Not your typical Build-it-Yourself

columbiascOctober 11, 2008

I don't know why I never thought of posting this before. About two years ago, while at a Cub Scout workday, I met a man who had built his own small home several years back. He claims to have built a 900sf, one bedroom home for himself and his wife for $10 per square foot. The following is his story.

First, he bought some acreage. The property was well forested with mature trees. After deciding where to site the house, he began clearing a driveway and clearing the site itself. Next, he bought a portable, trailer mounted saw mill and brought it to the property. He used some of the first felled trees to build a "pole barn". A relatively large, simple, open structure with a tin roof. As he cut down trees that were in the way, he ran them through his saw mill and stacked the rough lumber under the pole barn to dry. Obviously this is a labor intenisve task and took some time. With the trees felled, rough milled and drying, he began clearing out the stumps and leveling the site and driveway. He also made regular trips to his local building supply store and began purchasing phase-out items like lighting fixtures, door hardware, plumbing, etc. He was alert for builder returns like windows and doors. Items that were ordered by mistake, the wrong size, etc. but in perfectly good shape. The retailer usually has little need for such items and sells them off a discount rack or sidewalk sale. A smaller home can more easily utilize small amounts of "leftovers" like carpet, tile, roofing that are "lot sensitive" when matching colors with similar stock from different dye lots or manufacturing runs. With that limitation in mind, many of these items are often sold at flea market prices.

After the rough lumber had dried sufficiently, he brought out his table saw and milled the lumber into standard building sizes.

Keep in mind that this man is a building maintanence supervisor for a large insurance provider and has certain skills.

With a sufficient amount of accumalated materials, he began framing his home. Most of the lumber used for this step was his own trees, milled on site. He installed as many systems as he could himself and called in help only for the really technical parts like connecting the electrical.

In the end, he claims to have finished the project for $10 per sqaure foot, or about one-tenth what you would expect. Of course you can't put a price on his labor and because he did it himself, progress was slow.

I know that not all of us, myself included, have all of the skills needed to duplicate this man's efforts but I thought some of you might be able to borrow some of his ideas. Perhaps there are things we are capable of, skills we posses that we could barter with.

Anyway, just a few thoughts on this windy, rainy Saturday. Anyone have similar stories to share and inspire?


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We built a house, actually it was a garage, but we built it to live in.

It's a long story, but we sold our house in town bought land from a developer who promised that everything would done and ready for us to build in 6 months. 6 months came & went & there was still no road to our land. After a year we found out that the developer had never even applied for a plat, so we couldn't get a loan to build our house.

Finally, after 2 years of living in a 900 square foot rental with 2000 sq. feet of furniture and 2 little kids, we decided to go ahead & build the garage. Had no problem getting a building permit from the county, so we decided to build it to live in until the builder could get through all the supposed red tape of getting a plat. That's the long story.

We built a 27'x36' 1½ story garage. My father-in-law was a building contractor, brother-in-law worked for a concrete contractor, dh had worked for a paint contractor, and then worked for a paint company, and dh's cousin was an electrician. The only outside help we had to hire was the company who installed the septic tanks and lines. So the costs were building materials only. We closed off about 13x10 for a closet, and 13x10 for a storage room, a small bathroom, small laundry room, and put the kitchen across the remaining back space. All the rest downstairs was open, and upstairs was kid's space, mainly because they were the only ones who could stand up upright everywhere. Total living space was 1269 square feet, which seemed fairly spacious, especially after being in 900 square feet.

Total cost was $28k, which was roughly $22 per square foot.

I would like to do something similar again, but now fil can't help, and the rest of us are too old to do a lot ourselves. Building is definitely for the young and strong.

    Bookmark   October 11, 2008 at 3:41PM
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I'd love to do that, and have the property, trees and skills. But in many areas, including where our property is, you can't use un-graded lumber for structural use. Having it graded is hard and expensive- more expensive than buying retail lumber. I wanted to build a timber frame out of our own trees, but between having them graded, and paying an engineer to add his blessing to the design, the cost would have been ridiculous. We'll have to build conventional, since even my plan of using SIP's has gotten too expensive. The only cost savings (and it's considerable) is that I can do everything but the foundation myself. If things get so bad that local governments lose the ability to rule, then I'll go ahead and start cutting down trees! We will use our trees for flooring and trim. I hate to cut down beautiful oak trees for firewood- at least they'll have a good and lasting purpose.

Another thought we've had lately is to build a barn, and live in that for a while until things get better. We'd have to do it on the sly, though, or else build the barn to residential standards. If someone ratted us out, we'd be in big trouble. I've reached the age where I don't really care to invite trouble. My current house design could be built in stages, and added on to later. I know that that would ultimately cost more, but we are very determined to get out to the country before we are too old to enjoy it!

    Bookmark   October 11, 2008 at 5:48PM
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columbiasc we have regulated ourselves to death! How did we get here? Was ungraded lumber a widespraed problem? Have you seen the stuff they sell as building studs? Straight as a moutain road. Kind of makes you wonder what prompts governments to pass some of the laws they pass.

My dad still lives in south Florida and tells me that if he wants to paint his own house, my brother who does not live in the house can't even come over and help him without a business license, insurance, etc.

Yeah, we need more regulation.


    Bookmark   October 11, 2008 at 7:17PM
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South Carolina follows IBC 2006, as do many other states. Although many of the laws are just common sense, and follow standards that have been around a long time, other things are clearly over-regulated, and may have been written to protect business interests, thus making it harder and more expensive for a DIY'er to design and build his own home. If I used my own timber, the house would be built of red oak, which I of course would hand select. Do they really think that house would be structurally inferior to lumber from a big box store? I wonder if anyone has ever made a counterfeit grading stamp, or if any inspector would even notice? Luckily, Greenville County has no plans review, so I don't need blueprints (at all!) and we are in an un-zoned area, so I can build whatever I want. The only restriction is that you can't have a 'habitable room' less than 70 sq. ft. (IBC) There are many other rules, of course, such as the spacing of electrical outlets, stair dimensions, minimum window sizes, even central heat. What if I don't want electricity? Or heat? Oddly enough, I could live there in a tent as long as I want, but if I want to live in the barn, it has to meet residential codes. End of rant (for now)


    Bookmark   October 12, 2008 at 11:39AM
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Scott, you are so right about the quality of building materials. My dh likes to go to the lumberyard and handpick everything. But when you build, obviously you can't do that. Since I didn't have the skill that the men in the family had, my job in our construction was to make cripples using all the crooked lumber. (to straighten it out).

I went to Lowe's yesterday just to get a nice piece of molding to make a picture frame. I had to look down 5 of them before I found a straight one, and it's not perfect.

    Bookmark   October 12, 2008 at 12:52PM
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Agreed on the lumber issue. Why I am waiting on finishing up my furniture marriage. The lumber they had was like spaghetti.

Here we only have roof load regulations and in the city where we are it is almost anything goes. The county is a different story. We had this place over built so we would not have to get up on the roof and shovel snow in our old age. Regulation is 85 pounds and we got 120 and the 4 & 12 pitch which is higher/steeper than the usual for a manufactured home.

I need to find the pictures of the house we built and load them to an album. Fun for me to see them again when I was younger and so much thinner. LOL


    Bookmark   October 12, 2008 at 3:33PM
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