Archive for the ‘Contracting and Consulting’ Category

Building in a Slow Economy

Roof FramingAlthough many of you are still living with frigid temperatures and snow, spring is officially here and the weather will catch up with the date before you know it. If you plan to build this year, I hope that you have already solidified your plan and started to line up contractors. If not, there is still time and the overall timing may indeed be perfect.

One “good” thing about a slow economy is that there are lots of people, contractors included, looking for steady work. As such, you may have more opportunities to get a good price on your project. It’s quite possible that high quality contractors will be willing to lower their prices in order to stay busy. Don’t expect a half-off sale, because that’s not likely; however, discounted prices can still translate into major savings. Consider that the average home sale price in the US according to Trulia.com is roughly $152,000. Saving  5-10% would be a $7,600-$15,200 discount, and that is well worth it.

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Wanted: Certifiable Straw Balers

We receive several emails each week from people all around the US looking for recommendations for certified balers and professional contractors that have experience with straw bale construction. The truth is that most of the time we don’t have leads on whom to recommend. It seems like a shame since we know that there are talented balers all over the country (and world!).

We really want to change this and to set up a resource list on www.StrawBale.com linking up those looking for balers with those that can bale. It is also our wish to help support any of you who want to earn a living baling houses by offering the resources and training to help make that dream come true.

So, starting with the 2014 straw bale workshop season, we invite anyone interested in becoming a Certified Baler to join us and start moving forward on that goal.

Here’s how it will work:

IF YOU ARE A GENERAL CONTRACTOR AND WANT TO BECOME A CERTIFIED BALER and have not attended a workshop with us yet, please let us know that you want to be certified when you sign up for a workshop. We need to know before the workshop starts so that during the week we can personally work closely with you and make sure that you are understanding the process well and so we can be there as a resource for you if you have further questions. Upon completion of the workshop, assuming your performance shows that you understand the baling process at a proficient level, you will officially be a Certified Baler.** Upon your request, we will provide you a free spot in our General Contractor Certified Baler Resource Page for you to post your bio and contact information.

IF YOU ARE NOT A GC*, BUT WANT TO BECOME A CERTIFIED BALER and have not attended a workshop with us yet, at workshop sign up, please let us know that you want to be certified. We need to know before the workshop starts so that during the week we can personally work closely with you and make sure that you are understanding the process well and so we can be there as a resource for you if you have further questions. Upon completion of the workshop, assuming your performance shows that you understand the baling process at a proficient level, you will officially be a Certified Baler.** Upon your request, we will provide you a free spot in our Unlicensed Certified Baler Resource Page for you to post your bio and contact information.

IF YOU HAVE ALREADY ATTENDED A WORKSHOP WITH US and want to be listed as a Certified Baler for free in our Resource Page, please email us at info@strawbale.com as this option may still be available to you.**

IF YOU ARE A HOME/LAND OWNER looking for a Certified Baler to work on your project, please check back in with us once the 2014 workshop season has begun. We will be adding names to our Resource pages as we receive them. We will do everything in our power to only certify balers that have demonstrated a thorough understanding of the baling process; however, it will be up to you personally to interview baling candidates and to obtain references as you feel necessary.

We will be opening up registration for our 2014 workshop season in just a few weeks (November 29th). Stay tuned to our newsletter for more information on the time and specifics of the season launch release.

*Contractor boards in your area may dictate that only licensed contractors are able to legally work on someone else’s project. It is up to the individual to investigate what restrictions apply to their area.

** Please note that we can not guarantee certification. Certification will be based on workshop participation and showing that a deep understanding of the covered material has been achieved.

Sale Ends Friday, November 30th at 9:00am EST

We are having a sale on everything in our store including workshop tuitions (up to $200 off!), all of our How-To DVDs, my new book: “A Modern Look At Straw Bale Construction,” and two sets of professional construction plans for small or tiny houses. You’ll even discover that I have created discounts on the three most popular ways to work with me directly. You can get my help with a construction plan review, have me come to your site and train your baling crew for three days, or get both of those plus a year of consulting and more. Please visit our store today to get in on the sale and learn all about what we are offering.

Here’s a look at the 2013 workshop schedule for those of you interested in learning hands-on in the coming year.

April 8-14 in Little Rock, Arkansas

April 20-21 in New York (Comprehensive Design Seminar)

May 13-19 in Wheeling, West Virginia

June 17-23 in Ashland, Oregon

July 8-14 in Taos, New Mexico

August 12-18 in Florence, Montana

September 9-15 in Meadville, Pennsylvania

Sept. 30 – Oct. 6 in Sacramento, California

I hope to meet many of you this year at a workshop or by helping you on your own project. I love the experiences I have both with consulting and with running workshops. I truly love my job and I hope to share that enthusiasm with you soon!

Happy Baling!

-Andrew

My Consulting Services

I have had more and more people ask me recently if I would review their construction drawings, or if I am available as a consultant for them during the construction of their home, and several other requests. The answer is yes. I am available for all kinds of consulting work and have simply remained somewhat quiet about it over the years. I really enjoy consulting with owner builders as I get to meet a lot of wonderful people and I get to share the expertise I have collected over the years.

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How Much Will It Cost?

A lot of people are excited about the idea of straw bale construction; however, they stumble a bit when it comes to estimating the cost of their potential home. I very often receive emails from people checking out plans on StrawBalePlans.com asking how much a specific plan will cost to actually build. That’s such a hard question to answer and here’s why.

Exactly what a project costs to build will depend so much on where it is built. This is because both labor and material costs vary greatly by region. A yard of concrete may cost $100 here in Oregon and that same yard can run upwards of twice that in other parts of the world. So how is someone supposed to make an informed decision about what plan to buy and what that plan might cost to build?

The answer is actually very simple: start with a rough estimate of the cost. If you are simply considering a plan for construction and are not actually costing it out piece by piece for your construction loan, then you don’t have to be that accurate. Just a rough number will let you know if it is in your price range or not. Here’s what I suggest, looking at two different scenarios. First, let’s consider that you plan to hire out the job to a contractor. This is the absolutely easiest way to get a rough cost for the house. Contact the contractors you think you may hire and send them the link to the plans you hope to build. They can get a sense of what’s involved and give you a rough starting point. Be clear with them that you are not asking for a hard number, just something to let you know if things are in the right ballpark, or even the right game.

