Teaching You to Be Your Own Contractor

Over the next few weeks, I will be posting information about how to be your own contractor. Many of the people I talk to are excited about the idea of contracting their own house; however, once they get knee deep, they start to realize why contractors are paid the money they are. There is a lot to being a quality contractor and simply having a desire to do it yourself is not enough to do it well. You will need knowledge and a plan. You will need forms and contracts. You will need help.

Over my years as a general contractor on both conventional new construction and remodeling, green building, and straw bale construction, I have learned a lot about how to be successful, how to fail (yes, that can and has been a good teacher!), and how to keep your sanity. I hope you will join me on this journey into contracting over the coming weeks.

I will talk about common pitfalls for owner builders and professional contractors and how to avoid them. I will give examples of long term plans for contracting your home. I will discuss working with subcontractors, insurance companies and banks. My hope is to scare you just enough so that you can assess whether you are right for the job while at the same time give you relevant information for you to do the job well should you decide to take it on.

26 Responses to Teaching You to Be Your Own Contractor

  1. Gary Jones Thu, June 12, 2008 at 8:15 pm #

    Great idea! I’m about to move to Utah and am interested in building my own bale home and your series on being your own contractor couldn’t come at a better time. I’m looking forward to it!
    Any general advice for building a straw bale home in Utah?

    Keep up the good work!
    Gary Jones

  2. Carl Gibson Thu, June 12, 2008 at 8:27 pm #

    I would like to become a sub contractor to build alternative homes for the homeless that have been
    put there do to mother nature. Ive been building homes since i was 14. If you have any ideals, let me know.
    I also have experience with alternaive power sources.

  3. Evelyn Middleton Thu, June 12, 2008 at 10:15 pm #

    I am so glad that I got your email. I have the ecourse and I have a farm in east texas. The brick house is run down and I am going to do something very soon. I want to be the contractor because being 77 years old and a female I am use to being charged more than needed and work of quality that is not quality. Thanks for the new course.
    Evelyn Middleton farm_horse_dog@yahoo.com

  4. Anna Curnow Thu, June 12, 2008 at 10:41 pm #

    Could you also do something about taking on the project management when you’re not a builder yourself? I’m doing it that way and finding there’s a whole lot that I am having to learn in order to keep things flowing along, from maintaining good relationships with suppliers and contractors through to understanding the terminology and who does what…. so much to learn! And not for the faint-hearted.

  5. Richard Shapiro Thu, June 12, 2008 at 11:24 pm #


    I was a handy man for 15 years before my wife and I decided this past year to build our own home. I’m now working 1/4 time in our business and full time as the General Contractor (and cheap ((free)) labor as needed.

    Even with all our experience, we decided to hire a construction supervisor who works for us hourly.

    Your statement, “My hope is to scare you just enough so that you can assess whether you are right for the job while at the same time give you relevant information for you to do the job well should you decide to take it on.” Is spot on! Knowing how well you share information and your expertise, I’m sure this will be a welcome addition to all the other things you do for your community.

  6. Becky Reynolds Thu, June 12, 2008 at 11:48 pm #

    Great timing! We are also thinking about building a straw bale house or ICF house this summer 2008 and plan on doing a lot ourselves and contracting what we can’t do. We plan to do this near Canyon Lake in Spring Branch, Texas.

  7. Carol Howe Fri, June 13, 2008 at 5:36 am #

    Thank You! I have been researching Straw Bale construction for almost a year now, I have consistently returned to your web site. I recently started gathering what little info there is out there on being my own contractor, looks like you’re going to take care of that too…THANK YOU!!!! We plan on starting construction in Arizona next summer.

  8. Conny Grotenhuis Fri, June 13, 2008 at 6:37 am #

    Hi Andrew,
    We’ve just seen your video on loadbearing construction.
    FANTASTIC, you’re an excellent teacher. And we loved the dog too, that keeps it human.
    Our dog always helps with paving and pruning.
    Anyway we loved the video so much that we’ll be ordering
    more. Thank you for making such an excellent document.

  9. Niki Tischhauser Fri, June 13, 2008 at 7:22 am #

    Hi Andrew,
    I too think that this is a great idea. I would like to add that the pitfalls don’t always start with the construction process and share our bad experiences so that others don’t make the same mistakes. My husband and I are having problems with the person who was supposed to design our house. Please be aware that you need to thoroughly research the background of anyone who says they can design your SB House (including lawsuits, number of houses they’ve built, talk to local builders, etc.)and then, before you sign a contract with them, make sure that 1) they are licensed so that you can pull your building permit and make that a condition in the contract. If you can’t pull the permit, make sure the contract says they will re-do the plans at no charge until it is correct; 2) before you submit the plans for a permmit, pay a knowledgable local SB builder a few hours for their time to review them for issues they may see that the building department may not have the experience to point out; 3) have a date certain for the delivery of your plans (so you’re not waiting 1 1/2 like we did); 4)make sure that EVERYTHING you want is included/spelled out in the contract (ie. garage is not an extra charge; the engineering is included, etc.) 5) make sure you can terminate the contract at any time and if you sense the person is not up to the job terminate it right away!; 6) Don’t let the designer copy someone else’s plans. You will run into copyright problems and you will not be able to use them. Also, try to find someone who charges a flat fee not a percentage of the cost to build or an hourly rate. Our so-called designer said he spent over 200 hours on our set of plans for a very simple home (and No, we didn’t make a bunch of changes). AND he even copied another architect’s floorplan. Please don’t make the same mistakes we made, it has been stressful and has cost us almost 1/3 of our budget in the costs we’ve incurred because of all this and now we may not be able to have a house which has been our dream for many, many years.

