Going down the “owner builder” route

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The renovation and extension that we’ve been blogging about was done from July 2011 to March 2012. While we originally presumed that we we’re going down a “conventional” route of paying a builder to do all the work, that didn’t end up the case.

Instead, I opted to take the owner builder route. This involved taking six months off work, to be full-time on the building site. I played two roles:

  • project manager, getting quotes, organising trades, purchasing building materials, managing the project plan, addressing project changes.
  • builder’s labourer/apprentice, working alongside our builder (an individual, not a company), learning some basic trades (screwing things together, cutting stuff with saws, etc), lugging around heavy materials, keeping the site clean, and making cups of tea.

Considering that before I started, I struggled to hang a picture, I thought there might be some interest in sharing my experiences.

Would I recommend it?

In general, yes. I found the experience demanding, but very enjoyable. There’s something immensely satisfying to see progress happening every week (“today we got a wall up”, “this week we finished the roof”), and to stand back and say “I built all of that, and I know every detail about it”.

I learnt a lot of skills, and it was a great “sabbatical” from running a consulting firm.

With just two of us on site for most of the six months, the building went at a slow enough pace to allow thinking to be done, and revisions to be made.This allowed me to do research into various options, and to tweak elements of the design. The result is a better-designed house that’s better made.

I also found that I could keep up with the ordering of supplies in most cases, and there was very little down-time. Overall, the process went smoothly, and we more-or-less finished in the allotted six months (with a few months in 2012 to finish off the fiddly bits).

We also finished pretty much on budget, going just 5-10% over my budget. (I factored in 10-30% contingency, depending on the item, and we spent all that as expected, plus a bit more.)

Compared to the horror stories that abound in the building industry, it all went well. (That’s not to say there weren’t dramas — there were plenty — but nothing extreme or unexpected.)

Is it for everyone?

In a word, no.

Based on my personal experiences, this is what you need to make a success of owner builder renovations:

  1. A great builder. It almost goes without saying that you need to find someone that you can trust completely, work alongside amiably for six months, and be confident that they’re going to do a great job. We got tremendously lucky on this front, and have ended up with a friendship as a result.
  2. Good planning skills. It’s vital to have the ability to always be “one step ahead”, thinking about the next set of jobs, what needs to be done first, what needs to be ordered and when, and how it all fits together. This is a personality thing, as much as anything.
  3. Time off work. No kidding, building a house is a full-time job. I can’t imagine how people renovate houses alongside a day job, and maybe this is why it takes years to get many renovations done. I was the first to start each day, and the last to finish, during the six months, working 6.5 days a week.
  4. High tolerance for stress. Going down the owner builder route is not for the faint-hearted. There’s plenty of stress, hassles and crises (minor and major). (For me, running a consulting firm for 15 years was more than enough preparation for stressful jobs.)
  5. Comfortable making quick decisions. There are a lot of decisions to be made! Every day, snap decisions arise, particularly when multiple trades are on site. There are also the longer-term, harder decisions to agonize over. And none of them can wait.
  6. Willingness to jump in the deep end and learn. At the beginning of the process, I had no handyman skills whatsoever. Within days, I had to start picking up the jargon (bearers, joists, lintels, noggins, the list goes on), enough to order materials correctly. I still only know a fraction of what a skilled builder knows, and even then it was a steep learning curve.
  7. A very supportive partner. It’s hard work on the site, and it’s important to have someone who will help out, make a bunch of the decisions, and generally support the sometimes grumpy owner-builder.

The fact that I started as someone who couldn’t use a hammer and sat at a desk all day shows that owner building is possible for many to succeed at. I’d encourage more folks to fully explore their options, and not just go down the traditional building route. It was hard work, but perhaps the most satisfying six months of my life.


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