paying extra money for their foundations on all but the most perfectly flat building lots.

Questions to ask your builder:

  • How long have you worked with your subcontractors and how long have they been in business?
  • Can you provide the license and bond information for all of your subcontractors? Often you can find this on your states governing website. (Washington State)
  • Can you provide references to your subs? BBBDunn and Bradstreet
  • Exactly how much concrete is included in the standard price of your home? Am I going to have to pay extra and how much?

Floor Joist Systems

This is an area that some on your lot builders save material cost at the expense of the consumer. I-Joists are rated for their “performance,” i.e. how much the floor will deflect, bow, and bend when weight is applied. Companies that sell I-Joists have a manufactured recommended spec sheet that informs a builder what lengths they can span the joist and what the deflection will be, e.g. Brand “X” joist will state “at 15 feet a large amount of deflection will occur.” Many affordable on your lot builders use the cheapest performing I-Joist on the market and then span them at their maximum distance. As a result, the floor will deflect and bounce more; when the kids are running around the house, you’ll hear the dishes in the China Cabinet clatter! Over time that movement often leads to squeaks in your floor as well. At True Built Home we always use the best products available, such as the Weyerhaeuser TJI– which is a proven winner in the product marketplace. Additionally, and more importantly, we don’t skimp on material. A quiet, quality well built home is very important to us. We do not span the joist at the maximum recommended allowance, thereby creating less deflection, less bounce. No reason to glue those cups and plates down.

A little bit more about our choice of I-Joists: TJI® Joists revolutionized the way floors are built, having developed the wooden I-joist 35 years ago, and continuing to focus on product developments that continue to improve structural performance. Engineered to provide strength and consistency, these joists are a key part of making a high-performance floor. The dimensional stability of TJI’s helps them resist the warping, twisting, and shrinking that can lead to squeaky floors. TJI joists are lightweight and come in long lengths. This helps save on labor, because they’re faster and easier to install than traditional framing.

Questions to ask your builder:

  • What kind of floor joists do you use?
  • How far do you span the joists?
  • How much crawl space will there be under the home?

Lumber Packages

Almost all builders buy lumber packages from a select few of the larger lumber companies in Washington State. Many believe that because one company is larger than another, they are going to get better volume pricing than perhaps a smaller company. In all honesty however, a company that does 30+ homes/year is likely to get comparable pricing to a 100+ homes/year builder.

Where a builder can save money is with the size of the studs they use for their standard home. True Built Home uses a 92 5/8” stud to obtain a true eight foot ceiling. Other builders use an 88 5/8” stud. Smaller stud, less cost. All of the on your lot builders in the Pacific Northwest use Hemlock Fir lumber. True Built gives clients the option to build with Douglas Fir although it does cost a bit more. Many believe that Doug Fir is a better material since it typically has less twist in it and provides cleaner lines.

Questions to ask your builder:

  • How many homes do you build each year?
  • What is the height of your standard ceiling?
  • What kind of lumber do you use for framing, and is Doug Fir available?
  • What measures do you take to minimize wasted material?

OSB and Roof Sheathing

Oriented Strand Board, better known as OSB, was developed as a replacement to plywood. It provides more structural integrity (shear value), ease of use, and less cost than plywood. In effect, the industry created a better product for its intended purpose, and a better price for that product. However for their roof overhangs, some builders actually use this unfinished OSB product that is designed to always be covered with siding or roofing. In a True Built Home, you’ll never look up and see OSB on the overhang, since cutting costs in this area doesn’t make sense for many reasons. Among them, although it will pass code, OSB is not intended to be openly exposed to the weather. Over time and in the damp Northwest weather it attracts dirt, cannot be cleaned, can delaminate, and is a prime area to develop mold. Also important for us, and you as well is, exterior grade smooth panel sheeting or vinyl soffit is FAR more attractive for this cosmetically important location.

Questions to ask your builder:

  • What will I see when I look up at the roof overhang?
  • What kind of materials do you use for the roof overhang?
  • Are there any exterior locations on the home where OSB will be exposed?