Here’s s tip, if you don’t have a specific builder in mind, but know that you do indeed want to hire the job out, get some help in finding the right company. Talk to friends and family who have recently had work done to see if they would recommend their contractor. From there, drive around your town or city and stop in at job sites to meet contractors. Check out the site. Is it tidy? Is it a mess? Do the workers on site take pride in their work or are they a rough group of individuals whom you wouldn’t want to leave alone on your property? You can learn a lot about a company by watching the folks in the field. Once you find some folks that interest you, dig a little deeper. Talk to the owners of the homes they are currently building (you can find owner records at county offices, very often online) and see if they like the company. If so, call the company up and ask for some further references.

You want to get this right, so don’t skimp on the amount of time you spend finding the right company. Finally, trust your gut. If something tells you it’s not the right match, then it’s not. Period. You don’t have to justify it to yourself or anyone else. Just move on to the next option.  You always want at least three contractors, so keep looking. Another way to start the search is to look at the company’s license number. If they have an old number, they will have been in business a long time. Construction is a difficult business. Anyone who has been in business a long time has obviously done something right. That’s a good indication that they know what they are doing. Don’t settle for just the number though. Do the extra research as well.

So what if you plan to build the house yourself? In this case, your looking for just the material costs and that’s hard to get from a floor plan online. You would need an actual set of plans to get an accurate bid on materials, so that doesn’t help you if you are currently plan shopping. After all, you probably don’t want to spend a couple thousand dollars on plans only to discover you can’t afford to build the house.  In this case, the answer is also quite simple. Once again, talk to some local builders in your area, and once again, call three of them. This time your question are simple and may be even quicker and easier for the contractors to answer. Keep in mind that although you may not intend to use a contractor, this conversation may inspire you to change your mind. Good contractors are a wealth of information and can be a huge asset to your job. Keep an open mind and, who knows, you may end up hiring one of the people you talk to. If you are clear that you will not be hiring them, you may want to consider paying them a small stipend for their efforts to help you with your numbers.

Question #1: What do you charge per square foot to build a house of mid to high end finish? You can clarify your “quality” by saying, you want something that fits in the upper end of the market similar to the homes on street “X” in town “X”. This gives the builder reference to what quality you are looking for. Let them know that you understand that it’s impossible to give an accurate bid on a house they haven’t seen, but you are simply looking for rough numbers to help you get your money lined up properly.

Question #2: Of that cost, what is the labor value of the money and what is attributed to materials? You want to know how much the materials would cost, so this is one way into that answer. If they say that X% represents the material costs, you have a number to work with. Compare all three numbers (from the three different contractors you called) and average them together. Now, because you are building straw bale, not conventional, you may need to add 5% to the cost you have come up with. This covers things like the extra cost of interior and exterior plaster as opposed to drywall and cement-board siding.  In addition, you may want to add another 5% to the cost to offset the fact that the contractor is probably getting his/her materials at “contractor pricing,” something you won’t get. Now you can use that number to test drive any plan you are considering by multiplying it by the square footage of the home. Is this accurate? No. Is it close enough to get you moving the right direction? Yes.

If you want accuracy, you will need accurate plans. The only way to get accurate plans is to purchase a set of quality construction plans, specific to straw bale homes, like those on StrawBalePlans.com, or to design your own. I have spoken before about the importance of quality design and how much of an impact a good set of plans (or a bad set of plans) can have on a job. If you are working with an architect or designer who has never designed straw bale before, be careful. They may pretend they know what they are doing, but if they have never designed in the medium before, they are likely making it up as they go along. Stay tuned to their progress and be willing to question things that don’t make sense to you. What’s better is to get informed yourself. The best way to get informed is to get training. Come to the Denver Design Workshop in October and learn how to design your plans specific to straw bale construction. You can read books as well, but the most up to date information is what I will be sharing in Denver, plus you’ll get a copy of my upcoming book: A Modern Look at Straw Bale Design Details.

Estimating is a whole new topic and one too big to cover here. I have written several pieces about it on StrawBale.com and a quick search for “estimating” at the top of the page will help you find those. Here are some direct links: Estimating 101; Estimating Tips, and Estimating and Creating a Budget. These articles will get you headed in the right direction. If you plan to estimate and build for yourself, I strongly recommend that you check out my course on how to be your own contractor. It doesn’t matter if you know how to build well. If you have never estimated a job or contracted a project, you will need guidance. Making a mistake in your framing can be simple to fix; however, messing up your estimate and/or other aspects of contracting can be the end of your project. Be smart and get the guidance you need BEFORE you get started.

The Financial Costs of Being Your Own Contractor

There are a lot of benefits to being your own contractor. There are also some costs. Don’t be fooled by the books that tell you that you can save 50% of the costs by contracting the home yourself. There are some major caveats to that statement. Let’s take a closer look.

Perhaps the most obvious and yet the most overlooked aspect of this equation is time off of work. If you are retired, then you don’t need to worry about this piece; however, for the rest of us time away from our day job is money lost. So what’s the cost? If you have to take 6 months off to build your house, how much is that in lost wages? Add it up. You may find that building your own house is not that cheap after all. I might add that assuming you can build, from start to finish, an entire house in six months might be a little over reaching. Most professional contractors take six to nine months to build a high quality home, and they do it for a living, not as a onetime deal.

So, getting back to the actual cost. If you make $30 per hour and work an average 40 hour week, that means you would take home $28,800 in the six months you are off of work while working on your construction project. Let’s assume that you don’t actually make the minimum six month window. Let’s call it a year, which is a much more honest assessment. That would mean you would lose $57,600 in wages. How expensive is your house? If you figure that the lost wages as a 15% contractor’s profit and overhead figure (what you’re saving by contracting the house yourself) then your house would need to be worth a little more than $375,000 for this to be worth contracting yourself. In other words, you could pay $375,000 to a contractor and have him or her build your entire house for you and still save roughly $1350! In this scenario I’d suggest you stay at work and hire the contractor.

