Remember the film ‘The Money Pit?’ Builder beware.
By Gamliel Kronemer
In 1946, Eric Hodgins wrote one of the bestselling novels of that decade, “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.” It was a thinly veiled fictionalization of Hodgins’ misadventures in building a house in rural Connecticut. This novel—which inspired three movies: a 1956 film of the same name starring Cary Grant and Myrna Loy; 1986’s “The Money Pit,” starring Tom Hanks and Shelley Long; and “Are We Done Yet,” a 2007 film starring Ice Cube and Nia Long—has been much on my mind this past year as my wife and I joined the COVID housing rush, selling our condo and buying a suburban house, which as it happens, was built not many years after Hodgins wrote his novel.
In general, we were far luckier than Blandings in our choice of contractors, as we were not presented with a lot of unanticipated costs. Though the one fairly “Blandingseque” part of our remodel was the construction of a home wine cellar.
It all started with an innocent observation as my wife, Jessica, and I toured our soon-to-be-purchased home. While we were walking through the basement laundry/storage room noting that there were two different entrances into the room, she suggested that I “partition off one end and turn it into a wine cellar.”
In the decades since I became a wine lover, I had dreamed of owning a home with a built-in wine cellar. My dream cellar has always been a simple, clean, dark room, capable of holding a couple thousand bottles of wine at a stable 54 F. (The rest of the dream involves filling the room up and slowly drinking it down.)
I had been storing my wine in a refrigerator-sized, wooden wine cabinet, with a forced-air cooling system, that had taken up a considerable footprint in the living room of our condo. As chance would have it, the cooling unit in the wine cabinet broke within a week of us putting our house under contract, giving real impetus to actually build my dream cellar.
That evening I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations, believing I had captured all of the costs, but like Blandings before me, I was so wrong. I believed that I could build the cellar for roughly $4,000-$5,000. The actual costs were roughly double. Some costs I had not considered, and others would drastically increase due to supply chain shortages.
Read on for the major considerations—and costs—of building a home wine cellar.
A wine cellar requires a space that can be kept at a cool, stable temperature. Basements are a great choice because the ground outside the subterranean exterior walls are great insulators. . The more thermally isolated the location the less expensive it will be to insulate and cool it. Jessica and I chose to build a cellar with interior dimensions of 9’x6’. This space should be sufficient to hold approximately 1,000 bottles in wall-mounted wine racks, plus an additional 500-700 bottles on shelving in wood crates and cardboard boxes.
In order to enclose the space, we needed to build 11 feet of new walls, and this was at the height of the 2021 lumber shortage when the price of a two-by-four stud rose from $3 to more than $10. This doubled the anticipated cost of framing the space to $700 and showed me that my back-of-the-envelope calculations were going to be way off.
I later paid $1,200 for drywalling (with water-resistant drywall) and painting the cellar.
A wine cellar requires heavy insulation. This means that even if your future cellar already has walls, the drywall or plaster will have to be pulled out in order to insulate the space behind the walls. Given that a cellar is likely to be much cooler than the surrounding area, it also requires a vapor barrier to ensure that condensation (and mold) do not develop in the surrounding walls.
There are two possible approaches. Either using rolls of fiberglass insulation, with plastic sheeting mounted on both sides of the insulation, or using closed cell polyurethane spray foam, which provides both insulation and a vapor barrier. At my contractor’s suggestion I went with spray foam. He thought that given the size of the room it would only cost a “couple hundred” and would save on labor costs of installing the fiberglass and vapor barrier.
I was not present to watch what one neighbor described as a “giant truck” pulling up outside the house with long hoses running into the house to spray foam into the walls and ceiling of the cellar. However, I was very much present when writing a check to the insulation company for $1,243.
The Cooling Unit
Wine cellars are generally cooled via forced air cooling (read specialty air conditioning system) designed to keep the cellar at a stable temperature and relative humidity. (I have mine set at 54 F with a relative humidity of around 60%.) There are four main companies that produce cellar cooling units, Breezaire, CellarCool, CellarPro and WhisperKOOL.
