How Much Per Square Foot Do you Charge? / by brent gomes


I get asked this question every week.  In today’s often price-driven economy, some individuals base their decision on price so it is understandable that I am often asked this question.  

The answer again is, “It depends.”  It all depends on what materials you are putting in your house and how complicated the design is. Is it for a rental unit, or the home of your dreams? What does the land look like? Are you on a hill? Is the area easy to get to? How is the ground? Will there be a lot of foundation work? What kind of roofing material are you using?

I tell everyone to be careful asking about a square foot cost and/or making contractor selections based solely on square foot cost. For example, cabinets can cost $150 box, or $1,500 a box. What kind of cabinets are you getting? What kind of countertops, what kind of windows, flooring do you want? Everything varies on price depending on quality and brands.

A lot of construction comes down to the lowest bidder. It is saddening to me that, when it comes to construction, people seem to think the lowest bidder is good. Unfortunately, you get what you pay for. I have often been hired to fix other contractor’s (or non-license contractor’s) mistakes. Remember the words of Benjamin Franklin: “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.” 

Every contractor offers different values. Some cut corners to be the cheapest, some are customer service oriented and some are not. Please remember to interview and get lots of estimates from different contractors and determine which contractor offers the value you are looking for. Do not base your decision solely on price. I understand that price is always a big factor—just don’t make it your deciding factor. (If it is for a rental unit, perhaps the lowest bidder is more appealing.)  Do your homework… maybe the lowest bidder renovated your friend’s place and they loved them. Hey, then you win!!

I know contractors that give a real low price per square foot; however, they only have tiny amounts of money set aside for finishes to make their price seem low. When it actually comes time to purchase the materials, the project cost goes sky high because the items people want cost way more than the money that has been allotted.  For example, I’ve spoken to people that shared that when it came down to picking cabinets, they only had $2,000.00 set aside from their contractor for cabinets to do their whole house. (You can’t even do that with the cheapest cabinets around!)

The best advice I have is to figure out what you want, and get a good idea of the cost of finish materials before you ever sign a contract. Companies with the lowest price often bid low in an attempt to get the job. They are trying to present themselves in a way that their price seems good. Is it ethical? Is it fair? Maybe, maybe not? To protect yourself, it is your job to do your homework before you sign a contract. Go to a store and see if you can pick out the material you want for the money they have in your finishing allowances before you give the contractor any money.  Educate yourself to protect yourself. Do your homework, ask lots of questions and figure out everything before you pick your contractor.

As a solution, it is a good idea to get prices without the finish allowances in the bid. That way you will have the opportunity to spend what you want on finishes because you already know the cost of the structure.

Some of you are thinking…I don’t know anything about finishes. If that is the case, go to different stores and start getting some pricing. Look and see first-hand what cheap cabinets look like and cost.  Do the same with flooring. Determine if you like the cheap stuff or the nicer stuff. Have this determined before you even start talking with contractors.

I find that, most people, if they have not spoken to any contractors, are way off on what their project will actually cost. The average person in Hawaii is clueless to what construction costs here. Hawaii is one of the most expensive places when it comes to construction. Material is expensive and so is labor. If you don’t know anything about construction, your might end up costing about 2-3 times what you are thinking.

For renovations, I frankly believe that it is too complicated to rely on a contractor giving you a square foot price.  Additions and renovations cost a lot more per square foot to build than new homes. With additions and renovations, you have to protect the portion of the home you are keeping and demolish the section that will be changing. You might have to jackhammer and trench through your existing concrete in order to run your plumbing and electrical to the new areas. You may need to trench the yard to get to the main sewer line, or power source at the front of the house. You may need to rip up parts of your driveway to do this. All of this results in a unique cost for your unique circumstances.

I will leave you with this, and hopefully it will help as you research the cost of construction in Hawaii. In Hawaii, if you are going with a cheap contractor, flat land, inexpensive materials, and a very simple design it is possible to build a home for $200 a square foot. If you want some nicer stuff, not over the top, but good, you are looking at $300 a square foot to build. A typical bathroom costs $20,000-$40,000 and typical kitchens are around $50,000-$70,000 to renovate. Prices will vary depending on how drastically you change the existing layout, and what materials you choose. (These are numbers for a home that you live in, not a rental. Rental units are usually cheaper because you are keeping things simple and cheap.)