Another cost of contracting your own home comes in the down payment. Most banks require higher down payments from owner/builders or owner/contractors as they don’t believe you will meet the required deadlines and think that you are at higher risk of loan default than a professional contractor. Knowing this in advance may be all that you need. Save the money and make the larger down payment. If you are not in a position to save the extra cash, you will need to consider what your options are to lower the down payment. Perhaps you have some collateral you can offer the bank first position on, or perhaps you know someone who would be willing to co sign or even allow you to use their contracting company’s name and license number. The key here is to plan ahead and discover, early on, what will be required of you.

You are slow. Okay, that may be a somewhat mean thing to say, but I can almost make the safe assumption that you are not as fast at building as a professional contractor. After all, it is not what you do for a living every day. You’ve heard the saying “time is money” right? Well if that is true, then you taking longer to complete the construction of your home will cost you more money. Again, this is an assumption, but nonetheless, consider what the costs of a slower construction will be. Don’t focus entirely on construction costs either. What is the cost to your family dynamic? What is the cost to your health and physical well being? How about stress levels? All of these things could be translated into financial costs, but they have their own impacts, outside of the finances, as well that should not be overlooked.

Take the time to really think about every aspect of contracting your own home. Take the time to discover what the possible drawbacks could be. It is best to learn about such things early on, even before you commit to the concept. This will allow you to break free of the potential downward slide and hire the professional you need to get the job done. OR, and that is an intentionally big “or,” you will learn that contracting your home really is a good idea and that you really will save money. Great! Now you know. Now you can build your house with confidence that you are the right man or the right woman for the job.



The Little Unknowns

I recently worked with a woman who was acting as her own contractor on her project. The building she was working on was a small studio on her own land, which she already owned outright. Nonetheless, she wanted help with her project. The bummer was, she brought me into the mix a little late. She was working from a stock set of plans and ended up spending a lot more money than she needed to.

The first problem showed up when she was doing her estimating for the project. She didn’t consider the need for accurate numbers since the building was “just a studio.” She figured that she could get it close and that would be good enough. Unfortunately, that “close” turned out to be off by about $3000! Yikes. She had not accounted for things like temporary bracing for the structure, tool rental or purchase, or the always present mistakes. Those things added up quickly and put her in a funding hole.

Another common mistake which she experienced was over paying for materials that are called out in the plans. For example, she had several windows in the studio of a size that weren’t immediately available in her area. She could have purchased windows that were 6″ narrower but opted to stay with what was on the plan. That ended up costing her an extra $500 because she had to special order all the windows. Had she researched the windows before she framed the openings, she would have been more likely to see the problem and adjust her framing to accommodate a slightly smaller window in each case. As it was, she figured, she’d just deal with the extra $500 charge. A little here, a little there…

The little unknowns of a project can add up really fast as she found out. A little extra time up front and she would have saved roughly $3000. Here’s the real impact of that $3000, the overall job only cost $13,000 in the end so she added 30% of the actual cost of the building to her budget. Imagine that on a $200,000 house. That would be an additional $60,000! That’s no chump change. Be sure to spend the time before the job to investigate everything thoroughly and get clear about how you’ll spend your money. With accurate planning and an accurate estimate, you can be successful. Without either of those things, you’re likely to end up like the woman in this story.

By the way, she’s still really happy with her new studio, she’s just bummed she paid 30% more than she needed to.

Subcontractors and Alternative Construction

Many subcontractors start out confused and cautious when first introduced to alternative construction, but once they get a handle on the process of building an alternative house, most end up happy they decided to join the new process. After all, consider how boring it must be to do the same thing over and over again, day after day. You may even have experience with this yourself in your own job. Most of us like to try new things.

That is not to say that we are not uncomfortable with change. In fact, I think most subcontractors and other people involved in the building industry are uncomfortable with change; however, once they experience something new and realize they can accomplish the task with no adverse affect, they sign on in full. The question is how to get to that point of understanding if they are too cautious to attempt the new system to begin with.

Information is the cure. When subcontractors say no to your idea of an alternative construction project, they are most likely saying “I don’t understand this.” If you give them the information they need, they will likely see the light. Of course, this is dependent on your idea not being crazy! Using straw bale construction as an example: once my subcontractors realized that it really was a viable construction method that is time tested and ultimately really amazing (okay, I’m a little biased, I know), they were excited to try something new.

The more information you can supply your subcontractors with, the better. If you can find a way for them to take a class in the construction method you are planning to build in, then do it. If you can find a specialist to consult with the subcontractor during the project, do it. All of this will make the whole project move much more smoothly and will help the subcontractor reach a level of comfort. That comfort will translate into better quality work and a happier overall experience.

Managing a Flaky Subcontractor

Here’s another excerpt from the Be Your Own Contractor Training course. Hope you like it.

After all your hard work of looking for the right subcontractor you may suddenly find yourself in the awkward position of dealing with a subcontractor who simply is not dependable. This is certainly an uncomfortable position to be in, yet you’ll need to find a solution to the problem and quickly. Anytime you spend wishing the problem away will be time lost and added expense on your job.

Taking action is key, and taking it quickly is even more important. As discussed in other areas of this training, you should be in contact with your subcontractors several times before they are actually supposed to show up on site. Being that as the case, they will have had plenty of warning about the start of the job, and will really have no excuse for missing their start date or subsequent deadlines.

The first thing to do is make a phone call. Call the office contact whom you have been working with and ask what happened. It is always a good idea to give them the benefit of the doubt. That said, don’t get taken advantage of either. In that conversation, you should ask why the crew has not shown up when the start date, or continuation of work, was clearly agreed to. If the office contact cannot give you an adequate reason, then you should respond accordingly. Let them know that their not showing up is a breach of contract. You can choose at this time to let them get off free with just a warning, but be sure to let them know you have marked the record. Set a new date and move forward.

The piece I want you to get here is that you can be accommodating without being pushed around. Your ability to hold your ground is really important. If you don’t make that statement from the beginning, chances are that you will be bullied by the subcontractor and your entire job will suffer as a result. This may seem simple and it is; however, far too many people end up pushed around because they don’t like conflict. Consider it as conflict resolution, not as conflict.

The reality is that there will be conflict if the job does not complete on time and on budget and your bank will have no problem telling you that you owe them more money as a result of your time delay. So, you can have conflict with the bank or you can have conflict-resolution with your subcontractors. Either way, you need to be in charge and willing to stand your ground. I suggest you take that stand early on with your subcontractors and set the stage for success.

