Planning: Building costs

What will a new build cost?

In 2020, building costs for a new house can be anything from R11 000 to R15 000 a square meter (high spec can easily go to R25 000 and beyond). This price is calculated by adding all final build costs (excluding professional services and admin fees) and dividing the total by the house size in square meters.

Naturally this is a guide only, but using a base figure of R15 000 per square helps when calculating how many square meters you can afford to build. That means a 400m2 house can easily cost R6 000 000 to build. Add the value of the land, professional fees and holding fees (renting while you build, rates etc.).

However, it is possible to build cheaper. Best case scenario (therefore easily accessible site, tight budgeting, reasonably inexpensive fittings and simple design) a house of 400m2 can cost in the region of R4 500 000/5 000 000 (once you add in the service fees).

Building costs – what are the main risks?

Difficult soil conditions, intricate roof detailing, basements, large boundaries, expensive fittings (like high-end, solid wood finishes or imported kitchens) can send these costs spiraling very quickly.

Get all the quotes in before you start any build, or better still, hire a quantity surveyor to do a detailed cost analysis. And remember that the actual structure is, in fact, just a fraction of the cost in the end. You have to add all the finishes to get a good understanding of your final budget.

If you want to avoid major cost insecurities, it’s best to go with an established, reputable builder that can provide a fixed price quote (although this will be more expensive, it could be safer in the long run). Remember that builders have and can go bankrupt, which can still leave you with an unfinished house, so you always pay in pre-determined installments.

The unknown factor in building costs

Other than the contractor, the biggest unknown risk on a new build are your soil conditions. Many architects and structural engineers will now insist on a geo technical report to make sure of no hidden surprises. There are surprisingly many areas in SA that present very bad building conditions and require boat foundations (suspended, with extra support) or the site can require soil refilling and compaction.

For more about slab and foundation construction, read here.

One of the most dangerous money pits is any underground building, whether part or full basements. Underground water comes up in surprising places and, worse case scenario, basements can set you back millions.

Finally, make sure all your admin and fees are up to date (NHBRC/Safety files/Council submissions). Any transgressions can get your site shut down for months.

Getting quotes on building a house in South Africa

Any building contractor you hire has to be NHBRC registered by law. Secondly, the cheaper the quote, the more stress the build is likely to present – it’s really your decision.

That does not mean you can’t build a house for a reasonable amount. Good, reasonably priced contractors are out there – you have to just check their references.

In South Africa you generally have one of the following options when sending out for tenders or quotes.

Fixed price build

With this model you submit all your detailed plans and a schedule of finishes (e.g. floors, ceilings, wall finish) to a medium/large size building operation and they provide you with a fixed price to complete the whole house from start to finish – a ‘turnkey project’. 

As building can come with unexpected delays and obstacles, they are likely to charge more to cover any unforeseen costs. To limit their risk, they are also likely to spend extra money on quantity surveyors, which is great to have, but costs extra.

If you choose to complete your house with the architect overseeing the project, they will also likely refer you to preferred, experienced contractors as they have to ensure their own reputation.

Water tight contracts are obviously really important here. Also, stipulate a strict time frame (and consider late penalties, or a bonus for timeous completion). Most important, installment payments must only be made when pre-agreed milestones have been reached.

Project manager and subcontractor

Many smaller building contractors now prefer working on a project management basis. This means a building contractor charges you a monthly or daily fee, while running your build with a team of subcontractors that are paid directly by you. In other words, less risk for the builder, more involvement from the owner.

They often provide a quote by submitting individual prices from each subcontract team (i.e. plumbers, electricians, roofers, carpenters), and then manage the site on a part time basis (they are likely to have a few projects at the same time). Not having a project manager on site full time can be a real disadvantage. Insist on a foreman (that you have met and trust) that will be there from the start of the day till the end.

This option requires more control and input from the home owner as you will still be required to oversee daily material spend and subcontractors, to a degree. This is, however, likely to be a cheaper option, even though you cannot always hold project managers to their original price or contract as they are still working for a daily rate and can effectively walk off site if they want to.

