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The Owner-Builder Book 376

Jeff Lewis writes: My first house was a simple tract home that did not even have phone lines in two of the three bedrooms. A few months after I moved into this first house, a friend of mine invited us over to the house they were building. For $20,000 more than I had paid to purchase this little 1,500 SF tract home, my friend had built a 4,400 SF custom home. And he had not done any of the work himself." If you're considering home ownership, and especially if you want to design in the things which ordinary houses don't take into account (here are two more related stories: one, two), this sounds like a useful resource. Read on for the rest of Jeff's review.
The Owner-Builder Book
author Mark and Elaine Smith
pages 314
publisher Consensus Group, Inc.
rating 9
reviewer Jeff Lewis
ISBN 0966142837
summary How to save money by being your own general contractor.

So a few years latter when I decided that I could afford a new home, I asked my friend how he had built such an amazing house for so little. He pointed me to "The Owner-Builder Book." When I saw the subtitle to the book, I was a little suspicious: "How you can save over $100,000 in the building of your custom home." I had seen a few too many infomercials making similar promises, but my friend had done it, so I figured that I could too.

Now, a year later, I have completed building my $550,000 home for $320,000. Much of my 41% savings can be directly attributed to this book:

Chapter 1: You Can Save $100,000
Chapter 2: Learn The Wealth-Building Secret

This is the pep-talk part of the book written to give you incentive to read the next 300 or so pages. This chapter talks about how custom homebuilders know and use the ideas in this book all the time. Ever seen an ad for a "builder's own home"? Why are they always the upper-end homes? Hmm.

Chapter 3: Contractors Aren't What You Think They Are
Chapter 4: You Can Manage Better Than a Contractor
Chapter 5: You Will Profit By Building a True Custom House
These chapters dispel myths about contractors. Hint: A contractor is very simply a project manager, and usually not a very good one at that. Among other things, they rarely shop around for better material prices. They usually use the same lumberyard that they have always gone to. I saved over $20,000 just by telling my framer that I was going to purchase the materials from a different lumberyard, all he had to do was give me the list.

Chapter 6: Conquer Details Room By Room and Save 20%
Chapter 7: How to Get the Subs on Your Side
Chapter 8: How to Build a Budget That is a Powerful Miracle Tool
Chapter 9: Commando Shopping Techniques
Chapter 10: How to Schedule the Work at a Savings
These chapters talk about how to actually save money: The key points are planning, getting down the details of exactly what you want, (i.e. I want two phone outlets in every room with two strands of cat5 and coax.), and make sure to shop around. As an example, I had bids ranging from $5,000 to $15,000 for my electrical. One would assume that with 5G's you would get less than with 15G's, right? Not necessarily: for $5,000 I got everything that I wanted, plus I was able to add a bunch of outlets that I hadn't thought of at the last minute for free cause the subcontractor was a nice guy. Now I love that TV above Jacuzzi tub.

Chapter 11: How to Make Your Lender Swoon
Chapter 12: Paperwork Before You Begin
Chapter 13: Six Months to Victory
These chapters help you get the paperwork ready that you will need throughout the process. Remember contracts with liquidated damages and lien release forms! I only had problems with one subcontractor that my wife had been responsible to get fill out our contract with and had never done it. But, luckily their own contract, which my wife had signed with them, covered most of what we needed. I even got to keep an extra $2,000 dollars because they didn't have time to come back and stain the stairs. Let's see, $50 in stain and supplies, 3 hours time. Yeah, I'll take the $2,000.

Chapter 14: Smooth Execution Saves Money and Improves Quality
Chapter 15: Mistakes You Can Avoid And Successes You Can Achieve
These chapters drill into your head what planning and details mean. I had one major problem over the course of building my home. The truss company built my trusses wrong. It took them three more tries and fourweeks to get me a completed set. Because of my contracts and planning, I cut the cost of the trusses by almost half, but the time hit was the most damaging. My total time to completion was 7.5 months. I had planned for 6.

Chapter 16: If You Decide to Use a Contractor
The final chapter discusses how to choose and work with a general contractor if you decide that being your own general is too much for you.

Don't leave with any illusions: this book will not build a custom home for you. By planning and following through on the information in this book, you too can build your dream home.

The first page of each chapter is available online at:, and a free CD-ROM with software templates for budgets, contracts, the entire book in MP3 format, and a previous edition of the eBook in PDF format is available. You can purchase The Owner-Builder Book from Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to submit yours, read the book review guidelines, then hit the submission page.

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The Owner-Builder Book

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  • by littlerubberfeet ( 453565 ) on Wednesday June 19, 2002 @11:08AM (#3729215)
    My uncle is a contractor, he builds spec and custom houses in Berkeley. I pity him. People are a**holes about their houses. Sometimes they ask for something, and then insist that it be ripped out, just because they saw something in House and Garden.My uncle gets paid for it, but who wants to waste time?

    Now, anyone who builds custom needs to remember that there are 3 people important in your project.
    You: the owner
    The Builder
    The architect

    Now, if you cannot work together, then it will be a very painfull process. Remember that anything you ask for has to be feasible and buildable. If you develop a good relationship with an experianced architect, and a builder that is used to custom jobs, not just 'tract houses' then you should be fine. Also, remember that you have to live in the house, so make it comfortable, not trendy.
    • "Sometimes they ask for something, and then insist that it be ripped out, just because they saw something in House and Garden.My uncle gets paid for it, but who wants to waste time?"

      Speaking as a contract programmer (IAACP!) I couldn't care less if someone asks for a feature then asks for it to be "ripped out". I get paid by the day, and since I would never write the stuff that people want me to write if I weren't getting paid, I am just happy for the extra money...


    • People are a**holes about their houses

      You're right, how dare people be a**holes and demand things to be exactly as they want when they pay to have a house built. Afterall, it's only the single biggest investment they'll likely ever make.

