So You Want to Build a House

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Building a house is a complex and challenging undertaking. But, while it’s not a job to be undertaken lightly, the skills and information needed are readily available to anyone willing to take the time and energy to track them down. Above all, don’t rush into a house-building project. Allow plenty of time to do the research and planning necessary to assure that your home satisfies your needs. The most successful owner-builder projects we are aware of were years in the planning. As a general rule, 75 to 80 % of the time you devote to your project should be spent before construction starts.

Planning a home is essentially a process of making thousands of decisions, from the very general (“Do I really want to build a house for myself to the very specific (“What color ceramic tile goes in the upstairs bathroom?”). These decisions, especially the early ones, will determine how well the project goes. For most owner-builders, the decision- making process settles into a series of compromises with family members, lenders, building. officials, subcontractors, and suppliers. Practical considerations (such as the resale value of the finished home, budget constraints, and so forth) also enter the picture, requiring further compromises.

Professional builders rely heavily on their past experiences to plan and manage construction jobs. Since owner-builders generally have no previous experience to fall back on, they must spend much more time on the project. One way to reduce this load is to delegate various tasks to professional contractors. Indeed, deciding how much of the project you really want to do yourself is one of the most crucial decisions you should make. You could decide to do it all, or you could decide to farm out many jobs.


The minimum level of owner-builder involvement is acting as your own contractor. If you elect this option, you will not perform much of the actual construction work, but you will oversee the project. Sounds easy. But even this “minimum” involvement involves broad responsibilities: You will plan all the stages of the project, hire workers to perform them, coordinate the schedules of the various workers, arrange for the needed materials and supplies, and ensure that all the work meets the applicable codes and standards. It’s a big job, but it can be financially rewarding. You may save 20 % compared to the cost of hiring a general contractor to build a house for you.

Be Your Own Contractor

To help you decide whether you feel able to operate as your own contractor, here’s a more detailed description of how a professional general contractor operates. A “general” orchestrates the materials suppliers, subcontractors (contractors who work under the general contractor, such as carpenters, electricians, etc.), and equipment operators (bull dozer operators, etc.). The general hires and supervises these individuals. At the same time, he or she deals with the architect (if there is one), building inspectors, the lender, and the owner.

The general often arranges the financing, since he or she probably has a relationship with a lender who makes construction loans. Because the lender is familiar with the general contractor’s work and has worked with this individual successfully on past projects, the process of getting the loan is smoother. A general who has been in business for a while also has an ongoing relationship with the building department and other local governmental agencies, such as zoning and planning departments that can influence building projects.

The general is first and foremost a manager, someone who schedules deliveries of materials and assures that the appropriate workers will be on site to install these materials. The general is also responsible for making sure there are no gaps in the project—that each task is completed adequately so that the next subcontractor can take over (for instance, the general makes sure that the carpenters prepare the bathrooms adequately for the plumbers to be able to do their work). He or she also schedules so that tradespeople don’t interfere with each other. Once the house is framed, many things are happening simultaneously, and careful scheduling will keep the subcontractors working efficiently.

When problems arise, it's the general who is consulted, and usually it's the general who resolves them. These problems can range from lack of availability of a specified material to settling disputes between tradespeople. (If you hire an architect to provide “comprehensive” services the architect can be counted onto help resolve these problems. In that case, the subcontractors’ contracts should identify the architect as the arbiter of problems.)

Finishing Out a Shell

Whether or not you decide to function as your own general contractor, there are several other roles you may either fill yourself or farm out. For example, one popular option among owner-builders is to have the foundation poured and the house framed by professional workers, then finish the interior of the house as a do-it-yourself project. A home- construction project feels much more manageable if the “shell” of the house is already up when you begin your share of the work. According to the Owner Builder Center in Berkeley, California, you can reasonably expect to save 40 to 44 % of the total cost of a contractor-built home by taking this route.

There are a number of “kit” home companies that specialize in helping owner-builders do this. They provide the basic structure of the house in the form of a kit that their own workers or local contractors will assemble for you. Then you can perform the finishing work. In choosing a kit-home manufacturer, look for one that will be available for technical support during your portion of the project—if you run into a problem, the company should willingly give you advice and guidance. The materials provided in the kit should be high quality, and the kit package should be complete. Always talk with former customers about their experiences with the company and visit their completed homes. If the salespeople seem vague or evasive, shop elsewhere. (We will discuss kit homes in more detail later.)

Deciding to “finish a shell” does not necessarily mean you must do all the finishing work yourself. You can elect to hire subcontractors to perform particular tasks. Which jobs you decide to do yourself is a decision only you can make, but there are some parts of the project that, in our view, make more sense to do for yourself than others. We encourage you to do your own insulation and weatherproofing. This is not particularly skilled work, but it takes a degree of care and attention to detail that most subcontractors are unable to provide because of time and economic constraints. Your “sweat equity” will be repaid many times over in reduced energy costs.