How to Handle Jobsite Mistakes

The fact of the matter is that you will be working with other people when building your home and some of those people will make mistakes, and so will you. That’s okay, and should be expected. There are some basic steps you’ll need to take in order to get things back on track and running smoothly again. The first key is to stay calm and not let the mistake snowball into something worse, especially when it really doesn’t need to. The list below of ways to manage mistakes on the job site is taken from the upcoming Be Your Own Contractor Training course. Although each person handles issues and mistakes differently, this list is a great starting point.


1. The big picture. Never lose track of the bigger picture of the project. Remember that the overall project is bigger than any one mistake. It can absorb some loss in efficiency as long as you are on task to fix that inefficiency and are willing to learn from your mistake or the mistakes of others.

2. Team effort. Building a house takes a team. It is very difficult to do on your own. In fact, I would not recommend that you attempt to build a house on your own. Why put yourself through that kind of stress? Work with a team and support each other in the process. If and when one of you make a mistake, get support from the rest of the team and share the experience with everyone. You will all learn something from the process. I have seen in my life that it is extremely rare that a situation that offers learning to one person doesn’t offer some type of learning to everyone in contact with it. It may come from a different place, but sharing that opportunity will improve the job site and your relationships with those around you.

3. You’re in it together. As noted above with the concept of team building, your team members will all be in the same boat together. This means that if a subcontractor makes a mistake, it might affect the next subcontractor on site. Discussing and sharing the mistake will help the boat sail more smoothly. You may even discover a better solution from the collective thought process.

4. Address the situation right away. Don’t fester on things. Don’t get frustrated and down because something went “wrong.” Instead, know that you can fix any problem that is in front of you. This is always true. If you remember that then it will be easier for you to move quickly out of the slump and into the solution.

5. Stay positive. You can always learn something from your mistakes or the mistakes of others if you are willing to look at the situation from a place of calm. Stay positive and trust that you can handle any problem that presents itself. This is a life lesson, by the way, not just something for construction.

A Quick Tip for Accurate Estimating

There are lots of ways to estimate the cost of your house. The reality is that most homeowners turned contractors have very little experience with estimating and have even less experience compiling numbers for labor rates related to specific aspects of the job. As a result, many owner/builder or owner-contracted homes go way over budget. With the right training and practice, however, even someone new to contracting can be successful. Here’s a tip from the Be Your Own Contractor Training course that will help you with your estimating.

It’s important to realize that estimating is a blend of art and science and is something that takes a long time to completely master. That said, success can be had with the help of proper training and material use. One way to get insight into the estimating process is to use estimating books; however, their exclusive use can be a bad idea. In my experience, the best way to fully utilize these books is to set up a spreadsheet to help you with the process. With your construction drawings in place, you can create take-off sheets to help dial in the details of the job. A take-off sheet is simply a spreadsheet on which you write down all of the materials and their costs from a specific job.

Be sure to get as detailed as you can in the creation of the sheets. For example, when you are estimating the cost for the foundation of the house, the obvious things to price are labor, form boards, concrete and rebar. Items that can ruin your estimate if forgotten are things like concrete stakes, form nails, and other connectors. These things are often thrown into the “add a few bucks for nails” column, and the results are poor estimates. Breaking down the individual aspects of the job in finite detail will also help you build the home in your mind ahead of time, making the actual construction easier later on.

If your take-off sheets are really accurate, you can go directly to the suppliers and get material prices for each aspect of the job. This will give you accurate material pricing; however, estimating labor can be a bit more difficult without the help of professionals if you have never completed a similar job before. When it comes to labor, the estimating books are a great place to start, but keep in mind that the numbers in those books are based on professional contractors. You’ll need to adjust those numbers to reflect your labor skills. You can learn more about estimating and all the other management areas of contracting in the Be Your Own Contractor Training course. Stay tuned for more!

My Consulting Services

Wondering if your construction plans are adequate to build from? Want to save thousands of dollars on your home construction? I can help you. I have helped hundreds of people achieve their goals and I can help you too. I offer all kinds of services from personal success coaching (www.CoachingBuilders.com) and basic project assistance to 12 month project consulting. I have something for everyone and would be happy to help you create the dream you’ve held in mind for so long.

1. General consulting about straw bale home applicability in specific regions.
2. Initial plan review for basic layout and function.
3. Construction Drawing review with full blown analysis of all straw bale aspects as well as general and specific design considerations.
4. Project consulting with building department support and assistance.
5. Monthly consulting packages for homes under construction.
6. Yearlong package consulting covering the entire scope of the job from start to finish.
7. Personal success coaching (www.CoachingBuilders.com)

Because no two consulting jobs are the same, I offer a number of different ways to pay for the consulting you choose.

1. By the hour with a minimum of 2 hours on each job.
2. Project Packages. These packages allow you access to me on an ongoing basis over a period of:
a. One month
b. Three months
c. Six months
d. One year

The one year package is the most economical way to go if you are actually building a home because a full year of my consulting helps you walk through both the design and construction phases with an expert at your side. I have had very good results with my past clients. Here’s what some had to say.

“I wish I had brought Andrew on earlier in the process. Once he got on board, things smoothed out tremendously.”
Eric G. -Oregon

“The help I got from Andrew was great. What started as a simple plan review ended up saving me thousands of dollars in the long run. The number of mistakes on my plans was crazy, even though I had an architect do the drawings. ”
Sarah P. -California

“I worked with Andrew during the construction of my home. I acted as my own contractor. The support I received from him was priceless. His technical knowledge of straw bale construction was why I decided to work with him, but I really feel like the personal support he offered me throughout the process was what helped me succeed in building my own house.”
Janet F. -Arizona

If you are planning to build your own house, I strongly recommend you hire me to help you along the way. There is a lot to know and it’s easier to hire me to fill in the blanks than it is for you to learn what I have amassed over 12 years in the trade. As an industry leader in Straw Bale Construction, I can help you make your dream a reality and help minimize the stress of the process at the same time.

Contact me today to learn how I can help you.

