Can you estimate the replacement cost of my house?
November 12, 2018 9:06 AM   Subscribe

I know I can pay someone to do an assessment. What I'm wondering is, can anyone on here look at the details of my house and give me a reliable ballpark figure for a total rebuild?

I understand that my homeowner's insurance company has come up with a replacement cost using an assessment of my house's size, location, etc. But I've heard that plenty of people end up being underinsured for a total rebuild. And I live in Northern California, and we've got a new normal for fire.

I know I can pay someone to do an assessment. What I'm wondering is, can anyone on here look at the details of my house and give me a reliable ballpark figure for a total rebuild? Our house is:

- 2000 square feet, but a bunch of that is unfinished basement, which we would want to finish in a rebuild. So, let's say 2500 square feet plus a garage.
- We would also redo the foundation in a rebuild
- 2 stories
- 4 BR, 3 bath
- In the San Francisco Bay Area

posted by MelanieMichelle to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
As someone who spent half of the past three years doing essentially a gut job to their home (in the Boston area mind you) - there is a bit of a range in assessed price. This would be based on other factors such as heating/cooling systems, building materials (such as insulation type and unsexy things that are more internal to the house) and finishing materials (kitchen countertops and bathrooms come immediately to mind). So a house with what you provided that is solar heated with central air would have a total difference in cost then that of the same house with a different system. Have you poked around on your insurance company's website? A lot of times they have free estimators and calculators. You can also look at real estate listings to look for comps of similar homes to yours to get a rough estimate.
posted by floweredfish at 9:33 AM on November 12, 2018

I'm not sure this comment will be too useful, but based on my attempts to estimate construction costs even for smaller projects, I think that there probably isn't much middle ground between a detailed estimate and an $X / square foot rough guess. The only middle-ground option would be to talk to people who recently built a place from the ground up. But my experience is that even construction cost estimates on a well-scoped project can vary by 25 percent (and far more if there aren't specific plans drawn yet). Shoot, bids to redo just my roof varied by a factor of 2. And bids on the same project increased dramatically between 2014 and 2017.

I agree it's worth erring on the high side here because construction costs in the Bay Area are already through the roof and will be moreso after disasters.
posted by slidell at 9:36 AM on November 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

If, by "total rebuild" you mean entirely replacing the house (which appears to be what you mean) a General Contractor will know the $ per square foot average all-in cost for a new house in your area.

...and since that's a relatively simple piece of information for them to give you, it's worth calling around to ask a few. They'll differ based on the level of construction they normally work with, so there'll be variations, but you should be able to develop a ballpark sense pretty quickly -- some folks may hedge a bit excessively, but if you're explicit that this is very early-phase estimating ("we're just trying to figure out how to start thinking about this") it shouldn't be too hard to ferret out useful data. I will say, however, that I've personally had better luck getting this information via venues that leave no written record -- either an in-person chat about possibilities (ideally when standing on the lawn in front of the house), or else by phone. They're likely to be VERY leery of saying anything in written form, as I absolutely guarantee they've been burned that way in the past ("six years ago you said our remodel would be only $100K, now you're saying it's $150K?!! I'm reporting you to the BBB!!1!")

For example, in my area it's around $300/sf not including land costs, and not including any expense for the time spent waiting for construction to begin (local GCs are swamped with work). I did a substantial renovation two years ago for $115/sf but this had no foundation work and minimal structural reinforcing with most interior walls remaining intact and untouched aside from new paint, but all new plumbing and wiring plus entirely new kitchen and bathrooms).

Alternatively, the RSMeans set of publications can get you into the ballpark, but be aware that their numbers require a LOT of finessing (you can vanish down a rabbit hole pretty fast and end up trying to estimate the cost per run of copper water line before you realize it OR you can just grab the first value you see but then forget to adjust based on their local variation factors, and neither outcome is good for you).
posted by aramaic at 9:38 AM on November 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

...and, so as to not abuse edit, another point -- don't forget the cost of "lost use". That is to say, if a new house will take three years to be finished, you need to live somewhere for three years and that will have attendant costs.
posted by aramaic at 9:40 AM on November 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

I don't really want to question the premise of your question, but...

... home insurance won't insure you in excess of the rebuild cost of your existing home. In other words, they won't allow you to repair the foundation or finish your basement. They will replace your house, but not improve it. Having insurance in excess of the value of your house gives you an incentive to, say, burn down your house in order to get a finished basement.
posted by saeculorum at 9:40 AM on November 12, 2018 [9 favorites]

Also keep in mind that building costs go up when lots of people need work done at the same time, so if a neighborhood is taken out by fire or earthquake, the cost is likely to end up greater than just a single house fire because of supply and demand.
posted by rikschell at 10:19 AM on November 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

I understand that my homeowner's insurance company has come up with a replacement cost using an assessment of my house's size, location, etc. But I've heard that plenty of people end up being underinsured for a total rebuild.

