If you’re in the market for an affordable house to own, you might be debating whether it’s cheaper to build your own home or buy an existing home.
For those who have attempted a large-scale renovation on an older home, it may feel as if it would have been more cost-effective to start from scratch with new construction. But many costs go into building your own house that you must factor into the decision of whether to build or buy.
Let’s look at some aspects of building vs. buying an existing home. The outlook may vary depending on where you live and the type of house you want. You’ll also need to consider how you plan to pay for the home, and even if you are willing to consider off-grid living to reduce costs.
Home and Land Values in Your Area
What’s the price of land in the area where you want to live? How much would it cost to purchase a fully constructed house (called “existing construction”) with the features you need and the size you want? Are empty lots available to build where you would like to live?
If you live in or are moving to a major metropolitan area or a suburb of a large U.S. city, it may be harder to find land and, if you do, the land will cost more.
On the other hand, if you move to a less populated area, you may be able to find several acres or more for under $20,000 or less.
When It’s Cheaper to Buy an Existing Home
Finding affordable land represents the first step toward being able to build a home for less than it would cost to buy. But if land goes for a premium in the area you wish to buy, it may be cheaper to buy an existing home.
Larger homes, obviously, cost more to build than smaller homes. If your main goal is to secure a house of your own for the lowest possible price, you can save money building a home in a less congested area where land is cheap.
It’s unlikely you’ll find a house for sale anywhere that doesn’t need a lot of work for less than $100,000. However, you may be able to pick up a plot of land and build a starter home like an A-Frame or a prefab, or even a tiny house under 400 square feet.
Types of Houses You Can Build
The cost of your house construction project depends on the house you choose. Here are some affordable examples.
Tiny houses – Tiny houses are typically under 400 square feet. They simply cost less to build than any other style of conventional home. They require less land, fewer materials, and take less time to construct.
Tiny houses may start at $10,000 and go up to $120,000 or more, which is the price of some regular homes. The average price for a tiny house is around $30,000 to $40,000.
Consider jumping on the tiny home trend to build your starter or retirement home.
A-Frame houses – A-frame houses represent a very simple style of construction with slanted roofs. They have a loft bedroom rather than a full-fledged second story.
Prefab Homes – You can buy the parts to a pre-fab home and have it put together, or assemble it yourself, on your property. Some pre-fab homes, called modular homes, come as individual rooms and pieces that connect. Each module includes plumbing, electrical, and everything else you need to build a house already installed.
Some pre-fab home kits come as individual panels, and you’ll need to add the rest of the components. You can purchase pre-fab homes for as little as $50,000 or less on eBay.
Paying for Your Home: Construction Loan, Personal Loan, Land Loan, or a Mortgage
Unless you have cash reserves lying around, you’ll likely need financing to purchase your land or home.
If you do have the cash saved, once you do the math you’ll probably realize it’s smarter to take out a mortgage or loan at a low interest rate. Then, you can invest your money at a higher rate of return.
That leaves you with several options to pay for your house or its construction.
A construction loan acts as a line-of-credit rather than a conventional loan. The loan term usually lasts one year. In that time, you borrow the money you need as you need it. When you make your loan payments, you only pay interest on the money you borrowed.
Even though you only pay interest on the money you use, construction loans typically have higher interest rates than home mortgages. That’s because the land purchase is the only collateral available until the house is complete.
A construction loan can fund the land, building materials, and even provide funds to pay contractors to build your home. Your lender will want to see your construction documents and budget for the project. They’ll want to approve each step of the building process to ensure construction stays on track.
Once the home construction is complete, you can take out a conventional mortgage, which you can use to pay off the high-interest loan.
If you’d rather not deal with the hassles of a construction loan, showing documentation to your lender, and taking out a mortgage after a year, consider a personal loan. The better your credit score, the lower your interest rate on an unsecured personal loan will be.
Personal loan terms tend to range from two to 10 years.
If you have cash reserves or assets that would cover the cost of the loan, you may want to take out a secured personal loan, using your cash or investments as collateral. You may be able to get approved for a secured personal loan at a much lower interest rate.
If you want to purchase land that doesn’t have power lines or public water running to the property, you may consider a land loan. Most lenders expect you to put at least 50% down on this type of purchase because it’s considered a high-risk investment.
Once you use the land loan to purchase the land, you may be able to finance construction through a personal loan. Or you can wait until you pay off the land loan, have utilities installed, and then get a construction loan.
The best way to finance the purchase of an existing house is usually through a mortgage loan. These loans tend to have very low interest rates, especially compared to the loan options listed above. You may even be able to secure an FHA loan with as little as 3.5% down if you’re a first-time homebuyer.
Connect Utilities or Live Off the Grid?
There are a few more choices to make when it comes to building your own house or buying an existing home: What kind of utilities will you need?
Existing construction, of course, comes already connected to sewer systems (or may include a cesspool septic system) and electricity. It already has home heating and cooling systems. And it’s probably fairly easy to run a cable television and broadband internet connection from the street to your house. At the very least, you can connect to satellite TV and internet services.