Plumbing and electrical work are relatively light and enjoyable, and a great deal of money can be saved since plumbers and electricians often charge dearly for their services. Make sure that local codes allow you to do these types of work, however. In fact, no matter what types of work you want to do yourself, you should check to see whether local ordinances allow you to do so. Some building departments restrict what work they will allow “amateurs” to undertake.

Ceramic tile installation is skilled work, but it's easy to learn, and novices can substitute time and attention for expertise. The work is enormously satisfying, because the results are so attractive, and ceramic tile adds value to the home. A tile job is only as good as the adhesive and backing material used, so get professional advice about what works best in your area.

If you plan to do your own finish carpentry but have little or no carpentry experience, it’s a good idea to gain experience by “apprenticing” yourself to the professional carpenters who erect your house’s shell. This will give you an opportunity to work with wood and power tools without worrying about how the finished product will look—the work on the frame will be hidden inside the finished surfaces of the house. Finish carpentry requires care and precision, but a novice can allow more time than most professionals, so the result can be as good, and sometimes better, than a professional job. If you don’t own the necessary tools, they can be rented reasonably in most areas. A power nailer, for instance, makes short work of laying flooring, and a power miter saw will speed the installation of solid wood paneling and trim.

There are some tasks we think you should not do yourself. One of these is drywall finishing work. Professionals will do a much better job than you could in a fraction of the time. If you do the job yourself and make mistakes, you’ll see those mistakes every day for years afterward. Some professionals insist on hanging as well as taping and finishing the drywall, so check before you hang it yourself.

If your roof is complicated or excessively steep, hire a roofer. Most professional roofers warrant their work—if there’s a leak during the warranty period they will repair the roof for free. Although the mechanics of installing a roof are straightforward, mistakes that result in leaks are annoying and expensive to repair. Make sure the flashing system is designed and installed properly—inadequate flashing can cause no end of grief.

Be sure to develop contingency plans, in case the unexpected occurs. You may be prevented from doing all the work you had planned to do, so you may need to hire workers to take up the slack. You should arrange your budget so that you will have sufficient funds for this purpose. One tangential benefit will be that, if you are financing the construction through a bank, your banker will be more comfortable with the project—the bank’s loan will seem that much more secure, since you will be prepared to finish the house no matter what.

Doing It “All” Yourself

Although most owner-builders get help with part of the project, there are those hearty few who do virtually all of the physical work themselves. it's possible to save 50 % or more of the total cost of a comparable contractor-built house this way, but it’s impractical unless you can take a year or so off from your job. Charlie Wing, founder of Cornerstones Energy Group, Inc., an owner-builder school in Maine, estimates that it takes about 1½ hours per square foot to complete the average home. Thus, building a 1,500-square-foot home would take about 2,250 hours or roughly 47 weeks.

Ideally, you should finance the house out of pocket so you don’t have a lender hounding you to finish the work quickly. But even in this ideal arrangement, you need to plan for the timely completion of the project. Make a tentative schedule so that you can monitor your progress and do a detailed cost estimate to help you think the project through. it's easy to lose perspective when you spend day after day working alone on such a large project. You can use your schedule and cost estimate to assure that you follow a logical building sequence and to avoid getting frustrated by what can sometimes seem like an unending process.

Single-handed work will go more easily if you select your construction materials wisely. Various materials are made to order for do-it-yourself builders. Surface-bonded block and interlocking block systems take relatively little skill to assemble, and the end product is a stronger wall than a mortar-jointed concrete block wall. Pre-hung doors are much easier and quicker to install than conventional doors, and they come in a wide variety of styles and materials, including expertly weatherstripped exterior doors.

You can save money by using salvaged materials. If a neighbor is tearing down a garage, for example, you might volunteer to help in exchange for the materials. it's also possible to obtain free or very inexpensive materials, such as seconds, damaged freight, or leftovers from suppliers and manufacturers. You can turn the fact that we live in a throwaway society to your advantage—but you must be prepared to pay a penalty in terms of time. Searching for the materials will take time, and using them will probably call for careful cutting and fitting.



Ultimately, your decision about how much work to undertake yourself must hinge on your assessment of your own skills and strengths. To help uncover the talents and strengths you bring to your house-building project, as well as the practical constraints you’ll be working within, here is a list of questions you and your family might ask yourselves. We’ll start with a seemingly objective—but touchy—subject: money. Then we’ll proceed to more subjective matters.


Can you afford to build your own home? Do you want to spend your money for this purpose? Mull over the following questions:

• How much does housing cost in your area? To get some idea of what you’ll need to spend on your new home, find out what homes are selling for and how the costs break down. For instance, is land at a premium? Are there restrictive codes, covenants, or zoning restrictions that are driving up costs? Are labor costs particularly high?

Remember that the home you build is likely to be unique, and you won’t benefit from the economy of scale achieved by tract builders who build many identical homes. You should learn the selling price of customized homes that are comparable in quality to the home you want to build, and then adjust this amount downward by approximately 50 % if you will do virtually all the work yourself, 40 % if you will finish out a shell, or 20 % if you will act as an owner-contractor. This will give you a rough idea of your home’s potential cost.