Cost competitiveness for roofing, like many other aspects of a home, boils down primarily to the price of materials and labor. So, let’s look at the products that are available. Cedar shake – the fact that the cedar available these days is not old-growth makes it an inferior, short-life product (although shake roofs do look nice). Metal roofs are a great product that add value and differentiate homes. (Asphalt) composition roofing is the most common and cost-effective product available. It is composed of a base of organic or fiberglass product that is saturated in asphalt and then coated with materials that resist weathering. Composite roofing does come in different styles. The traditional three-tab style shingle comes with a variety of warranties – 20 year, 30 year, 50 year… Architectural style shingles also come with a variety of warranties, but offers some basic advantages over the traditional three-tab. The mass and the layering of architectural shingles offers better longevity, wind resistance, and hail resistance. As a result, architectural shingles usually have more extended warranties, and a longer life. Of course, if the roofing isn’t installed properly and with the appropriate flashing and nails, all bets are off. The licensed roofers of True Built Home install architectural style roofing in your choice of colors as a standard feature, not an upgrade. If you prefer metal, we can upgrade your home to that as well.
Another advancement in technology that True Built Home leverages to provide a superior product at a lower price is the ridge vent system, rather than traditional vents across the top of a home.


Questions to ask your builder:

  • Do you offer metal roofing?
  • What is your standard roofing material and style?
  • What kind of venting do you use for the attic/roof?
  • How will the roofline appear when the home is completed?


When it comes to windows, this is definitely an area that you want to use extreme caution. Why? Particularly here in the Pacific NW, when windows are not properly installed, the likelihood of water damage and mold can increase exponentially. We go to great lengths to ensure that our windows will not leak by contracting the window manufacturer for installation. Another way in which True Built Home excels is to provide “Z” metal style window flashing at the top of windows and sliders to allow water a path to roll away from those vulnerable areas. Some on your lot builders use framers to install windows to keep the cost down, but which is likely to have a detrimental effect on the home that you are building. Unfortunately, the home may not show signs of leakage or mold for several years after families have moved in.

Questions to ask your builder:

  • What kind of warranty is provided for window and slider leaks?
  • Are sliders large enough for a wheel chair or walker
  • Who installs the windows (framers or window installation professionals), and will the warranty on the window apply based on the installer?
  • Do you use Z-metal and flashing around the windows?
  • Do you use a locally recognized brand, or a “knock off”

Exterior Doors, and Fascia

When it comes to doors, the selections can literally be endless. However, one of the advantages to using a volume or on your lot builder is that they have pre-selected most, if not all, of the products that are built into your home, including the exterior doors. Many builders elect to use metal doors, since they are cheaper. The problem is that they dent and rust over time. True Built Home uses 6 panel Fiberglass exterior doors to avoid both denting and rust.
Something else that we do, that other builders often charge extra for, is fascia. That is the wood that is nailed to the end of the truss tails and then to which the gutters are nailed. Other builders simply connect the gutters directly to the tails of the trusses.

Questions to ask your builder:

  • Do you provide fascia as a standard material?
  • What kind of doors are provided standard?

Exterior Aesthetics and Lighting

Many builders are not terribly concerned about non-essential aesthetics or function of a home. One example is exterior lighting. True Built Home includes two can lights in the covered porch areas on the front of your home, if your home comes with a covered porch as part of the design. Another example is kitchen lighting. The lighting in kitchens and eating bars is notoriously poor with some builders; every kitchen, regardless of size, may come with the same basic number of minimal lights. True Built Home also includes at least one can light above the kitchen sink and a contemporary three or four-light track for the kitchen. Bigger kitchens come with more lighting. We can do pendants or more cans as an upgrade.

Questions to ask your builder:

  • What kind of exterior lighting is provided?
  • How many and what kind of lights will be in the kitchen I’m considering?
  • Will the eating area have ample lighting?


Pound for pound, plumbing fixtures and other plumbing items can be some of the most expensive items a builder can purchase for their homes. Conversely, a builder can also save a lot of money installing really cheap, plastic fixtures too. True Built Home uses Moen fixtures as a standard, rated by JD Powers as number one in customer satisfaction. Our standard choices are EvaBrantfordMethod. We offer these in different choice of finish as upgrades.