      • by Kintanon ( 65528 ) on Wednesday June 19, 2002 @11:39AM (#3729450) Homepage Journal
        My dad did was a contractor or sub-contractor for most of my life, and when a contractor says someone is an asshole, they usually mean something like the following scenario has occured:

        Owner: I want a big brick fireplace and chimney on the north facing wall of the living room.

        Contractor: Ok! Are you sure about that?

        Owner: Of course I'm sure! What am I paying you for? To ask stupid questions or to build my house?!

        Contractor: No problem then... *makes the necessary arrangements for the fireplace to be built*

        *Fast forward a couple of weeks, finished fireplace*

        Owner: Y'know, I changed my mind about that fireplace. We decided fireplaces are dangerous so we don't want it anymore. Can you rip it out and just make it look like the rest of the wall?

        Contractor: Ummm... sure, but I'll have to charge you for the additional labor and whatnot.


        Contractor: I can't do that.

        Owner: Then you're fired! I'll get a new contractor!

        This scenario actually happened to my dad. He spoke with the contractor that was hired after him and that contractor said the owner had tried to get him to rip out the fireplace for free and had really badmouthed my dad. That contractor was also fired when refusing to do the work for free.
        These are the kinds of homeowners who are total assholes and have no idea what they want.

        Some contractors will actually underbid a job, and then plan for the homeowner to change their mind three or four times so that they can charge them huge amounts of extra money based on no-change clauses in the contract. Those contractors love flighty customers, because they can work the same house for over a year and constantly be getting paid.

      • Well, there's being demanding, and there's being an asshole. You would not believe what twits people can turn into, especially little two-bit Napoleons who insist on endless changes after the work has started, and then think that they don't have to pay. Especially the ones who are not trying to build a nice house, but the ones who want to brag about how cheap they got the house for.
  • I suppose.... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Ooblek ( 544753 ) on Wednesday June 19, 2002 @11:08AM (#3729218)
    This probably works if you have enough time to oversee the whole process. I wouldn't trust a contractor as far as I could thrown him to oversee the building of the house. As the book points out, they are generally bad project managers. (I'm sure having Jack Daniels for breakfast doesn't help.) For that matter, I wouldn't trust my wife to manage the job as far as I could throw her either, but thats another problem altogether....

    Building you own house doesn't look like a job for a software engineer in my opinion. I'm sure the software deadlines would never be hit if all the engineers here oversaw the building of their house.

    • by Peter Trepan ( 572016 ) on Wednesday June 19, 2002 @11:43AM (#3729477)
      It's generally a good idea to meet with as many contractors as possible beforehand, to see who can be thrown the farthest.
    • Re:I suppose.... (Score:3, Interesting)

      by mcolony ( 586622 )
      No matter how good that book is, if you don't have a substantial understanding of construction you really shouldn't even attempt to be your own general contractor. My wife and her parents have more knowledge about construction than most general contractors. Her parents built their 5000 sq ft home by hand (nearly no contractors). My wife has worked in the construction industry. Her father also did for a couple of decades. Her mother served as CFO and project manager for a mid-sized construction company. In spite of all that, it was still a very daunting task.

      If you have a full time job, forget it. This is a full time job, and then some. My wife and her father weren't working and we still spent many nights up until after midnight.

      Contractors, in general, just cannot be trusted to do anything correctly. It's not their home and they'll cut corners anywhere they can. They really have to be managed full time and you have to know their trade nearly as well as they do. If you've been in the game for a long time you can build up a short list of those that can be trusted. But if you're a first-timer then you're just going on uneducated instincts. Good Luck.

      A good contract with every contractor is very important. There were several things that we inferred from the contracts we signed, but when it gets right down to it, it's a legal thing and a contractor will end up using it against you if he has to. If you don't know enough to add in everything you really need, you'll either do without or you'll pay extra because it wasn't in the contract. You need ALL of the details. Plus, they generally are willing to let you threaten to take them to court. They know that the legal fees are just not worth it to you to take them to court over a couple thousand dollars. Plus, you don't want the delay. You just want your house completed.

      I could go on. In the end, however, we ended up with the dream house we set out to build. I truly don't think it would have been possible without the substantial amount of knowledge and experience we had on our side though.

      Also, I agree with another poster. Design your house around your comfort and the house's ability to function. In the end you're the only one that actually lives there.
  • custome home... (Score:2, Flamebait)

    by doubtless ( 267357 )
    Now I would be happy to be able to pay my rent on a monthly basis in this economy. Many of us are out of job and actively looking for one, something like "Custome Business Book" review might help a little more.

    It'll be nice to run a /. polls on how many of us are really in the position to even buy a small apartment, let alone to be able to shelf out $300,000 for a custome home.. you.. you insensitive nerd!
    • Re:custome home... (Score:3, Insightful)

      by grue23 ( 158136 )
      That's not to mention whether or not they have the money to buy the land that goes under said $300K custom home.

      One issue with getting a custom home opposed to one that is already there is that you not only have to start paying morgtage/loans on the custom home and the land it's on, but you also have to continue paying rent for several months in wherever you're living while it's built!
      • You usually don't pay anything on the custom home construction loan during contruction. The interest of what you have drawn on your loan accumulates until the house is finished. The amount you draw is usually in five or six chunks spaced out over construction. The land mortgage(if any) usually is rolled into the first chunk of the construction loan. The only thing you will pay is rent where you need to live for six months to eighteen months during contruction and some upfront costs not allowed to be included in the construction loan. Upfront costs are things like permits and utillity tie-ins, architects fees etc...
    • Unemployment in May 2002 was 5.8%

      This is not the great depression.

      Commerce goes marching on. Besides this is a potential revenue source for geeks with project management skills. That could very well be your Custom Business book.

      I feel that it is very applicable.
      • The *overall* unemployment was 5.8%, but unemployment figures usually vary by sector and location.

