Owner-Builders: Pitfalls and Savings

mdfaccFebruary 25, 2010

I may act as GC on my build. I've read Carl Heldman, Amy Johnston, Tim Carter, and many others, but I would like to hear from the voice of experience: owner-builders with unrelated jobs who managed to complete the project.

How much did you save? How did you calculate the savings? Did you compare final costs to builder quotes?

How did you save? Internet purchases? Other bargains?

Most importantly: What do you know now, that you wish you knew at the start of the project?

Also, when did you start and finish your build?

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I would direct you to www.ownerbuilderbook.com. We originally toyed with the idea of owner-building, but eventually decided against it. During our 'thinking about it' phase, we frequented ownerbuilderbook.com. It has a WEALTH of knowledge there, including an extensive survey (over 100 questions I think), that ask just about any question you could think about (including all your questions you asked).

We still visit there often, because it includes several diaries/journals of those who are building their home and talk about their daily struggles with supplies/subs etc.

Here is a link that might be useful: Owner Builder Book

    Bookmark   February 25, 2010 at 12:25PM
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Thanks, twolabs. I had not seen the surveys.

    Bookmark   February 25, 2010 at 1:52PM
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I am in the final stages of owner building as we speak. I am somewhat of a control freak so for me it was the only way. You can definately get more for your money if you do it yourself. I am glad I did it but I only want to do it once. A couple of things I learned are: 1) Be extremely specific when dealing with subs. If you don't tell them EXACTLY what you want don't expect to get it. 2) It takes alot of time. Fortunately with my job I was able to make phone calls during the day. 3) You need to have a decent amount of cash on hand to pay for things until the bank reimburses you. 4) Everything takes longer than quoted or expected

    Bookmark   February 25, 2010 at 4:26PM
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Thanks, Chad.

Did you have a builder/GC quote? If so, what percentage did you save?

How did you find your subs?

Did you buy any materials over the internet? If so, did you have a good experience with internet providers?

    Bookmark   February 25, 2010 at 4:35PM
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mdfacc, Yes I had a few builders quote my house. That is the main reason I decided to do it myself. I was very specific about what I wanted and found myself researching every aspect. I figured if I'm doing all of this leg work what do I need them for? I would have saved 23% if I had built it exactly to the specs of my best quote. In the end I built it for 14% less because I decided to make upgrades when I realized what I was saving. I also did the labor on all of the trim carpentry and flooring. That also helped. If you are the "I have to have it exactly like this" kind of person then owner building is the only way in my book. I have no regrets but I'm sure it's not for everyone.

I lived in a small rural town for years that was saturated with people in the building trades. Everybody knows everybody so reputations get around fast there. I shopped it out to the ones with good reputations. I also got alot of good advice from the guy I hired to frame the house. He recommended alot of the other trades to me. I didn't buy much off of the internet. I prefer to spend locally.

    Bookmark   February 26, 2010 at 1:33PM
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Thanks, Chad. I have your personality. That's why I may do it myself.

Carl Heldmann also writes that finding the general carpenter is the most important step because the carpenter will know all of the other subs.

    Bookmark   February 26, 2010 at 3:24PM
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I too am in the final stages of building my own house, it is not an easy job.

My situation is probably much different than most. I'm 47, just "retired" after 25 years of police work, and built this house on our farm in rural Oklahoma.
I grew up with a guy I knew to be a talented, honest carpenter, who can do anything, and do it right. I asked him to basically run the project, with me as his general help. I take care of whatever subs we need, deal with the lumber yard, etc. The two of us have done probably 80% of the work. The hardest work I've ever done.

Through my carpenter, and other contacts, everyone who has worked on the project came recommended. I have a great relationship with a small town lumber yard, and that has been essential.

For me, it has been fun and not too stressful, but the details, decisions, and general fast pace would be overwhelming if I were trying to work at another job at the same time. Likewise, had I not had the advantage of numerous "ins" with the local workforce, it would have been way too hard, I think.

Not trying to discourage you, but coordination of the job is a full time prospect in my thinking. Having reliable people, who you trust is the key to success.

We started framing at the end of July, 2009. Were slowed by a few weeks due to bad weather in January.
I think I'll save around 10-15% on the house. This is a real seat of the pants guess, based on the square footage. We have used good materials throughout, like Huber Zipwall and Ziproof, 2x6's lots of insulation, etc. We are not going high dollar on extra's, trim, though.

My main source of savings comes from all the labor I've done myself. Had I not been part of the workforce, I thing the thing would have been much higher.

Its pretty hard to find bargains. This is a get what you pay for business. I did buy the front door off the internet, and that turned out well. Like I mentioned, the local lumber yard has been fantastic, I can't imagine doing this without a place where everyone knows me, and knows what I'm building. All I have to do is call, and they bring it out. They are on top of everything.

Good luck, find a good lumber yard, and get good recommendations.