Tub shower combo fiberglass inserts are another area where builders can save big. Often, clients will never know the difference until they want to take a hot, relaxing bath only to find out, IT’S NOT DEEP ENOUGH! The cheaper ones hold less water. True Built Home uses a 16” deep tub, standard.

Questions to ask your builder:

  • Are your plumbing fixtures built with ceramic or brass internal cartridges?
  • How deep are your bathtub inserts?
  • Do you offer elongated toilets?
  • How thick is the stainless kitchen sink?
  • What brand are the plumbing fixtures?


Pretty much the only way to save money on sheet rock is on installation. The home building contractor, when negotiating the price for sheet rock, will tell the contractor to minimize prep work to avoid any additional cost.

Questions to ask your builder:

  • Do you use screws or nails to attach the rock to studs?
  • Do you use “L” channel to minimize cracks at the corners, thereby creating a superior product?


Birch wood is the new oak! It provides a more graceful and updated look for cabinets that is preferred over oak among designers and builders. True Built Home uses a solid wood door and solid wood tongue-and-groove drawers, not composite or particleboard, which wear better over time. Our cabinet of Choice is Aristokraft with their multiple choice of wood species and finishes.

Where builders can really save money is in the design of kitchens. Below is an example. As you can see, the drawer base cabinets are definitely more appealing and functional, but most of the time to save money, many builders simply provide little to no drawer type cabinets. The True Built Home advantage is we design kitchens with the emphasis on function and form instead of less cost.

Questions to ask your builder:

  • What kind of wood are your cabinets?
  • What are the cabinet drawers and bases made from?
  • How many drawers are in the base cabinet design?

Solid Surfaces – Carpets, Formica, Vinyl

In the world of finishes the selections are endless. With the emphasis on cost savings, most on your lot builders can get so cheap that you can literally see through the carpets that they install when held up against a light! We often refer to our finishes in the construction world as “builder grade” but being able to see through the carpet is a new low. The True Built Home advantage is a carpet that is between 25-29 oz. Some of our competitors use a carpet that is around 19-20 oz! Get ready to replace it… soon. We also go the extra mile of installing the latest laminate surface with the High Definition (HD) line from WilsonArt. This line of laminate, better known as Formica, was created to give granite and other high priced surface finishes a run for their market. The HD line looks and feels like granite at a most affordable price. A variety of other affordable options, including granite and non-porous acrylic surface products (kind of like Corian). So while our competitors give you just the simple finishes, True Built Home has stepped it up to give you the biggest bang for your buck and ample variety to suit your preferences. This holds true with our vinyl flooring as well. We offer a standard that is thicker than our competitors to ensure long life and return on your investment.

Questions to ask your builder:

  • What is the weight of your standard carpet and pad/underlayment?
  • what are the options for vinyl, and other floor coverings?
  • What options are available for countertops?

Floor Plans

“$38/square foot.” Often our clients bring this price up. It truly is a compelling number that has become almost iconic advertising. Even when there were wild price gyrations with steel, OSB, roofing, insulation etc. that number $38/square foot was still being advertised. Little does the public know that of the companies that advertise that price, of the more than 45+ plans that they offer only TWO start at $38/square foot! At last check, each company being referenced only had one plan that met that price. However, you might get the impression that all of their plans are at that price, but in fact the average square footage price for the combined companies is actually closer to $47/square foot. Just know that, when a home comes standard with real wood trim, garage door opener, electric furnace package, 8lb pad, Moen high quality faucets, pre-painted doors, 3 choices of light packages, concrete lap siding around whole house, vaulted ceilings for ramblers, beautiful and durable cabinetry, the price will reflect such. Low prices often reflect inferior products and cheap materials.