        In the metro Denver area, the figure I've heard (very quietly) is that unemployment in the IT fields is around 25%. But again that varies by subsector and experience, and the market seems to be preferring less experienced developers, with almost all companies are extremely "brand" conscious. Some of these cases are extreme - one company has been advertising for "java" or "embedded" developers for 6 months, but unless you have at least 3 years of experience on a specific "set-top" box in the consumer cable TV market you're not worth talking to. In some cases it's clear the company is just trying to rehire laid-off employees, but almost all publicly announced positions have some type of mandatory application experience.

        Among my immediate friends and acquaintances, *two* are still working in the IT field. Another is a certified Oracle DBA decorating cakes in a supermarket (last I heard), another is getting into marketing, a third is talking about opening a sub franchise store in the Middle East, and I'm signed up for some sysadmin training so I can get past the "ten years of related experience, but never in my job title" barrier. That's 66% unemployment, far beyond the unemployment rate in the great depression.

        But there is good news! Bush is trying to streamline the H1B visa process so the big companies can bring in even more foreign workers, since these companies have found it so hard to find qualified candidates. Why, how can any company be expected to find local talent when a single ad on Monster or Dice may bring in a thousand resumes?
        • Among my immediate friends and acquaintances, *two* are still working in the IT field. Another is a certified Oracle DBA decorating cakes in a supermarket (last I heard), another is getting into marketing, a third is talking about opening a sub franchise store in the Middle East, and I'm signed up for some sysadmin training so I can get past the "ten years of related experience, but never in my job title" barrier. That's 66% unemployment, far beyond the unemployment rate in the great depression.

          Really? Then by your own logic we have a 0% unemployment rate since all of my friends are gainfully employed in our chosen fields. Cool! I love this economy...

          I guess what I'm trying to say here is that all statistics are lies, for the very reason that you demonstrated with your own "statistical analysis" of the situation.
    • ...Many of us are out of job and ... something like "Custome Business Book" review ... run a /. polls ... able to shelf out...

      Well, if you're in the English-speaking world, I think I know why you're having a hard time finding a job, boss.

      Those of us in stable jobs are shelling out big bucks for our apartments/houses, and are doing just fine, thanks. I have dozens of friends in technology, and the only ones not able to keep decent work are the ones who only know VB or C++ (programmers), or who are "A+ Certified" to be able to correctly distinguish a LAN card from a Video card 75% of the time (hardware people).
  • Very simple (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Black Aardvark House ( 541204 ) on Wednesday June 19, 2002 @11:12AM (#3729244)
    You're doing the work the contractor does. Not everyone will have the patience to run through all the steps in the book. Therefore, people hire contractors to do all this for them.

    This book will appeal to a rather limited audience who has the time and energy to do all this themselves. Despite the savings, most people would rather "take the easy way out".
  • DIY (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Papa Legba ( 192550 ) on Wednesday June 19, 2002 @11:13AM (#3729254)

    Most contractors are idiots, I am glad to see this book agrees. Remember when dealing with most "profesionals" that they usually have side deals going. While they are working for you this time, they alwasy work with their people. Their prime interests are not yours. That is why they will steer you towards certain yards and certain sub contractors. Not becuase they are the best or the cheapest but because they get a kick back.

    A peice of advice not mentioned, from personal experience. While the contractor and the sub-contractors may be who you deal with they are not the ones doing the work. The work crews are the ones that are acutally attaching things to other things. A $60 investment in pizza or beer dropped by the site one day will pay of huge in the long run. If the crews personally like you then they will take more care in constructing your house and be friendlier to change requests. I have seen crews who had been taken care off take all the bad material out of the construction piles (warped or knotty studs i.e.) and place them to be moved to another site for use simply because the homeowner thought enough of them to bring them coffee in the morning. They put the good materials in this guys house and the crap went to everyone else.

    • Re:DIY (Score:3, Insightful)

      by ncc74656 ( 45571 )
      A peice of advice not mentioned, from personal experience. While the contractor and the sub-contractors may be who you deal with they are not the ones doing the work. The work crews are the ones that are acutally attaching things to other things. A $60 investment in pizza or beer dropped by the site one day will pay of huge in the long run.

      Pizza's a good idea, but I'm not so sure about the beer. There seemed to be plenty of that in the condo I bought (I saw empty beer cans all over the place during construction), and now all sorts of construction defects are popping up. All of the roofs were rebuilt earlier this year to fix leaks, there seems to be a fair amount of A/C work getting done in the past few months (my compressor and my neighbor's compressor were cross-wired when the place was built...that was fixed two years ago, but more A/C work was needed this year after the roof work), and there's more than likely some other stuff I don't know about.

      • So bring the beer around quitting time, not for lunch. Not that any construction worker should be significantly impaired by ONE beer - but they may think they aren't impaired by one sixpack...
    • Re:DIY (Score:2, Informative)

      Absolutly true. I just did a $150,000 remodel on my house last year. In the year since two other owners on my street have had major remodeling projects done. The one thing that stands out above all others is the incredible number of mistakes that these contractors make.

      My experience:

      • It says right on the plans "Run a quad phone line and Cat 5 cable to the office". They forgot both. I should have checked every wire before the insulation when in and the drywall went up.
      • Our spiral staircase was delivered. It was suppose to be antique white. We came home one day to find a BLACK spiral staircase installed in the wrong location. 2nd staircase comes in and it's just dropped on our front lawn for 3 weeks AND it's the wrong color (bright white) and is very scratched up. We come home one day and the staircase is missing from our lawn. We open up the front door and it's installed (but still the wrong color). After much arguing we get then to come in and paint it the proper color.
      • Our neighbor came home one day to find the wrong kitchen cabinets installed.
      • Same neighbor. Double door installed so crooked that it won't close.
      • Us AND our neighbor: When nailing the plywood shear walls to the studs the building code says that the heads of the nails cannot penetrate the surface of the plywood. The inspectors HATE THAT. It reduces the structual integrity of the wall. You would think that getting rejected once would be enough for a contractor to learn this lesson. But both of our houses had the framing rejected for the exact same reason.
      Just ask anyone who's had a major remodel and you'll hear the same stories. It's up to YOU the owner to catch these mistakes and make sure that they get fixed correctly. So if you're already doing that job then what are you paying the contractor for?