  10. Lee Thompson Fri, June 13, 2008 at 7:50 am #

    So this must be what you mentioned in e-mail a few weeks ago. Great, this is just what I was hoping you were working on as I embark on my own home-building journey.

    Two books (among the many) that I’ve read during this process that have stood out for me have been Do-It-Yourself Housebuilding: The Complete Handbook (http://www.amazon.com/Do-Yourself-Housebuilding-Complete-Handbook/dp/0806904240/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1213371958&sr=1-1) and A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (http://www.amazon.com/Pattern-Language-Buildings-Construction-Environmental/dp/0195019199/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1213372081&sr=1-1).

    Looking forward to seeing you, Andrew, on Monday as we begin the June straw-bale workshop!

  11. Ivan Vizcarra Fri, June 13, 2008 at 9:10 am #

    The idea of being a green contractor is really exciting to me I really look forward to this and now that I am learning about solar and going for my NABCEP Certification I would like to consider combing straw bail homes with solar electricity, I know this will be an exciting journey for me….

  12. Juan Perez Fri, June 13, 2008 at 11:52 am #

    Dear Andrew, Will a straw bale house in a sub tropical weather (Northern part of Argentina)be a good idea? These is because there is a lot of rain, and I am concerned with fungus, mold and mildew.
    Is there a way to make the walls, etc. waterproof?
    Juan Perez

  13. Andrew
    Andrew Fri, June 13, 2008 at 12:28 pm #

    I am glad to hear of your excitement with the release of this series. In terms of general information about building a bale home in Utah, I can say pretty much the same thing I say to everyone I discuss construction with. Be clear and direct with the building department. Teach them what you know and help them see the benefit of building with bales. Don’t try to convince them by pushing against them but by teaching them something new and exciting.

  14. Andrew
    Andrew Fri, June 13, 2008 at 12:31 pm #

    What a fantastic gift you are to us all. I love the idea of building eco-houses for the homeless. It has been especially apparent since Katrina that the temporary housing FEMA provides is poor quality and ends up making people sick. If you can build quality homes for people in a healthy way, you would save many lives and inspire hope for many others. I think the key will be to keep the design simple and repeatable. Be sure to use the same design or 1 of say 3 designs on each home and you will be able to cut your costs thus making the homes affordable. Finally, use dimensions that support material use so there is little waste in the end. This not only keeps costs down but also limits the impact on Mother Nature.

  15. Andrew
    Andrew Fri, June 13, 2008 at 12:34 pm #

    Evelyn and Anna,
    You are both examples of the people I thought I would help most with this series. There are many people out there who want to actually build their own house: hands on. Those people will also benefit greatly from this series; however, someone who wants to “paper contract” the job also needs help understanding how to move forward. I think you will find the information in this series very useful and hopefully inspiring.

  16. Andrew
    Andrew Fri, June 13, 2008 at 12:36 pm #

    Thank you for the kind words. I can see you totally get what I mean in my “scare tactics!” Hopefully, I can express clearly some things to help those of you who choose to step into the role of contractor get a little more sleep at night. 🙂

  17. Andrew
    Andrew Fri, June 13, 2008 at 12:38 pm #

    Becky, Carol and Conny,
    Thanks for the supportive words. I hope that the information contained in this series will help you along the way. If you have specific questions about certain aspects of the process that I don’t cover as the series continues, please let me know in a comment. Thanks and good luck.

  18. Andrew
    Andrew Fri, June 13, 2008 at 12:43 pm #

    I am so sorry to hear of your struggles within the design process. You raise some great points (quit stealing my fire would ya??). 🙂 I will try and discuss some design stuff as I go through this although I think you summed it up really well in your comment. I hope you are able to pull through and move forward. Good luck. I would add that if the is not a local bale builder with experience near you, you can always hire someone to review your plans from a distance. I do that often and love helping people iron out the wrinkles of a design ahead of time. I t is always cheaper to make changes to a house with pencil than with a hammer. A little extra money up front for a competent review of your plans can save you thousands during construction.

  19. Andrew
    Andrew Fri, June 13, 2008 at 12:45 pm #

    Great books, especially A Pattern Language. I love that book. That is one to read before or while designing your home for sure. It holds great wisdom in the pages. See you soon Lee.