Owner of True Built Home, Lewis Mann says, “I like to tell clients, I worked for one of the companies and was co-owner and co-founder of another. Of the more than 400 plus homes I sold and the more than 1000 that came across my desk, not one was ever $38/square foot. NOT ONE.” So, this web page is devoted to helping the client to see that even though there are a number of ways that some companies have figured out how to build the home cheaper, all those ways are part of their standard home but they are no part of a True Built Home standard home package. Would you like to see what you “might” get for $38/square foot?

Questions to ask your builder:

  • How much per square foot is unfinished basement or garage space?
  • Which homes are priced at $38/square foot? Does it include a garage?
  • How much is the home I may be interested in, per square foot, and why might it be that much more?
  • Do you have referrals for home owners that built with you at your lowest price point?
  • How much do you charge for plan changes? How much time will plan changes add to the build time?

Wire Shelving

Some of our competitors in an attempt to save cost have chosen to just flat out torture their customers. How? Cheap wire shelving. Some builders use a wire shelving product that has a brace that interrupts the slide of the hanger every 12 inches. As a result, you can’t slide the hanger the entire length, clothing gets bunched up and things just get stuck. The True Built Home Advantage uses Rubbermaid FreeSlide wire shelving products. In addition, we use a TightMesh line of shelving for areas like pantries to prevent things from falling through.

Questions to ask your builder:

  • What kind of built-ins or shelving is available for closet space?
  • Are the gaps in the pantry shelving large enough for pantry things to fall through?


Imagine moving into your new home and the lights dim or flicker every time the furnace comes on, or you throw a breaker every time you use your toaster and garbage disposal at the same time. Or imagine that you set up an office in your new home and can’t operate your phone, fax, and computer in one room! Another example of how we are different from many other volume builders is our approach to the wiring of your home. Simply installing the electrical in your home according to code is not sufficient to ensure that your home is livable. Many contractors use the cheapest materials available and are able to minimize their labor costs by putting outlet receptacles on the same circuit as lights, or surpassing generally recommended number of outlet or light receptacles in a circuit. This may lower the cost of a new home, but is generally not the kind of “feature” that most homeowners of new homes appreciate. We want to thank Andy at A/C Electrical for writing this part of our site.

At True Built Home, we ensure that outlets receptacles and lights are on different circuits so dimming doesn’t occur. We put master bedrooms on their own circuit so that having extra electronics or devices doesn’t create overloaded circuits. A two car garage comes standard with two outlets, unlike some builders who don’t put any outlets in the garage, and charge for this as an upgrade.

Similarly, our electricians don’t daisy chain phone lines. In a True Built Home, if one phone line goes down, the service will not be interrupted for the next phone since every phone line runs independently. The standard CAT 3 budget wiring that many builders use does meet code but is clearly a quality compromise. True Built Home uses CAT 5e service. What that means is that there are four possible phone, fax or network lines in one wire, rather than just two with CAT 3.

Questions to ask your builder:

  • About how many breakers will I see in my electrical panel? (Hint: more is better!)
  • Are the phone lines daisy chained or is each phone line direct-wired?
  • What kind of wiring is used for the phone lines?
  • How many outlet receptacles are in the garage?


When we are asked, “why are you homes a little bit more?” we are confident that you will see that we simply build a far better home. We want our clients to know that they got a great product, a fair price, and hands down – more information regarding the building process and home options. You, your family, and your friends will all agree that a True Built Home is truly a great way to a great home.

With offices in Tacoma, Arlington, Spokane, Vancouver, Tri-Cities, and Salem, True Built Home has been successfully helping families create their dream homes across the state of Washington and in parts of Idaho and Oregon since 2007. As a home builder with years of experience, we have developed an easy, step-by-step process for you to find and create the home you’ve always wanted at an affordable and reasonable price (best part, you walk away with most of the equity, not the builder). Our specialty is in pre-designed efficiently built homes as an alternative to either manufactured or modular homes. We are built 100% on your site. Additionally, we have taken the time to equip our web site with lots of helpful information and tools you can use to carefully plan and begin to understand the process of new home construction.

If you’re thinking about moving into your dream home or have any questions, please give us a call. Our friendly staff of experienced home builders is ready to help you. Contact us for a free consultation today! If you are unsure if we service your area, please check out our following service pages for more details.