Saving Money When Building a Home

When preparing to build a house, money is always a concern. How much will it cost? Where should you focus the money you have? These are basic questions which are always on the page for people as they prepare to build. Make no mistake about it, building a house will be the most expensive thing you ever do. For most people, it is the most in debt they will ever be and so allocating the funds wisely is very important. The energy involved in having so much money tied up in one investment is the root cause for many people’s anxiety and stress when building. Making a few simple decisions up front could be the difference in how much that stress affects you. (image from www.huffingtonpost.com)

So what decisions to make? The reality of most homes is that a large portion of the money is spent before the house is even built. The design of the home has such a huge impact on the cost and should not be over looked. Too many people build homes far larger than they actually need. A home that is well designed will feel bigger than it really is. There is no need for a so called great room in most homes. How many of us every entertain at the level that requires a dedicated party room in the house? Not many. Think about how spaces are used and design for that purpose. In many cases, you can double up on the room’s use. The point is, design to the smaller end of what you need and you will significantly lower the building price.

A second layer of the “design equals cost” equation is simplicity. The more intricate the design, the more expensive it will be. In no way am I suggesting that everyone build rectangular, single story homes with no character. I am, however, acknowledging the fact that you will spend more money on the home the further the design gets from “the norm.” That is fine as long as you are aware of it. This is true for the initial cost of the home and the long term cost. Consider that the more valleys and hips you have in your roof, the more chance you have for a future roof leak. Again, K.I.S.S. which means Keep It Simple Stupid.

One place where a lot of money is spent in most homes is the kitchen. Many people want the new, larger than life appliances in stainless steel. Again, that is fine, but that is also expensive. Are you that good of a chef that you need the best of the best or are you buying it for the image it creates? Most of us can’t cook well enough to know the difference between the $3000 range and the $500 version. Once again, this is a place to buy what you really need and can appreciate for its function, not for the way it looks.

Electrical lighting and plumbing fixtures are another place where lots of money is spent. As long as the fixtures are safety rated and have good reviews, a light is a light. Okay, that is a bit unfair, but once again for MOST of us, it is true. I have built homes where the home owner has requested a $500 light fixture only to be totally satisfied with a similar fixture that sold for 1/3 the price. Buy quality, for sure, but you really don’t need that top of the top of the top of the line fixture in every room. The same goes for plumbing fixtures. There are some differences in quality when it comes to fixtures and much of it is unseen. Solid brass versus plastic innards for example will make a fixture last much longer. Pay for the quality you need and don’t get suckered into the latest trend. No one really needs a 15 head shower stall!

Be careful of saving money by doing it yourself. Unless you are trained in running a job site or have some expert help, taking on the job of general contractor is probably not a great idea if your plan is to save money. You will be away from your place of work, thus not making money, and will be slower than a trained general contractor, thus costing yourself more money and time away from work. Either pay for the professionals to do what they do, or get the right training to do it yourself. When I say the right training, I don’t mean go work for a contractor for five years before you tackle your own job. I mean learn everything you can about the construction trade and running a job site. Then you will be in a good position to save money as your own contractor.

There are a myriad of ways to save money when building a house. As discussed above, lights, plumbing fixtures, design, and appliances all play a big factor as do counter tops, cabinets, flooring selection and wall finish. Do your research. Come to the house from a place of what you really need, what you really want, and how much money you have. With those three things in front of you, you can make good decisions. I always suggest that the “what you want” column is where you find things you can cut out of the equation because what you need is more important than what you want when you only have a limited number of dollars to buy either with.

Finally, have a contingency fund. Things will always cost more than you think they will. Plan on having roughly 10% more money than you think you need in a separate fund that you can draw on as necessary to complete your job. Don’t spend more than 10% extra on each line item of your budget unless you are willing to pull some money from one line item’s contingency fund to use elsewhere. This extra cushion of money will help reduce stress as long as you don’t use it as a “free access bank.” Use it wisely.

Getting Started on Building Your Own House

Back in October, I was asked to give some input and support to people who want to build their own house. The main question is “how to get started.” There is a lot to consider and a lot more to actually do, so often the jumping in point becomes the freeze point. In other words, right when you should jump, you freeze and question whether or not you are crazy to even consider building your own place. This may not be a bad question to ponder. Let’s start there.

One question you can ask yourself is: “why?” Why do you want to build your own house? Many people tell me it is because they want to save money. Others say it is for the experience. Others say it is for both of those reasons plus the pride of knowing they did it themselves. These are all reasonable answers; however, it is important to make sure you can actually achieve the intended results before you jump in. Saving money is a great idea; however, it is easy to miss the real cost of building for yourself. Here’s why. When you are building a house, you need to be focused on that job, not any other work you might otherwise have. You cannot go to work at the office 5 days a week and build your house on the weekend and expect to save money. In some cases it may be possible, but in most, you will end up losing money as the project will drag on forever and delays always manage to increase costs. That said, if you quit your “real job” or take significant time off, you won’t have your income anymore while you build. That is a cost that must be considered.

Don’t get me wrong, I truly believe that one can save money by acting as their own contractor; however, I believe they must know fully what they are getting into before the leap. By knowing what lies ahead, you will know what to expect and how to respond to situations in a way that keeps you on track and on budget. Consider that for the average house that I built over the last few years the owners paid $50,000 in profit and overhead. That sounds like a lot, but believe me, it is hard earned money. If you are willing to deal with all of the headaches and frustrations of being then general contractor and are willing to do the homework to give you the skills to manage the job, then that money can stay in your pocket. That is worth it, no?

There is not much I can say about having pride in yourself for having built your own home. That is something only you can really know about. The same is true for having the experience of building your own home. What you learn is yours alone. What I do know for myself, is that I am my hardest critic. When I work on my own projects, I am able to see the most minute mistakes or blemishes that the average person would never know exists. So prepare for that. If you are like me, you will need to cut yourself some slack. After all, you will be living in the home, so hopefully you don’t nit pick the house the rest of your life. If only I had used a thinner bead of caulk right there. If only that tile layout was a little different. I really should have used the other faucet in the master bathroom. These types of mind chatter can drive you crazy if you let them. So as James Taylor said “so don’t you let them.”

