Saturday, May 16, 2009

Owner Building - Does it save money?

Building your own home can save a lot of money, but there are pitfalls and traps for the unwary. Many houses have been seriously damaged because of inadequate termite protection. Poor foundations or mortar mixes have caused brick walls to crack. Financial institutions may make life hard for owner builders. Subcontractors can be a wonderful help or they can cause a myriad of problems. There are dozens of things that can go wrong with such a large and complex undertaking. Even professional builders occasionally end up in disastrous situations.

We have learned a couple of big lessons on our journey. Building a house is a far bigger project than we imagined. Instead of taking 1 or 2 years, it is now 10 years since we began and we are still finishing the place off. We completed 75% of it within 2 years (enough to get our occupancy permit) and then got distracted by our real love- developing our gardens, orchard etc. From this though, we learned that enjoying the journey is far more important than reaching the destination.

Building is also much more expensive than we thought. As owner builders there is no fixed price contract. Generally you pay as you go, and boy do you pay. Perhaps we were naive, but our total costs were over double what we imagined they would be. This was partly because of lack of knowledge (lack of research). What is particularly easy to overlook is the myriad of small things that by themselves don’t seem much (eg bolts, tiles, taps, nails, paint, door knobs, locks, window furnishings etc.) Budget increases were also partly due to inflation. Our plans were approved in 1997, but by the time we started building in 1999 inflation had increased prices. On top of this, the newly introduced GST increased prices a further 10% by the time we were ready to purchase most of our major fittings.

Obviously owner building has potential to save the cost of all the labour that owners put into the job. There are also other possible savings to be gained from paying as you go. If you can get away with a lower (or no) bank loan, you avoid paying large amounts in interest. The downside is that if you lack tradesman skills, the job takes much longer.

As described above, savings are possible, but total costs depend more on the size of the house. Labour costs are only a small proportion of construction costs. However I have read articles in Owner Builder magazine where people have built small cottages for under $20,000. These people have usually used second hand and lightweight materials in their construction. Although mudbricks can be low cost if you make them yourself, your pocket suffers when you pay for the slab, which needs very strong beams to support the weight of the walls.

The cheapest form of owner building is to buy an established house, get it transported to your land and then renovate and retrofit it to meet your needs. A friend of ours did this, used contractors to do most of the reconstruction work, and saved a good deal of money. We’ll do a post on her experience soon.

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