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Do-it-yourself projects and plans for anyone who can swing a hammer.


6 Critical First Steps for Building a Hand-Built Home

There are many advantages to building your own home. It can be less expensive than buying an existing house. You have more control over the homebuilding process, which means you get the design, features and materials you really want. Plus there’s something incredibly fulfilling about showing people your home and saying, “I built that.”

But DIY homebuilding isn’t for everyone. It requires a big time commitment, plenty of upfront research, and some risk you don’t assume if you hire a professional builder.

I’ve been helping people build their own homes for over 10 years. Over that time I’ve gleaned several tips that can save DIY homebuilders time, money and heartache. Here are the first six steps everyone should take before building their own home.

Consider Your Goals

Think about what you want your home to look like, feel like and be like. Do you want a house that’s large or small? How many bedrooms and bathrooms do you need, and what other rooms do you need – maybe a sunroom, mudroom or playroom?

What architectural styles or interior finishes do you like? Are there certain materials you’re interested in using – for example, wood, straw bales or straw/clay slip, ICF wall forms, SIPs or something else? How much outdoor space needs to be reserved for a garden, outbuildings, vehicle storage or similar features?

It’s wise to consider the home’s performance during the early stages of planning. Most people want a house that will be inexpensive to maintain and easy to heat and cool. That often requires a larger upfront investment, but it will save you money over time.

Researching home performance may lead you to various building philosophies or techniques. Green building has been a buzz word for decades, but homebuilders might also investigate LEED certification, high performance building, building biology and similar systems for producing homes with certain characteristics. Building a home able to take advantage of passive solar gain or achieve net-zero energy usage is doable!

Define How Much DIY You Want to Do

To some people, being a DIY homebuilder means doing the vast majority of the work themselves. For others, it means being part of a team of builders. It’s important to figure out how much involvement you want early in your DIY homebuilding process.

If you’re flying solo on the project, you’re the general contractor. That means you’re responsible for everything that goes into building the home, from getting plans approved and buying materials to putting up walls and scheduling subcontractors.

If you only want to be involved in certain aspects of the building – for example, wall and roof installation and a little finish carpentry – you’ll want to hire a general contractor. That person will be responsible for keeping the project on track and ensuring your home is built according to plan.

One of the most important things to consider when thinking about your level of involvement is the time commitment. Building your own home can be a full-time job for several months or a part-time job that takes years. Are you retired, or can you take several months off from work? If not, can you block off several weeks at critical points throughout the year (for instance, a week in May for excavation and pouring footings, and a week in July to begin framing and installation)?

If the answer is no, you may be better off hiring a general contractor and plugging into your build-your-own-home adventure on weekends.

Involve Others in the Household

Building your own home can be a stressful process, and it’s never too early to begin a conversation about it with your spouse, children and other people who will live in the home. Make sure you consult them about their home design ideas, keep them abreast of plans and discuss ways to mitigate potential DIY homebuilding stresses.

Assess Your Assets

What do you already possess that can help you with your DIY homebuilding process? These can include things like tools and land, but think bigger.

What knowledge and skills from other parts of your life can you bring to the process? Maybe you’ve never built anything, but you have outstanding project management or budgeting skills. Do you have friends who are general contractors or architects who can offer early feedback on your homebuilding plans? Or family members willing to offer skilled or grunt labor in exchange for an occasional meal?

Once you know what assets you already have, you can think about the assets you still need to procure.

Do Your Research

A good general contractor will already know things like how to pull building permits and where to get good deals on materials. You have to figure that out on your own. Here are a few keys things to consider.

Where will you get your building plans? Do you want to hire an architect to draft something, buy a set of pre-designed plans, or even buy a kit home? Regardless of where your plans come from, how will they be approved? Does the local building department need to stamp them or otherwise give you the go-ahead?

What permits do you need from your city or county building department? Building permits can be extensive unless you’re off the grid or in rural parts of North America. Expect to pull permits for building, electrical, plumbing and septic work, among others. Use your local building department as a resource for good information on what’s required to build on your land.

Where can you hire skilled or unskilled labor? Start getting referrals from friends or talking to local union offices to locate people capable of providing services such as plumbing, electrical or heavy equipment operating. Finding good day laborers can be even more challenging; definitely get referrals for this. Manual tasks such as hanging drywall or landscaping can also be a good place for DIY-inclined family members or friends to pitch in.

How can you get insurance to cover any injuries that happen on your job site? Start by talking to the company that provides your homeowners or rental insurance. If you plan to hire a general contractor, but want to involve non-employees (such as yourself) in the work of building the home, the contractor ought to check with their insurance agent to make sure volunteers will be covered.

Set a Budget

As you’re doing your research, make sure you get cost estimates for everything. Then sit down and make a realistic budget for how much your DIY homebuilding project will cost.

Once that’s done, you can start thinking about how you’ll pay for your new home. Do you have enough savings to self-finance the project? Will you need to borrow money from friends and family, or go to a bank?

With these steps completed, you can move on to the fun part of DIY homebuilding – buying land, designing your home, and getting down and dirty in the mud that will support your future home.

Paul Wood is has more than 30 years experience in the construction industry. He spent over a decade with Habitat for Humanity International, building homes across Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States. For the past 10 years, Paul has been the co-owner of ShelterWorks, maker of Faswall blocks, an insulated concrete form (ICF) that can be used to build extremely green homes. Connect with Paul on Facebook and Twitter.


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