At most, it will cost a small connection fee to turn on the electricity and internet service to your home. Sewer service typically costs less than $100 per year.
On the other hand, new construction has none of these things. You’ll need an electrician to run all the wiring. Then, you’ll need to connect to “the grid,” which means you’ll be getting electricity from your utility provider.
Even if you decide to install solar panels, which cost an average of $13,142 (after tax credits), you’ll need to pay to have them connected to your electric company. Your electric company monitors usage and charges you if your solar panels don’t produce all the energy your household uses.
Septic systems can cost from $3,000 up to $10,000, according to HomeAdvisor. Heating and cooling systems vary widely, too, depending on the type of system you prefer.
Building Your Home Off-the-Grid
If you think you can save money by living off the grid, you might be surprised. You’ll still need to invest in some sort of energy source, whether solar panels or wind turbines.
You can build a well for water and use composting toilets to avoid being connected to city water. But, unless you want to dramatically change your lifestyle, off-grid living may not be the best way to save money on your new house.
Some areas don’t permit off-grid living, so it may be harder to finance your new house if you can’t show plans for utility hook-ups.
Buy or Build a House: Pros & Cons
With so much to consider when deciding whether to buy or build a house, it can help to get a clear idea of the major pros and cons of each. We’ve listed some of the details below to help you make your decision.
Pros of Buying an Existing Home
- Less Costly: Buying a house is usually significantly less expensive than building one, especially as land loans can come with higher interest rates and down payments. And while home buying is an increasingly expensive endeavor these days, labor costs and construction materials are also increasing just as rapidly.
- Quick Move In: Most buyers of existing homes will be able to move within a few weeks, compared to the potential wait of over a year for new construction homes.
- Location Flexibility: Buying an existing home makes it much easier for you to live where you want. If you want to build a house and still live in or near the city, you’ll likely have to fork out a small fortune for the land rights. Home buying makes it much easier, and cheaper, to settle in the suburbs.
- Mature Landscaping: Buying an existing home usually means you’ve got access to a mature landscaping, fully grown trees and a well established garden. For most homeowners, a beautiful garden is a must, but this can take many years to achieve with a new build.
Cons of Buying an Existing Home:
- Competitive Market: As we’re still very much locked in a seller’s market, the stress of trying to find and land the perfect home can make it a challenge. Home buying in today’s real estate market requires graft, patience and determination, not to mention a robust budget.
- Aesthetic Compromise: The intensity of the real estate market today means you’ll likely have to make some compromise when buying a house, as some elements of the design or style may not be to your tastes.
- Maintenance & Repairs: With such a competitive market you may also have to settle for a home that is in need of some repair. Depending on your initial budget you might have to factor in funds for upgrades, and in general, you’re more likely to need to splash out on maintenance sooner than if you build a house.
- Less Sustainable & Efficient: As a rule of thumb, buying a house is likely to mean that you’ll have a less sustainable home than if you had built one. Depending on how old an existing home is you might have to budget for energy efficiency upgrades.
Pros of Building a House:
- Customization: Building a house comes with the obvious benefit of customization, at least to some degree. The chance to build your dream home, and have full direction of the construction process, is a huge motivator for many.
- Less Competition: Another significant benefit of building your own home is avoiding the intense competition of the housing market. Once you own the land, the only major competition you need to consider is for construction supplies and labor.
- Lower Maintenance Costs: A brand new home should be in the best condition possible, compared with any existing homes. You won’t have to worry about replacing major appliances or any significant home repairs in the near future.
- Healthier & More Sustainable Home: A new build will come with better energy efficiency, meaning lower energy costs and a more sustainable home. There is also the benefit of not needing to worry about things like lead paint or possible asbestos in your home.
Cons of Building a House:
- Expensive: Building a house is almost always more costly than buying an existing home. This is partly because you may need to obtain a land loan, as well as a loan to cover construction costs, and then a mortgage once the house is complete.
- Hidden Costs & Delays: Most construction projects require us to expect the unexpected, and building a house is no different. Delays and cost overruns are par for the course, and in today’s climate with supply chain issues and increased construction costs, the final cost of your new construction home can quickly soar.
- Stress & Time: It would be naive to underestimate the potential toll of both stress and time when building a house. With so much more work to do in terms of financing, budgeting, designing and decorating, the home building process will most likely be very stressful at least for a while, especially if you’re hoping to be finished on time.
- More Work: Building a house means more involved effort on your part, as you’ll have to work with a variety of professionals, approve every step of the process, review contracts and manage fluctuations in your budget along the way.
Ultimately, you can save money building a home, especially if you choose a simple home style and are willing to do most of the work yourself. Plus, you’ll get the satisfaction of knowing the creative role you played in your home—and that everything in the house is brand new.
But if you’re not considering a small house in a rural area where land is cheap, you may find it’s more cost-effective to buy an existing house. Then, you can spend time and money over the years to turn it into your dream home.