Nuts and bolts: getting started. If you plan to work on your own home and you plan on getting bank financing, the first obstacle will be you. Weird huh? Banks don’t like owner builders. For whatever reason, perhaps historical data or perhaps unbalanced fear, they believe that an owner builder is a flight risk and as such they make lending to such builders much harder and or more expensive. In today’s tight markets, the last thing you need is a harder and more expensive loan package. One way to deal with this is to work with a contractor as a consultant and have him or her listed on your loan application as the general contractor. They will use their license number and they will oversee the project as a consultant, not as the GC. They will charge for this, but much less than the average 15% currently charged by many builders for overhead and profit. having their name on the contract will save you cash out of pocket in terms of the loan down payment AND you will have trained eyes on the job site to help you when things get tricky. Be sure to have a very clear contract so that the job description is laid out and both parties agree to what will happen as the job progresses.

Now the plans. Any bank will require a set of construction plans, along with a budget and perhaps even material specifications. These need to be accurate as the bank will fund according to them. If the plans are only a rough sketch of what you intend to build, your project will likely go over budget by the end as much will change during construction. Therefore, make sure your plans are detailed and complete. Skimping here will cost you money in the end. having a good set will save you time and money and is well worth the cost. Hire a professional, yet not necessarily the most expensive one you can find!

The architect or designer can help you with the material specifications. The GC you hired as a consultant can help you create a budget for the job based on the plans and the material specifications. The critical path, the schedule of how the house will be built and when, is the next crucial piece of information you will need. Review my posts on this blog for more on how to build one of those. Again, the consultant GC can help with this as can your subcontractors.

From here, once you have the loan, you will have to go to the building department and get the permit. In fact, you may want to go there before you get the loan to see what the fees will be for the permits. In some cases, those fees can be upwards of $20,000 so forgetting to include them is a bad way to start the process. Working with the City or County office is important and building a solid relationship with them is even more important. Again, read through my blog for advise on how to achieve a healthy relationship with these departments.

That’s a primer. Of course, there is a lot more to know and a lot more to master before you should jump in. This is a starting point. I suggest you study any information you can get your hands on. Saving $50,000 is a great concept but not being prepared and losing $100,000 is a real drag.

Part VII: Working with Neighbors

This may sound crazy, but handling the concerns of a neighbor could be the most difficult part of your job. Most contractors and owner builders don’t do much to accommodate neighbors when it comes to building a new house or remodeling an old one. After all, they are not working for the neighbor. In fact, the neighbor really has no direct line of communication or dispute resolution with the contractor or owner builder (unless home owner association CCR’s require one). Even though this is the case, you may be surprised how much trouble a neighbor can create for you.

Imagine a neighbor who does not like the construction crews starting at 7 or 8 am. He or she may call the City or County every time your crew shows up 5 minutes earlier to start their setup for the day. That kind of hassle is simply not worth it for you, yet neighbors have been known to do that and much more. It is a amazing how an annoyed neighbor can slow down your progress if they want to. So what can you do to stop these things from happening?

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The key is communication. Not just during the job, but before you even start. Contact your neighbors or the neighbors of a home you are working on as a contractor and let them know what to expect. Tell them about your daily work schedule. Let them know about how long you anticipate being on site. Let them know ahead of time what potential impacts may be for them. A great example of this is to let neighbors know before any demolition begins on a renovation. In the past, I have made a point of informing neighbors ahead of time that there will be a lot of big trucks all day and that debris, dust, and noise will be high on that day. By giving them a week’s notice, some neighbors actually opted to take a short vacation so they would not be around for the mess. When they got back, the site was clean and the demolition had no negative impact on their lives.

Another to keep in mind, if you are a contractor, is that a little preemptive communication can please a neighbor so much that you may find yourself working for them in the near future. Because most contractors don’t bother to even introduce themselves to neighbors, let alone warm them about the impending process, the neighbors are liekly to be impressed with your up front and caring approach. Nothing like starting with a small renovation only to secure two more jobs on the same street!

Don’t underestimate the importance of having a good relationship with your neighbors or the neighbors of a client. This is especially true if you are an owner builder. After all, you will have to live next door to them long after the rest of the subcontractors have moved on to another job. Create a good relationship and your job (and post job life) will be much easier and more fun.

Part VI: Working with Banks

It has been a while since I last gave you some tips on being your own contractor. Today, I will let you know some simple tricks of the trade for dealing with banks or mortgage firms. By the time you are ready to discuss your project with the bank, you will already have a full set of plans and an accurate price estimate and critical path. All of these things are absolutely necessary to have in place and for them to be accurate and complete. consider that the money you request and the time period in which you promise to complete the project will all be set in stone when you are done with the loan officer. Be sure you get the details right from the start or you will end up paying heavily in fees to reorganize the loan.

There is a common saying that the mortgage company “holds the key to your house.” Well, in fact they hold the whole darn house, not just the key. Whatever the scope of your project, if you get a loan for the construction of the home, you will most likely use the home itself as the collateral for the loan. That means if something goes wrong along the way and you cannot pay the mortgage, the home will go back to the bank and you will have to find somewhere else to live. Not a happy thought, but a truth that you must be aware of before you get started. Scare tactics aside, get your numbers straight. Make sure you have enough time in the loan to complete the house (realistic time frame from your critical path, not your hopes and dreams of a move in date). Know what you are signing!

The mortgage industry has changed dramatically in the last year. Most of this is as a result of failures in special loan programs offered by the banking industry which ultimately caused havoc and continues to damage the World economy to date. Banks were lending to people they probably should not have and were offering terms that quickly brought down much of the industry when things turned sour. Be sure you know what the fine print on your loan documents says. Be aware that pre-payment penalties, adjustable interest rates, and other fine line details can ruin what seems like a good mortgage just months down the road. Talk to your loan officer and ask as many questions as you possibly can. There are no stupid questions. The only thing “stupid” is signing a document you don’t fully understand.

When working with alternative construction techniques sucj as straw bale construction, the biggest roadblock will be the availability of comparable sales. These are homes in a designated area that have sold in recent months that fit the same description as your home. Things like the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and the type of construction are used to make an assumption about the resale value of your home. This allows the banks to decide if the home is marketable should you default on the loan. The reality is, you will likely not find a bunch of straw bale homes that have recently sold ion your area. The reason for this is actually good news. People can;t find comparable sales because people who build straw bale homes, almost never move out! They are so loved, that they are not resold. This detail is actually helpful for you as you talk to your bank and/or appraiser. Make sure they know this fact. Also, let them know that any alternative house can be considered in the appraisal. This means log homes, earthen homes, and so on. That increases the pool of options they can look at.