• How much can you afford to pay for housing? It’s a useful exercise to sit down and think about how much you’re accustomed to paying for living space, and whether you are comfortable with that. You should also consider how you will fund the project.

If you aren’t sure how large a house you can afford, visit mortgage lenders and ask them to qualify you for a mortgage. Most mortgage companies are willing to do this, anticipating your business. For instance, suppose you qualify for an $80,000 mortgage, and you already own your lot. The lot is worth $25,000, which gives you enough equity in the project to make the construction lender comfortable. That leaves the $80,000 for developing the lot and building the house. Assuming that contractor-built custom housing in your area goes for around $50 per square foot, and you plan to act as your own contractor (which should save you roughly 20 % of the total cost), you could build up to a 1,900-square-foot house. These are preliminary figures, but they give you a place to start. If it turns out that you can qualify for only enough to build a 500-square-foot house, you don’t own a piece of land, and you have no cash for a down payment, you would probably be well advised to start saving or explore the possibilities of borrowing from family and friends.

• How much money are you willing to spend? For some people, how much they can afford isn’t the issue. it's a point of honor with them to build a house that is functional and aesthetically pleasing for the least possible dollar amount. These are the folks with the tenacity to tear down old buildings for materials, dig their footing trenches by hand, and run every pipe and pound every nail in the structure. If you fall into this category, we applaud you and urge you to take the same care in designing and planning that you would if you were buying lumber at the lumberyard and borrowing money from a bank. it's impossible to emphasize too much the time and energy you will save by thinking the project through before you start to build.

Building Skills and Time

Besides making basic decisions about money, you need to decide who will do what in the construction project. The following questions should help you sort things out:

• How much of the labor do you plan to do yourself? Realistically, how quick a worker are you? How many hours a week can you devote to the project? What activities will you be giving up to work on the house? If those activities usually include other people, especially family members, how will they feel about their reduced access to you for the duration of the building project?

• How much do you know about house-building? We have a recurring experience at the Colorado Owner Builder Center of people coming in who know at least a little about house-building, and on that basis decide that they don’t need the whole program and will just avail themselves of the files, library, etc. These are almost without exception the same people who call every couple of days with questions and problems. One man finally decided to take the house-building course and came to it with $4,000 worth of construction drawings, only to toss out the drawings halfway through the class when he realized the design was not at all what he wanted. He was actually much more cheerful about it than we were; he had been saved from building a house that would have cost a great deal of money and ultimately wouldn’t have served his needs.

• How much experience do you have with intricate work? If you like the sense of accomplishment that comes with taking on a fairly complicated project and completing it successfully, whether it be sewing a complex garment or rebuilding the engine of your car, chances are you’ll enjoy your house-building experience. If you’re the sort of person who is good with your hands and takes pleasure in working with tools and doing little projects around your house, you are owner-builder material.

• How proficient are you with tools, particularly power tools? If your blood pressure rises every time you get near a spinning blade, you’ll probably want to hire carpenters. People who work with power tools regularly walk a thin line between a healthy respect for the damage they can do and gratitude for the speed and accuracy such tools add to a task. Working under such conditions day after day requires a constant presence of mind.

• If you have any experience with physical work, did you enjoy the experience? If you plan to do much of the work yourself and have little experience, we would urge you to loan yourself to a contractor to get an idea of what it’s like to work physically for long hours day after day. You risk days of sore muscles and possible injury if you don’t ease yourself into the regimen, and it would certainly pay to find out now if the joys of physical labor are for you. There are any number of ways you can be actively involved in your project without exerting yourself physically.

If you don’t exercise regularly, consider developing an exercise regimen to increase your physical strength and endurance. If you are overweight, the building project might be an Incentive to normalize your weight. If you are unaccustomed to exercise in any form, or if you are significantly overweight, talk with your doctor before starting any exercise program or reducing diet. Even people in good shape should take reasonable precautions. Temperatures on a roof in the middle of summer, for instance, can strain even the healthiest body. One woman started working out and swimming every day about six months before she started building her home; she swears it saved her, once the project began. Accidents typically happen when workers are tired or harried, and your physical and psychological stamina are at least in part a function of how healthy and fit your body is.

• If you anticipate assistance from family and friends, how likely is it that the help will be forthcoming when you need it? Careful organization may help you to harness the energies of enthusiastic but unskilled volunteers. The spirit of cooperation and community that such successful group efforts foster is energizing and infectious, but the undertaking requires thoughtful planning on your part.

Decision Making

How are your managerial and organizational skills? As owner-contractor, you will manage the project. Although lack of contracting experience might seem like a serious liability, you probably have the required skills if you are a good manager. Housewives, for instance, are masterful schedulers, particularly if they have part-time jobs. and most parents have become adept at conflict resolution, a skill which is sometimes necessary at the building site.

