Who Will Be Our House Builder: Should We Hire a Contractor or Build Ourselves?

Reader Contribution by Jennifer Kongs
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The Small Home, Big Decisions series follows Jennifer and her husband, Tyler, as they build a self-reliant homestead on a piece of country property in northeastern Kansas. The series will delve into questions that arise during their building process and the decisions they make along the way. The posts are a work in progress, written as their home-building adventure unfolds.

Partly because I work at MOTHER EARTH NEWS where DIY is taken to ultimate and incredible heights, partly because so many of our friends have built or are currently building their homes by hand, and partly because it would be just so cool to build our own home with our own labor and materials from our own property, I kind of felt like a cheater when Tyler and I started talking about hiring a contractor. Neither one of us feels comfortable enough with our building skills to begin the process on our own, and neither of us has the credentials to submit an estimate that the bank would approve for our loan. I know, I know, that whole bank loan bit is really unromantic, but for reasons I’ve already covered, we’re choosing to get a standard mortgage instead of finding financial alternatives. And a huge reason for both choosing a bank and a contractor: time. Call it impatience if you will, but we’ve been ready to move to the country and start our homestead since we started dating 5 years ago — not 5 years from now, which is just an estimate of how long doing less-traditional building could take.

If you have house-building skills, or want to dream about the possibilities, check out this list of DIY house plans on the MOTHER EARTH NEWS website (scroll about halfway down the page). Also, find folks in your area who have done it before, and be sure you check local regulations. (And, have fun!)

We decided that we needed to hire a contractor, and we spent quite a bit of time researching and considering who to choose. We had a good idea of what kind of house we wanted, we knew we wanted a passive solar design for the house, and we had a general build site in mind (see photo of our future home site above!). Topics we don’t know much about (and are learning about as we go) are septic installation, hooking up well water, setting up a propane tank, and all of those sorts of specifics that come up mostly with rural homes (we both grew up as city kids). So, we wanted someone who had loads of experience building “in the sticks,” more or less, and dealing with the regulations and governing bodies that process requires. Needless to say, we’ve had more than our fill of hanging out at Leavenworth County courthouse meetings.

Even though we aren’t able to build the whole house ourselves, we want to be involved, both to save money and because it should be fun to work on — really! So, we needed to hire a contractor that would let us help out with the details we can do, and let that labor come off the final sticker price.

And, lastly and arguably most importantly, we wanted someone who we just felt good about. Someone open to our ideas, willing to give us honest feedback, and easy for us to talk with. Someone we could trust.

We found our guy: Jeff Wooster of Wooster Construction out of Topeka, Kan. So far, that last point about having someone we trust and are comfortable with, has been so unequivocally important in the process. And, because we’re comfortable, we’re asking questions, exploring all possible avenues, and just having more fun than we would be otherwise. (And it should be fun — it’s the house of our dreams!) We’ll keep you updated about how the other two points play out, but we don’t have any doubts.

Next in the series: Who Will Draw Our House Plans?
Previously in the series: Land Survey Plat Update: How Do We Get a Land Zoning Waiver?

Photo by Jennifer Kongs of the site on our property where we plan to build our house.

Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can connect directly with Jennifer and Tyler by leaving a comment below!