Census Bureau: It Takes 7 Months to Build a House
Originally published by: Journal of Light Construction — August 21, 2015
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You probably know how long it takes you to build a house. But you may also wonder how your experience compares to the rest of the industry’s.
So in case you’re curious, the U.S. Census Bureau has some data for you. The Bureau just released the results of its 2014 Survey of Construction. NAHB’s Eye on Housing blog reports on the Bureau’s conclusion (see: “How Long Does It Take to Build a Single-Family Home?” by Na Zhao): “The survey shows that the average completion time of a single-family house is around 7 months, which usually includes around 25 days from authorization to start and another 6 months to finish the construction. The timeline from authorization to completion, however, is not consistent across the nation, depending on the housing category, the geographic location, and metropolitan status.”
The survey results don’t call out the size or complexity of the projects, and they don’t distinguish between luxury housing and bare-bones starter homes. But the breakdown the results do provide is interesting. Custom homes take longer than spec houses (8 months as opposed to 6). And owner-built homes take the longest (close to a full year, on average).
Location also seems to make a difference. Within metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), homes in the Mountain region take barely 6 months to build, while homes in New England and the mid-Atlantic take closer to 10. Outside the population centers, all bets appear to be off, especially in the Pacific region, where homes apparently may take forever to complete (the average time to completion is around 21 months).
The Census Bureau conducts its survey every year. And by the same token, the question, “How long does it take to build a house?” is a recurring one. The Wall Street Journal reported on the 2013 Census findings back in January, looking for some meaning in the figures (see: “Average Time to Build a House: 6 Months,” by Adam Bonislawski.
The numbers fluctuate from year to year, the Journal observes: “In 1973 it took, on average, six months to build a single-family home. In 1980, that number was up to 6.9 months, and in 2009 it was up to 7.9. In 2013, the latest data available, it was back down to six months.” Labor scarcity is one driver, the paper says: “The main cause of longer construction times is a tight labor market, says Rick Judson, a Charlotte, N.C.-based developer and former chairman of the National Association of Home Builders, trade organization. And while labor shortages are perhaps to be expected during boom times, they crop up during housing busts, as well, he notes.”
Weather is another obvious factor, providing a simple explanation for the longer build times experienced in the far Northern states, compared to the frost-free Southern regions.
The Census Bureau report is based on statistics. The anecdotal experience of contractors in the business isn’t quite so cut and dried. In a 2009 discussion on a ContractorTalk forum, guesses ranged from optimistic to gloomy (see: “How Long to Build a House?”). One contractor said, “It depends.....my time to build, allowing for weather and delays from the subs, runs about 6 to 8 weeks. Most realistic times are 3 months.” Several other builders offered similar estimates. But another said, “That is unreal. I can count off only about 3 jobs around here that was completed in less than 8 months. Most of them run out to around a year. It is common practice around here for the contractors and subs to be on several jobs at a time. Many uncompleted homes sitting around with no one present for weeks on end.”
And a fourth poster took note of the real wild card: owner labor. “My neighbor is an owner builder, doing a 4500 square foot house,” he wrote, “and she has been at it 2.5 years and they don't even have all the trusses up yet.”
If you really don’t want a project to take a long time, keep it small — or, at the extreme end, make it tiny. In the “tiny house” movement, owner labor is commonplace, and build times do stretch out accordingly. But if the builder knows his trade, little houses can be quick. Example: the tiny shed-roofed home on an 8-foot trailer built by tiny-home bloggers Andrew and Gabriella Morrison (www.tinyhousebuild.com).
“Andrew has been building professionally for nearly 20 years,” notes Gabriella “Nearly all of the tasks so far were completed by Andrew working alone. He works for 8-10 hours per day on our house so his time is largely uninterrupted.” After 117.5 hours of Andrew’s work, Gabriella writes, “we have a home that is just a few hours away from being able to be occupied.” Andrew’s YouTube tour of the completed home (see: “Couple Builds Own Tiny House on Wheels”) shows a wood-sided wagon that’s cozy and cute. At a little over $30,000, it’s also cheap. On the other hand, it’s only 221 square feet (you do the math).
In any case, labor hours are only one measure of time. What about the calendar? In his YouTube video, owner-builder Andrew Morrison says, “It only took us four months to build.”