The Good, The Bad, The Expensive

In which building a house is pricey and no one is surprised.

Kate Heffernan
Sep 13, 2017 · 12 min read

I am not a woman who can seek out a great deal on a septic tank. I am reluctant at best to understand the details of such an item. Below was about as much as I was willing to learn about septic systems before ok-ing my contractor’s plan and suggesting drinks at our neighborhood gin distillery.

🙉 My approach to grey water

That said, there were several items that I was willing to really dig into to see what kinds of deals I could find. Given that basically everything is more expensive than you would like it to be, it seems like most purchases go one of three ways:

  1. You find a good deal
  2. You suck it up and pay full price
  3. You don’t get what you want

Obviously my preference is for door # 1 but is only possible some of the time.

When I got a deal:

Floors: Make friends and wait for a sale

My first win was our floors. I can. not. wait. for these to be installed. Really early in the process when I was only fantasizing about the design of the house I discovered that there was a very high end, beautiful, reclaimed wood flooring place super close to our house called The Hudson Company. In my naivety I had convinced myself that I could use the same vendor that did the floors at the new Whitney building for my little shack in the woods. Why ever not!? I’m sure they have some sort of neighbor discount.

Dreamy floors from the Hudson Company

No. They do not. They do however have two super posh showrooms in the city where a very patient sales guy walked me through all their offerings and politely pretended not to notice when I winced at the $13–$20/square foot price tags.

Cross section of engineered wood. High quality engineered wood flooring will have a thick layer of real wood on the top allowing you to sand and refinish it if necessary.

This was what I had in mind: wide board, engineered white oak with a very natural matte finish. I needed about 1800 sq ft.

Quick aside on wood flooring: Wood floors are available in solid wood or engineered wood. Solid is just what it sounds like, engineered is when they cut the top layer of wood off and attached it to very sturdy plywood to prevent cupping and warping. We need engineered wood for two reasons: 1. I wanted wide boards. Wide boards are more likely to cup and warp especially in climates with large temperature fluctuations like New York. Engineered wood is more sturdy and so can support a wider board. 2. We are using radiant floor heating and you can’t install solid wood over a radiant floor heating system.

Anyway — back to The Hudson Company — visiting the show room was super fun but had convinced me that our floors would fit squarely into bucket #3 (you don’t get what you want). I replied to the nice sales guy’s follow up email and let him know I didn’t think their products would fit into our budget but that I really appreciated his time and loved their work. I tried to move on and get myself excited about the $7/sqft floors I had found at “floor depot” (names have been changed to protect the innocent).

Hudson Company Manhattan Showroom

A few months passed (luckily I was really ahead of schedule looking at floors), and that same nice man emailed me out of nowhere to let me know that they were having a warehouse sale and sent a list of the sale inventory.

Are you freaking out right now?!!? My heart is beating faster even now just looking at this inventory list. 1900 sqft of 12 inch wide. Quarter Sawn. Engineered. White. Flippin’. Oak. For ONE DOLLAR/SQ FT. 94% off!!! I just. It’s too good. It was actually exactly what I wanted/needed. It was bashert (sometimes only a yiddish word will do). I drove to their mill the next day to see this miracle with my own eyes and made my purchase that same day.

So normally these floors would be $17/sqft. For 1,921 sqft that would have been $32,657. I got it for $1,921 + $100 for shipping. I was planning on spending about 12k on floors with that $7 alternative I had found. Man. What. A. Steal.

Why was this so cheap you might ask (if you’re still reading a long ass article about wood)? The 1900 sqft I bought is remnant from another project and a significant portion of the planks are “shorts” (so like 3' boards instead of a more standard 8' or even up to 15'). Most people who are going to spend that kind of money on their floors are going to want long luxurious planks. But not me. I’m a short myself so I do not discriminate. We’ll have to be a little creative with our installation to prioritize the longer planks in the bigger spaces and use the little ones in places that are more natural for a short board or will always be under rugs or furniture.

Ok so what’s the lesson here… I guess a lot of this was just good luck. But also, talk to vendors you love, stay in contact, be transparent about your budget restrictions and maybe something will work out. I think a great place like The Hudson Company will want to make something work if at all possible.

Siding: Take a risk with an unknown vendor

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about the siding we put on our house and tbh I am so excited about it so I’m happy to disuss. Sorry to those who are sick of it. About a year ago, right before we went to see our property for the first time, I read this post on Gardenista. I loved this modern addition to a traditional cottage and was really taken with the siding technique.

I had this in the back of my mind but I didn’t really start researching the siding options until had an estimate from my contractor on what Western Red Cedar siding would cost. That’s the siding our architect spec’d so I want to understand that price point before I went digging around too much. Western Red Cedar came in at about $10/sqft (though apparently that price has risen quite a bit in the last few months) and usually needs a stain or seal once it’s up which adds to the cost. Using that as my baseline, I started searching for places that specialized in this charred wood siding (aka shou sugi ban) and found two American companies that seemed to be doing most of the high end projects I’d see on the design blogs. I’ll leave these unnamed but I spoke with both of them and the pricing came back at about $17 sqft including shipping. Too much. With a little additional research, I found a 3rd provider that had nowhere near the web presence or branding but appeared to be based in Japan where the technique originated, had been using the technique for over 200 years (according to them) and had just opened a distribution facility in Portland, Oregon. These guys came in at $7/sqft including shipping.