There are 2 types of homeowners insurance: one will pay "market value" and the other "replacement cost". Market value is noticeably cheaper than replacement cost, especially with older houses, so people often choose to insure their home for market value and then feel underinsured when they want to rebuild because duh, what they really needed was replacement cost.

It does sound to me like you have a replacement policy so this is more of an explanation of why you've heard what you've heard but please call your agent to find out for sure, otherwise your question is moot.
posted by rada at 10:19 AM on November 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Another detail of note is that replacement cost insurance policies will generally have provisions to expand coverage in cases of mass disaster. This makes sense; contractors are likely to increase their prices when there are a lot of houses destroyed all at once. For instance, during my last homeowner's insurance search a couple weeks ago, I was given options for 50% coverage expansion (ie, insurance company would pay up to 1.5x insured value to replace house), 100% coverage expansion (ie, insurance company would pay up to 2.0x insured value to replace house), and unlimited coverage expansion (ie, insurance company would pay any amount of money to replace house). For me, the unlimited option was about $200/year more than the 100% expansion option.
posted by saeculorum at 10:34 AM on November 12, 2018

This is not even in the right solar system as far as the amount of information that we'd need to be able to give you even a semi-accurate answer, and that's not even taking into account the fact that construction costs vary wildly by region and even by town or city so really only NorCal-based mefites who are familiar with your jurisdiction would be qualified to answer, and even then only if they were general contractors who sat down with you for an onsite sales consultation and then spent half a day or so putting together an estimate. This is like if you wanted to know what a medical bill was going to be so you told MeFi that you'd been having stomach pain, and what would it cost to fix it and by the way you're in Guatamala? There's absolutely no way that people on the internet can responsibly answer this question for you.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 11:35 AM on November 12, 2018 [5 favorites]

Like, the fixtures and finishes in your master bathroom alone could cause the price of the job to change by $30,000 either way depending on how basic or how fancy you wanted to get, and it's like that all down the line before we even start talking about issues specific to your location.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 11:39 AM on November 12, 2018

One fun thing that I haven't seen mentioned is that you won't be building a new house on a fresh plot of ground - you'll have a burned out shell or earthquake rubble or a pile of ash that will need to be removed first. Remember to account for those cleanup costs in addition to construction.

As an aside, a house in my parents neighborhood caught on fire this year. The builders took away all the remains except for the surviving front stoop and columns because in their area a "rebuild" has lower permitting costs than new construction. This tells me you may want to get information from people familiar with recovering after disaster and not just getting the generic square foot number.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 11:46 AM on November 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

Don't forget the contents. If this is your home and you want the contents insured for replacement value (not actually sure if this is a thing, as opposed to depreciated value) take photos, make lists of everything. If you have antiques, art, or jewelry of particular value, consider insurance on those items separate from the overall contents. And if you are thinking your home might be at risk of fire, flood, or other catastrophic destruction, I would consider storing your valuables and valuable papers in a safe deposit box in a bank.

This advice is obviously aimed at a situation where you are insuring living in a home where your aim is rebuilding and refurnishing it.
posted by citygirl at 11:56 AM on November 12, 2018

This isn't a direct answer, but I recently heard a podcast (Death, Sex and Money) that interviewed people who were rebuilding from a previous California fire. One couple was blogging their rebuilding process, including providing financial details about it here: It might provide some additional information for you.
posted by Caz721 at 11:59 AM on November 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

What I was getting at above is basically this comment and the followup plus massive variation between builders (in part due to different assumptions about the quality level) plus inflation over time and due to high demand post disaster. It's just a really hard question to answer in the abstract. As I said, I got bids from people who came on site to simply rebuild a deck system as built, and not only did those estimates differ between themselves, but then a couple years later, I got totally different written bids.
posted by slidell at 12:32 PM on November 12, 2018

My parents lost their home in the Tubbs fire and are rebuilding. One thing I haven't seen mentioned in this thread, and forgive my vernacular here, is whether or not your old building plans (the house wasn't more than 10 years old) will be accepted by the county. There were some new regs that went into place between the original build and the rebuild making their old plans from the architect out of code and the county was being a BEAR about allowing them to use the plans they'd had in place before the fire while some other counties (Napa I think) were waiving this requirement.

The other was - Trump and his tariffs which affected their ability to afford certain new building stock. You never know when our own federal government will enact a trade war that will fuck with your rebuild.
posted by rdnnyc at 1:46 PM on November 12, 2018

Take your phone and walk all around the house. Photograph all the details, specifically anything that is non-standard and would be more expensive to replace. If stuff is sub-standard you don't need to document that. Store the pictures online.

No need to over-insure the house. That money is better spent on fire control measures.
posted by theora55 at 7:32 AM on November 13, 2018

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