    Bookmark   March 7, 2010 at 9:05AM
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I am GCing, but not physically building and swinging a hammer.

As the previous poster mentioned, it has been a full time job. We started work in July. Should be mostly finished at the end of this month, some stuff will trickle over to April.

As also mentioned, I started out getting bids from GC's and also from subs so I could try to figure out how much it was going to cost to build. Then at some point, I had all the bids from all the subs that I would need, I could cost and service compare, and when added together, it was less than the GC's bids. I was waiting on one GC in particular that I really thought I would go with but his bid never came. So finally I just decided let's get this party started.

I think I have saved a lot of money, but can't really say how much for sure. I found an Amish crew and they do most everything, except plumbing, electric, and hvac, so that relieved almost all of my stress. I gave him the blue print and they have done it all. So really they became my GC on the build part but I still had to line up my other subs and suppliers although they made reccommendations of people they have worked with before.

My main job has been that of tending to the shopping. I bought most supplies at the local lumber yard. They delivered when we needed, they came out and helped measure for things like trusses, for the supplies for the wrap around porch, help with measuring for windows, they come out to count the doors, just anything and everything. I think they are happy to get out of the store once in awhile.

I found a great buy on doors online, and my local matched it. So they really have tried to go above and beyond.

All other stuff, like bathroom fixtures and lighting fixtures, all my appliances, I bought online. I saved a TON of money I think, and had it delivered to my door. If at times when the savings wasnt all that great or even if I didnt save, I still ordered online because it saved me time and gas and the hassle of hauling something home and lining out help to unload.

I should also add that prior to digging a hole, I researched for months and months and months. So by the time it came time to build, I pretty much knew everything I wanted even down to the finishing touches. Now some of those ideas have changed of course, but my point is, there were things I knew I wanted or didnt want, so we could plan ahead for them. Most every sub needed to know something about the next phase, and I was able to answer it, so they were able to do things to make the next phase easier.

Would I do it again? At first I said no way, now I am thinking I might but on a much much smaller scale. Next house will be a two room cabin or something, in maybe 15 - 20 years, so I might tackle that.

Okay, so what was the question? Pitfalls and savings. I think had I built in the boom time, I would have had a terrible time getting subs here. They would have been loyal to the contractor that would be giving them their next job also, and I would have taken a backseat.

I really feel my Amish crew made this possible for me to do. While they didnt hire subs, they made reccommendations of other subs and supplies that they have and will work with again, and also made sure things were lined out and ready to go.

Savings? I think so, just not sure how much. But we have about 7100 sf under roof. Now that includes wrap around porch that is under the standing seam metal roof, and garage and safe room in a full basement, but everything under roof is about 7100 sf for a cost of around 420k. We did geothermal, extra tint low-e argon windows, some spray foam, some blown in cellulose, some pink stuff, we have lightning rods and a security system that added a few bucks. We have 5 miles of wiring. I have enough lights, ceiling fans, and spigots and a hot/cold spigot on my porch that a family of 4 could live there. So I have some bucks in the bones. We also have a new pond and an on-ground pool in those numbers.

BUT - I tried to save money in other areas like our custom cabinets are Amish built, my flooring is a little engineered hardwood and mostly laminate that I got anywhere from .79 - 2.49 sf. A little crown in a few rooms, but nothing over the top. Saved some bucks on the exterior. I won't have granite countertops - going to try something new this week, will see how that goes. I won't have fancy decor inside as I tried very hard to stay on budget and not finance, but I tried to get the bones right, the other stuff we can upgrade later if we want, although right now I am pretty happy with how everything is coming together.

Here is a link that might be useful: Our Home Page

    Bookmark   March 7, 2010 at 10:41AM
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Thanks, cs6000 and gopintos. I appreciate your insights.

Gopintos, how did you learn about the Amish builders in your area, and how did you contact them? There are some Amish communities in my region of Ohio, but not close by. It's my impression that they don't use phones or cars, so it seems that it would be impractical for me to try to reach them and hire them for my job. Is that correct?

    Bookmark   March 7, 2010 at 11:43AM
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I got their names from the local lumber yard. I was asking about GCs, subs for this or that, etc. I told the fellas at the lumber yard, next time these boys come in, have them call me.

And then at one point I needed to talk to them without waiting, so the lumber yard told me how to get to their house. So I drove out there.

And correct they do not drive cars, but they came to work every single day. Days when school was cancelled and I would not even leave the drive way, they came to work. Some days we had temps at like -15 or so below and they were always there. Rain, shine, mud, snow, sleet, ice...

And they do not own phones, but I leave my cell phone & charger at the house so they could use it and call the lumber yard for supplies etc. Or if they have questions for me during the day, etc they can call me.

My guys are about 10 miles maybe? from town, I really am not sure how far, but it takes them an hour and 15 minutes to get to work so yes if they live very far away, it might not be practical for them. But then again, my neighbor asked me if they were going to stay in the barn during the week so I dont know if something like that is an option for them, I dont know about all that.

