The Owner Builder Option

It is a special opportunity to be able to alter one's home to better suit how one wants to live.  It can be an attractive vision.  It can even become an object of desire.

It is not unusual, however, to find that what we want and what we can afford do not fit together.  Altering an existing house is a very labor intensive and expensive undertaking.  When the resources do not match up to the resource requirements, there are four basic options.

  • Abandon the project.
  • Find more resources.
  • Change the scope of the project to make it less expensive.
  • Change the approach to construction to make it less expensive.

The last three might be employed in combination to bridge the gap, but I'd like to focus on the last option, changing the approach to construction.  That option has three common variations:

  1. Breaking the project up into more than one part and phasing the construction.  Do now what can be afforded now, do later what can be afforded later.
  2. Acting as Owner and General Contractor.  That is, hiring sub-contractors directly and have them do the work.
  3. Acting as Owner and Builder.

Today let's look at the third variation.  It has advantages and disadvantages.  Those must be weighed carefully because there could well be a deal maker or a deal breaker amongst them.  In my view this approach is neither intrinsically good or bad.  It just depends on the circumstances.


It eliminates the labor cost, contractor and subcontractor overhead and profit, and contractor insurance expenses (general liability and workers compensation).  This can be a huge savings, anywhere in the range of 50-75%.

The cost savings may permit selected material, product and equipment upgrades.

An owner builder has complete control over construction sequence priorities.  This can allow the completion of some area or feature before others.  A contractor will normally follow a less flexible sequence in the interest of economy.  Normally the painter or the drywall hanger will only come out at one stage of the project, not multiple times throughout the course of the work.  So, an owner might complete features seen from the street first, of some other feature considered to be the most vital or important.

For some, the hands on experience of making their house is a source of real satisfaction and pride.  The same goes for the process of acquiring the necessary skills to do the work.


Excepting very small projects, what might be done in months, will take years.  This is a deal breaker for some but not others.  Hiring helpers can shorten the time, but it will also push down the savings.  Workers compensation would also become an owner cost, assuming the workers are not licensed contractors (which is variation 2 above).

Living in an unfinished house for a long time requires patience, a sense of humor, and a special quality of relationships amongst the inhabitants.  Coping with this is a future topic, but suffice to say it will be stressful to most all relationships and the downfall of some.

If the project is large enough that it can't be dabbled at on the weekends, somebody is going to have to work on the house in lieu of a normal job.  The loss of normal income can also drive down the savings of this route.

Construction is not rocket science, but it is often hard and tiring.  There is also a lot of expertise behind every trade.  None of that is secret.  There are books and videos covering everything a person would need to know.  A not insignificant amount of time will be spent learning how to do things.

A long construction time is at greater risk from the unexpected turns in the lives we live.  It may limit the opportunity to do other things that were not forseen initially.  An incomplete house may not be a liquid asset that is easily sold if the need arises.

© More Than Construction, Inc., 2014