      Also, don't forget the value of sweat equity. The original reviewer mentioned staining the staircase. That's a good example of a job you can do yourself. Interior paint (especially if it's just solid colors) is another good example. Even if you're having custom faux finshing done you can certainly do the primer coat on the drywall yourself.

      And yes, pizza and beer go a long way.

    • Re:DIY (Score:2, Funny)

      by mph ( 7675 )
      A $60 investment in pizza or beer dropped by the site one day will pay of huge in the long run.
      Note that you should probably provide the beer at the end of the work day.
  • by f00zbll ( 526151 ) on Wednesday June 19, 2002 @11:14AM (#3729260)
    To do it properly, one has to have the time and energy to supervise the construction closely. If you don't, it's easy to get into trouble. A contractor has the experience to know where mistakes are made and when to check for them. On the otherhand, if you really have the time and energy to do all that, it produces much better results.

    Not everyone can do it. Especially if your work and other commitments aren't flexible enough to allow it.

    • This is a very sensible post. Doing things yourself is great, but realize that while you're managing the building of your house, you're probably not actively engaged in making money for yourself ... the phrase "time is money" is applicable in this situation. As a co-owner of my own small company, I know that some people think that this leaves me with all sorts of time to do things DIY. Not really - even if I do things on the side while I'm doing business stuff, that means that my attention is split and each task generally suffers. If I take my evenings and weekends to be a project manager for my house, that means that for 6-9 months, I'll have no time for relaxation, an important factor, I've found, if I want to continue to do the work I love. Burn-out comes easy, ya know?
  • Contractors... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MarvinMouse ( 323641 ) on Wednesday June 19, 2002 @11:14AM (#3729261) Homepage Journal
    "A contractor is very simply a project manager, and usually not a very good one at that."

    Knowing a friend who's father built a quite expensive house. As well as knowing contractors myself. I can attest that this is not always correct. You have to understand that a contractor knows the people to go to, and generally who to trust and who not to trust.

    If a contractor can save money he will, but unless he is a bad contractor (in which case he won't be around long), they won't purchase the lowest quality materials just because they are cheap. They try to find a happy medium.

    Unfortunately, the biggest problem with hiring a contractor is the fact that you have to pay the contractor on top of everyone else. You have to remember though, that you are paying for the contractors time spent in arranging contracts and getting the right people together at the right time. If you take all of that upon your own shoulders, then you are also taking the stress of finding the right people, controlling them, getting good contracts, etc.

    If I had the extra money, and a choice. I would hire a quality contractor (one that had been recommended to me), since I don't have the time or the strength really to handle all of the work necessary for proper contracting.

    It is true though, that if you are knowledgable on prices for various products, and services, and are willing to take on the work. It is better for you to do the work then the contractor, since you might be able to find deals that the contractor wouldn't know about due to unforeseen circumstances.

    In general though, this sounds like a useful book for people who are willing to put in the effort needed to handle a large project like this. (But for my future $1,000,000+ home that I am planning on buying. :-) I think I will have to go with the professionals to handle the work. )
    • Re:Contractors... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by sphealey ( 2855 ) on Wednesday June 19, 2002 @11:21AM (#3729322)
      If a contractor can save money he will, but unless he is a bad contractor (in which case he won't be around long), they won't purchase the lowest quality materials just because they are cheap. They try to find a happy medium.
      Would that that were true. Homeowners contracting construction are caught in several classic game theory traps, particularly those involving information costs and public vs. private information.

      And the homeowner loses every time, because they do exactly one transaction per decade with the contractor, while the contractor does hunderds of transactions per year with homeowners. Yeah, bad word of mouth can hurt in a smaller community, but when was the last time you heard of a contractor going out of business for that reason?


      • Re:Contractors... (Score:3, Interesting)

        by MarvinMouse ( 323641 )
        when was the last time you heard of a contractor going out of business for that reason?

        Actually, I just heard about a contractor in Edmonton that was dismissed by the company he worked for, for just that reason. He apparently was buying really shoddy goods and customers started to complain to the company. He very quickly was removed from the industry (and blacklisted from what I have heard.)

    • If a contractor can save money he will, but unless he is a bad contractor (in which case he won't be around long), they won't purchase the lowest quality materials just because they are cheap. They try to find a happy medium.

      This is the exact thought I had when he talks about hiring the $5k electrical contractor rather than the $15k one. Those savings won't seem so big in 10 years when you have to pay someone to re-wire your entire house because all the wire and outlets they originally put in was crap and are now a fire hazard.

      Cheaper is not always better.
    • I agree with the above posting, about contractors being more that project managers. Whoever said that they're just PMs, and not very good ones, obviously didn't work with my contractor. There's even more to it than their relationships with the subcontractors.

      I recently build a custom home -- less than $500000 (USD), but not by much. I went with a highly recommend general contractor, who was not cheap.

      At first, I was alarmed by how much money was going to the general contractor. But I was way out of my depth, and I was much happier than I would have been had I gone to a tract builder.

      Then, the problems began, and I was so glad we had a good contractor on our side.

      • The city inspectors found lots of problems that the framers refused to fix. The framers blamed the city, the city blamed the framers. After much argument and delay, the general contractor hired a different framing crew to finish the job. The general contractor ate this cost.
      • The hardwood floor guy used nails that punched through the floor to the ceiling below, and ruined the radiant heat pipes that were there. The general contractor fixed everything, at his cost.
      • After moving in, a bad water leak sprung in one of the upstairs walls. It turned out that a drywall screw had pierced a hot water pipe, and plugged the hole at the same time. Until it rusted out, and the leak began several weeks later. The plumber blamed the drywaller, the drywaller blamed the plumber for using shields that were too thin, to protect the pipes passing through the studs. The general contractor (or rather, his insurance) fixed this, at no cost to me.