The most affordable sort of units are those that vent through the wall into an adjacent room (a small high-tech version of a window air conditioner); alternatively there are also units that can sit in an adjacent room with ducts to vent outside, or (most expensively) split units that sit outside and bring cooled air into the cellar via ducts.
For my 432-cubic-foot cellar I went with a mid-range through-the-wall system from WhisperKOOL, the SCPro 4000, which is designed to handle cellars of up to 1,000 cubic feet. At the time this unit cost me $2,279 (plus $85 shipping) but at time of writing the cost has increased to $2,679. (WhisperKOOL’s ‘Cellar Consultant’ convinced me that the larger unit for an extra $200 would run less often, making it more energy efficient, and reduce wear to the system.)
Through-the-wall systems are by the far the most affordable choice for cooling a cellar, often less than half the price of ducted systems, but there are some caveats. The adjacent room into which they are vented must stay within 30 degrees of the cellar (i.e., if your cellar is kept at 54 F the adjacent room must not get warmer than 84 F) and have good airflow. Additionally there must be a minimum of a 3’x3’ floor-to-ceiling empty space for the system to vent into.
Lighting is actually an important consideration in building a cellar. It is best to make a cellar a windowless room, because sunlight produces two things that are bad for wine: heat and light. Exposure to light—and in particular ultraviolet light—has been shown to have a deleterious effect on wine, similar to that caused by excessive heat.
Thankfully, the now ubiquitous LED lights are a good choice for cellars as they produce only a modicum of either heat and ultraviolet light. For my cellar I used two recessed LED canister lights ($50 each) with a ($25) dimmer switch (so I could leave a dim cellar light on over Shabbat and Yom Tov without worrying much about light damage to the wine).
The door to the cellar must be an exterior-grade door (for insulation), and while many build cellars with glass doors for aesthetic reasons, glass panels let in heat (requiring more cooling) and light. I went with a solid metal door (which cost me $350 for the door and $375 for installation). Jessica, who assumed that our cellar would be like a miniature version of those cellars seen in magazines, with a fancy wood and glass door, sighs every time she walks past the plain, white, metal door to our cellar.
My cooling unit required creating a dedicated 15-amp circuit plus wiring for the outlet, and installation of the cooling unit, as well as of the lighting. All in, this cost me $1,100.
There are numerous choices when it comes to wine storage racks—wood, metal, even acrylic—and for the most part it comes down simply to aesthetics. Just keep in mind it should be a storage unit intended for use in a refrigerated environment (and able to handle a bit of moisture).
I had planned to start out small with racking. I was going to buy two 6’ tall redwood wine racks, each of which would hold 100 bottles, along with an epoxy-coated metal shelving unit, which should be able to hold about 50 cases of wine in boxes. In early March 2021, the racks cost about $200 each and the shelving was an additional $180.
By the time I was ready to buy in May, due to the lumber shortage, the price of racks had all but doubled, and would continue to climb. The shelving cost had also increased. At that point, believing the price increases to be transitory, I decided to wait to see if prices would come down before ordering. At time of writing, I am still keeping my wine in boxes on the cellar floor.
The Real Cost
When I add everything up, I find that instead of $4,000 to $5,000 my cellar cost me $7,457 plus what will likely be another $1,400-$1,600 for shelves, racks and their installation (when I finally buy them). Let’s call it $9,000 in total. Had I known the real price for the cellar beforehand, would I have built it? Probably not—but in retrospect I am glad that I did.
While the final price certainly did hurt our renovation budget it was not so disastrous a calamity as befell the “Mr. Blandings” author.
Now that I have finished telling you about my dream cellar, I am going to step into the cellar, pull out a bottle of Champagne, and drink a toast to the memory of Eric Hodgins and his dream house. L’chaim.