Be sure to give your bank good details about the home without telling them more than they need to know. In other words, you don’t have to tell them that you will be using rice straw in the walls. Let them know your plans and give them detailed drawings that show you know what you are doing. Prove to them that you are on the ball and aware of all the stresses and hurdles that lie ahead. Show them you are ready and they will respond well. Keep in mind that as an owner builder, you will likely have to put down a larger deposit than if you hired a contractor to build your house, To the bank, you doing the work is actually a risk for them and so they make you pay more up front.

Part V: Working with the Building Department

Today I want to talk about what it is like to work with your local building department while acting as your own general contractor. You might think that in the progression of events the next piece of the puzzle would be working with your bank, not the building department. After all, you won’t be working with your building department until you are actually ready to build and you won’t be ready until you have the bank funding. Actually, although a common theory, this is totally wrong in my opinion.

building_dept-_over_the_counter_staff.jpgI suggest that people talk with their local building department and use them as a resource. Most people think the building departments are out to ruin the experience of building a home, that they are all angry people who want nothing more than to make a builder’s life miserable. Of course, their are a few inspectors and plan reviewers out there like that, but they are NOT the norm. Most building department employees are trying to help people build a safe home to the best quality possible. Use their knowledge to your advantage. If you have questions about floor joist sizes, beam spans, window sizes and location, anything building related, don’t hesitate to ask the people who will be inspecting your work later on.

Creating a good relationship with the building department is a fabulous idea. If you have a friendly relationship and a relationship of trust with the folks at the building department, you will find it very easy to move forward through your project. If you bump heads with the department from the start, you may be in for a rough ride. Keep in mind that they may not be well versed in straw bale construction. As a result, you may need to educate them on the advantages of the technique. If they say you cannot build with bales in their jurisdiction, they are probably just afraid of an unknown building practice and not comfortable signing off on it. Instead of getting mad or depressed, become a teacher. Let them know that you totally understand their hesitation. In fact, if I were a building inspector or plan checker and someone came to me wanting to build with straw, I would probably say no way myself if I had never heard of it before, wouldn’t you?

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There is so much information available these days about building with bales. Send them to this website or to the technical work on www.ecobuildnetwork.org. Let them see images of completed homes. Let them read case studies and independent testing results. Let them read other state approved codes so that they can see the validity of what you want to do. If you become the teacher, you can open them up to new ideas and help them see the value of this practice, especially in this time of “green building” where everyone wants on the wagon. Let them become cutting edge under your instruction. I have found this approach to be very useful in the past and continue to use it today.

Getting back to an earlier point: when you ask the building department for help, it is important that you balance your requests with a show of your own knowledge. In other words, be sure to instill in them a sense of your level of comfort with contracting and or building the home. If they feel you are clueless about how to build, that will not serve you well. If they feel you are well educated in the trades and process, and simply have some questions you want to ask to further your education and dedication to doing things right the first time, they will admire that.

Here’s a final tip for the initial contact with your building department. Knowing that you want to build with bales is great. Knowing how the building department feels about bale construction before you present it to them is priceless. Call up anonymously and ask about getting a permit for a straw bale house. If they laugh at you or hang up on you because they think you are kidding, you know you have some work to do before you make your own presentation. The reason for this is that there are still some areas, around the World I am sure, where the building departments will be so closed minded, you will never get your building approved. In those areas, it is important to know that so you can take a different approach to getting your plans approved. It may mean that you build a post and beam house with cellulose insulation if you are actually building a straw bale, post and beam in fill home. Or you may build a “masonry wall system” home if working with load bearing straw bale walls. The point is, you can use different words to describe what you are doing 1. without lying and 2. without raising red flags. I always advocate bringing straw bale construction out in the open, but not when it faces certain denial from the building department. Build under an approved code section like “alternative forms of construction,” and keep your wording simple and nondescript.

In summary, the biggest thing to remember, whether you are building with bales or a conventional home, is that the building department can be looked upon as an asset, a help to you as you move forward. Building a quality relationship with them will serve you well. Be knowledgeable and friendly. Ask for help when you need it. Be honest and trustworthy. If you hold all these pieces in front of you, you will gain an ally in your quest for the perfect home.

Part IV: Estimating and Creating a Budget

If I had to choose the primary place where owner builders, and contractors alike, fail when building a home it would be in the estimating of costs. This is one of the most important parts of the job to get right. If you make major mistakes, your job is doomed to fail before it even begins.

stack-of-money.jpgThe most accurate way to estimate a job is to have records of what it has taken you to complete similar jobs in the past. In other words, the best way for me to know how long it will take to frame a 1700 SF, two story house is to look at how long it has taken me to do so on previous jobs. Of course, if you do not have records of previous jobs or don’t have previous jobs to consider at all, then this will not help you. Be sure to keep track of all of the jobs you do so that you can build an estimating book of your own in the future.

Estimating books do exist that consider industry standards for each aspect of home construction. These are an okay place to start if you do not have any other options to help you nail down costs; however, you must consider that each cost in these books has been compiled by material from professionals with different crews than your own. Everybody works at a different pace, so assuming that the numbers in any book will be accurate for you can be dangerous. Be sure to consider your own pace and compare it to those outlined in the book. For example, take something you know how to do and have done before. Make an estimate of how long it takes you to complete the task and then look it up in the book. How do you compare? This is a starting point for how to adjust times in the book. Things you know how to do with less certainty=more time added to the industry standard.

Photo: Library of Congress; reproduction number: LC-USZ62-92466

Whether you plan to do all of the work yourself or not, you should still get some estimates (quotes) from sub contractors. This will help you in two ways. First it will let you know if the numbers you assign to the task for yourself are in line with reality in your local area. Second, if you decide not to do the work when push comes to shove, you have a quote from a local contractor you can fall back on and know you have enough money in the budget to at least cover that cost. When you plan to use sub contractors, always get good recommendations from other people in your area and get at least three quotes for each aspect of the construction you plan to bid out. Do not take the lowest bid just because it is the cheapest. This may come back to bite you.

