Please house me
January 11, 2020 10:24 AM   Subscribe

My partner and I have moved to a part of upstate NY with cheap (?) land, almost no new houses, and old houses that mostly wouldn't work for us. I've always had the impression that getting a house custom-built was an expensive, life-devouring boondoggle. Is that the case?

We recently relocated to the Southern Tier region of NY state, so think "eastern edge of the rust belt". It's very different from anywhere we've ever lived before, so our assumptions about things like housing have repeatedly proven to be completely wrong. (We also have no house-buying experience.)

The economy here is depressed, so houses are relatively inexpensive. There is a growing university and a couple colleges, meaning that although there is a little new construction, basically all the new housing is apartments.

Most of the houses available are in serious flood zones and/or aren't suitable as a place that we plan to live in for the rest of our lives. We want a house with at least the master bedroom, garage, kitchen, and laundry on one floor. The houses here tend to be 100+ years old and multi-story, or split-level 70s things (with garage and laundry in the basement). I love the beautiful old Queen Annes and Craftsman-style homes, but I can't imagine living in them when I'm 80, or even having my disabled friends over now.

We're looking for: a single story floor plan, AC, an attached garage, no carpets, a large bathtub, energy efficiency, space around the house for trees/gardening/privacy(/chickens??), and space for lots of books, a decent kitchen, having people over, an office, and a guest room or two.

Investment is not our top priority; living comfortably in a house for a long time is.

So should we consider buying land and having a house built? How do I figure out how much this kind of thing costs? We found Cost to Build, which estimated $250,000 (plus land) with our wild guesses at what we'd need, but I don't have any reason to think that's accurate one way or the other. I hear that prefab/modular/panel houses cost less, but I also hear that they're less sturdy and more prone to expensive problems. (Though more prone to expensive problems than a 50-100-year-old house? I don't know.)

Complication 1: The geography of this area means that there are relatively few homes near my partner's work, which we didn't realize before moving. I think this is causing me to freak out a little. If there were more homes in that area, I think I'd default to just talking to realtors and waiting for one of the handful of truly single-story, non-floodplain houses to come up for sale.

Complication 2: The place we're renting is not somewhere we want to stay very long. We've been here since August 2019 and would vastly prefer to be out by August 2020, which would seem to preclude any kind of custom home anyway.

Do you have any advice, personal experiences, or online resources to share about either having a house built or deciding whether to have a house built? Should we be looking into buying an existing house and redoing it somehow? Is there some other question I should be asking?
posted by wintersweet to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Wintersweet, I lived in Binghamton for almost 20 years. I feel your pain.

It is a very interesting area when it comes to housing. As you note, prices are low. That means it is hard to get more than "what you paid for it" when you sell. That makes it tough to justify the expense of building new, too.

But... people still do it! Friends I know who built new in the area did indeed have a modular structure brought in and placed on a new foundation. It is a solid, homey-feeling structure.

One of them works in construction, so he'd be able to speak to how he selected the builder and what quality issues he made sure of. I also can ask them what it cost if you like.

posted by Glomar response at 10:44 AM on January 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Have you considered asking the people in single story homes to sell? This sometimes works in slow RE markets; I know older people in a similar rust belt market who didn't want to go through a year+ of showing a home but were happy to move when they got a good offer.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 10:47 AM on January 11, 2020 [4 favorites]

It seems like if you could find a two-story house that you liked, it would be probably cheaper to build an extra bedroom attached to the first floor (if one of the existing rooms doesn't already work for that purpose) and install laundry in the kitchen, make energy efficiency improvements, etc, than to build a completely new house. And you could use the second floor for now, and use it for guest rooms or storage if/when you no longer want to go upstairs. (When my grandmother was 90, I remember her saying she liked having a second floor for the's not necessarily a bad thing).
posted by pinochiette at 11:14 AM on January 11, 2020 [3 favorites]

Old houses have their own problems, but new houses are built to remarkably low standards and will age much faster. 2nding that moving laundry facilities, adding a bedroom, etc. are much more doable projects than a whole house (and they can be done over time rather than all at once).
posted by rikschell at 11:39 AM on January 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I hear that prefab/modular/panel houses cost less, but I also hear that they're less sturdy and more prone to expensive problems.

This is not necessarily the case. Homes that are equipped with an undercarriage (wheels etc., which you then disguise with skirting boards), yeah, those tend to be not-so-durable. However, there are a number of companies providing modular-type structures that are pretty highly reinforced (because the units are expected to be swinging in the air from a crane during installation). There was a nice manufacturer in NY that I knew, but unfortunately they went bankrupt when a large customer screwed them over on payments, so I no longer have names I can point you toward. Nevertheless, there are still others around. The MBI may have info for you.