Don’t be intimidated by your lack of specific technical information. Most of what you need to know will be available from your subcontractors. For example, if you’re not sure where the excavator’s responsibility ends and the concrete contractor’s begins, ask them both. Most subcontractors are happy to give you this kind of information, and often you can put them in touch with each other and let them work out who’s going to do what. We urge you to stay involved in how they work it out and clarify in the contracts you have with both of them what their individual responsibilities are.

As is so often the case in any undertaking, the most valuable skill you can bring to your project is the ability to deal fairly and effectively with other people. The stickiest hassles owner-builders get into inevitably involve disputes with subcontractors, suppliers, building officials, lenders, and spouses. Approaching each day’s work with a sense of humor and patience can go a long way in making the project enjoyable and efficient. People rarely work at their best when they feel pressured or abused. If you are respectful toward the people around you, you’ll get better work from them, and you will all have a more positive building experience.

One owner-builder couple had it down to a science. They designed and built a beautiful passive solar home, largely by themselves, but with a great deal of help from their friends. The wife scheduled volunteer help the way most people schedule tradespeople, contacting the volunteers shortly before they were expected. She gave them instructions on what tools to bring, what job they would be working on, and the hours she expected them to be available (she had everyone working 4-hour shifts). She even told them what clothes to wear (heavy boots for framing, rubber boots for concrete work, rain gear if the weather looked threatening, etc.). She now proudly states that all the people who worked on the house are still friends, and the project came in on time and on budget. We should add that she was holding down a job and finishing a master’s degree—and she was pregnant—while all this was going on.

• What is your decision-making style? Do you make decisions quickly and without an excess of waffling and worrying? If you are building with someone else, whether a spouse or other partner, take a look at how well you make decisions together.

Some people avoid major conflicts by assigning areas of responsibility and establishing a set of ground rules that outline when the partner must be consulted. For instance, one partner could be in charge of color schemes, but would be obliged to consult the other before reaching any hard decisions. This decision-making strategy works well as long as the individuals affected by the decisions are mature enough to live with the results once the house is built. Reminding each other of less-than-perfect decisions made under stress is neither useful nor kind and won’t contribute to harmonious relationships. Some owner- builders include in the ground rules an agreement that complaining about things that can’t be changed will be kept to a minimum.

It is nothing short of miraculous how mistakes that seem like insurmountable obstacles shrink to remembered milestones by the end of the job. Somehow, the house gets completed, and the despair you felt staring at the bend in your new foundation wall fades into the total sense of pride at having built your own home.

• Do you have the emotional stamina for house-building? There is something in tensely personal about shaping one’s own shelter, even if your function is coordinator / overseer rather than pounder of nails. Emotional flexibility is an enormous asset in stressful situations, and the ability to detach yourself periodically and take a fresh look around will help you enjoy the process when you come back to it. If you’re doing the work yourself, many of your frustrations will likely be worked off pounding nails and lifting walls, but if you’re supervising, get some exercise and find time to get away from the project.

Occasionally we run across clients who have decided to build a house in an attempt to cement an otherwise shaky marriage. Shared challenges and triumphs will serve to strengthen and enrich families who have learned to be resilient and giving, but they will almost always intensify misunderstandings for those who start the project with basic issues left unresolved. The divorce rate among owner-builders is distressingly high, and we suspect it's largely because couples hope that the mutual focus and involvement will somehow bring them closer and heal the rifts that have developed in their relationships. In many cases, the opposite turns out to be the case. The added pressure turns rifts into chasms, and communication breaks down altogether.

To guard against such problems, you should try to anticipate the strains in order to be patient and understanding with each other. Planning and gathering good information go a long way toward minimizing potential disputes. This is not to suggest that both partners must be intimately involved in the project for the house to be successfully completed. The ideal is to have everyone in the family enthusiastically involved, but many homes have been built by one partner while the other kept a regular job to provide a steady income. The rule here is to do whatever works for you and yours. Even if some family members don’t want to be actively involved in construction, they can still be invaluable as sounding boards and sympathetic shoulders.


Finding reliable subcontractors is no easy job, especially for someone unfamiliar with the building process. Word of mouth is always the best advertising, so begin by asking around. If a poll of friends and relatives doesn’t turn up anything, check at local materials suppliers. Suppliers are unlikely to recommend “subs” who don’t pay their bills, so you will at least have some assurance that the tradesperson is financially responsible. If you are working with an architect or other design professional, he or she may know of tradespeople who have proven reliable. If there is an owner-builder school in your area, check to see if it has files of tradespeople interested in working with owner-builders.

Construction lenders might also be a source of contacts, and visits to construction sites to quiz general contractors and subcontractors has turned up leads for some novice builders. It might even be worth buying an hour from a general contractor or two to get the names of subcontractors they use. Don’t be offended if the contractors are reticent about sharing this information with you. They may consider it proprietary, since reliable subcontractors are so valuable, and they may not want to risk their subcontractors being tied up on your job when they need them.

Pulling subcontractors blindly out of the yellow pages is not a good idea. Anybody can run an ad, and although most subcontractors are honest, hardworking people, consumer complaints arising out of relationships between homeowners and subcontractors are among the most frequent problems taken to consumer agencies and small-claims courts.

