Renovating Is Cheaper Than Adding On

Renovating Is Cheaper Than Adding On

House renovated down to the studs

Even complex, messy renovations cost less than building brand new space. Read on to figure out if you really need to build that budget-busting addition or if renovating will do the trick.

Designing a renovation is hard. Taking a jumble of existing rooms and figuring out the precise changes that will make the space harmonious is a real puzzle. That’s why we architects need so many types of drawings – plans, sections, elevations, 3-D models. They’re mostly to help us wrap our heads around the task at hand; so we can see it from every angle.

Often times, in meetings with new clients, this challenge can be overwhelming. Occasionally someone will say, “This is crazy, let’s just build new. That’ll probably be cheaper than messing with the existing house, anyway.”


Yes, it is complicated to dig into an old house, rearrange walls, expose foundations, and reroute plumbing. But, at the end of the day, it’s a lot more cost effective than adding on new square footage.

Caveat: if your challenge is simply that your house is too small and you need additional square footage, then, yes, adding on is the best approach. But for folks who have a big-enough house that’s poorly laid out, renovating existing space is always a win from an investment perspective.

The numbers

Here’s what I mean. Take a look at this house.

Gut job renovation fixer upper

We took it all the way down to the studs. At one point, you could see from the basement, up three floors to the attic rafters. We finished it out with beautiful, modern finishes, and the project cost $70-90/square foot.

Compare that to the additions we design. Additions of the least expensive rooms (family room, bedrooms, extra living space), usually price around $150/sf. Even screen porches can hit $100/sf pretty easily. More expensive rooms types like kitchens and bathrooms can get up to $250-300/sf. And we’re talking like a nice, middle-class bathroom that you might stick on your Pinterest board. Not some over-the-top show house. The least expensive projects we’ve priced are unconditioned garages. Those generally run $65/sf.

If you’ve not renovated recently, these prices can sound crazy. But I’m here to tell you they’re not! New construction is pricey.

Caveat #2: My prices are based on our typical job. Most of our clients hire reputable general contractors to execute their projects. This is more expensive than doing the work yourself (unless you calculate your own hourly rate) and often pricier than a deep-discount handyman (which can end up more expensive if he doesn’t build to code and you have to do it all twice…just sayin’).

In conclusion

Like I said, sometimes adding new square footage is the only way to solve your design dilemma. I have nothing against building additions. We put one on our own house the year we got married. But when you look at the fact that additions will cost you 100-300% more than renovations, you better be really clear that more space is what’s needed.

Happy renovating,
Sara & Sean