I try not to be a cynic but that is serious price difference. Especially when you’re buying 2000 sqft of siding. Like, how can two different companies be charging such different prices for the same product? Not to mention, my (borderline) millennial spidey sense for web sketchiness was definitely triggered by this company’s website. But the price was simply too good to ignore so I didn’t write them off just yet.

First, I spoke to them on the phone to make sure this was a real person, not just a front. But more importantly, I went to their facebook page where they had posted a bunch of the projects they worked on and I messaged all the people I could find connected with those projects. Several of them responded and had nothing but positive things to say about the product and the company. The only negative was that since the company had just started distributing in the US, the projects were all fairly recent so they couldn’t speak to the longevity of the product.

I also asked the two American companies with the more expensive product what they thought their new competition and it was clear I had hit a nerve. It definitely seemed like they were aware of them and were pretty frustrated that they were being undercut on price point in the market.

Finally, ordered a lot of samples. I had so many pieces of black burnt wood in my tiny Brooklyn apartment I started to feel crazy. I got samples from the two American companies and the Japanese one. The main difference was the type of wood they were using. The Japanese company used Japanese Cypress which I guess is a traditional siding material in Japan, while the two American companies were using Acacia, a very hard wood from New Zealand used in a lot of furniture. I discussed these two types of wood with whoever would listen including my contractor and carpenters, read about them and in the end, just had to make the decision still feeling somewhat in the dark.

In the end I decided to go with the Japanese company and try to pick up some savings. I, like their other new customers in the US, can’t really speak to how this product will weather and what kind of maintenance it will require, though I’m sure there will be some. No doubt, it’s a risk. What I can say is, it’s fully installed now and I think it looks incredible.

We decided to skip the trim around the windows to keep the look minimal. I think the charred wood makes enough of a statement. We also switched up the direction of the siding on the lower level of the house to divide up the space. I got some weird looks from my contractor and carpenters when I first showed them the black burnt wood sample but they got on board and did an incredibly meticulous job on this installation. I could not be happier with it and I think they are pretty into it now as well. Hopefully I won’t be replacing it in five years ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Is this post too long? You couldn’t possible care what I paid full price for could you? It’s not as fun to talk about. I’ll be brief.

Where I sucked it up and paid full price:

One thing that was way more expensive than I wanted it to be was the plumbing fixtures. Andrew wanted to do matte black fixtures which I think will look awesome in the house (too much black? you decide.). The trouble was not many manufacturers make matte black fixtures right now. Everyone makes oil rubbed bronze, but that’s really a different look, more farm house-y, less modern cabin.

The plumbing fixtures I fell in love with were from California Faucets and they were expensive. I tried all sorts of routes to get a discount on these and I wasn’t able to. I tried to find other similar fixtures from another company to no avail. I ended up paying the price I found online at or but I bought them through a local cabinetry company who said they would match the online prices. I figured it would be nice to work with someone local and the sales woman was very helpful.

Tip — do not buy plumbing from a vendor without looking the part number up online. Different retailers discount different amounts of the full “retail price” from the manufacturer, you want to get at least whats listed online which is usually 25% off. Same goes for sinks, toilets etc. The price variation from vendor to vendor on this stuff can be insane.

These are beauties though right? This plumbing stuff is really hard. All your life you take showers and brush your teeth and never think about what faucets and showers look like. Then you’re picking plumbing fixtures it’s like all of sudden you’ve never been in a bathroom before and cannot recall for the life of you how they are set up. Are the hot and cold separate knobs? How high is the shower head? Do tub fillers always look like limp penises? So many tough questions.

I don’t know guys. We’re just going to have to wait and see if this was indeed money well spent.

I obviously paid full price for a lot more than just plumbing fixtures but this is one that really bugged me. I felt like I should be able to find it cheaper but it just didn’t work out for me.

Finally, where I just didn’t get what I wanted:

Clearly there are a lot of items in this category that will go unsaid as well but one that sticks out as just being a pure financial decision is the railing on our deck. When we first started with our plans we envisioned the deck railing as black metal posts with stainless steel cables running horizontally between them.

Something like this but with a significantly less bonkers view.

For some reason this company Feeney has kind of a lock on this style of railing and they charge a demoralizing amount for it. Like $80/linear foot. Our railing is about 90' long so … I’ll do the math for you, that’s $7200. WTF amirite? I tried for days to find another vendor, including a metal worker in Montana on etsy, Andrew theorized about a DIY option but in the end it just didn’t make sense. We decided to use wooden posts instead for a significant savings of about $5k. It will still have the stainless steal cables but the posts will be a bit thicker and made of wood.

Can you believe this sacrifice? The house is going to be ruined! These are dark times.

Each of these stupid little decisions really seem completely out of proportion looking back on them. I mean, this railing is beautiful and will be amazing but at the time we were like, what?!! wood?? that will never work!! This one was actually not a terribly hard decision. Sometimes the money just makes it so clear and you have to remind yourself that you’ve literally never noticed wood vs metal posts on a single deck you’ve ever been on in your life. Then you begin the slow process of convincing yourself that the cheaper options is actually far superior to the more expensive one. Then you realize you need to pick out light fixtures for the entire house and completely forget about The Great Railing Controversy of August 2017 and move on.

Anyway, here’s where I’m currently stuck. Should the posts then match the deck or should they be painted black to blend with the house?? YOU DECIDE. I can’t make any more decisions.

Congratulations on making it to the end! Watch Leslie and Ann cut it up as a reward!

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