5 Things to Know if You Want to DIY Your New Home

Topics like architecture, home design and construction are popular things to talk about; it’s very common in social contexts for professionals in the design and construction industries to be approached to talk about what we do. When someone tells us how passionate they are about design and construction, sometimes it seems like they’re forgetting that they’re talking to someone who is also very passionate about making buildings. So passionate, in fact, that we actually made a career out of it.

Many people dream of designing and building their own home. If you’re reading this you may be one of them. You may even have discussed it with one or several design or construction professionals already.

This isn’t necessarily about trying to dissuade someone from pursuing such a journey; it’s more about giving you some things to consider before making that decision. My PHNX partners, Tony and JJ Penna, and myself have a combined 70+ years of experience in design and construction, and these are the five most common myths that we hear.

  1. I want to save money

Unless you plan on actually, literally doing all the work yourself, doing all the take-offs and ordering, calling for all the inspections (and passing them), then you will have to hire sub-contractors. Even skilled contractors who build their own homes need to hire subs to do the trades they don’t do. A framer does not do plumbing. A plumber does not do electrical. And so on.

What this means is that you are essentially going to be a General Contractor – someone who manages the entire construction job and performs the work by hiring other sub-contractors. As compensation for doing this, the GC adds what is called “overhead and profit” to the bottom line of the hard cost construction contract. This is typically around 15%, higher or lower depending on location and who they are.

So – the absolute maximum that you are going to save is…. 15%. On a budget of $600,000, that’s $90,000. It may sound like a lot, but in big dollar construction terms it’s really not. It goes pretty quickly. When you hire a sub-contractor to do the work (if you can find one who will agree to work without a GC), chances are they are going to mark up their contract to cover the additional time that will be required to work for someone who is not a construction professional.

If all the trades mark up, your $90K savings is gone or close to it.

  1. My cousin/friend is a [fill in trade here] and they are going to help me

This typically happens as a conversation over beer at a backyard barbecue, or some other social event. Contractors and architects are very used to these conversations – the vast majority of people who say this to us are probably not going to follow through with their project; it’s just conversation.

If you’re that person who does, when we get that call we’re a little surprised. All of a sudden it’s real. Your cousin/friend is going to sit down with your plans and cost it out, just like they would on any other project. They may give you a break, but they still have to cover their costs, and they still have to make money. No one can afford to work for free, and you shouldn’t expect your friends and relatives to either.

They also may have concerns about what will happen to your relationship if things go sideways. It can be a very awkward thing; I’ve seen plenty of friendships, even marriages, destroyed over bad projects. Always have a written contract. Always. It makes it much easier if anything difficult does come up.

Remember what I said earlier, about a contractor needing to sub-out the trades that they don’t do? If your cousin is an electrician, she will not have the skill to be a GC. She does not know how to install cabinets or fabricate countertops. She knows electrical work – don’t expect her to help you run the job.

  1. I don’t need to finish out the interiors; I’ll move in and finish the house over time

Not possible. Not legally, at least. You will not get an occupancy permit until the space is finished per the approved plans and habitable. That means all plumbing and light fixtures are installed, all spaces have heat, insulation and drywall, and all cabinets and appliances are installed.

If it’s shown in the plans it usually needs to be there in order to be a legally habitable space. The inspector will not sign off on your permit unless everything is complete. Period. If you run out of money and have to pause work, the clock on your permit doesn’t stop ticking. Different jurisdictions have different rules about renewing permits. There’s usually a fee, there’s usually a limit to how many times a permit can be renewed, and they typically require that work nonetheless be ongoing. If the inspector thinks that work is going to be stalled out for an extended period of time, they’ll slap you with a code violation.

Once you pull the permit, you are on the hook for everything in those plans. Make sure that you have enough money, plus a cushion, to finish the job.

  1. I’m going to buy all my materials at builder’s salvage stores to recycle and save money

Builder’s salvage stores are very fun to go browsing in. It’s so tempting to see gorgeous windows and doors at such low prices. Antique hardware, reclaimed wood or bricks…. It’s really cool.

But these things are one-offs. Unique. While that’s what makes them really cool, it’s also what makes them very difficult to design and build with. If someone wants to use salvaged materials in a building, those materials need to be sourced and purchased during design, in coordination with the architect. If you haven’t designed your project to use these materials, you will have a very hard time finding materials that work in your project, in adequate quantities. What will you do if that gorgeous oak flooring you found runs out two thirds of the way through your great room?

  1. I already have experience designing and building; I’ve done it once before

If you are one of the lucky few who has successfully completed a project already, that is something to be proud of. However, you will never have designed and built as many homes as someone who does it for a living.

Whatever your profession or trade, it’s safe to assume that you’re good at it. After all, you’ve probably been doing it for decades, and other people pay you to do it.

Now imagine if instead of all that time you spent doing whatever it is that you do for living, you spent it designing and building homes. With people paying you to do it. You’d have a lot of knowledge about how to build a home, right? Certainly more than you have after only doing it once…?

Bottom line is that it takes dozens of professionals to make a building happen, from architects to engineers to the plan checkers, the contractors and the inspectors. Then there are the vendors, suppliers and fabricators. All these people have been doing these things for the same length of time that you’ve been doing your job and they’re just as good at it as you are at yours. 

When we communicate with each other things go pretty smoothly. We know what is expected, we know the jargon, and it’s likely that we’ve been colleagues for some time. 

When someone who is not a professional enters that team it is disruptive. We have to spend more time than we normally would explaining something that is common knowledge to a fellow professional. There are many more mistakes and omissions that need to be fixed. When the person running the job is not a professional, there are way too many things that happen without drawings. This is not a good thing; we do drawings because it’s a heck of a lot cheaper to design a building on paper than it is to build it and take it apart because it doesn’t work. If you are on site every day putting tape on the floor laying out walls, asking your framer to rebuild something or “mock it up” so you can see what it looks like, I guarantee you are not on a time- or money-saving trajectory. 

In conclusion, if you want to design and build your own home because it’s a challenge and an adventure that you really want to achieve then by all means go for it. But don’t expect to save money or time doing it. And please don’t expect your friends, family and other sub-contractors to work for free simply because you underestimated the complexity and expense of making a building. 

But if the main reason you want to DIY your own home is to save as much money as possible, then you might want to reconsider, because the only way to do that is to hire a team of good, experienced professionals. 

And if you want a fire-resistant net-zero home completed in one year for 20-30% less than a traditional build, choose PHNX Home!

Leave a Reply