Seven Tips for Successful Owner-Building

We choose to owner-build for many and varied reasons. Sometimes, it’s because we have a limited budget and want to save as much as possible. Other times it’s because we want something unique that we feel a commercial builder won’t be able to deliver. And then there’s, what may be the best motivation and reason of all, to have the satisfaction of saying, “We built our home”!Whatever it is that is guiding you toward the owner-build solution, there are pitfalls and challenges awaiting the starry-eyed and unprepared. We hope the following guidelines help you to a successful result…

Attitude is 90% of the game so make sure yours is right before starting your owner-built project.
Attitude is 90% of the game so make sure yours is right before starting your owner-built project.

Tip #1 Get Your Attitude Right

Owner-building a house is a long and demanding process. There are many different tasks that need to be performed and many different people and organisations to deal with. Some will be easy to deal with while others will be difficult. There will be hurdles you’ll have to overcome and issues that will need to be resolved. You must be committed and dedicated to getting the job done.

If you have a positive, “can do” attitude from the beginning you will set yourself up to succeed.  When you are positive you’re energised and you overcome challenges and complete the tasks at hand. When you’re negative you see challenges as problems. They become more difficult to deal with and at times they even can seem insurmountable. When you focus on the problem you become absorbed in the problem and all you see is the problem. Think about the positives instead and you will see more of the positive.

The best way to develop a positive attitude is focus on the end result. That is by picturing the finished product. The best way to do this is to imagine yourself enjoying the fruits of your labour.
Picture what it will feel like to live in your newly finished home. What will it be like to walk around the house and admire the end result or entertain your friends and family in your new home. When challenges present themselves and things get a bit difficult, just focus on the end game. Everything will fall into place and the challenges will become insignificant.

It’s also critical that you keep your family fully informed and involved in the process. Building a new home can place a lot of stress on relationships. Owner-building done badly, can exacerbate those stresses. If everyone knows what is happening – the ups and the downs, you can celebrate together and support each other through the rough patches.

Tip #2 Begin with the end in mind

In order to successfully build your dream home it’s imperative that you start with the end in mind, no matter how simple or complex your project. This means having a complete picture of what the end result will look like. If you don’t know what you’re planning to build, how do you know that you will achieve the desired end result? Imagine a ship sailing out to sea without a destination. Where would it go?

The architectural plans that you submit to council will form a part of this, but there is much more to it than this. You need to have a complete picture of the finished product, a picture in your mind’s eye. Some characteristics to consider include:

  • The internal design scheme (e.g. the colours of walls, architraves, ceilings and cornices)
  • The external design scheme (e.g. the colours of external roofing and walls and even the types of materials used for these)
  • What style of house are you building? Will it be contemporary, federation style?
  • What will your façade look like?
  • The quality and design of fixtures and fittings. Will they fit the style of house your building?
  • Will the living areas be oriented to take advantage of natural sunlight?
  • How will the living areas be insulated from the summer heat?
  • Will you recycle, collect or store water? Will you use solar energy?
  • What uses will your outdoor areas serve? Will you use them for entertainment or recreational purposes?
  • What sort of landscapes and plants will you have? Will they be low maintenance? Will you grow your own herbs and vegetables?

The more detailed your picture, the greater your satisfaction will be with the end result. By being more detailed in your initial design you will also lessen the chances of making costly mistakes.

Tip #3 Develop a Detailed Plan

One of the keys to success in owner building is planning. How will you accomplish the successful construction of your dream home? You’ll have to map out a plan to achieve it. What are the tasks that will need to be performed to make your vision a reality? The clearer your picture, the more detailed your plan can be and the greater the chance of succeeding in your project, turning your dream home into reality.

As part of your detailed planning you’ll need to write a list of tasks that need to be performed as well as what sort of organisations, professionals, trades people and suppliers you’ll need to engage. You’ll need to arrange them in the order in which they need to be executed as well as map out the dependencies between each. It’s also important to note the preconditions that need to be met before each task can be commenced. For example, in order to commence concrete slab foundations, the plumbing needs to be installed for facilities such as toilets, showers and vanities.

You will need to know the durations of each of the tasks as well. This can help you to determine the overall completion date. This will also help you when informing subsequent tradespeople and suppliers of their starting dates.

When planning the durations, ensure that you include some contingency time between tasks so that you have room to move if there are delays. If there are delays then it can have a flow on effect with other tradespeople and cause more widespread impact.

During the planning stage you will need to absorb a lot of information. Talk to all the tradespeople and suppliers and ask lots of questions. The more you understand about each task the better you can plan your project and cement your success. There is no room for complacency here. It’s your first such undertaking and what makes it all the more important is that you’re dealing with a budget of hundreds of thousands of dollars. So make sure you take the time to become comfortable and familiar with the entire process, right to the fine detail.

It’s critical that you think of every single task during this planning stage. It will make your life easier later and save you a lot of time and money.

Tip #4 Prepare a Budget Forecast

Planning expenditure is vital to the success of your owner building project. To establish the total cost of your project, you’ll need to know the costs associated with each of the tasks. You must also include cost contingency. How will you deal with the unexpected costs without adversely impacting your project?

This is important as the unexpected will inevitably happen and it’s best to cater for it at the start rather than coming up with the additional funds when it’s too late. You need contingency to cover you for tasks that you did not originally think about in your initial planning, overspending on particular tasks or having to do any rework, hence the importance of accounting for every single task during this planning stage. Missing a major task in your planning phase could add thousands and even tens of thousands to your final costs as well as a delay in time which could have a flow on affect to other tasks and so on.

