Be Your Own Contractor
SAVE THOUSANDS AND GET THE FINISHED PRODUCT YOU WANT
| Save thousands and get the finished product you want
I’ve always been adventurous, never afraid to do things on my own. In fact, six years ago, I decided to build my own home on a small patch of ground in northeast Texas.
The project was a hybrid of sorts. I played general contractor and did all I could to build the house, hiring out the pieces I couldn’t. In a nutshell, I did the floors, pulled wire for the electrician, dug water lines with rented trenchers, hung the cabinets, hung sheetrock, and set all of the water fixtures. I hired crews to do the rough framing; install the metal roof; tape, bed and texture the sheetrock; paint the walls; and do the finish wiring and plumbing. In the end, I had a small home with high-end fixtures that cost me approximately $52 per square-foot to construct.
After completing that project, I wanted to take what I learned and apply it to my permanent home. About four years ago, my wife and I listed our home in town for sale and embarked on perhaps the biggest project of our lives.
After much research and looking at comps, we priced our home competitively, but dropped the price three times to spur interest. On our last price drop, we hit the local pricing equilibrium and received two offers within one week. The housing market at that time was tough, and after a year and a half on the market, we finally sold our home in June 2012.
With a quick close, my family and I had to pack fast and find a rental home for the interim. After three weeks of settling into the rental house, construction began on our new place.
“In addition to the home, we’ve built a fully finished studio with a kitchen, bar and guest loft built on the second floor …”
Finding a Style
We spent many nights considering home styles. Essentially, we looked at tons of homeplanning websites, like houseplans.com, and watched for homes that we liked wherever we traveled. We found some great designs in the process.
We wanted to save money by using a stock plan that suited all our needs; so, we felt that hiring an architect to design a new home would be, at least for us, a little frivolous.
Early on, my wife, Kristy, and I discussed what we wanted in our new home. While we often dreamed big, the practical and financial realities of building a new place always weighed on our minds. In the end, deciding on a design came down to four necessities. 1. The home needs to be rural. I grew up in the country, and while I still spend a lot of time in rural areas, I officially lived in town (a small town of 5,000) for 19 years. Therefore, I was ready to return to my roots; plus, I wanted our kids to experience the country while they are still young. I prefer country living to
town living for many reasons. Suffice it to say that we just needed more room to stretch our legs.
2. The home needs to be affordable. This one was tricky. All of my life, I’ve tried to spend wisely and protect our finances. While I’m not rich, we’ve lived mostly debt-free and within our means. Except for a house payment, we’ve purchased nearly everything with cash. Our credit is good, and we qualify for a substantial loan. However, at this point in life, I’d rather have little or no house payment than build a huge home and be on the hook for $1,000—or more—per month for the next 15 to 30 years. Affordability greatly influenced our decision.
3. The home must have resale value. Maybe selling our last home burned me a little, but the process took an agonizing year and a half. The longer it took to sell, the more I was willing to go smaller with
our new home. I have no plans to sell the new place, but if I ever do, I want a fighting chance at moving it more quickly than our last home.
In my opinion, our local real estate market has an invisible ceiling. Once you buy a place valued above that ceiling, the chances of reselling it decrease. Therefore, when we were deciding on a home plan, re-salability was close to affordability in importance on our criteria list. 4. The home must have a design that fits. Ultimately, when we considered all the criteria, the home had to have design considerations that matched both Kristy’s sensibilities and my own—more on that later. The home also had to have the right aesthetic to fit its rural setting.
Picking an adequate design was difficult and involved lots of give and take. For a long time what I wanted didn’t match Kristy’s desires and vice versa. We’d pick a design only to change it on a whim. Granted, the whims were mostly mine, but it was still a grueling process.
We’d find an exterior design we liked, but the floorplan lacked. We’d find a cool floorplan, but the outside design had a suburban feel; so, we kept looking. In the end, we explored home designs from 1,200 square feet to nearly 3,000 square feet. We looked at single-story homes, two-story homes, ranch designs, Craftsman designs and various other styles.