      I can't imagine having to deal with all of these problems myself. Sometimes I wonder if the general contractor even made money on my house, after all the things he had to pay for!

      So, be cautious before you think, "I'll do it myself; after all, what good is a general contractor?"

  • As someone who is planning my own home (brother is an architect, so that saves me some money right there...), this sounds like a great book to check out.
    I would have liked to have a small summery for each chapter, but that's all.
    Thank you for your review Jeff.
  • Wusses (Score:2, Funny)

    by boristdog ( 133725 )
    Contractor, schmontractor. I built my own house with my own two hands. It takes over a couple year's worth of weekends to do, but you get exactly what you want (or what you are willing to do,) and you pay as you go. Once built, it's paid for. Now I just have to finish paying for the 32 acres of land...
  • by Zen Mastuh ( 456254 ) on Wednesday June 19, 2002 @11:21AM (#3729318)
    1. Put together that Beowulf Cluster you've been dreaming about
    2. Build a huge walk-in closet with a robot arm that automagically pours bowlfuls of hot grits down the front of your pants after you get dressed
    3. Dress up your pool area with Natalie Portman, naked and petrified
    4. Make a copy of your favorite piece of music or software package. When the Notice of Final Judgement from your friendly District Court arrives (thanks DMCA, etc...), use your hard-earned money to support the industry leeches
    5. Pay two slashbots to keep a vi/emacs flamewar going--forever!
    6. Buy the fastest AMD/Intel production chip--each time one is released! Tell your friends "I need more Megahertz"
    7. Get pulled over by the man--in Georgia.
    8. See the back of a $100,000 bill--on weed!
  • by wiredog ( 43288 ) on Wednesday June 19, 2002 @11:21AM (#3729321) Journal
    I hope the contractor who installed the TV did a proper job of bolting it to the wall. Otherwise it'll be 'TV in Jacuzzi tub', which could be unfortunate if you happen to be in there at the same time.
  • This is all well and good, for those living in areas where you can actually get some land. Here in Somerville (just outside Boston, MA), there's literally no developable land left. Meaning to build your own, you'd have to demolish an existing property... Not a cheap proposition, considering the potential for asbestos and other hazards.

    Still, sounds like a good book for those in rural/suburban areas.

    • This is all well and good, for those living in areas where you can actually get some land.

      Well, yeah, that's kind of the point of the book. Complaining about that is like whining about a review of a Linux book because you're running Windows. The book is about building houses: if you don't need it, move along, nothing to see here.
    • "This is all well and good, for those living in areas where you can actually get some land. Here in Somerville (just outside Boston, MA), there's literally no developable land left. Meaning to build your own, you'd have to demolish an existing property... Not a cheap proposition, considering the potential for asbestos and other hazards."

      Try look at the U.K. ... land there is far more scarce than in North America. I live on a ~5 acre plot in Canada in a rural area and if I went to England and told someone that, the person would probably think I was a millionaire.

      On the same topic, I have read that land in downtown Tokyo tops US$250k per SQARE METRE.

    • Try finding an empty lot that is open for development and for sale to individuals. I dare you.
    • Well, what you do here in Somerville (hello, neighbor!) is strip an old house the inside (leave the framing and maybe the outside shell if it's in good shape) and rebuild the rest as if from scratch.

      Across the street from me is a 2-family; guy bought it for $300k three years ago. Ripped the interor down to studs; new roof, windows, and paint; new walls/kitchen/bathroom/electric; sold it two years ago as 2 condos, for $250k and $330k. Could have kept one of those for himself, of course...

      Same story, just a little different in the early phases.
  • by giminy ( 94188 ) on Wednesday June 19, 2002 @11:24AM (#3729342) Homepage Journal
    It sounds all fine and good to manage the construction of your own home, and even buy the lumber and whatever else you need. But you'd better have some carprentry experience before you do so.

    I could save a lot of money by building my own file server too, but then I wouldn't have a support contract to go with it, and getting any warranty work done on it would suck, and would probably result in two companies pointing the finger at each other, saying "It's their fault!"

    By the same token, if you go out and buy lumber, and have your framer put it together, and something goes wrong, he may say, "Well, the lumber you bought wasn't so great, there's only so much I can do." Going to the lumber company results in, "The framer must have done something to the wood, that was my best pressure-treated.." If your framer picks out the wood, then you definitely a case and can put it solely on his shoulders.

    This is just an example, IANAC (but my brother is).

    • I could save a lot of money by building my own file server too, but then I wouldn't have a support contract to go with it, and getting any warranty work done on it would suck, and would probably result in two companies pointing the finger at each other, saying "It's their fault!"

      Then you shouldn't. I, on the other hand, would build my own file server in a heartbeat over most of the ones I can buy. If a hard drive goes out I can just get it replaced by Seagate/Maxtor/IBM - who can finger point? Service contracts are vastly overrated. I sign off on probably $100,000 in service contracts a year which have a real world value of $0. Good hardware rarely breaks, my 24/7 expensive maintenence contract with HP got me a $150 4.3G HD replaced last year for "free" - quite the ROI.... I know more about most of the software than the guys that man the support desks (hence we never call them), but we still have give them the $$ because it's "policy".
  • Well, i don't own a home yet. and for a forseeable future i don't plan to. however, the apartments that i've been renting have been pretty good about phone lines. i have a wall mount for phones in each bathrooms! but to a nerd like me, phone lines mean nothing if they don't carry DSL service. i was thinking about drilling some holes to wire the apartment with cat5 to get back to the DSL router but with the (relatively) cheap wireless hardware out there, i'm pretty set without the holes. someone mentioned wiring for cat5 but then later upgrading to fiber once fiber becomes cheap. i would imagine wireless would follow 'moores law'/n curve. i, for one, would consider being a little behind the curve in terms of bandwidth in exchange for not having to wire the house at all! most of my traffic is out to the internet which is limited by the DSL bandwidth anyways. why wire the house now with cat5 and then rip that out and rewire when fiber becomes cheap? use wireless! (and pray that it keeps getting fatter in terms of bandwidth).
    • why wire the house now with cat5 and then rip that out and rewire when fiber becomes cheap? use wireless! (and pray that it keeps getting fatter in terms of bandwidth).

