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If you are looking to be an owner-builder for your new home AND you want to do the majority of the work yourself, we’re right there with you.
Over the past three years, we have gone through the entire process of designing and building our own cordwood home. There are a lot of things we’ve learned along the way about ways to reduce your building costs.
I don’t just mean finding materials for cheap or free, though that has been a HUGE money saver.
I’m talking about design choices, location, and more.
There is so much that goes into building your own home and I know that you want to savor that building experience for yourself. That’s why we’ve made it our mission to share everything we’ve learned so that you can successfully build your own home.
Here are 10 things you can do to design and build your own home without breaking the bank.
10 Ways To Save Thousands of Dollars Building Your Own Home
1. A larger “footprint” can POTENTIALLY save thousands over having an upstairs.
This is one of those things that can vary by area and availability so ask around.
We thought we would save money on excavation and concrete, and need less cordwood overall for our walls by building a smaller footprint and doing an upstairs with room-in-attic trusses.
So instead of trying to find a one-floor passive solar plan we liked (which was way harder than we thought) we found a plan for a smaller foundation size with a loft. For example, instead of a longer, skinnier 20’x70′ or 20’x80′ home (1400-1600 ft2), we did more squarish 30×34 with room-in-attic trusses (1020 ft2 on the bottom with a roughly 400 ft2 loft over the back half of the house).
What we didn’t know was that the cost of concrete and excavation for a slightly larger slab foundation would have been way less expensive than spending money on an upstairs. Why? Because when you have an upstairs you pay extra for:
- room-in-attic trusses (cost to manufacture, deliver, and to hire out a guy with a crane to put them up)
- finish materials
By all of our best calculations, we figured we could have saved at least $12,000 if not more by building without a loft but with a slightly larger footprint.
**On the other hand, we would have increased our cost of lime, sand, and sawdust for the cordwood walls. We may have also increased our cost in other areas like interior framing lumber, windows, doors, wiring, plumbing, and so on. So in effect, the savings may have been negated in other areas. We’ll never know for sure.
You stand to save even more if you’re doing a crawlspace, rubble trench, or pier foundation as opposed to a slab like we did.
Of all those tasks, the roofing killed us because we hired it out, which leads me to…
2. Reduce the tasks you have to hire out.
Building a house as an owner-builder isn’t all or nothing. You don’t have to do every little task with your own two hands, and indeed there are times when hiring a professional is the right thing to do.
Reduce your costs by keeping these hired jobs to a minimum.
There are certain things we hired out because we either lacked the equipment and expertise or in the case of our roof, we feared for our actual safety.
Our house plan looked so much smaller on paper, and once we saw our frame completed we realized that our 8/12 pitched roof was HUGE. And STEEP. And even with a harness, the thought of lugging sheets of plywood and steel up there in the wind above our rocky ground was mildly terrifying.
So we hired a roofer. And at least half of the money we spent was simply the cost of labor. Had we chosen to build a one-floor plan with a shed roof that was closer to the ground we could have saved at least $3,000-4,000 just on the roof.
If you’re not comfortable with many aspects of building, don’t worry! That leads to number 3…
3. Practice building skills before you start your project.
If you’re wanting to gain or improve your building skills, I highly recommend volunteering with something like Habitat for Humanity. There may even be similar local organizations in your area that would let you volunteer with them.
If you’re fortunate enough to know an independent contractor who might be willing to take you on, ask if you can shadow to learn specific skills.
For example, if pouring your own concrete foundation is something you want to do (and you can save THOUSANDS of dollars just on this one task) ask if you can help or shadow on a job to learn how it’s done. You can get practice on a new skill and save a boatload of money on your own job in the process.
4. Avoid or reduce your building permits legally.
I don’t mean trying to skirt the system and building under the radar against local ordinances (don’t do that).
You can save hundreds or thousands of dollars and months of hassle by:
- finding a property in an area that doesn’t require hefty permits
- building tiny enough that you aren’t required to have a building permit (ex: our property’s zoning states you don’t need a permit for anything under 200 ft2)
- building small enough that your permit fees are less (since they are often charged on square footage)
For example, if we had been able to find a property that fit our needs in one of the counties just to our south, we could have avoided some permit “hoop jumping”.