We thought we’d settled on a great little home design, but something still wasn’t quite right. The roof had many hips and valleys, a double garage and lots of corners around the perimeter of the house. I learned when building my first home that simple designs are the most cost-effective. For every additional corner that goes into a concrete slab, or for every hip and valley that’s built into a roof, the price climbs; maybe not significantly when taken at face value, but 10% here and there adds up. We wanted to build a home we could finish constructing without borrowing money.
While the first design was great, the additional dormers, hip roof, garage door and other extras shaded my view of the big picture, and truthfully, all I could think about was money.
Serendipity rules. After looking at dozens of plans in books and online—even ordering a full set of plans—we still hadn’t settled on a final design. On a trip to Austin, Texas, however, everything changed.
A friend invited me to spend the night at his house on a trip through central Texas. He’d built his house only a couple of years earlier, and I hadn’t seen it. Just on the outskirts of Austin, his place has a rural feel, although he’s only a few minutes from downtown. When I pulled into his driveway and saw his home for the first time, I knew I’d found my inspiration.
His house had a simple prairie farm-home exterior and a floorplan I knew suited our needs, which are:
An open floorplan with a combined kitchen and living room Two kid’s rooms with a bathroom between • A master bedroom with a master bath • Utility room • Dining room that doubles as an office For us, size didn’t matter as much as the room requirements and their proximity to one another. With my friend’s house, we found a plan we liked and could tweak to fit our style. With a sketch in hand, we ultimately did hire an architect to draw us a final floorplan and exterior elevations to fit our style. • •
In Texas, any landowner can be their own contractor. The trick to being your own general contractor is to have the time to go over material bids in minutia, and to ensure subcontractors are qualified to do the work for which you’re hiring them. In other words, check their references and then check again.
To understand being a contractor and the home-building process, I created a spreadsheet and divided the process into its elemental components. When I visualize building a home, it’s no more than building successive layers on top of one another. First, you have the dirt work, then rough plumbing, concrete, framing package, insulation and so on. By breaking it down into steps, I could manage the building process easier and identify subcontractors who could help me best.
While I was planning the build, my wife and I both created a portfolio of magazine clippings. Whenever we’d find a cabinet style or paint color we liked online or in a magazine, we’d clip and save it for the finish design. Ultimately, the portfolio helped speed the finish process since we’d already made decisions.
Once the bids were in place, I started hiring subs to do the work one at a time, methodically, so I could monitor their individual work.
When the dirt work and pad prep were complete, the rough plumbing was put in and the concrete was poured and finished. After a couple of weeks spent getting lumber takeoffs and negotiating lumber prices, the entire home-materials package arrived, and a few days after that, the framing crew began work.
The framing went fast, but then the whole process slowed down. Like on my cabin, this project was a hybrid with me doing what I could—wiring, hanging sheetrock and laying floors—and hiring out the rest.
In all, the main house took about a year to complete from start to finish. That’s a full six months longer than I expected, but here in rural Texas, tradespeople are sometimes difficult to find, and I often had to wait on sub-contractors to finish another job before they could start on mine.
At times, it was frustrating, but in the end, it was tolerable, especially considering that I built the home for approximately $60 per square foot simply by being my own contractor and controlling the process.
We didn’t skimp on home features to achieve that number. The home offers 1,650 square feet of living area with custom cabinets throughout, real wood floors, 16-foot vaulted
living-room ceilings made from car siding, tongue-and-groove kitchen ceilings, metal kitchen backsplash, custom-made bar top and fireplace mantel made from 1800s-era wood. The list goes on.
Home Sweet Home
In addition to the home, we’ve built a fully finished studio with a kitchen, bar and guest loft built on the second floor, and a 24x26-foot workshop and shed where I weld, do woodworking and store my tools, tractor and some power equipment. On the property, we have a chicken coop, small vineyard, garden shed with a 150-foot water well inside, pens for my kids’ show pigs, rainfall cisterns, and I’m currently finishing a two-tier fishing pond that captures and holds rainfall from the roofs around our small farm.
In all, it’s been a long process. Between selling our previous house, moving temporarily into a rental, and not really unpacking because we’d soon move again, it’s been a bit stressful. But, we’ve managed the process all by ourselves, and it’s rewarding to see the fruits of our labor.