We Are Writing a Book: How NOT to Build Your Own House

Reader Contribution by Richard Lee Drace
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David: Richard, we have developed quite a list of reasons to be an owner builder, let’s discuss some of these in more detail.

Richard: Let’s start with the bottom line – cost savings.  There are two very different reasons for seeking those savings:  1. Because you need to; 2. Because you want to.

DW: You may need to from “simple necessity” — you don’t have much in the way of funds. You can save money by purchasing property in the boonies which helps, but by building yourself you can save all the way through the project from beginning to end.

RD: You need do it yourself because you can’t afford to hire others to do the work, and the only way you’ll end up with a house is if you do a substantial amount of the work yourself.

DW: Another reason you may need to is if where you are located there is not much help available. This is a common problem in more rural locations.

RD: Yes, there may be a jack-of-all-trades builder, who may not be licensed, and specialists like plumber or an electrician may be in short supply. You can either put your faith in the local folks, pay people to travel long distances, or you can teach yourself to do the work. 

DW:  Affordability or availability – or both; two reasons to seek cost savings because you need to.

RD: We’ve seen some remarkably affordable projects where owner-builders bought inexpensive – often remote – land; used salvaged materials; and did most of the labor themselves. 

DW: Or acquired a fixer-upper that was on the verge of a tearer-downer and remodeled it into a very suitable house.

RD:  That’s the story of my own house.  We rented a modest chalet-style home built by first-time owner-builders; then bought it because that was all we could afford at the time.  Now, seven additions and a few renovations later, I’m proud to say it’s a “very suitable” house.

DW: How about access to trained competent help?  When you build it yourself in a remote location, you must ask yourself, “What would Davy Crockett do out on the wild frontier?”

RD: Davy Crockett didn’t build anything – he just shot bears. But the bears got their revenge at the Alamo.

DW: OK, then, how about Daniel Boone?

RD: I remember reading Little House on the Prairie to my kids.  Those folks did almost everything for themselves – except they made the long trek into town to buy glass for the windows and candy for the kids. 

DW: But there’s more to it than lack of nearby trained help. There’s always going to be an interest in genuine pioneering, not just because you have to, but because you want to.  Some people relish independence in our impending post-technological world.  So if you choose to be self-sufficient, all the more reason to become well prepared before you build.  Get your skills in order, plans prepared and your budget refined.

RD:  So here are a couple of reasons you may want to achieve cost savings:

You want much more house than you can afford to buy retail, so you choose to owner-build to some degree to achieve a larger and/or nicer house.

You want to satisfy that existential urge to create your own habitat, just like Daniel Boone and Little Joe on the prairie. 

DW: For every paid professional builder you replace with your own sweat equity, you can save quite a bundle.  Let’s look at some cost savings numbers.

RD: We hear a wide range of cost percentages tossed about, often much too casually. Theoretically, if you act as your own general contractor, you could save ten to fifteen percent of a home’s retail cost.  If you do all the labor, supposedly you could save fifty percent, presuming the cost of an average house is roughly half materials and half labor.

DW: So that may lead you to think, if you save 50% on the labor, you can build 50% more house; and you can even save another 10-15% by organizing everything that needs to be done to build a house. That’s a strong incentive to invest more time and talent and less treasure. Of course you will need the time and the talent; easier said than done. 

RD: But these are dangerous numbers.  Some owner-builder projects actually end up costing more than the equivalent retail house, due to lack of planning, unforeseen complications, mistakes or the insidious change orders that can add up because you were naive in your planning.

DW: Yes, a dangerous line I’ve heard far too often is:  “But this isn’t a place where we want to cut back.” My most frequent warning to would-be owner-builders is, “Don’t bite off more than you can realistically chew.”

RD: Meaning that near the end of the job, when you’re: too tired, too impatient, or too un-skilled, you may have to do it yourself because you’re too broke to get help to get it finished otherwise. So please don’t be too optimistic about how much you realistically can do yourself. 

DW: Those “too-too’s” (not to be confused with a tutu) can ruin the whole project for you.

RD: I just had an unflattering mental image of you wearing a tool belt over a tutu.

DW: Won’t happen — a tutu would clash with my work boots. Seriously, trying to take on 25% too much house can end up costing you 50% more than anticipated; a real bummer because change orders and add-ons always cost more.

RD: I implore folks to keep at least a 10% cushion of funds, because cosmic rule number one in the house-building universe is that your project will cost more and take longer than you think. That cushion can save your health, or even your marriage. 

DW: So let’s put together our two reasons for cost savings with a bit of advice: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try [real hard], you might find, you get what you need”.

RD: Look out; a rolling stone may chase you for your plagiarizing.

DW: Yeah, but who says you “can’t get no satisfaction?” We’ll discuss this most important reason later.