Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Building Your Own House

When we think of a typical house, it involves 2x4's, wood floors and siding of some type. Don't you think?

Well, there are many alternatives for all those steps.

Floors can be packed earth, concrete, plywood, boards, tile....and each of them has it's own unique features and costs. They also have their own benefits to home owners too. Some have thermal mass and work well storing solar heat, some are extremely durable, some are beautiful to look at. The trick when designing your own home is to identify what's important to you and then find the material that works for you. Don't limit yourself to what everyone else is doing. If you want something different then go for it.

The same is true of walls. You don't have to stick to layers of 2x4, drywall, plastic, plywood and siding. Things like strawbale, cordwood, underground or earth sheltered construction are recognized and approved building methods in a lot of places, they are just less common. Why? Because they are labour intensive so unless you are doing the work yourself it doesn't pay to build that way.

Most people don't build their own homes any more. Certainly not with their own two hands from the floor up. They might do some of the finishing work, hang drywall, paint etc, but they don't do all the work from beginning to end from foundation to roofing. It's been ingrained in our society that we pay someone else to build it for us because they know better. It's 'what they do for a living' so of course they must know best. And of course having a builder working for you means less thought, worry and stress for you. All you do is give them the plans and pay up the money. Only you don't pay up the money a lot of the get a mortgage and end up paying for the cost over a number of years plus interest. If you aren't worried about the money then that's great but if it's an issue...why not build your own home? I guarantee you will take a long time!

We had friends in Calgary who built their own home. He worked full-time and so he worked on Saturdays and evenings after work. He said that he figured out the amount of time he was spending watching tv was 3 hours per night and about 9 hours on Saturday. He decided to give up his tv and instead do something useful with his time so he built a house. Yes, working 2-3 hours in the evenings and a full day on Saturdays he gradually built a beautiful 3000 sq ft home just outside of town. Mind you it took him a long time. That only comes out to 25 hours per week and a regular construction crew is a half dozen guys each doing at least 40 hour weeks. Plus he was learning along the way and taking his the end it took about 3 years for him to finish. But after 3 years of work he had something to show for what would otherwise have been wasted time. His house cost about $120,000 including the lot if I remember correctly and is today probably worth close to $600,000 in Calgary's market. It's packed with interesting features and is a truly beautiful custom home. So do you think that was a good investment in time? Another way to look at it is this; if I build my house and it never increases in value (not likely) and it takes me 50 hours per week of labour from the family for a year, that's 2500 man hours in a year. If I paid someone a very low wage of say $20 per hour to include insurance and everything then that's $50,000 in labour costs alone to build and finish my home. Now of course electricians and plumbers are more than $20 per hour and in some areas you can't do that work yourself, you must have it done by a licensed tradesperson. But in general you can save a lot of the construction costs of the project by building it yourself.

You may know that construction companies get a break on the price of all their materials, right? So maybe they'll save you money that way? Well it's not usually cheaper because their dealer prices aren't passed on to the final customer, they keep the mark-up as part of their profit. But don't worry, you'll find that if you go to your local builder supply you should be able to get an account that gives you a sizable discount on all materials if you tell them you're wanting to build a house. I think 10% is average but you can check around. Find out about discounts for full pallets of materials and their return policy for unused stuff. Also find out about their delivery policy because free quick delivery is always a bonus as are good quality products in general and the ability to special order things not kept in stock. 10% discount on say $30,000 in materials (or more if you're building a big fancy house) is $3000. I don't know about you but I could get some nice counter tops or bathroom fixtures for that money! Plus you'll save the tax on that $3000 you didn't have to spend which means $450 less the gov't would be getting from you if you built in Nova Scotia.

The long and the short of it is this...if you can learn a new skill, find friends to help out, know your limitations and can hire contractors to do the things you can't (like electrical) then you should absolutely consider building your own house. Call in all the favours you can, let your friends know you need them, and make a community project out of it. You'll have fun along with the frustration but also the cost savings and the pride of having a house you built with your own two hands. How many people have that in this day and age?

I'm off to a service project, some post renovation cleaning for a friend at church. Hope you all have a great day. We're signing papers for the property on Monday so the days are counting down! Getting excited to be able to make plans, break ground, build our very own home and reap what we sow.



  1. I've looked into building so many times and cannot figure out how it's possible to afford it without having a substantial income. The eco house in Thunder Bay is hay bale and it still cost them $300k not including the land. A friend of mine built her own recently and it cost around $250k. These aren't big elaborate houses either. I dream about building my own little one story 1500 square foot off grid home but it will remain a dream unless I win the lottery.

  2. Yes, there seem to be a large number of 'eco' buildings that ended up with huge price tags attached. Some of the things that add cost to buildings are large concrete slabs and footings, overall large size, expensive finishes such as granite countertops or fixtures, and solar panels and battery banks for storing power. I think the PV systems add hugely to the cost. I'll be happy to give an accounting of our expenses so you can follow along and see how much money we spend. Hope things are going great for you this spring Limette!

  3. Experimenting and using different materials sounds fun and exciting. With the high cost of wood and other conventional materials, it would be great to lessen the cost of home building with these unconventional resources. But I would suggest that you check with your contractor first what are the best materials to use that are cost-effective but would not sacrifice the quality of the built and foundation.

  4. Safety precautions should also be implemented when you’re going to build your own house. This does not only apply for construction sites but for residential properties, too. Especially when performing a roofing construction, you should wear harnesses and other safety equipment such as protective gloves and hard hat.