Essential Advice for the Owner-Builder

Here’s what you, the owner-builder, needs to know about the planning and approval process before you build a house.

  • owner builder - approved stamp
    What every owner-builder aspires to receive.
    Photo courtesy of iStockphoto
  • owner builder - approval process
    Getting any home plans approved is a process. The important thing is to start early and learn what's required.
    Clark Snell
  • owner builder - unconventional projects
    Buildings with alternative methods or materials — such as this straw bale house — may require some extra work to get building plans approved.
    Bill Steen
  • owner builder - straw bale house
    This North Carolina straw bale house was buiolt with all the unique details the owner-builders wanted and was approved by local building officials.
    Doug Keefer/Sage Builders
  • owner builder - timber frame
    This house in Maine is being built with timber frame construction.
    Scott Vlaun

  • owner builder - approved stamp
  • owner builder - approval process
  • owner builder - unconventional projects
  • owner builder - straw bale house
  • owner builder - timber frame

Becoming the owner-builder of your own house is a great adventure. It gives you the freedom to design and build what you want, provides great personal satisfaction if you do the work yourself, and can save a lot of money along the way. But for many people who dream of building, it’s hard to dismiss one nagging thought: “What if they won’t let me?”

“They,” of course, are the folks at the local building department. Complying with building codes can seem intimidating. However, if you think of it as a process, much like the actual building of that dream home, you can get through it one step at a time.

Doing your homework is essential, especially if you plan to build with alternative materials or techniques. Knowing what you need to do and where to find the information you need will help you get your building approved and may even improve your home’s design.

Where to Start

Building codes establish minimum standards for safety and health, and if you decide to build your own home, you’ll need to prove that it meets these standards. There are three main phases of the process:

  • Gathering information and doing the initial planning.
  • Designing the house and submitting your specific plans for approval and permitting.
  • Building, passing the inspections, and getting your certificate of occupancy.

Where you build matters because building, zoning and other regulations vary from place to place, as do the conditions at and around every building site. Building codes in rural areas tend to be less stringent than those in the suburbs or in town, where buildings are closer together and people are more concentrated.

Today, most city, county and state governments have Web sites with information about their permitting processes, zoning laws and other requirements. They often answer common concerns and provide information on how to get additional help.

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