But I have loved having these guys. They are all young and have a sense of humor, and they sing and whistle and have a good time. Not that other crews don't but these guys seem to really enjoy their work, take a great deal of pride in their work and I feel like they are building a happy home. :-) And again I know other builders feel the same. I am just saying that I am glad these guys are that way and I am glad I went that route.

Now.... I almost used a Mennonite framing crew before I found my Amish crew who did most everything. The mennonites do drive, use cell phones, etc. My foundation guy was a mennonite crew. They did an awesome job. And I got my standing seam metal roof from a Mennonite fella and it saved me a TOOOOOOON of money.

HTH :-)

    Bookmark   March 7, 2010 at 8:29PM
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Thanks, gopintos. I have heard similar good reports about Amish builders from others. Unfortunately, I don't think there is an Amish community within 20 miles, but I will ask around. I don't know if there are Mennonite builders in the region, but I'll check into that as well.

You say they were able to use your phone. Would they accept a car ride to and from work from me, or would they find that unacceptable?

    Bookmark   March 7, 2010 at 9:52PM
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I always offered, left it as a standing invitation, especially on the cold days, but they have never accepted.

I know he said that once on a super hot day, they accepted a ride home but I think it was a little farther than the ride to my house so I think it was mostly because it was too much for their horses.

So I am not sure. I know they accept rides to and from places that are a bit farther away, so this might fall into that category.

    Bookmark   March 8, 2010 at 12:21AM
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We've been in our house just over a year. OB'ing was stressful, but not as stressful as dealing with the "custom" builders we interviewed and had quote the project. We started in June of 2008 and moved in at the end of February 2009, 4,000 sq ft. We just finished doing the basement for another 1,500 sq ft. It went slow due to our first child.

1. None, and I mean none of them, would actually build the house to our specs. Window type and color, insulation, flooring, etc. They apply their specs to your plan and call that custom.

2. Even if we had hired a builder, I'm 100% convinced that I'd have spent just as much time arguing with them about them not doing what we wanted as I did hiring subs to do just what we wanted.

Savings: None. We built the house for about what most of the quotes were... but the builder's specs are a joke.
Our House
Travertine Tile
$12,000 of lighting
$30,000 of appliances
Sprayfoam insulation
16 SEER HVAC, Multi Zone, ERV and HEPA Filter
Aluminum Clad Casement Windows
Slate Covered Veranda
Tankless Water Heaters
Heated Master Bath Floor

Builder Spec
Porcelain tile or linoleum
$3,500 lighting allowance
$7-10k appliance allowance
Fiberglass Batt insulation
Double Hung Vinyl (White) Windows
Pressure Treated Deck
50 gal tank water heater
No Heated Master Bath Floor

We didn't save a single dollar, but we would have easily spent 20% more than the quotes to get what we wanted. Probably more considering that builders don't let you use all retail channels to lower the cost of products.

If you want natural stone tile, try Builddirect.com. Most products are delivered in a week (our slate was just a few days, the travertine we chose was special order - 60 business days). You have to buy in pallet qty, about 300 sq ft. Just right (with breakage) for a Master Bath, or two secondary baths with tiled tub surround. Local Tile shops have mosaics and trim pieces that match and finish the look.

Buy plumbing and lighting fixtures online, no one retailer is the best for all, just price things out. And despite what you might read, warranties don't depend on the installer and if you find a faucet online and at HomeDepot with the same model number, they're the exact same one.

Lesson: You know the vision of the whole project, a sub doesn't. Be forceful about what you want and where you want it to complete the vision. Our basement is 10ft tall (poured walls), I should've done 12 ft. With our 8 ft doors, I had to make the HVAC people be precise about the location of ducts so I could soffit them and make it still look good. The HVAC guy said, "I ruin a lot of people's hopes and dreams about their basements when we get in here to run the ducts." I said, "You won't ruin my dreams, you'll put it where I want and the size I want or you can walk right now. My way is the only way you'll do this job."

    Bookmark   March 8, 2010 at 8:56AM
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Oh, and spend extra money and time up front with the architect and a structural engineer. Make sure windows and doors (basement as well) are spec'd correctly for size and location so the framers know what to do. The structural engineer plans will make it easy for the framers to do things right and for you to make sure they do it right (like steel vs LVLs vs dimensional lumber).

Speaking of, I'd probably have spec'd an open web truss instead of I-Joists for my floor system (have the engineer do it). This should be easier on the plumbing and hiding HVAC in the basement and running wiring.

    Bookmark   March 8, 2010 at 9:00AM
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bdpeck-charlotte: Thank you very much for all of your helpful advice. I do want stone tile, so I'll remember builddirect.com.

It sounds like you did save quite a bit of money. For some reason, you couldn't find a builder willing to provide a bid on the house you wanted to build.

    Bookmark   March 8, 2010 at 10:31AM
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