Evaluating Subcontractors

Regardless of how you find subcontractors, always ask for references, and check them. Ask the subs’ former clients if they showed up when they said they would, if the job was completed on time, if they cleaned up after themselves, if there were any major problems as work progressed, if there were cost overruns, if the clients would hire the subs again. Do enough homework ahead of time so that you have some sense of what constitutes a “workmanlike” job. Then look at several completed jobs the subcontractors performed, and , if possible, visit the jobs they are currently working on. Much of what you can see at a completed job site is finish work—trim carpentry, drywall finish, etc.—which may hide various flaws, so your conversations with the clients are at least as valuable as your personal observations.

Good subcontractors seem to be always busy and can be hard to reach. it's worth the time and trouble to track them down. Listen carefully to their thoughts about your project. They do this kind of work every day and probably know how to get the job done less expensively and more quickly than you do. Subs have a different perspective on building than architects and building officials. They know what works best in the real world, and most are happy to share the information, if you have a receptive ear. They can give you suggestions on what materials to use, how long the job will take, and roughly how expensive it will be.

You can also get a feel for the aesthetic sense and general attitude of the subcontractors as you visit with them. Trust your intuition; if you immediately dislike or distrust some subs, don’t hire them no matter how good a deal they’re offering or how highly recommended they come. It’s unlikely that your working relationship will be a good one if it starts on that sort of footing. You don’t have to become fast friends, but you ought to have a generally positive feeling about your subs.

Let each subcontractor know when you need the job done, and see how it fits into his or her schedule. Don’t take it personally if a subcontractor decides not to submit a bid. If a sub doesn’t, have the time for your project, you are better off learning this now than halfway through the job.

Subcontractors fall into roughly two groups: specialists and generalists. Specialists are more common in urban areas and typically do one part of a job exclusively (e.g., plumbing, electrical work, framing carpentry, or finish carpentry). Generalists are more likely to be found in rural areas and can often build a house from the ground up, including the mechanical systems. There are advantages, disadvantages, and appropriate uses for both types of professional.

• Specialists have the advantage of an intimate familiarity with their particular trade, and most take real pride in keeping up-to-date with new developments and doing the best job possible. Specialists are often more expensive than a general builder in terms of their hourly rate, but they are also often faster, so the higher rate is offset somewhat. In some areas, trades are protected by unions or restrictive building codes, so you have no choice but to hire a licensed subcontractor. In other areas, you may do the work yourself, but if it's to be hired out, it must be done by a licensed professional.

• A generalist has the advantage of familiarity with the entire house as a coherent whole, in contrast to a specialist’s view from the relatively narrow perspective of his or her trade. Many owner-contractors who can’t be on site every day hire builders in the capacity of construction foremen. Such foremen are valuable not only to keep an educated eye on things as the work progresses, but also because they can work along with the subcontractors. Hiring a generalist foreman can cut down the number of trades you have to subcontract out, which simplifies your scheduling somewhat.

Particularly in the case of carpenters, you’ll want to be sure you have the right person for each job. When a house is being framed, walls are often “tapped” into place with that gentle persuader, the sledgehammer. Framers work quickly and usually needn’t be concerned with the appearance of their work, since it will all be covered up. The skills and temperament necessary to do finish carpentry are very different. Such woodworking requires patience and careful attention to detail. Before you hire one person to do all the carpentry in your house, take a careful look at the finish work he or she has done and make sure the quality is up to your standards. You might also want to have this carpenter bid separately on the framing work, since if he or she takes the same care with framing as with finish work, you could end up with a perfect but very expensive framing job.

Soliciting Bids

Before you can ask subcontractors to bid on your job, you must have a set of plans and specifications. A specifications list describes the materials that will be used to build the house. To protect themselves, subcontractors will probably inflate their bids somewhat if your specifications are unclear, so be as specific as possible. Many lenders have “Description of Materials” forms that can help you organize your thinking.

You may want to include in the specifications a statement that all materials will be installed according to manufacturers’ directions. Steer clear of “or equal” clauses, since what seems equal to a sub may not seem equal to you. It’s safer to require the subs to use the specific materials you name (spell out the brands, colors, and sizes you want).

Be specific about the parameters of the work you want done. For instance, how far outside the building foundation does the plumber’s responsibility extend? If he includes only the cost of extending the water and sewer 5 feet beyond the house foundation, who’s going to take it the rest of the way to the street? Go through your PERT charts (presented later) and make sure that somebody has clear responsibility for each task. If there are gaps, you can often pay the subcontractors to complete the necessary tasks, or, if you have a generalist builder on the job as foreman, that person can sometimes fill in.

Get at least three bids for each part of the project. It takes considerable time and effort to work up an accurate bid, so if you ask subs to bid a part of the job you’re planning to do yourself (to satisfy a lender, for instance), offer to pay them for their time. If you ever need their talents in the future, they will likely remember the courtesy.