When you create your budget, it is really easy to build a spreadsheet with 400 line items over 20 pages. This is a lot of detail and probably more than you need. It may be a good way for you to personally learn about the individual costs in your home project, but any bank will not want to see that many line items. Use the details as you will, but create categories to file those subtotals under. For example, “Framing Materials” can cover the cost of all framing materials in the house whereas you may want to know the details like: floor construction, bearing wall construction, window and door frames, interior walls, and so on. That is fine, but list it all under framing materials for the bank.

Contingency fund. Always include one, always. Even if you think you have nailed the cost of the project on the head and you are so confident in your numbers that you would bet the family jewels on them, don’t. Construction is a very organic experience. Things change during construction that you likely will not have anticipated, no matter how well you planned. You have to have a fund designed specifically to address these concerns. create a contingency fund of 10% of the construction cost with your bank. If you don’t use it, you don’t have to pay interest on it. If you do use it, use it wisely. No drunken sailors here with a pocket full of gold. Use it only when you need it and you will be happy you planned that far ahead.

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Photo: www.island-decorandmore.com

Part III: Site Evaluations For Your Building Process

I fully believe in the importance of knowing your site before you build or even design and furthermore suggest that the information regarding your building site be premiere amongst the important data you work with when designing your home.

residential-construction-1a.jpgAs a contractor, there is another site evaluation that needs to happen. Consider that the building plans are already complete and the siting of the house has been decided. What else is there to consider about site evaluation?

How about the portable restrooms? Yep, that’s right, the portable bathrooms are a very important part of the site evaluation. Have you ever sat in a “blue house” that was placed in the direct sun? There is nothing quite like taking a sauna while using the facilities. :) I made this mistake at my last workshop (sorry to all the folks who were here in June) when I placed the facilities in the shade of a structure. Unfortunately, the structure only shaded the units in the morning and the evening and afternoon sun baked them to a crisp!

Another thing to consider is where you will stage materials for the construction. Is your site big enough to handle the delivery of 600 straw bales? Is it big enough to handle the framing package? I always have my framing materials delivered in stages: floor framing, first floor walls and ceiling joists, second floor walls and then trusses. This allows me to utilize the sometimes minimal space on my jobsites well. Be sure to know where you will deliver your materials and how much your site can hold.

Parking on or around the site is a very important aspect of your contractor site evlauation. If you cannot accommodate all of the vehicles necessary to perform the work on your project, you may end up having subs park in the street. This is fine; however, you may find your neighbors start to get frustrated with this, especially on busy days. Be sure to communicate with your neighbors and subs about where to park.

The location of a garbage dumpster and applicable recycling dumpsters is also something to consider. Keeping a clean jobsite is essential to safety and to efficiency. Garbage dumpsters (often 10 yard capacity) take up considerable space and need to be located on prime ground: level and easily accessible. Having a dumpster on site allows you and the subs to deliver trash directly to the dumpster instead of moving it twice or more, which cuts down on efficiency of the construction. The same is true for cardboard, metal, and other recycling as available in your area. If you have it there and inform your subs, you will eliminate the need to separate your trash and recycling once in the dumpster once again speeding up your construction time. The extra cleanliness of your site will also speed construction because you and your subs will not be stepping over piles of trash and recycling.

Another consideration, although a bummer to have to keep in mind, is how to protect the materials and tools you have on site. There are people with less than caring agendas out there who may be excited about the idea of pulling 20 sheets of plywood off of your site for use on their own project or stealing a tool or two to aid in the construction of their own home. It is essential that you have a way to lock up the materials and tools you have delivered, especially if you live in an urban area. In rural areas, this is much less of a concern. A simple way to secure plywood is by screwing the top 6 sheets or so to the pile. This makes moving any of them very difficult. In general, you are “keeping honest people honest” and anything beyond that is likely out of your reach. In other words, trying to stop a thief from stealing from your site may not be possible but stopping a would be thief is easier. Get a construction box for your tools and lock it to a tree. Chains and security cables are worth their cost ten fold as they protect a lot of value on a construction site. Again, it is a bummer to have to deal with this subject, but it is a reality of building and must be considered.

There is much to consider when approaching a jobsite. The sooner you do your evaluation, the sooner you can start efficiently building. If you wait too long, you will already lay out some obstacles like garbage dumpsters and you will end up wasting time moving them around to make space for your framing materials or bales. Plan from the start and be aware of all the things you need room for. That way, you can place items step by step as they arrive without displacing something else.

Part II: Reading Your Jobsite Plans

As mentioned in the last post “Part I: Know What You are Getting Into” you must know how to read plans for them to be any good to you. This is true for you as a builder and as a paper contractor. Subcontractors are not perfect and any one of them can misinterpret the plans on any given day. Your ability to catch those mistakes is paramount to the time line and ultimately the bottom line for your home.

Work with your architect or designer. Don’t just hand the idea or concept to them and then sign the checks when the plans are done. Be a part of the process and learn about the plans as they are drawn. This will allow you to familiarize yourself with not only the plans but also the process of creating the plans. This will help you understand how to read them later. It is my opinion that knowing how to read your plans is the most important part of the construction process. Everything you need to know about the construction of your house is in those plans (or should be) and so a clear understanding of them is a huge first step.

I suggest that you create a round table meeting with all of your subcontractors to discuss the plans while they are near the end of the design process. This will allow each of your subcontractors to ask questions about certain details and suggest changes to improve the installation of their trade. Sometimes a simple meeting and shift of a wall location by 6″ can speed the installation of the other trades and make your home more efficient and less expensive to build.

Review the job site everyday. If you spend time on the site everyday you will be able to catch mistakes early. If a subcontractor makes a mistake, point it out immediately so that they can fix it without further delaying the process. That said, do not hound the subcontractors either as that will drive them crazy and slow them down in the end. Be willing to listen to what they have to say as some minor changes may be a good idea on site. Most of the details will have been worked out in the round table meeting, but some things are often not caught until the construction process begins. Do not give your subcontractors freedom to change things without first talking to you, but be open to their ideas. Remember, they do this everyday and so may have some good ideas. This is another reason to know the plans. Their idea may be great for them, but you have to consider how it will impact everyone else on the site. In other words, the plumber may love the idea of moving a wall 6″ over to allow him better access to a waste line, but that move may make the installation of a heating system impossible. That is an impact that is not worth moving the wall.

Again, knowing the plans inside out is the most important part of your job as the contractor.


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