Do it Yourself

It’s never been easier to build or help build a house yourself! Unless you're a professional, I don't recommend building an entire house yourself, but it's certainly possible if you are willing to accept the learning curve. Whatever your skill level, I can recommend some tasks that you can get good at, and they can make a big impact on your bottom line construction costs. Of course, if you're a type “A” personality, you may never be happy with the finished look of your own work. I know I am usually a little frustrated when I finish a task, but when I step back and look at it a day or two later, it's almost always fine and I can feel good about my effort.  

DH interior framing in my tiny cabin

Getting Work Done

Lots of products are available with the DIY builder in mind these days. And there is no shortage of ways to educate yourself on any aspect of home building that you can imagine: books, YouTube, workshops, and online courses. And don't underestimate the value of friends & family--they might be willing to help for an afternoon to tackle a multi-person task in return for beer and pizza. I have a contractor friend that I hire when I need a little expertise above my experience level. It was educational for me and he gave me a break on his rate because I paid on the spot.

Things to Consider

Doing things yourself definitely saves money. Besides a contractor's take-home pay, their hourly rate includes things like tools, insurance, social security, taxes, and probably some travel time. Out of all these, the only thing you would need to cover for yourself would the cost of tools, so you save big time. If you're taking time off work to build yourself, this can work for you or against you. If your take home pay is $25 an hour after taxes and you're paying a contractor $60 an hour, you still come out ahead even if it takes you two times as long to accomplish the same thing. If your take home is $100, the equation doesn't look so favorable.

 

Building things yourself is a great excuse to buy tools, if you’re into that sort of thing. There are also plenty of tool rental outfits out there for things that you’re not likely to need again in the next decade. In addition, when you are involved in the build, you are better equipped to fix things when they break or wear out in the future in terms of tools, skills and knowledge of how things were built. On that topic, make sure to take tons of pictures as you go for future reference, particularly before insulating and before the drywall goes up.

 

More important than saving money, in my opinion, is pride of ownership. It’s one thing for people to say they built a house when they really mean that they paid for a house to be built to their design. It’s another to have pounded the actual nails, spackled the walls, and stenciled the border around the top of the walls yourself. Trust me!

 

Like anything in life, there are distinct tradeoffs to DIY besides the imperfections and potential for substandard work. The biggest tradeoff is time. If you’re at or near the bottom of the learning curve, things will take longer than if a professional was doing it--sometimes a lot longer. Working in 2 or 4 hour increments is also considerably less efficient. If you lose ½ an hour setting up and another ½ hour breaking down for the day, you’ve lost ¼ of your 4-hour day, compared to ⅛ of an 8-hour day. These inefficiencies adds up (and I know this intimately).

 

There is also danger to life and limb that you may not be used to facing. Climbing ladders, working with sharp power tools and pneumatic nailers, dust with who knows what chemicals in it, flying chips of wood, etc. all pose dangers to your body and health. There is no-one responsible for your safety except you, so choose the tasks you take on accordingly and make sure you have a buddy onsite when it’s appropriate.

Measure twice
Measure twice
Cut once
Doesn't quite fit
Slice off a little more
OK, that'll work

Levels of DIY

I’ve arranged these in hierarchical order from easiest to hardest.

 

Sanding and Finishing

If you’ve repainted a room, you have some idea of what this is all about: Drop cloths, taping, edging, rollers, clean up, and air out the room. But if you’re painting new construction you have priming, and possibly two color coats--three times the work. If you’re doing any sort of clear finish, there is sanding and tack cloth in between multiple coats and potentially preceding that were came the stain and filling all those dastardly nail holes. Translation: painting is all about time, so if you aren’t paying for a professional’s time, you can get a big financial benefit for having learned just one category of skills.

 

Drywall

Hanging drywall is relatively simple and straightforward, although ceilings require more ladders and hands. It’s doable, but you don’t get a whole lot of bang for your buck here because professional drywall crews are really good at what they do. A better choice would be to hire the installation of the drywall, but do the mudding and taping yourself. That’s a more time-intensive task and after a little practice it’s not too hard. Make sure to invest in a quality filtered sander because drywall dust tends to migrate all over the place.

 

Flooring

Installing a floating floor is relatively simple, although a professional crew will beat your pants off in a race to finish. This is where a tool rental outfit will come in handy for the specialized nailers.

 

Trim

Trim around floors doors and windows is somewhat time consuming, but with a good miter saw and practice using a tape measure, it’s in the middle range of skill levels. Crown molding, chair rails, etc. are in the same category. If your framer did a good job keeping everything square, it will be that much easier.

 

Kitchen Design and Install

This may or may not be a good idea. I take care in my kitchen designs and plans, so I hope will find them to be thoughtful and appropriate for a compact house. In that case, or even if you want to make some adjustments, ordering cabinets from a big box store or Ikea and installing them yourself is quite doable. If you’re really picky about your layout and want a kitchen designer, you might was well get the package: design and installation by professionals. Countertops are probably best left to a professional in either case, unless you’re doing something super simple like a one-wall or galley kitchen.

 

Exterior Siding & Trim

It’s best to have some experience doing this beforehand. Factors that add complexity: long ladders to reach gables and second floors; planks like fiber cement are best done with two people while cedar shakes can be done solo. If you’re painting (and I hope you’re not using vinyl siding), that’s a no-brainer for you to tackle as DIY, assuming you’re comfortable on ladders.

 

Tiling

I can’t say I’ve tackled this one myself, but it seems kind of tricky. I might try a kitchen backsplash first, since tile in a shower has to be watertight and solid in order to withstand the weight of a person and an occasional flailing elbow.

 

Interior Framing

I actually enjoy this quite a bit. Let’s assume the framers have installed all the load-bearing walls. Then you get the flexibility to test out the layout yourself before nailing everything down. Just lay down the floor plates to denote the wall locations to get a sense for how the rooms halls and closets will shape up. No harm in hanging some old sheets or cheap tarps in critical locations to help enclose the “room” and give a better sense of space. Framing can be done solo, but a helper makes things move a lot faster.

 

Everything Else

I’m going to lump together everything that is required to weather-in the house shell as best done by a professional (unless you’re a professional yourself) as well as the other trades. Basically this covers everything that gets inspected:

  • Foundation

  • Utilities or Septic/Well

  • Site grading, walls, driveway

  • Structural Framing

  • Window and door installation

  • Roofing

  • Electrical

  • Plumbing

  • HVAC

Being your Own General Contractor

I won’t say this is easy or rewarding, but it is a great way to save money since you won’t be paying the GC’s time and a markup on all their subcontractors. It seems straightforward until you actually delve into it, so I recommend reading up on it thoroughly to decide if this is your thing. You really need to devote plenty of time to avoid frustration, because every contractor needs to be checked on while they are working to make sure they are clear on what they are doing. Miscommunications are a common occurrence, but it’s usually easy to spot something out of place if you take an occasional look over someone’s shoulder.