Don’t automatically accept the lowest bid. Your main concern should be the quality of work and the reliability of the contractor. There are any number of things that can drive up the cost of a job once it starts, and all too often the low bid ends up costing considerably more over the long run. Even on a fixed-price bid, it isn’t in your interest to have the subcontractor losing money and feeling bitter about it, since you’re not apt to get the quality of work you want under those conditions. If the low bid is much lower than the others, either throw it out or give the sub the opportunity to refigure it. Creating and maintaining a good working relationship with subcontractors is always worth the effort.

There are essentially two types of bids you’re likely to encounter. The most common is the “fixed-price” bid. The subcontractor figures materials, labor, and profit, and gives you a firm dollar figure of what it will cost to complete the job. Some jobs are bid on a “cost- plus” or “time and materials” basis. In this case, the subcontractor will figure cost of materials, then charge you for the materials plus a predetermined hourly rate for the actual time he or she spends on the job. Cost-plus bids are commonly used in situations where the work is so complex or tricky that a firm bid would have to be very inflated to cover all the contingencies. If you decide to go with a cost-plus bid on any part of your project, be sure to establish a ceiling above which costs will not rise.


A written contract is the best safeguard you have against future misunderstandings, and , should you become involved in a dispute with one of your subcontractors, the contract may be the only piece of evidence available to determine the intent of the parties at the outset of the job. A good contract should be written in the best interests of both parties. Trying to “put one over” on a tradesperson who’s working on your home is asking for trouble. The purpose of a construction contract is to prevent the kinds of miscommunications that can result in lawsuits.

For straightforward jobs, it probably isn’t necessary to hire a lawyer to write the contract, but it's a good idea to have your attorney take a look at large or complex contracts before you sign them. Many subcontractors have a standard form that they use, or you can come up with your own form. Remember that you can always attach addenda to a subcontractor’s contract if you are uncomfortable with it for any reason, or you can delete offending phrases and have both parties initial the change. Both parties should initial and date any contract modifications.

A contract in the interest of both parties should identify:

• The contracting parties, giving names and addresses.

• The location of the job.

• The nature and scope of the work. You can state that the work will be performed according to attached plans and specifications. You might also indicate that the work must be done to the satisfaction of the local building officials.

• The total value of the job and the method of payment. A common arrangement is to pay in thirds: a third when the work starts, another third at a predetermined midpoint, and the final installment when you and the building official are satisfied with the work. Never make the final payment until you are fully satisfied. Withholding payment is often the only leverage you have with a sub.

• The starting and expected completion dates. If there are unforeseen and unavoidable delays, the contract can be extended to accommodate them. Often a sub won’t accept a penalty clause, so a stipulation that the sub will work continuously, weather permitting, until the job is done probably makes more sense.

• Insurance. it's critical that you require verifiable evidence of insurance coverage from each of your subcontractors. The laws vary from state to state, but in most areas, it's your responsibility to compensate anyone injured while working on your property. In the case of serious injury or death, the dollar amounts can financially ruin the average person. To be on the safe side, many owner-builders take out a blanket workman’s compensation policy to cover hourly employees as well as day laborers hired by subcontractors, new employees of subcontractors (they might not be on the subs’ insurance lists yet), or anyone else who isn’t covered by the subcontractors’ insurance. Check with your insurance agent or the workman’s compensation agency in your state for more information.

• Responsibility for obtaining permits, inspections, and utility hookups. Some sub contractors, most frequently plumbers and electricians, are used to getting the permits necessary to complete their part of the project. They may also be more comfortable calling for inspections themselves, and are likely to be acquainted with the procedures for getting utilities connected to your home. It may be convenient to have these subcontractors take care of such details for you, but be sure to specify this in your contract, so everyone will be clear about who will be handling them.

• Responsibility for procuring materials and transporting them to the site. Many subs are accustomed to purchasing and arranging for the delivery of their own materials. They will claim that they can get a better price than you can, since they buy in volume and have working relationships with suppliers. This may be true, but you should confirm it. Ask the sub to break down the bid into labor and materials, then do your own shopping. Even if you decide to have the sub buy the materials, you should pay for them and get a lien waiver from the supplier so the supplier can’t put a lien on your property if the sub defaults on any payments to the supplier.

• Other terms either party wants to include. These might cover the following:

Quality of work. Contracts usually include phrases such as “the work will be completed in a workmanlike manner.” Although that may seem vague, it does have meaning in legalese—basically that the work will be done to the standards considered appropriate by that particular trade. If you want to be more specific than that, you should do so in writing.

Responsibility for damage to materials or existing structures. We came across a contract form for contractors that read, in the tiniest print, “The Contractor shall not be responsible for damage to existing walks, curbs, drive ways, cesspools, septic tanks, sewer lines, water or gas lines, arches, shrubs, lawn, trees, clotheslines, telephone and electric lines, etc. by the Contractor, subcontractor-contractor, or supplier incurred in the performance of work or in the delivery of materials for the job.” If that doesn’t seem fair to you, you’re right. You should never sign a contract having such a clause.

