If you’re lucky your chosen house plan will come with a building materials list, also known as a takeoff, or take-off, list. Sometimes you can buy the materials list as an extra. The smaller the house you build the shorter and simpler your materials list will be. And, conversely, the bigger and more complex your house design the more extensive your materials list will be. That’s a nice advantage when you’re building a small house — less of a materials list to manage and keep track of.
Estimating a building materials list can take several hours if you’re just doing it with the plans in front of you with paper and pencil in hand (for a small house!). But, even for a small house, the more your plan varies from a basic square or rectangle and includes more than 2 faces of a standard gable roof, your time in figuring out your takeoff list will increase. Your building costs will also increase more so because of the extra time it will take to construct intricate wall and foundation angles, facades, and roof lines.
You can certainly do it manually in this way if your plans indicate the type of dimensional lumber that’s used in various locations. Then take your list to your intended building supply store and walk the aisles in search of pricing for the individual pieces (it’s better to visit, if possible, than call for prices as the staff is usually incredibly busy — besides, it’s fun to just smell the fresh cut lumber as you browse around). In my opinion it’s good to slightly over estimate the number of pieces by a little, that way you have a greater chance of avoiding having to run to the building supply store near the end of your project. You can usually return the unused extras as long as they’re in salable condition.
I had taken my small house plans to Home Depot and asked if it was possible for them to come up with an approximate building materials list as my plans didn’t come with a list already figured out. I was so relieved that they could do that for me! Thanks Doc and Chuck! Towards the end we still had to go back to buy more 2×4’s, but that was a minor inconvenience.
Software for Generating a Takeoff List
There are a few resources out there where you can use software to help you create a building materials list. Some are software packages you can download onto your computer, others are web-based, requiring a monthly or yearly subscription to use their software. If there are other sources out there that I’m not listing here, please let me know and I can add them to the list here.
Snap Estimating has been estimating building materials for over 20 years and can provide a personalized and comprehensive building materials list for your residential building project. The standard building materials list usually includes: framing material, hardware, siding & trim, roofing, decking, doors, and windows. Not software! This is a real person sitting down, looking carefully through your plans, and creating a list of materials you can really use.
PlanSwift is a professional grade piece of software. It starts at $950 for one user (the price goes up the more users you license to use with it). They have a nice video tour of the benefits of their program. They have a free 14 day trial.
GoTakeOff is a web based materials list program. That means you pay a weekly, monthly, or yearly subscription to log into their server and use their software. They have a free 30 day trial. They rates are pretty reasonable, starting at $9 per month (pay through Paypal).
Esti-Mate is another professional grade software program for materials lists. This one starts at $895 for one user. They have a free online version to try out. (update 8/2014: at the moment it seems their website is unavailable – try searching for Esti-Mate with Google)
OwnerBuilder.com offers a design-build-budget Excel worksheet for download to help with estimating the cost of homebuilding.
Quick calculators from Get-a-Quote.net are a good initial resource for a very rough estimate for everything from concrete wall and footing calculations to gable roofing estimators.
Turtle Creek Software has a product called Goldenseal. Goldenseal costs $395 for the estimating-only version, which includes estimating, schedules, contract writing, project management and general business management. The full version includes all that plus general accounting, job costs, billing, check writing and payroll. It costs $695 for one user.
Getting Estimates From Subcontractors
If you’re planning on hiring subcontractors for most of your home building you’ll be able to submit your plans to them for an estimate. This way you don’t have to go through coming up with a materials list for their particular subcontract work. Then you can negotiate with your chosen sub about whether they or you will acquire the materials.
Personally, I prefer to purchase the materials on my own (from their list) and hire them for the labor only. Most subs should be flexible on allowing you to do this (if not, be suspicious) and should be written into the contract. This way the sub or supplier is less likely to file a lien on your property for non-payment of materials.
If the subcontractor purchases the materials you’re essentially trusting that they will, in turn, pay the building supply store for the materials. If the supply store goes unpaid they have the legal option of putting that lien on your house, not the subcontractor’s. This is an old law, and not likely to change. This is why I buy the materials directly myself.
On deciding which subcontractor to hire I would advise NOT going with your lowest bid right off the bat. Supposedly the practice in Japan (I can’t remember my source on this) is to take all bids for a project, eliminate the highest and lowest, and pick one from the remaining middle values. This seems like a really good idea to me. Generally you get what you pay for in terms of quality of workmanship. There’s usually a hidden reason why the low bid is so low.
Ultimately any workmanship will be inspected by a building inspector for safety issues. But, a building can be pretty shoddily built in terms of “square-and-plumbness” and still pass building codes. A good subcontractor should allow you to contact references of their past building projects. Any hesitation should be a red flag.
Building the Shell vs. Finishing
When coming up with your materials list it’s easy to overlook or disregard the cost of finishing the interior of your home. The list of materials for foundation, framing, sheathing, wiring, plumbing, roofing, etc. is clearly obvious. But deciding on finish materials like roofing, siding, flooring, wall treatment, cabinets, and fixtures (not to mention possible new furniture), can be equal to the cost of building the shell.
I was really quite shocked to see that finishing off my home cost almost as much as putting up the exterior elements (minus the well and septic). And I ended up going with cheaper materials: cheap adhesive parquet flooring, self-administered drywall texturing and painting, inexpensive hickory cabinets (although I still thought they were very nice– lots of graining which I like), low-end bath and kitchen fixtures, and routed 1×4’s for trim just about everywhere. The siding was more expensive than other options: rough-sawn or Adirondack pine siding that had to be hand-treated with Thompson’s Water Seal before going up. This was my one splurge.
I hope you can see that putting the time into estimating your building materials list will be well worth it. It will give you a much more accurate idea of what your materials costs are going to be at the outset, so hopefully you won’t be surprised with the bill at the end. Building a house of any size is definitely a lot of paperwork and organization.