Be Your Own Con­trac­tor


Modern Pioneer - - Contents - By Rus­sell A. Graves

| 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 house­, 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.

The De­sign

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.

The Plan

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. • •

The Process

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.

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