      Well, there's security, for starters. Sure, you could set up a VPN and use it for every single device in the home, but that's overkill and won't work with most consumer-level gear (think ReplayTV).

      Then there's interference - if you've got 2.4ghz phones, you're going to be much happier wiring as much as you can, and then only using wireless gear for things that truly need to move around the house. I still plug into wired jacks when it's time to copy big files, do tape backups, ghost drives, etc.

      Don't forget that most consumer gear is just now coming with ethernet jacks (think ReplayTV, Tivo, home MP3 components), and wireless is out of the question.
  • DIY Disaster (Score:2, Insightful)

    by uncoveror ( 570620 )
    If you want to do it yourself, you had better know what the hell you are doing. You can't learn overnight reading a book. My house, which was all I could afford for a first home,is full of some clown who thought he was handy's botch jobs. It's a disaster! Cabinets hung too high to reach, and I'm a tall man! Doors are hung backwards, and nothing is level or plumb. Some things are worth paying for, like competent contractors.
  • People can be real idiots. I'm sure the person who wrote this book, and the person who wrote the review, used software supplied by our friends from Microsoft. So I wonder what the markup on MS software is? Prolly a _lot_ more. Why aren't they complaining about that, and providing 15 easy steps to saving $$$$$ with computer software? I'm in the housing construction industry, and I don't see too many "fat-cats" around me. Most people make enough to provide for themselves and their families, but they're definitely not living in half million dollar homes. And I might add, the products they turn out with their daily work, generally aren't the cause of great frustration, without needing an monthly or yearly upgrade, etc, etc... This book is a variation of those "Get Rich While Sitting in Your Lawnchair Surrounded by Beautiful Babes" type books. The only people who benefit from this sort of book is the author and publishing company. Now that I've gotten rid of some steam, I'm going back to work :-)
    • Who said profit was a dirty word?

      [reads original post -- looks for negative reference to profit]

      I'm not sure where you saw that reference, but it sure as hell wasn't in the original post. The original post simply said you could save money if you were willing to do it yourself. Why is DIY a dirty word?

  • What? (Score:5, Funny)

    by Mr_Silver ( 213637 ) on Wednesday June 19, 2002 @11:33AM (#3729404)
    I thought this was news for nerds?

    A nerd doesn't need a house, just a big fat T1 into his cardboard box. Pfah, homes are for wusses.


    • Even a nerd is smart enough to build equity.

      And when I moved into my starter home (town house, actually) I was fully on the DIY kick. I pulled down wallpaper, put up dry wall, changed and added light fixtures, and painted, good lord how I painted!

      Now we're planning on adding a deck in the backyard and we spoke to different contractors. After getting the used-car-salesman "what can I do to make you sign the contract today?", the run-around, the week-to-week price change, and the shady "we'll drive around in my truck and I'll point out the one's I've done, you don't NEED references!"- I've decided to build it myself.
      For a savings of $1,500-3,000 USD (depending upon who's estimate you believe).

      So this book is right up my alley!
    • You forget that a good percentage of /. users are gainfully employed and a smaller percentage are well rewarded for their work. ;)

      And the "Love" poll, a few polls back, indicated that several /.ers are married. While I can't fathom the notion, I suppose it's possible.
  • by sphealey ( 2855 ) on Wednesday June 19, 2002 @11:33AM (#3729405)
    Except for certain specialized tasks (e.g. brain surgery), a dedicated amateur can almost always do a "better" job than a professional - because the amateur can value his own time at zero, and ignore issues of profitability and sustainability.

    Basically, this book is saying that if you have the skills of a project manager and the time, patience, and persistence to act as your own general contractor, you can save money and get a higher quality house.

    No doubt true - IF you have those skills, if the plumber who used to beat you up in high school can't still intimidate you, and if you have the time.

    You also need to consider, however, that most contractors/subcontractors in a given area form their own community, and generally will work together to take advantage of any "lone wolf" outside the system. You will also have a difficult time figuring out, e.g., who the good HVAC contractors are vs. the rip-off artists. This is something the general brings to the game that you can't duplicate.

    Anyway, have fun!


    • Not always true. One of my old bosses did alot of the work himself as well as all the contracting. He just did some research into each area of the project, step by step. in the end he had a higher quality house for a hellof alot less.

    • The amateur contractors use the yellow pages to find their subs. This is why they always end up with the crappiest subs - because they often naively think the lowest bidder should get the job.

      There are enough contractors out there that you can shop around. Maybe doing it yourself is the way to go, but if you end up surfing the yellow pages for a subcontractor, you likely are about to enter the pain cave.

      Also, many good contractors do a fair deal of the work themselves. Mine put in my windows, did some closet carpentry, etc. This guy did not just stand around and eat pizza.

    • Good point about the value of your time - how the heck is anyone except a retiree going to find the time the manage building a house while continuing to earn the money to pay for it? I do most of my own repairs, including all wiring and plumbing, and I do it better than a contractor - but I'm not even "earning" minimum wage...

