Why Bother To Build Your Own House?

Reader Contribution by David Wright And Richard Drace
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RD: In our last installment, we discussed the quantity reason for being an owner-builder: You can get more house building your own than buying ready-made, and that’s valid, as long as you listen to our warnings and be careful what you wish for. 

DW: But if you can afford it, why not just hire the professional specialists? I’ve gained more and more respect for the professionals through the years…. and my wife has, too, particularly after I mess up something I thought I would be easy to do myself.

RD: Well, I know this is going to sound weird, but I’m going out on a limb here and make the claim that the careful amateur can sometimes achieve better quality control than the professional contractor.  This is the quality reason – the owner-builder might spend more time and pay more attention to detail and end up with a higher quality product. The idea is “if you want it done right, do it yourself.”

David: Like the folks who built the beautiful house in the photo! I agree, but I think “sometimes” is the operable word here. You’re asking the owner-builder to accept responsibility for quality control. If you get too far out on a limb, it might break.

RD: True, but if you are responsible, you can spend more time doing a good job with details and finishes, and also be very selective with the selection of materials and sub-contractors. You can have a bit more relaxed schedule, and take the time necessary to achieve high quality.

DW: The quality oriented conscientious contractor will say “No way!” We wish they were all so righteous, but the professional general contractor has to deliver in a very imperfect world – time and money drive the job, and those two can prevail at the expense of quality.

RD:   That is a reality. If the bid price is too low; the crew too slow; the weather too bad; the owner too unreasonable about extras, or the contractor too ethically impaired, corners can be cut, often unbeknownst to the owner until after move-in. 

DW: More too-too’s.

RD: So be very careful about selecting anyone to help you with your project. Owner-builders who achieve high quality check the reputation and experience of any contractor, sub-contractor or helpers they hire.

DW: It’s important to recognize when that quality factor requires a professional, so I prescribe one healthy dose of modesty, and another of respect for the skilled professional, to stay in the mix.

RD: Recognize where high quality is a matter of carefulness and time and integrity – which hopefully you do have, and where high quality is a matter of skill that you may or may not have. The “healthy dose of modesty” is to know if you do or don’t.  If the latter is the case, then it is prudent to hire the professional.

DW: And we’re not talking about only hands-on skills.  It’s not just about the tools. Or, rather, it’s not just about the hands-on tools.  Understand the contracting “tools” – planning, organization, codes, timing, interpersonal skills.

RD: We’ll being offering this advice often: Understand what each professional contributes to the design and building process, and only then decide if you feel confident that you can displace that professional with your own efforts.

DW: There’s one more tool to discuss before we leave the subject.  How often have we heard versions of this optimism: ”I could design and draw the house and save the cost of an architect or draftsman.” As an architect I’m particularly cautious about encouraging folks to save costs by doing their own design. 

RD: I think every professional feels that way about his/her craft.  The owner-builder can’t expect to duplicate the experience or skill level of the expert, but if you hire the expert at every turn, there go your cost savings. 

DW: Design has a special place in the overall picture, though, because shortcomings in design can follow your project all the way through to an unhappy result.

RD:  I wouldn’t discourage someone from trying his/her hand at design, but at the very least, get someone experienced to look over the plans – you’ll have plans that are buildable and you’re likely to get some creative ideas that will make your new house much more special.

DW:  Even if you hire a design professional, you should still have a large role. Careful advance work on your part about the very specific aspects of your budget, values, lifestyle, and tastes are what the design pro needs – the “lumber”, if you will – to construct for you the optimum design.

RD: Never underestimate the value of professional input.  Especially for the “one man band” owner-builder, I advocate having a professional “guru” to turn to for advice – before you proceed. Surely for design input.  But also all the way through your project.

DW:  You needn’t spend a lot of money for some hours of consultation.  Here’s my guarantee: This will be some of highest return on investment of your entire project.

RD: Between us, we have a good (well, most of it good) 70 years of experience. We’ve seen many projects go very well and a few go poorly. 

DW: And we have learned what the difference is between major satisfaction and major bummerhood.

RD: Yes, and like you said earlier, you really might get satisfaction.

DW: I think satisfaction is the best reason to build your own house – It just plain feels good.

RD: Absolutely, like how good it feels to eat veggies out of your own garden.  Remember how good it felt when the bird moved into the birdhouse you built as a kid?

DW: Multiply that feeling a whole bunch to live in a house you’ve helped build yourself.

RD: And finally, my favorite reason: Lifestyle.  When you build your own house, you choose how lightly you live on this planet. David, you and I came of age during the “Whole Earth Catalog” era – when many of us took a really close look at how our society was using and abusing this planet and how we could live differently.

DW: And that has led you to playing a major role in the owner-builder movement since the late seventies.

RD: And you’ve been a major pioneer in the development and advocacy of passive solar architecture since the mid-seventies. 

DW: Our planet faces some of the same challenges as then, and some new and some much more urgent ones. Buildings – their materials, construction, use, and salvage – account for a large percentage of our total energy consumption. Start with your own house. 

RD: Building your own means you get to make the genuinely “green” choices:  From the really big ones like using solar design to the small ones like choosing low out-gassing subfloor adhesives.

DW: And all the other choices: you can buy local and regional materials; protect your site from erosion during construction; reduce waste and recycle almost everything.  Your many design and construction choices reflect your values.

RD: Well, we have talked about many of the reasons to undertake building your own house.

DW: If you have the time, talent and treasure there is no reason not to undertake what can be a very rewarding experience in your life.

RD: So David, let’s assume one undertakes the journey to build his or her own house — the next step is getting ready. When all is said and done the major difference between extreme satisfaction and major bummerhood is preparation. And that’s our next topic.

About the house in the photo built by Steve and Sherree Hill: “We built our home in 1983 after taking the Owner Builder Center course in 1982 and buying our 5 acres in 1981. We have added on twice in 1985 & 1988. The decks were built in 1988 and rebuilt in 2010. We have remodeled the interior over all those years and will be through with that this summer. Through? What’s that?”