Good Cheap Houses
Four great American homes, built or made over at prices you won't believe
By Kira Obolensky

(MONEY Magazine) – There is good cheap and there is bad cheap. You know bad cheap when you encounter it. Good cheap can be more elusive, although its best qualities surely include simplicity (a 20¢ Bic pen, for instance), practicality (a $27 set of stackable Tupperware bowls) and style (the $21,500 Mini Cooper convertible).

So too with homes, as you'll see from the four construction and renovation projects profiled on the following pages. Good cheap work requires durable yet inexpensive building materials--those highlighted in this story include steel, concrete, glass, metal and plywood--often borrowed from industrial or commercial contexts. But the most essential raw material is your own resourcefulness. The owners here made magic happen, delivering flair and personality as well as durability, because they could successfully reimagine what they initially thought they needed in a home. For some, that meant forgoing square footage; for others, it meant rethinking their definitions of quality. Must it always be granite counters, hardwood trims and gold-plated faucets? No way, says professional appraiser John Bredemeyer of the Appraisal Institute: "Quality is not in itself one style or another." Bottom line: Simple, practical and stylish design can offer more value than high-end finishes--words to live by when you're planning your next big renovation or doodling your latest dream house.

Will your renovation pay off? See average costs of major projects (and how much value they can add) at


WHERE: Falmouth, Maine COST TO BUILD: $250,000 (or $78 a square foot)

The average per-square-foot price of a new house in the Northeast was almost $89 in 2002, when Phil and Masey Kaplan built their 3,200-square-foot barn-style house outside Portland. (The average is around $107 these days.) The owners needed plenty of room for their two kids, as well as office space for both Phil, an architect, and Masey, a graphic designer. A rectangular barn shape offered them maximum volume for the money, but the Kaplans also wanted a structure filled with light and excellent details. "The tricky part," Phil says, "is figuring out how to keep it from looking like a big dumb box."

STICK TO YOUR STANDARDS The house's shape and proportions are all based on a four-foot module, which is a standard building size. Standard sizes save money--you don't have workers cutting or altering, for instance--and minimize construction waste.

TAKE STOCK Off-the-shelf can work custom-like wonders. The three-season screened porch is made inexpensively from 12 stock screen doors. A dozen glass doors are popped in when the weather chills. Elsewhere (see the gold box, far right), a wall of windows is in fact stacks of store-bought double-hung windows. "If you're looking for maximum light and view with good ventilation, there's no better value than the double-hung window," says Phil.

SPLURGE WHERE IT COUNTS The owners forked over $2,000 for slate countertops to make their Ikea-furnished kitchen "look more expensive." Also worth extra dough: a solid-oak front door and wide planks of red pine for floors. It is a country home, after all.

USE USED These vintage timbers were carted away from a 19th-century barn by the owners, who spent $500 (and most of a cold, wet weekend) to rent a truck and grab their prize. The effort paid off, since the timbers add structural support and authentic character throughout the house.

PUMP UP THE VOLUME • OFFICE SPACE • BEDROOM SPACE • LIVING SPACE • WALK-OUT BASEMENT In need of as much space as possible for a growing work-at-home family, the owners went for the maximum height (35 feet) that their local building code allowed. In most instances, the owners note, it's cheaper to build up than out, because framing costs are usually lower than foundation costs. The four levels of their house are divided into a walk-out basement (used as a playroom and den), living space, bedroom space, and office space tucked into the peak of the roof.

GO FAUX The stone "foundation" wall in front is actually fake--real stone, but not structural. Not even attached to the house, the stones are tucked between the grade of the ground and the framing of the window. The owner finished this detail himself, since the stone, relatively cheap stuff, did not need to be laid by a pricey professional stonemason.



WHERE: Washington, D.C. COST TO RENOVATE: $30,000

This 1930s row house in Washington, D.C., rented out by its previous owner to a string of college students for 15 years, epitomizes good cheap strategies for renovation. New owners Griz and Mary Dwight had $30,000 (less than what most people spend on redoing a kitchen) to transform their 2,500-square-foot place from squalor to chic. How'd they do it? Sweat equity. And smart choices. The way the owners saw it, their four-level row house had little in the way of architectural character to bring back. The two lower levels received a minimal fix-up and remained a rental unit; the other floors, inhabited by the Dwights, got the most attention. But the tyranny of a limited budget forced them to carefully choose what to renovate and what to simply beautify. Even if you're not willing to get your hands dirty by hanging drywall yourself, their strategies can help save you money.

WHY CONCRETE ROCKS Poured concrete is the height of kitchen-counter fashion these days. Owner-architect Griz Dwight researched the process and discovered the hardest part: removing the forms that hold the concrete as it dries. So he built them (from cold rolled steel) to be integral to the countertops--and poured the concrete himself. He spent $150 and saved at least $5,000, a windfall that helped fund the $800 cork tile floor.