      Related to your comment about the community of contractors in an area, there's the issue of building inspectors. In the US, these are local government employees. They are supposed to both enforce building codes setting minimum standards, and see that whatever is in the plans is what actually gets built. Their "fees" for doing this are several thousand dollars on a small house around here - I'm sure the inspection office is quite a profit center for the county. But the main problem is that they often forget to check on anything unusual in the contract (some other poster mentioned a lot of cat 5 wiring that wasn't installed), and depending on the inspector their interpretation of building codes can cause more trouble than it saves.

      The building codes are pretty subjective - also, in most jurisdictions the law just refers to _copyrighted_ and very expensive publications by building industry groups. (There's something fundamentally wrong about a copyrighted law...) Some of the inspectors are pretty good, but some are arseholes who like to throw their power around, with no understanding of the reasons for the building codes. And the chief inspector in this county just doesn't like do-it-yourselfers, and will hunt through the code for a way to make you tear it out... If you have a contractor, he'll probably be able to get his buddy in the office to pass the work. That's not always to the good, either...
      • by sphealey ( 2855 ) on Wednesday June 19, 2002 @12:55PM (#3730038)
        The building codes are pretty subjective - also, in most jurisdictions the law just refers to _copyrighted_ and very expensive publications by building industry groups. (There's something fundamentally wrong about a copyrighted law...)
        A excellent decision by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals just made it a lot harder for laws to be copyrighted:
        Veeck vs. SBCCI []


    • Damn straight.

      My father recently built a conservatory to my parent's house. He did this by spending about a year meticulously planning it, researching the various companies that supply conservatories, planning all the stages it would take to build (this long to lay the foundation, this long to put up the frame, this long to put on the roof, this long to glaze, etc; plus that stage 1 must be done during a dry spell, as must stages 2 & 3, but it's all right to get wet before stage 2 and after stage 3, and so on).

      The result? The conservatory went up smoothly and flawlessly and *completely* perfectly. (Although I did have to help shovel about two tonnes of soil. God, soil is heavy.) But if you calculate the amount of hours he put into that conservatory, it would hardly be cost efficient --- if he had to pay for those hours. Which he didn't.

      The next big project is to put in central heating. This involves ripping up every floor in the house and installing a wood stove. This one's been planned for about five years...

  • A whole nother story (Score:2, Interesting)

    by rochlin ( 248444 )
    Along the same lines, Tracy Kidder (of "Soul of the New Machine" fame) wrote a terrific book called House [] telling the whole story from dream to carpentry to $$ etc of a couple building their first home... Great book.
    • House is an excellent book. The contractors that Kidder wrote about in House later wrote their own book, The Apple Corps Guide to the Well-Built House. I believe it is out of print but it is well worth tracking down a used copy if you are starting the house-building (or even buying) process.


  • by superid ( 46543 ) on Wednesday June 19, 2002 @11:39AM (#3729453) Homepage
    Avoid the "edifice complex". Do you really need 4400 ft^2? Sure, I understand that a smaller house would stand out like a sore thumb in a smaller neighborhood, but thats a lotta house!

    Every week in our real estate section we can find featured houses that are less than 5 years old, being sold by the people who built their "dream house" only to find that its now too big. IMHO a house that big is like a St. Bernard puppy, you don't realize how big it really is when it grows up, especially the cleanup!

    Another pet peeve. Ever been in a 4400 ft^2 house that echos like a gym because the new owners can't afford nice drapes and furniture and art/mirrors to fill the place up?

    If you can afford the neighborhood, the taxes, the furnishings, the maintenance and the upkeep of a house that big, then saving $100k might not be that high on your priority list.

    My family of 5 live more than comfortably in a 2300 ft^2 house.
  • Ok, maybe it says it in the book but how much time did this take? 1 year, 2 years? Most homes built by a home builder are completed in a 4 to 9 month span. Try paying rent or an existing mortgage while you are waiting to finish your home.

    My big question though after reading this post is if you DIY the home yourself do you still get a warranty? Probably not. Most states require a home builder to guarantee the structure up to 7 years. Second, I imagine it is very tough to get financing for this type of DIY construction. Let alone getting financing for the land. Usually a bank requires collateral and you will not have that much if all you have is a pile of lumber.

    I recommend contracting with a home builder for new construction but just don't layout cash to the first who comes along. Look into them and ask around. Most of all make sure you are comfortable laying out that type of cash to someone you do not know.
    • by yack0 ( 2832 )
      It took 7.5 months. The reviewer planned for 6. As far as the book writer's house, we don't know without reading the book.

      And this isn't about DIY construction, it's about DIY General Contracting (mostly). General Contracting is simply project management - you get all the trades to come in at the right time relative to the other trades, work with inspectors and make sure money gets passed around appropriately.

  • by gCGBD ( 532991 ) on Wednesday June 19, 2002 @11:50AM (#3729530) Homepage

    I am in the process of building a custom home at this time. Here are some things I've discovered along the way...

    The primary job of an architect is to add design features to your home. In other words, they charge you money to make your house more expensive. You almost always DO NOT need one.

    Instead, I recommend a good structural engineer. Start out with a pretty good idea of your budget, and a pretty good idea of what you want for a house (look through the $5 house plans magazines and books and free sites on the web until you think you are going to be sick).

    The structural engineer will take care of the rest.

    We started with an architect. $25,000 later we had house plans that we couldn't afford to build, and didn't even have the structural engineering done yet. Everything that the builder and subcontractors and permit process need are provided by the structural engineer, not the "architect".

    After abandoning that approach, we purchased house plans from one of those house plan books. Only to discover that it couldn't be 'stamped' for the state we live in (Ohio) and had to be completely re-engineered anyhow. Another $1,000 wasted.

    Once we got this part of the process right - the structural engineer cost us about $4,000 (to do everything).

    I read a bunch of books on being your own contractor. Indeed the job description is basically that which we in IT call a project manager. I figured I'd make a go of it myself.