...anyway, don't ignore this entire class of structure at the outset. One thing to watch out for is the walls; in cheaper mobile structures the wall panels are hardboard, not sheetrock. This seems fine, except that it makes repairing wall damage quite a bit more difficult than just slapping on some spackle and repainting (especially if its the kind of hardboard that has "wallpaper" printed on it). You can identify these houses by the vertical seam between adjacent panels (often "disguised" with a simple half-round trim piece that runs floor to ceiling).

Proposal: consider building in stages? A house can be designed for continuous expansion, allowing you to add to the structure as/when it becomes affordable to do so. That way you can start with a simpler unit (maybe even just a services core, basic kitchen, basic bath, and a studio-type occupancy room), and work your way toward something fancier (add a new set of rooms, convert the old "main room" into an expanded kitchen, etc. etc.). The main thing there is to pay attention to the structural frame, and the HVAC/MEP systems right at the beginning of everything. It's more expensive in the end to do it this way, but on the other hand you're paying less at any given point in time (kinda like a mortgage, actually).

Also, if you want to get really fancy on estimating, you can see if any local library has a recent copy of the R.S. Means cost books. If you do this, pay attention to their various cost adjustment ratios (they discuss them in the books, and I find people frequently fail to apply the recommended adjustments and then think that the "standard cost" actually applies to them. Which it doesn't; the "standard costs" are baselines that you need to adjust based on your specific circumstances.)
posted by aramaic at 11:39 AM on January 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: A renovation of an existing home might be a less major undertaking than building one from scratch. You say you can’t live in these places when you’re 80, but is there a way they could work now, with some changes? If there are established neighborhoods with attractive older homes, I’d talk to an architect before deciding it won’t work. For example, what if you added an office and accessible bathroom downstairs now, and basically made it so you could move down there at some point if need be?

I lived in a house where we hired an architect to talk about an addition. My then-partner and I had spent months trying to figure out what to do (and he worked in trades so had a good eye for construction generally). Within 30 minutes of meeting with an architect at our house, he had an excellent suggestion for how to do two small additions that made much more sense than any one addition we had considered.

You wouldn’t have to purchase a home before having these conversations.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:35 PM on January 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm somewhat familiar with the area because I lived in Ithaca for 20 years and have gone back numerous times in the 25 years since I left to visit my grown kids and their families.

Given all the hills around Binghamton there must be plenty of houses that are not in floodplains. Maybe you need to do more exploring! Have you found any neighborhoods that appeal to you and your partner, where you think you might be comfortable living? And that are convenient to your workplaces? Have you seen any houses in a style you like?

I think having a house built is a great idea as long as you can find an architect who understands what you want. There must be some in the Binghamton area who design super-energy efficient houses and who have good relationships with local contractors. What you're wanting sounds very feasible. When you have the time check out the websites of all local architects. Go meet with a couple of them. Check out some of the ones listed here. One of them mentions "aging in place" design.

This is the worst time of year up there, everything is grey, it's no wonder you're feeling a bit discouraged. Spring is lovely.
posted by mareli at 2:30 PM on January 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

Pre-fab houses and kits have come a long way. When I was poking around the options a few years back, I was quite impressed with the options from both North American and European companies.
posted by quince at 2:33 PM on January 11, 2020

Best answer: Start looking for a great builder to work knowledge of sustainability and who pays workers well. A contractor who is trustworthy is the single biggest factor in having a decent experience. If you build, you can specify the quality, for the most part. You can get extra insulation, efficient high-quality windows, and orient the roof for solar. I would do this if I could. Also, adding a sustainable house to the housing stock is a good thing.
posted by theora55 at 3:06 PM on January 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

Existing shipping container houses can be had for for under $100k and can be shipped anywhere. You can peruse Tiny House Listings for sale.

Container houses do not have to be ugly. They can be skinned with wood, stucco, or plant trellises. See Container Hacker for lots of examples.

Containers are tough, strong, and there's a surplus of them. We're gonna arrange a couple of them at right angles & then span across for a shaded breezeway or carport, haven't decided which yet.

You would need a GC who knows how to do foundations well & can engineer utility connections appropriate to your climate.

Just a thought.
posted by yoga at 3:40 PM on January 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Came in to suggest a tiny house but yoga beat me to it. I'm considering a land and tiny house purchase myself.

