Cost-saving strategies in a small California beach house

It’s no secret that housing costs eat up a significant chunk of most people’s budgets. Many people are drawn to the small house movement in the hopes that it will enable their dreams of home ownership. We frequently get questions seeking advice on how to buy, build, or finance a small house on a limited income. Unfortunately we don’t have time to answer all the questions we receive. However when we came across this modern beach cottage in Stinson Beach, California, we thought it would be a good example to illustrate many of the ways you can save money when designing and building a new small house.

Many cost-saving strategies were used in the design and construction of this small beach cottage in California. |

There is nothing the least bit fancy about this beach house. Nonetheless, its pleasing proportions, simple detailing, and color scheme combine to make for a handsome home. We can’t tell you how much it cost to build; we can only point out some of the material and design choices that will typically result in savings.

Starting with the design of the house, the shape is a basic rectangle. A rectangular shape takes less wall area to enclose than a more complex shape, and every corner costs money. An L- or T-shaped floor plan can add interest to a home’s interior, as well as define outdoor spaces, but if you want to keep the cost to an absolute minimum then stick to a simple rectangle. The word “simple” will keep coming up here. Simple equates to easy and cheap to build; complexity is costly.

The house is supported on individual concrete piers and footings rather than a continuous foundation wall running along the entire perimeter of the house. Pier foundations require much less concrete than a full perimeter foundation. They also don’t need as much excavation, and can often be dug by hand with a shovel.

Many cost-saving strategies were used in the design and construction of this small beach cottage in California. |

The concept of simplicity was also applied to the roof. A shed roof (also known as a single-slope or mono-pitch roof) is the easiest type of roof to build. This home’s shed roof has a fairly shallow pitch, reducing the amount of roofing material as well as cutting down the wall area. The overhangs were also kept short on all sides, further reducing the roofing material needed. Instead of overhangs, the windows on the south side are shaded by a porch roof.

The porch roof is supported by plain pressure-treated wood posts. The posts aren’t dressed up in any way, other than perhaps an application of stain, and the brackets connecting the posts to the roof beam are visible. The porch railing is just 2×4 lumber infilled with welded-wire livestock panels, available from farm supply stores. These basic materials give the porch a very utilitarian appearance that would look out of place on a formal house, but that goes well with a more casual home such as a farmhouse or a simple beach cottage like this.

Many cost-saving strategies were used in the design and construction of this small beach cottage in California. |

Moving to the inside, the beach house has a clean, modern look. Most of the walls are just painted drywall, which is probably the least expensive wall covering you can get. A good drywall crew would be able to hang, tape and mud the drywall for a house this small in under a day. A 1×4 baseboard was used throughout the house. You can certainly save some money with a thinner and narrower baseboard, but a 1×4 is a reasonably cost-effective choice.

Instead of traditional window casings, the windows have drywall returns, meaning that drywall has been wrapped around the inside of each window opening and finished to the window frame. The windows high in the walls have drywall on all four sides, while the lower windows have wood sills and drywall on three sides. The wood sills should be installed before the drywallers show up so they can also finish the drywall to the windowsills.

Many cost-saving strategies were used in the design and construction of this small beach cottage in California. |

The gas fireplace was likewise given a minimalist and inexpensive treatment with just a simple floating mantle. A tile or faux stone surround could easily be added later. Because of the fireplace’s location in the center of the house, the fireplace was vented through the roof, requiring a long vent pipe and a hole in the roof that had to be made weathertight. It would cost a lot less to have the fireplace against an exterior wall with a through-wall vent. If the kitchen and living area had been flipped, that would have been possible (and would also have put the kitchen closer to the bathroom, shortening the plumbing runs). In this case there may have been other factors that led to the chosen room arrangement.

Contrasting with the smooth walls, the ceilings add texture with exposed joists and what appears to be wood boards above. However since the ceiling is painted, grooved plywood or MDF panels could also be used. At that height, it would be very hard to tell the difference.

A long bench with cushions and throw pillows is built-in along the living room wall. The bench offers a lot of seating at much less cost than buying upholstered furniture, and can also serve as an occasional guest bed.

Many cost-saving strategies were used in the design and construction of this small beach cottage in California. |

The sixteen-foot wide opening from the living area to the porch is filled with a four-panel sliding door. Sliding doors are cheaper than French doors, and much, much cheaper than accordion-style folding window walls. However it would probably be even cheaper to have two two-panel doors instead of one four-panel door. An opening that wide also requires a fairly substantial header (i.e. beam) to support the roof. It might not be a big issue in coastal California, but in any place that gets snow, you would save a lot of money if you cut the header span in half by placing a post in the middle.

The bathroom is equipped with what look like pretty standard fixtures and tile. However the owners did splurge on radiant underfloor heating. Electric radiant mats are easily installed under a tile floor and while they are expensive on a per square foot basis, you don’t need much for a small bathroom.

The cottage is available for rent through Airbnb. Despite the cost-saving measures that were taken during its design and construction, many of the Airbnb guests have left comments describing it as beautiful, charming and even luxurious. If you’d like to stay there yourself, check out the listing.

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Photographs courtesy of Airbnb.

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