08 Dec 2009

Owner As Builder – Should you Build It?

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Are you a do-it-yourselfer? Do friends call your wall in China, “great”; your arch in France “triumphal” and your tower in Paris an “eye-ful”? Do friends mock you because you built your own computer, car or man cave? Are you the envy of the neighbors because all your home improvement projects are better than glossy magazine photos? If this is true, you’re obviously skilled so why not build your own home? Building your own home is a challenge, but may be more manageable than you think. People are more informed and have more resources than they did a decade ago. You’ve heard enough stories from others or experienced enough home improvement projects to build your own home. About 30% of my clients build part or all of their own home either because they are in the business, are crafty or use a building consultant (an architect, U-Build-It, Help-U-Build, Owner-Builder Network). Building a home project is never as easy as shown on TV, but thousands of Americans do it every day. I encourage you to build your own home and ask me to help you plan it, but before you build your personal wall, arch or tower, consider my tips so you’ll know if you’re biting off more than you can build.

The key to any construction project is time, skill and planning, but more importantly knowing what it takes and what to avoid so you can succeed.

What does it take to build your own home?
  • understand time commitments. Do you have time to visit the job daily, hourly, sign for deliveries and give instructions? It’s a full-time job for you or someone you hire to do it.
  • understand economics. As a low-volume builder you don’t have purchasing power and must buy everything retail. Home Depot/Lowe’s bidding wars and Direct Buy might help, but only if they have what you want, honor the price and deliver it timely.
  • understand construction standards and warranties. Do you know what specifications are and where to find them? Specifications are material installation instructions, details and quality standards that show how to erect warranty-compliant assemblies. Every building product has them and suppliers will not warranty products that do not follow their instructions.
  • understand trade base. Do you know construction technology and know how to evaluate an installer’s skill level. Will you know if it is built right?
  • understand timing. Can you schedule work to keep the job on target and keep subcontractors responsive?
  • understand systems integration. Are you comfortable intergrating structural, architectural, mechanical, electrical, automation systems, SIPs, ICFs, Dehumidifiers, solar, waterproofing, dual-flush toilets? Sometimes these systems will not work together.
  • secure relationships. subcontractors are loyal to money and you don’t have enough volume to keep them interested if things go wrong. How will you finish the job if they walk off or dispute scope and payment?
  • cash. the bank lends money to people they know can pay it back. Banks also know how complicated construction projects can be especially for first-time home builders. The bank will consider do-it-yourself builders a risk and charge a premium on your loans. The only way to earn the bank’s loyalty is with cash to back it up.
What to avoid:
  • rushed work.It amazes me how people and trades don’t have time to do it right, but they have time to do it twice. All speed and no control is the fastest way to kill your construction project. Take your time and pace your trades to avoid overwhelming yourself.
  • unchecked subs. The typical residential construction project uses 20 different trades. When you’re trying to find people or companies to do the work, you’ll be tempted to extract names from internet or trade association lists, but carefully interview each sub before hiring them. Don’t select them on price alone because you’ll get exactly what you pay for.
  • friend or family labor. A construction project is stressful and can severely strain a relationship. Avoid employing friends and family because you might get your home at the cost of a relationship.
  • delinquent payments. As irritating as installers can be they respond to one thing – money. If you withhold payment because you’re burning through cash at a faster than expected rate, they will lose interest and pursue paying work. Pay for good work on time to keep them on schedule.
Secrets to success:
  • Good contracts. Solicit a comprehensive set of plans and a good contract with each installer or supplier you hire. Ask your architect to develop a thorough drawing set, specifications and AIA contracts to make sure you get everything you pay for.
  • Good installers. Every project is only as good as the installers. The best builder in town cannot build a good home with substandard installers, but an average builder can build a decent home with solid installers. Choose your installer-partners wisely.
  • Intangible incentives. Reward the team for a good job. When the build-team reaches an important milestone on time, bring lunch and drinks to reward the crew. Recognition pays dividends with loyalty and good work.
  • Prudent management. Outline your entire building schedule and share it with installers. Share expectations and delivery dates and remind them when to start and what to do. It’s your home and no one cares about it more than you do. Keep your installers and deliveries on task and on track.
  • Budget overhead. You are responsible for insurance, permits, toilets and waste management. Include these necessary expenses in your budget.
  • Monitor cash. Check your budget and cash flow monthly to assess your project performance. You will spend a significant portion early to initiate the job, but you need to monitor the cash flow to ensure you meet budget. Several little variances add up fast and compromise your project.

If you feel completely comfortable with these aspects and have the time, consider building your own home. If you feel somewhat comfortable but would appreciate some guidance, consider hiring an architect or building consultant to help. If this sounds daunting or you don’t have the time, hire a builder to build your home. Afterall, many aspiring owners hired builders to build their historical walls, arches and towers.

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About the Author


Your Architect is Eric Faulkner -- an architect licensed in Texas & Oklahoma with 29 years experience in design, construction observation and life.