The TinyHouse subreddit is full of people who have tiny houses in northern states.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 4:26 PM on January 11, 2020

Response by poster: NB: We are specifically not looking for a tiny house, sorry!
posted by wintersweet at 4:45 PM on January 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Not upstate NY advice (currently I'm downstate for upstaters and upstate for city folk), but I've been through this before in a few areas. You say housing is fairly inexpensive; that's a real positive.

There's a huge practical difference between "buying land and building a house on it" and "remodeling an existing house" - the difference is mostly in permitting and utilities. If you can find a place with existing utilities (gas, electrical, oil, whatever), that has a base foundation layout you can work with, you'll be in good shape, for two reasons.

First: Having a foundation done and utilities to the site shortcuts a lot of the initial permit process - it's a remodel, not a build on land. That's SO MUCH EASIER to deal with, in almost all jurisdictions. Second: It limits YOU. Having a foundation in place gives you some constraints. Without them it's just to easy to say...let's add this, let's make it a little bigger, etc. A foundation says 'this is what we have to work with'.

I don't know if it exists in your area, but I would look for any house with enough size that you can live with the floorplan if it were a single story just for now. You can always expand it later, but tearing it down to the foundation and building what you want may both make it easier and also help focus your decision making. If you can find a place with a small outbuilding you may be able to even live there while you do it.
posted by true at 7:36 PM on January 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When I read the description of your location, I assumed that you were more westerly than Binghamton, I was thinking more around the SUNY Alfred area, or maybe even around Jamestown, so not sure if that impacts any of the responses.

I have two properties in Upstate NY though much more east than where you are, but I think the experiences will be similar. One I bought as a raw piece of land with the intention of building on it, the other is a ramshackle run down farmhouse on decent acreage that I bought with the intention of a renovating over time.

I started developing the land and put in the well (about $3.5k because despite the property being waterfront on a very small lake, apparently the water source dives deep underground immediately and we had to drill down over 200 ft for the well), driveway and housepad (about $8k, because I have a very long driveway that curves around the back of the property, and it's also cut into the base of a small mountain), septic (around $4k, because the only place my land would perk was on the other side of the dirt road, so I had to dig up and run septic lines a couple of hundred feet), and had the electricity run from the pole on the road to the housepad(around $2k).

I got a quote from a local reputable builder about replacing a small bunkhouse on a cement pad where one once stood, and he quoted $32k for the under 600 square foot bunkhouse. It was a somewhat modern design with a bunch of windows to have a view of the lake so it probably could have been done cheaper with a different design.

Ultimately though, I decided to pull back on building when I learned how much my neighbors were paying in property taxes for their houses ($6-8k annually for seasonal properties). Since this would be a recreational/second use for me I decided to hold off on building the both the bunk house and the main house until I was sure that that's what I wanted to do and plopped a big camper on it instead to keep the property taxes down to a reasonable level.

A few years later I found the farmhouse, crappy house, but gorgeous setting and even closer to me here in Brooklyn. The taxes are pretty high but that's mostly because of the acreage that came with it. I've been gradually renovating this over time ($4k for a new propane boiler, and $12k for a new roof, renovated the kitchen myself for around $5k buying a lot of used but good quality stuff), but if I wanted to I could live in it full time. I'm sure replacing the septic tank is in my future just because nothing was done on the house for 20 years before I bought it (it held the same family of renters who did little to no upkeep).

My point is, there are downsides to both building from scratch and renovating an old house. I would recommend searching out a few homebuilders in the area and talking to them about price estimates and what to look for in finding a piece of raw land, that should help you to decide if that's the route you want to take. Also, do your homework regarding property taxes, they can be killer in a lot of areas of NYS.
posted by newpotato at 3:23 AM on January 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

Dwell magazine has an annual issue featuring its top 10 prefabricated homes. Its 2019 issue includes a 4-bed, 4-bath home situated in one of the most remote areas of the Berkshires, Mount Washington, Massachusetts. Modern prefab dwellings do not arrive on wheels and they can be a beautiful and viable option for some. Check out Dwell's picks for 2018 as well as its prefab news section. Going this route won't be perfect, because there is no perfect rout. Still, it might be a possibility for you.
posted by Bella Donna at 3:27 AM on January 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

Clarification: container homes do not have to be tiny houses where everything is crammed into a single container. Each container can be dedicated to a specific area of the home.

But understood on the ixnay on the tiny house concept. I shall show myself out. :)
posted by yoga at 6:50 AM on January 12, 2020

Maybe buy a charming, older multi-story home, put in a washer/dryer on the same floor as master bedroom, and put in a home elevator in a few years. I think they run $15K to $30K.
posted by at at 3:36 PM on January 12, 2020

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