USE WHAT'S THERE Rather than adding on, consider how you might make the most of existing spaces. The couple got a large and stylish master bedroom suite by opening up a small dark bedroom and connecting it with a sleeping porch, which is now a light-filled (and fully insulated) sitting area enjoyed by both owners and pets. One floor down, their kitchen likewise grew from a postage-stamp-size galley to a spacious eat-in when they similarly extended it into an attached porch.

ARCH ENEMY The original living room area featured Moorish-style arches with low peaks, which blocked sunlight from streaming through the floor's rooms. The owners opened up the arches to the full height of the wall. More light now floods the rooms and, because the eight-foot ceilings seem higher without the arches, the whole space feels larger.

DON'T REPLACE--REINTERPRET The fireplace was in the right place, tucked into a corner in the living room, but it was squat and no attention-getter. Now it's tall and striking, an effect achieved with plywood, drywall, faux-finish paint that resembles stone, and a new contemporary-style mantelpiece made from cold-rolled steel that's crisp-edged and has a smooth finish. Total cost: $60. Source: "Home Depot specials," says Griz Dwight.

DO WHAT YOU GOTTA DO The back of the brick house needed structural work and the top two floors required new windows. Ouch. But there was no choice: The old windows were crumbling, leaking and spreading even greater damage. The Dwights gulped and hired professionals--$12,000 for the windows, $2,000 for the brickwork. Remember: Basic structure is always going to count more in the long run than finishes.




WHERE: Inlet Beach, Fla. COST TO BUILD: $135,000 (including pool)

More and more homeowners are asking, Why pay extra for a seldom-used dining room or a never-sat-in front living room? "Many boomers are realizing they just don't need 2,800 square feet and two stories," says real estate appraiser John Bredemeyer. The owners of this Florida Panhandle home, Anthony and Susan Vallée, made one large room do triple duty as a kitchen, living and dining area and (thanks to a Murphy bed) bedroom.

INSIDE OUTSIDE The owners nearly doubled their usable living space by extending a flat roof 10 feet over the courtyard--a timeless ploy that's far less expensive than adding a room. The 500-square-foot patio beneath feels like part of the living area, thanks to four sets of floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors

REPEAT YOURSELF From the home's entrance, a stained pine exterior wall draws visitors inside the property. The wood's rustic warmth continues inside, in both the kitchen and the bathroom, creating what designers like to call a focal point in each room. The house's main wall is constructed of supercheap gray utility blocks (about $1.50 each): Inside they've been sandblasted smooth; outside they've been left as is, to be swallowed by climbing roses. Finally, the patio grid is repeated out into the pool area, where grass in-fill offers a bare-feet-friendly base to survey a sleek yet soothing modern oasis.

CONCRETE COOL A concrete floor is cool in a tropical climate, and it is a hot look in many high-end properties these days. Instead of adding hardwood or carpet, the Vallées left the concrete slab, which had to be poured anyway, as their flooring surface. But to make sure their living room didn't look like a sidewalk, they had separate batches mixed during the pour to achieve a marbled look.




WHERE: Bozeman, Mont. COST TO BUILD: $149,000 (or $60 a square foot)

This gable-roofed, split-level rambler in a suburban development shares the same mountain views as its vinyl-clad neighbors, but little else. Indeed, the owners, a couple who founded an arts website, dubbed their 2,500-square-foot place "" Yet their architect used mass-production techniques that big developers employ to control costs.

SAVE THE EARTH Rather than pay to have excavated dirt hauled away from the site, the owners used it to create a berm in front of their house. This not only added a layer of privacy to their lot, it helped them save about $3,000 in hauling and dumping expenses.

THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX Ever wonder why colonial styles dominate suburbia? Simple shapes are the cheapest to build. But they can also be boring. On this house, the attached garage is in front, making its overall form unique from it neighbors', but its doors are off to the side, so the house looks not only bigger than it really is but less boxy too.

GO SKINNY A house with a narrow footprint--20 feet, in this case--maximizes winter sun, which helps save on energy costs. Plus, it allows for roof trusses with fewer support posts, opening up floor space and cutting material and labor costs by about 15%.

BUILD ON A SLOPE Whether adding a wing or building a whole house, make the most of slopes. Architect Patrick Larum made sure the grade was steep enough to put large windows between the foundation and the first floor, turning a potentially dingy basement into a bright den, office and guest room. This gave the owners another 1,000 square feet for almost no additional money.

LIGHTEN UP The milky white picture window above is made of fiberglass-reinforced Kalwall. Used for skylights, it lets in filtered light yet provides privacy. This window's $2,000 price is offset by its energy efficiency, says Larum. "Kalwall insulates 50% better than a standard picture window."

THE VINYL ANALYSIS Instead of costly wood clapboard or cheesy vinyl siding, the house is clad in a durable, fire-resistant cement fiberboard called Hardiplank that, when painted, is the spitting image of wood. The versatile material costs about the same as vinyl siding but about 25% less than wood. A nice paint job should last you 20 years. It's cheap, yes, but it's the good cheap.




Kira Obolensky's Good House Cheap House: Adventures in Creating an Extraordinary Home at an Everyday Price (Taunton Press, $25) hits bookstores in mid-October. More houses can be found at

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