But it does allow you some leeway with changes and if you’re able to find a cheaper option during the build (yes, this can happen) you have the advantage of changing it on the fly.

Self-build with sub-contractors

The one other option for this category is becoming the project manager yourself. This can save you around R300 000 in fees (for a 9 month period), but, and it’s a big but, you have to either be or have an experienced, reliable and authoritative building foreman on site at all times to oversee the labour and various subcontractors.

Weekly visits are not enough as issues are likely to come up every day and need to be solved quickly. Even if you subcontract each area, someone still has to coordinate the teams and materials. You will also be responsible for all material orders, admin and discipline on site. It’s a full-time job.

Building costs: expected cost categories for a new house build

If you want to get an estimate of what a new house will cost you, create a spread sheet with the following categories and populate with quotes.

Pre build and admin

  • Architect or draughts person (remember to include council submission fees, runners etc.)
  • Structural engineer
  • Land survey (if the plot does not come with one)
  • Electrical and water connection
  • Holding costs. Rates, insurance, electricity and water. (Needless to say, if you need to rent somewhere while you build, this can have major cost implications, although it will be part of your building cost breakdown).
  • Rubble removal and site hire (toilets/huts). Rubble removal is a real hidden cost. Adds up quickly.

Build

  • Excavation. This will include clearing site (trees, vegetation) and diggers that need to create a building platform if there’s a slope. (Note: Soil removal costs can build up very quickly – budget more than you think)
  • Security. Fencing property or, in some cases, a permanent guard.
  • Building of superstructure
    • Labour costs for building foundations, ground slabs, structure brickwork and plastering (generally a foreman and team)
    • Material costs (including sand, cement, bricks, concrete, steel, hardware items and tool hire)
    • Slabs (building contractor can either complete slab work themselves with carpenter, or a company can bring in pre-engineered slabs.
  • Plumbing
    • All bathroom and kitchen taps and fittings, shower glazing, garden taps and drains.
    • Plumbing installation (quotes will likely include all piping, internal fittings and geysers. It should also include in storm water solution for the site).
  • Electrical
    • All light fittings, transistors, stoves and appliances (solar option too)
    • Electrical installation (this should include all conduiting, DB board, switches and plug points.)
  • Carpentry. All roof support structures, internal doors, frames and locks, construction of all concrete formwork.
  • Flooring. Finish of your choice (for tiling remember to include cost of adhesive, grout and sealers for natural stone and transport)
  • Window/Door frames and glazing. Will generally be fitted by a manufacturer after brickwork is done (other than the superstructure, likely to be your highest cost)
  • Waterproofing. Painters can do this, but it’s best to bring in the specialists for flat/concrete roofs). Basement waterproofing is even more specialized and can come with huge costs if you want it done properly – avoid if you have a tight budget.
  • Joinery. All built-in cupboards, kitchen etc. Also include some budget for kitchen tops.
  • Roofing. Options are sheeting, concrete, tiles or slate. If you do roof sheets, the carpentry team does that. If you need gutters, don’t forget to include that cost.
  • Ceilings and insulation. Done by a carpenter, but you will have to specify a good insulation material so that they can include that in their quote.
  • Painters. This can include walls, sealing of floors (if required), joinery paint and waterproofing.

For more information about building steps, read here.

Finishes

  • Landscaping and irrigation (always worth budgeting a few large ticket items – like a few mature trees)
  • Pool. Best to go with a specialist contractor.
  • Fencing. If you’re not bricking a wall, palisade, timber or ClearVu panels offer a quick solution.
  • Stone masons. Stone cladding is a popular addition to new houses. The smaller operators quote on labour only. You will have to provide all materials and stone.
  • Fireplace installers. Best to use a specialist. Not cheap, but hard to fix if your chimney doesn’t draw properly.
  • Gas installations. Always insist on a registered installer as you will require a certificate on completion.

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