Responsibility for cleanup. it's remarkable how many disputes arise around the condition of the site both during construction and upon completion of the job. You may be able to save yourself some money and hassle by taking responsibility for cleanup yourself. If you don’t have the time or inclination, make sure that the subcontractor realizes that it's a part of his or her job.

Owner recourse in the event of nonperformance or substandard performance. Since it's widely agreed that lawsuits are a no-win situation for all involved, more and more people are specifying arbitration as the preferred method of settling disputes. Name a trusted neutral party to serve as arbitrator.

Your role. If you plan to provide any labor, equipment, materials, or tools yourself, be specific about your intentions.

A stipulation that this contractor accepts the condition of the work that went before. For example, if tiles start coming loose after a tile setter has finished his or her work, the tile setter should take responsibility for this, not try to blame it on poor work by the framers who put down the subfloor on which the tiles were laid.

A stipulation that this contractor can't assign the agreement (hire another contractor to take his place) without the written consent of the owner.

Working with Subs

Theoretically, your job as owner-contractor should get easier once the contracts with the subs are signed. Assuming you’ve done your homework, the people you hire will be capable of completing the job without much guidance or interference from you. Still, you should visit the site every day to check on progress, and if something looks off to you, don't hesitate to mention it. Everyone makes mistakes, and a responsible subcontractor will thank you.

If you’re pretty sure that a subcontractor is not doing the job the way it should be done, stop work and get a second opinion from an expert. In the eyes of the law, if you have misgivings about the work someone is doing but allow him or her to proceed and then refuse payment, you may be considered “contributorily negligent”—in other words, it’s your own fault. So if you have a real concern about a tradesperson’s performance, speak up. A couple of examples might be illustrative.

One homeowner hired a tile setter to tile the bathtub enclosure in her home, but as the work progressed, it didn’t look right to her. She was embarrassed to confront him, however, so she paid him and he left before she got someone else in to look at the job. Normally tiles are set from the middle of a wall to the edges in such a way that the small tiles at the top and bottom are equal in size, giving the wall a symmetrical look. This tile setter had started at both ends of the wall and worked toward the middle, leaving a disorderly, chopped-up pattern. To make matters worse, the wall faces the door to the bathroom, so it’s the first thing you see when you walk into the room. By the time the homeowner realized she was right to be concerned, the tile setter was long gone.

Another owner-builder contracted with a mason to build a large masonry wood stove. The mason had built many standard fireplaces, but never a stove of this type. Still, he chafed at having to follow the instructions of the owner. As construction proceeded, the owner felt certain that the plans were not being followed, but the mason insisted that he knew more about these things than the owner. The stove got built, and when it was finished, it didn’t work. Again, the owner confronted the mason, who insisted angrily that it worked fine. The owner then called in a series of experts who confirmed his fears that the stove was basically flawed and would have to be torn down.


Most owner-builders come to the idea of building their own home with lots of excitement and enthusiasm tempered somewhat by their lack of experience and resulting lack of confidence. It seems, though, that the desire to build for themselves overrides any fears and insecurities, and they find creative ways of compensating for their lack of experience. The most effective way, as we’ve mentioned, is exhaustive research and planning before the project starts.

The first step in your research (after reading this section!) might be to review other relevant literature. There are a number of periodicals, books, and organizations geared to you, the owner-builder. As you read, some ideas, designs, and building techniques will be particularly attractive to you, so take careful notes and organize them so that the information will be readily available when you want to refer back to it.

• There are other sources of information more specific to your locale, such as the local building department, utility companies, builders and subcontractors, materials suppliers, solar energy associations, and energy extension offices. You’ll discover that much of the information these organizations offer is free for the asking. Industry trade associations and government agencies are also excellent sources of information for the cost of a letter or phone call.

When you visit model homes, take a 25-foot tape measure and a notebook and keep close track of your impressions of different materials and designs. Often small spaces will appear larger than they are because of the colors or textures used to finish them, the placement of windows, the design of the space (open designs tend to look larger than those with partition walls), or the height of the ceilings.

If their lenders are not pressing them to move fast, some owner-builders take the “learn as you go” approach. They research the project thoroughly and participate in the design process, but come to the construction phase without much experience of such work. They either hire professionals as consultants or work alongside them during the stages they are particularly unsure about. Or they tough it out themselves, making up for their lack of expertise with time and careful attention to the job at hand. Another route is to hire an expert on a consulting basis to help with planning the job and then to check your work once it’s finished, leaving you to perform the mechanics of the job.

Owner-builder schools in many parts of the country offer classes, seminars, and workshops in house-building and related subjects. A complete list of these organizations is provided in elsewhere on this site. Most owner-builder schools also act as informal referral centers to put owner-builders in touch with each other, government agencies, or other organizations that might be useful to them—receptive lenders, trustworthy real estate agents and tradespeople, and other sources of information and materials.

