Budget Basics: Custom Built-ins

You’ve always loved the look of built-ins, but will it work for your space? Defined as entire pieces of cabinetry that fit onto a wall or are extensions of a wall, built-ins may conjure visions of grander spaces, but in fact are clever space-savers and lend character to smaller homes as well. They can be custom-sized, from floor to ceiling and any width, and gain you maximum storage space for books, a media center, or a favorite collection. In this post, we take a closer look at all of the ins and outs of custom shelving, so you’ll know what to expect if you plan to launch into a shelving project, or include one as part of a bigger renovation.

Bookcase built-in in living room

Here, the homeowner’s interior designer used custom built-ins to create a sofa nook in this Upper East Side apartment.

Ballpark averages

As with most renovation projects, you may begin the process with a rough budget in mind for how much you’d like to spend. How you arrive at that number entails some detective work. While it is relatively easy to figure out how much a kitchen or a bathroom should cost based on some basic Internet research (and from our Renovation 101 guides), publicly available rates for custom built-ins are harder to come by. This is due in part to the uniqueness of these projects—no two are the same! That said, many millworkers rely on a linear footage model as a basis for calculating pricing, with various factors affecting overall cost. In urban areas like New York City, the range starts between $800 to $1,000 per linear foot for basic open shelving.

The number one misconception, say our Sweeten general contractors, is expected cost. First, get a lay of the land, and plan for an adequate budget by visiting stores like IKEA or Home Depot to understand how stock or pre-fabricated shelving and cabinetry are constructed and priced. While these options are obviously less expensive, it provides a baseline for understanding the quality, cost, and effort that goes into creating shelving. The next step is to see examples of custom work in person so that you can compare the difference between style and quality, and decide the best route for your project.

Deeksha and Joe needed a prime spot for their tv (above), and always wanted an old-style NYC built-in bookcase.

Understanding the elements behind pricing

Ballpark pricing only takes you so far; to get an accurate estimate, you’ll need to take a few other variables into account. For example, the average range of $800 to $1,000 per linear foot usually assumes that the unit will be no taller than eight feet, so excess height will translate into higher costs. Here are other factors that can impact the budget of built-ins:

Materials

The multitude of options includes solid woods, plywood, medium density fiberboard (MDF), veneers, high pressure laminate, and melamine. The good news is you’ll definitely find a style to suit your style and needs. Some points to think about:

Solid wood is the gold standard because it is both classic and timeless. While solid wood is usually strong and sturdy, some types may crack, buckle, or shrink when subject to heat and humidity.

MDF is a good option when you’re on a budget or if you plan on painting the shelves. It is composed of dried, pressed recycled wood fibers and resin, standing up to temperature changes better than many woods. It also acts as an excellent substrate for veneers.

Plywood is an engineered wood like MDF but essentially made of pressed sheets of wood veneer, which is why layers are visible along the edges. Higher grades of plywood are used for cabinets and shelving, while lower grades are what you might see in housing construction and subfloors. As with solid woods, you can choose different types of plywood such as maple, pine, or birch.

Finishes

After choosing the materials, you’ll have to decide how you’d like your shelves finished. Options to consider:

Paint is the go-to option. With this route, there may be a price difference based on the method of application (brush, roller, or spray), and the quality and brand of the paint you choose.

Solid lacquer is a popular choice, which provides hard, glossy finishes that range in the level of sheen from clear to colored. Lacquer produces an extremely damage-resistant finish that is suited to projects that will see a lot of traffic, such as low shelving in a child’s room.

Varnish is usually transparent but also comes in a range of glossy to satin finishes. Like lacquer, it produces a durable finish.

Unfinished shelving creates a more industrial contemporary look.

A lot of labor goes into producing a high-quality painted finish. (For a case study, check out Kate and Arthur’s DIY cabinets.) The entire process can take up to five days and include up to four coats of primer and finish. Compared to two to three coats of a high quality clear lacquer that can be applied in as little as one day, the additional labor costs easily offset the savings of less expensive, “paint-grade” materials.

Site conditions

Believe it or not, the type of building structure you live in—house, apartment, walk-up or elevator—contributes to pricing differentials when it comes to built-ins. Projects in apartments often take longer to deliver and install than those in houses. In addition to the logistical headaches of having to find space for parking and unloading on a busy city street, some apartment buildings have strict work hours for contractors. This can limit the amount of work that they can finish in one day, stretching a one-day installation into two.

Other site-specific considerations may come up. For example, is there an existing condition that will require additional time and attention in designing or installing the project? Are the walls bowed or the floors uneven? Are there finishes that need to be matched to existing furniture or flooring? These variations can affect price.

Features and components

Simple open shelving is the least expensive built-in option. While most experts don’t calculate costs per additional drawer or door, generally, the more features you include, the higher the overall cost. Glass doors or shelves, a floating desk, and lighting all add cost in time and materials.

The built-in installation above with crown moulding provides a flat profile for a book collection.

What to keep in mind

Custom built-ins result in a one-of-a-kind piece made to your exact specifications that fits precisely into your space. The work that goes into a custom built-in piece often extends beyond what homeowners can imagine: every tiny detail must be decided, and skilled experts source the materials, design, build, and perfect the unit before transporting it from the workshop to your home, where installation is the final piece of the puzzle. They are also invested in their work, and will take steps to make every detail perfect. In the end, you are paying for both service and craftsmanship, elements that are usually missing from an “off-the-shelf” experience.

If you’re looking to start a custom built-in project, take a look at this bathroom shelvingdining room buffet, and windowseat for more Sweeten inspiration!

Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, scope, and style. Follow the blog for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation on Sweeten.