Sure, having a knowledgeable and helpful building inspector who is genuinely interested in our project has actually been pretty great, but we could have saved THOUSANDS of dollars and potentially months worth of time had we just gotten a property a little further out.
YOU STILL NEED TO BUILD TO CODE. This is not saying you should avoid building codes. Even if your county doesn’t inspect anything your state still might, plus there are so many building codes that exist because they are safer overall. It might be a pain in the neck but BUILD TO CODE. BUILD TO CODE. BUILD TO CODE.
Speaking of the code, make sure you…
5. Verify what you are actually allowed to DIY.
If you’re like us and you live in a code enforced area, double-check with any applicable inspectors what you are allowed to do yourself.
Want to install your own solar power system? That’s good, and maybe one of your local officials told you that you can, but you’d better triple check. Make sure your state code doesn’t say it has to be installed by a certified installer or you’ll end up paying thousands extra to have an installer evaluate and remediate your system to spec.
The same is true of almost everything from your electrical (wiring, connection to the box, etc.) to your plumbing, to gas lines and more. CHECK. Ask questions. Every location is different so do your research. And most importantly…
Get it in writing.
If you’re not sure who to contact or how to keep track of the requirements, there’s an entire section of The Owner-Builder Home Planner that deals with this.
6. Make most of your own building materials.
Building with cordwood saved us THOUSANDS of dollars on building materials for our external walls. We cut down around 50 trees ourselves from our own property and built the walls with our own hands. Building this way avoided the need to buy studs, sheathing, house wrap, insulation, siding, and interior coverings like drywall or more tongue and groove.
Before you get too excited to do that though, make sure you do as I said in number 5 and CHECK WITH LOCAL OFFICIALS as applicable. If you have a code that you must use pressure treated lumber in a pole frame then milling your own posts won’t do much good.
Shop around (and haggle!).
You can save thousands is by shopping around on the big-ticket items. For us in our off-grid home that included things like our wood stove, radiant heat system, solar components, roofing, spray foam insulation, appliances, and the pine siding for the interior walls. We saved thousands by finding lower-cost suppliers without necessarily sacrificing quality.
And when you find a supplier with the right price, ask if they do a cash discount, off-peak rates, or other special breaks!
To go along with shopping around, it’s super important to…
8. List out what you’ll need for every project.
We kept every single receipt from our building project so far and I would wager that we have up to $1000 just in quick little items we ran to the store for. “I ran out of PVC primer can you pick some up?” or “Oh man I got stain but forgot brushes.” That type of thing.
If we had kept track of what we had on hand and made better project shopping lists we could have avoided so many extra little expenses at the hardware store, not to mention the hours we’ve wasted in the truck and the gas to get there.
Find a system that works for you to keep your building materials and shopping lists properly managed. We actually have some easy worksheets to do this in our Owner-Builder Home Planner.
Of course, there’s the “duh” way to save thousands…
9. Build smaller!!
The obvious way to save money is to choose a smaller floor plan. There’s less material expense and you won’t have to hire out nearly as much. Smaller things are much easier to DIY because you won’t necessarily need any heavy equipment or specialty items to put things into place.
We would have had no problem roofing a shallow-pitched shed roof that was lower to the ground or even raising smaller trusses on a smaller house frame. Not to mention the reduced costs of insulating it. A smaller roof on a smaller house would have saved us between $12,000-18,000 on its own!
Manage size expectations too. In our planning, we thought that 30×34 was pretty small, and now that we have it that same footprint feels positively enormous. We had our reasons for not going “tiny” though, which you can read about here (and learn how to evaluate whether it might be right for you).
No matter what size of home you choose, always remember to…
You need to establish and set clear boundaries for your home building budget. This is especially true if you are trying to build with straight-up cash, but applies just as much to those with loans of any kind. When the money runs out, it runs out.
- Define your monthly building allotment.
- Keep all receipts and track them in a spreadsheet
- Track your homebuilding expenses in tandem with your regular budget.
If budgeting is an area where you need a bit more guidance, The Owner-Builder Home Planner has a pretty extensive budgeting section that is completely customizable to your family life and your specific build.
Ready to dig into your own project? Grab our free Home(stead) Builder’s Quick-Start Guide by subscribing below:
You can also dive into these posts:
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