The items shown below will help you establish the total cost of building your home. Prior to beginning your project, it is suggested that you meet with each of the subcontractors and suppliers and work with them to get a costing of each of the areas listed below. That will give you the projected cost for each of the below works as well as a total projected cost for your project Items to consider when costing your project:

  • Plans and permits
  • Insurance
  • Soil test
  • Set out
  • Concrete slab or footings
  • Bricklaying
  • Frame work
  • Windows and doors
  • Fixing internal doors, architraves and skirtings
  • Roofing
  • Brick cleaning
  • Insulation
  • Kitchen cabinets and appliances
  • Bathroom, toilet and laundry fittings and vanities
  • Tiling, carpets, floor boards
  • Heating and cooling
  • Plumbing (including drainage)
  • Electrical (including alarms, home automation and home theatre)
  • Painting
  • Curtains
  • Landscaping and concreting/paving/hard surfaces

The works listed above are only provided as high level. You need to look at each of these headings and brainstorm the detailed services, supplies, fixtures and fittings required for each. Some points to note:

  1. Some of the works you wish to include may not be shown so you will have to factor them in.
  2. The above only provides for the cost of building a new house. If there is any demolition work or removal of trees these must also be factored into your costing.

Tip #5 Execute your plan

Once all of your planning has been completed it is time to execute your plan. At this point you will start to engage the people required to complete the work. This is where the rubber meets the road and the quality and depth of your planning show their true colours.

It is very important to manage your project in terms of time. In order to do this you simply compare the actual start and end dates of individual tasks back to your plan. Delays will impact other tasks and people performing them so you will need to inform tradespeople or suppliers if their start dates or delivery dates have changed. This could have a flow on affect to other tradesmen. They may even ask to be financially compensated for loss of their time or you may risk losing them altogether. You should minimise the number of delays that are experienced if you can control them. This is where time contingency included in the planning process will be your best friend.

It would also be worthwhile to re-confirm start dates with tradesmen as delays can arise due to illness, weather and changes in their work priorities. You should ensure that suppliers can still meet their agreed delivery dates.

For example, when completing my first Owner Building project I didn’t reconfirm the start date with the bricklayer which I should have done a week or two before commencement. Instead I received a phone call the day before commencement. The brickie had landed a contract with a large developer and decided he was no longer interested in my project. The services of another brick layer were not engaged for another 2 weeks as a result. Also, the carpenter had to take on another client as a result of the reschedule which resulted in a further delay of another couple of weeks. This meant the entire project was delayed by about a month.

Tip #6 Track your expenditure

As an Owner Builder it is vital to take control of your expenditures. This is done by comparing each expense back to its original estimate. Did it cost more or less than you originally estimated? It is quite normal to find that some of your costs are greater than estimated and some are lower. The important thing is that you have your finger on the pulse.
If you find that your costs have blown out early in the project, you can recalculate your estimate and make any necessary adjustments such as cutting things out, spending less on other items, doing more work yourself or maybe even revising your budget up if you have more money available.

You could cut costs without compromising your dream by doing more of the physical work yourself. For example, painting is not very hard to learn and although it can be quite time consuming could save you upwards of ten thousand dollars on a project. Possibly much more if there is woodwork involved or external painting. Tiling, and the laying and/or polishing of timber floorboards and external decks and landscaping are other works that more and more people are doing themselves. DIY kitchen cabinets are also quite popular.

It is mandatory that you keep your finger on the pulse at a fine granular level so that you can prevent the situation where you run out of money and can’t pay suppliers or tradesmen. Your project would grind to a halt and you may be up for even more costs such as litigation.

One way in which costs could blow out includes tradesmen telling you that their jobs will be more expensive mid-way through the job. This can be mitigated by carefully documenting your conversation with the tradesmen during the quoting process as well as obtaining a written contract that specifies all the inclusions, prior to the commencement of works. It is also vital that you completely immerse yourself in the details of each of the works of the tradies by asking lots of questions. This can be assisted by obtaining multiple quotes for each service and supply.

Owner-building can be a joy or a nightmare. Having a plan and a budget and sticking to both will make the difference.
Owner-building can be a joy or a nightmare. Having a plan and a budget and sticking to both will make the difference.

Tip #7 Stay Organised

Organisation can make a huge difference to the management of your project. Let’s face it, there is so much responsibility and complexity that you really can’t afford to not be organised.
Keep everything neatly organised in a folder or binder. It will need to include:

  • Contact business cards
  • Supplier and tradesmen insurance details
  • Supplies and trades contracts
  • Product brochures
  • A few copies of plans or working drawings of your house
  • Your project plan that includes all of the tasks and start and end dates
  • Your budget plan and actuals
  • Delivery dockets for supplies
  • Invoices with their respective payment dates and amounts

It’s also wise to write everything down in a diary. Events such as meetings, phone discussions or agreements with tradespeople or suppliers you engage in should all be documented. When you document these be sure to include the following information about the correspondence:

  • The name of the person
  • The date and time
  • The meeting place (if applicable)
  • A summary of the conversation
  • Any decisions or agreements reached:
  • Start/end dates for works
  • Inclusions and exclusions
  • Warranty particulars
  • Payment arrangement particulars (i.e. up front deposits, progress and completion payments)
  • Supplies required for the job and who will coordinate and pay for them
  • Preconditions for the commencement of works

Ensure that all agreements are on paper so as to minimise potential conflict and confusion arising in the future based on different views on agreements. Keep a copy of all email correspondence in a separate email folder (as well as a backup copy).

Three final words of wisdom… communication, communication, communication. There is a saying that there are three views to every conversation; what you said, what you think you said, and what the other person ‘heard’ you say. Assume nothing. Don’t simply ask the other party is ‘the understand’ what is required. Ask them to explain back to you what is required. It will save you a lot of heartache.

Any questions or suggestions? I’d love to hear from you. Just use the comment box below!

Another post for anyone planning an owner-build is our Sanity Checklist!



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