  20. Andrew
    Andrew Fri, June 13, 2008 at 12:47 pm #

    The combination of active solar, passive solar design, and straw bale construction is a great one. The systems come together so well. I just got back from a friend’s organic farm where his straw bale home is cool and sweet on the inside while the summer sun beats down outside. At the same time, his solar panels are selling power back to the grid and his gravity flow irrigation system is watering the plants in his CSA (community supported agriculture) farm. What a place!

  21. Andrew
    Andrew Fri, June 13, 2008 at 12:49 pm #

    Greetings Juan. The biggest enemy to straw bale walls is not so much rain as it is humidity. Rain can be designed out of the equation but humidity is almost impossible to control. One can add a de-humidifying system to the house to help, but if the average humidity levels are high in the area, bales may not be the best option for you. In those areas, you may consider cob or rammed earth as a natural alternative.

  22. Leigh Sat, June 14, 2008 at 2:16 pm #

    Hey Andrew,
    I know you are trying hard and doing a good job of splaning to people about contracting, but every time someone wants to save money on their house they think they can be the contractor. I’m a general contractor and people think that all you have to do is call some subs, and it gets done. They also think that you are the laborer and trash man and the go getter boy too.
    I think I’ll start a blog and tell people how hard it is but they can save a lot of money doing their own brain surgery, or maybe be their own attorney, maybe they can be their own insurance sales person or travel agent, oh, they already do that. I really love it best when your half way through the house and then they think it’s a no brainer, fire you and try to finish it themselves. Gonna save a ton of money.
    They get what they deserve; lawsuits, crap work, unfinished, failed inspections, and then try to call you, fired contractor, or a new unwitting contractor to clean up the mess they created.

  23. Andrew
    Andrew Sat, June 14, 2008 at 3:14 pm #

    I hear you loud and clear and I think you raise some really good points. For most people, the idea of stepping into the role of contractor seems crazy and for those people it probably is. For others, they have every intention of building their own house and are willing to deal with the ups and downs that come with that decision. Those are the people I wish to support in their dream of building their own home.
    The folks you speak of: firing the contractor and taking over and then rehiring a new or the same contractor, are not people of integrity to begin with and there is not much that can be done with them in regards to contracting. Some people are dishonest and that is their decision and their Karma.
    For me, I want to support people who are consciously stepping into the fold. People who make a clear decision to learn a new trade and build their own home. I hope and believe that most of those people will know the inherent risks and will decide to move forward nonetheless. I want to support their dreams, nothing more or less.
    I recently received an email where a contractor was worried that my supporting people’s intentions to build and contract their home would take work away from him and other contractors. I disagree. I think that we, as contractors, can support owner builders and offer them consulting for the trickiest areas of the job. I hope you find a way to support those who decide to contract their own homes. If you can’t, that is fine too, and then I hope that you can at least feel less stress about it in the long term.

  24. Scott M. Mon, June 16, 2008 at 6:22 am #

    Hi Andrew,

    Good topic. We just recently finished our own SB home where we acted as our own general contractor. I have no doubt that we saved money by not paying someone to manage the project. Having said that, I made a few mistakes that have cost me some of that money back. If I had hired a reputable general contractor, and he had made the same mistakes, I would expect him to fix them at his own cost. As it is, I’m on the hook for them.

    Two other points. I work on the same property where the house was being built, so I was there all the time. Many, many times the subs mis-read the drawings I was able to catch their errors early enough for them to be corrected the next day. Understanding the drawings and supervising is really important. Secondly, use the county or city planing department as a resource. Permit fees in our county are astronomical. Make them earn it. They’ll sit down with you and explain the inspection schedules, the order things need to be done in, etc. They don’t like to make extra trips out to the site, but when the inspectors do come out, you can run questions you have by them at that time. Obviously, they won’t tell you how to detail your house, but they will tell you exactly what you need to do to build it to code.


  25. Katherine Mon, June 16, 2008 at 10:59 am #

    This is wonderful. I appreciate it so much. I think I have found a design I love, and I will be able to start this year! Hooray!


  26. Michael Eber Sat, June 28, 2008 at 9:55 am #

    My wife and I have been planning to build our own straw bale home for the past year. I’m glad that you are putting up this article and I’m surprised it’s popularity is so low.

    Two things we’ve learned so far in our research is that it takes as much as a year of planning and research to do the job right. Part of what you pay a contractor for is that he/she has alrady done the research and knows what works.

    The other thing we learned was by visiting owner-built projects. We saw a central room that is black because it is has no outer wall to let light in. We saw earth plaster that was made with unshredded straw. And we saw an Arizona home with no straw on the southern wall (suggested by their architect!!!!) and the owners state that the south side of the house is the hottest (duh).

    Planning, research, contacts, people willing to work with you, locations to get your products, the best subcontractors for those parts you do not have the skills for, etc. All of this must be done BEFORE you even begin to do your work.

    I guess there is a third item that I never thought of until now: the owner-builder must be totally honest as to what he/she can and cannot realistically do. If they have never worked with electricity and wiring they really need to plan on hiring an electrician for the work.

    I think this series will be great and can hardly wait fo ryou next article.

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