If there are no owner-builder schools nearby, you can still get hands-on experience by loaning yourself to a builder or owner-builder. One arrangement that works well is to trade work with other owner-builders. You help them now and gain some experience, and they help you later when you’re working on your house. How the arrangement is structured is up to the parties involved, but assuming you are both at approximately the same skill level, trading hours one-for-one usually works.

Another way to get a feel for construction work is to plan and execute some projects in your current home, for example a small remodeling job in one room. If you don’t own your home, you might ask the landlord to purchase the materials if you do the work. If your landlord isn’t receptive or the house just doesn’t need any repairs or improvements, ask family, friends, and neighbors if they have projects in the offing.

You are always better off working with someone who has a higher level of expertise than you do, if that’s possible. If you take on a project alone, don’t commit yourself to a rigid schedule. You’ll want to be able to take your time and give careful attention to each phase so that it's a genuine learning experience. Ideal projects are things like finishing basements or spare rooms, where the mess caused during construction can be confined to one area.


Perhaps the greatest benefit we can give you is to help you steer clear of problems that other owner-builders have run into. Here’s a summary of the most prevalent pitfalls.

Timing and Scheduling

As an owner-contractor, setting up schedules is your responsibility, whether you are hiring out all the work or doing some of it yourself. The single most common and costly error novices make is not allowing enough time for planning. You will be saving the most money at that stage, since you will be anticipating and resolving difficulties before the building starts.

In order to keep things running smoothly after construction begins, you must have a grasp of the logical and orderly progression of a building project. Obtaining this knowledge is a critical part of your planning. See the PERT charts elsewhere on this site for the order of events in the construction of a typical home. In addition to the PERT charts, the work-breakdown form presented earlier in this section will help. It allows you to track what’s happened so far and compare the actual time various jobs have taken to how long you had planned for them. Thus, you will know right away if things are falling behind, so you will be able to contact the affected subcontractors and suppliers and reschedule their jobs.

Not being assertive with subs is a mistake that we see owner-builders make over and over. Many subs believe in the “squeaky wheel” concept, and if you’re not willing to play the squeaky wheel, you may not get your job done on schedule. So be friendly but firm. One woman who built a small house in the mountains west of Denver scheduled an excavator to dig the foundation and driveway. He assured her that he would get it done that week, and she blithely went off for a week, assuming that the excavating would be done when she visited her site on the weekend. Not only was it not done by that weekend, but she and the excavator repeated that little drama for the next four weeks. He always seemed to have plausible excuses, and she had little choice of excavators in that part of the world. Since winter was coming on, she was getting a little anxious. Finally, she started paying daily visits to his home for almost a week until he finally got around to doing the work.

Strain on Family Relationships

It is useful to realize at the outset that a house-building project can add to the day-to day strains of family life. The best defense is to resolve to be a little more patient and understanding with each other.

One therapist suggests having the family sit down regularly in the planning stages and discuss each individual’s ideas for the new house. Keep track of the similarities and differences in family members’ expectations. The therapist also suggests having a neutral person present to offer an objective voice. Allowing all family members to express their views in the design process is a wonderful way to bring them all into the project, and this may help resolve conflicts if they arise later. Even children are less apt to disrupt a process if they feel they have an active part in it.

If differences do arise, separating the people from the issues at hand will help you reach a resolution. You know that you love your husband or wife, and you both want to see the house built. Keeping these things in mind can help you reach agreements that you both can live with. A good resource for conflict resolution skills is Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In, by Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Project.

Underestimating Costs

This seems to be endemic to owner-builders. We suspect that the native optimism owner-builders possess is at least partly responsible for the tendency to underestimate the real costs involved in a house-building project. You should check and double-check all your estimates, and when in doubt—go up. Assume that everything will be at least marginally more expensive than you have any reason to believe. It’s far better to build a cushion into your budget than to run out of money before the house is habitable. Most lenders will help you by insisting that you give yourself a healthy margin for error before they make the loan to you. But if you’re borrowing from friends or family, or building out of pocket, you’ll have to police yourself.

Generally, people are pretty close when they estimate the cost of constructing the house itself. But they often overlook such secondary costs as engineering fees, survey costs, the price of wells and septic systems, road costs, the expense involved in site clearing, etc. By far the most common mistake is to simply leave something out. So pore over your PERT charts to ensure that you don’t make this mistake.

Fortunately, self-policing is well within the abilities of most owner-builders. As profiled in the New Shelter survey, owner-builders are an enterprising, pragmatic, motivated group of people. Although most successful owner-builders have stories to tell about the problems they had to overcome while building their houses, they also speak of the satisfaction, increased self-esteem, and pride that came with creating their own shelters. The opportunity to live in a customized environment, designed to satisfy the aesthetic, psychological, and practical needs of your own family, is well worth the hours of hard work that go into making the idea a reality.



Percentage of Total Cost






Concrete footings

Concrete-formed walls

Concrete floors

Concrete block

Veneer masonry

Framing carpentry

Foundation insulation







Finish carpentry

Stair construction

Cabinetry (bought)


Exterior painting/Sealing

Interior painting/Sealing

Ceramic tile

Floor covering







































































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