    Then I discovered the next issue - every single material supplier and subcontractor had higher prices for me, than they did for a full time general contractor. 'Contractor Pricing' was often 1/2 of what they would charge me as an independent general contractor.

    On top of that I had a really hard time finding a bank willing to do a construction loan without a trade contractor involved.

    Lastly, I found the government inspectors to be very grumpy and skeptical about dealing with an independent contractor.

    Therefore I was able to actually save money, as well as many headaches (there are enough already) by hiring a general contractor.

    • Lastly, I found the government inspectors to be very grumpy and skeptical about dealing with an independent contractor.

      Did you know that the inspector is paid by the goverment, and you vote. More than that, local goverment often has a problem getting voters. If the inspector treats you baddly, you can get him fired. A letter to his boss while your a building, and if that doesn't work, get all your neighbors to vote (they probably would only vote for president otherwise) for someone else (like you, hint), who knows that inspectors treating homeowners baddly is a reason some is voting. It won't work everytime, but it can work often enough.

  • A *lot* of hard work (Score:5, Interesting)

    by sclatter ( 65697 ) on Wednesday June 19, 2002 @11:50AM (#3729532) Homepage
    My parents built the house they live in now. Friends and family did the framing. A few things, like the plumbing, cabinetry and masonry were contracted out. My granddad did the electrical and Dad and granddad did the finishing.

    The only way this was possible in the first place was that my parents have a good friend who is a (very good) building contractor. He sort of tutored them along. Still, there were plenty of problems. My folks paid a premium for the "best" masons, who left mortar stuck all over all the face of the brick. Dad had to spent days with a rented acid washer cleaning up the mess. The guy who laid the marble in the foyer screwed up so most of it has cracked over time. My granddad fell off the porch roof that he was shingling. Luckily his paratrooper training kicked in-- he tucked, rolled, and was fine. But mostly it was the countless little things that just add up.

    Was it worth it? Certainly my parents have a much nicer house than they otherwise could have afforded. But I think it put a huge strain on my parents' marriage. My parents were able to do things exactly the way they wanted, but later they discovered that some things they thought would be really cool just weren't. (The bathroom setup though good in concept has proven to be particularly sub-optimal.) We had to live with my grandparents for a while during the construction and that was pretty hard sometimes.

    Basically, I don't think my dad would do it again.
    • On the other hand, I bought a house that was constructed this way. It's a nice house, but when we did some work on it, we discovered, for instance, that the wiring was all messed up and had to get it redone to get it up to code. The previous owner's brother-in-law did the wiring.

      There was also the issue of the shower stall being a load bearing member...
  • The same house can cost 2x, 3x or 4x to build, depending on where you build it, becasue of local codes, materials costs, etc. Also, the difficulty/expense of building the house is influenced by location in another way. If the area where you live has strong, tightly knit unions (plumbers, carpenters, etc.), then you may not even be *able* to get your work done in a timely manner. If there just aren't many non-union plumbers, etc. in your town, and the union doesn't like its members to work on building jobs without a GC, then getting the work done will take forever. The GC's most important role may just be as an insider, a familiar name that can grease the skids in getting work, inspections, etc. scheduled. What you'd be paying for in that case is the guy's connections and knowledge of the labor environment.
  • ...a coffee mug someone gave me:

    "If builders built buildings the way programmers write programs, the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization."
  • new homes (Score:2, Informative)

    by numbuscus ( 466708 )
    Ok, I've worked as a real estate and development consultant for the last three years. I help major developers decide what they should build and when they should build it. I have a little advise for all of you out there. You may not like it, but it is the same advise I give family members and anyone who asks.

    NEVER buy a new home unless you plan to live there the rest of your life. Why, you may ask - They don't appreciate in value. It's simple as that. Usually it take a generation for a home to gain in value (above and beyond inflation and interest rates). This is because the new neighborhoods are designed very poorly and gain no real character until the trees are grown and people begin to take down or modify neighboring homes. My advise if you absolutely have to have a new home: buy one outside the city on a few acres and, yes, build it yourself. That way the land will appreciate greatly as the city grows outward. If you ever decide to move, you then have the chance to make out nicely. It's not that easy, though, so be careful. You are better off buying in an up-and-coming neighborhood that is older. Somewhere closer to the downtown (commute times are beginning to be very important to home values). You will then have to put a little time and money into the home - maybe upgrade appliances and add on. But the rewards in terms of value will be immediate, allowing you to move into an even larger/better home sooner. What I advise:

    (1) Never buy a new home in a new development (there are exceptions - like downtown condos, which tend to appreciate greatly in good economies i.e. not in the current Seattle situation).

    (2) If you have to have a new home, buy/build it somewhere that the land will have a chance to appreciate.

    (3) The best thing to do is buy a home near the city, in a neighborhood that is beginning to revive itself (i.e. you don't have to worry about getting shot). Do some upgrades on the home and you will immediately see appreciation.
    • Re:new homes (Score:3, Insightful)

      by L. VeGas ( 580015 )
      As with most generalities, this advice needs to be taken with a grain of salt. I use my real estate investments as my retirement vehicle (and legacy for my son) and as such look to appreciated value over decades, not years. My editorial of the advice:

      (1) Don't buy in a new development *if* it's geographical/political boundaries allow for massive growth. Do buy if you can realistically predict the limits of the area's growth and the area's economic vitality.

      (2) Short term, buy for structure and land. Long term, buy for land appreciation only. You can depreciate the stucture's cost (if you rent it out).

      (3) The best thing to do is buy a home near the city, in a neighborhood that is beginning to revive itself. If it's a heap, don't throw good money after bad. Be willing to tear it down and build condos. Take a short-term hit for long-term return.
  • by eyeball ( 17206 ) on Wednesday June 19, 2002 @12:05PM (#3729646) Journal
    It's good to see Slashdot branching out from computers and politics. Here are some future subjects that need coverage:
    • Dental hygiene
    • Auto repair
    • How to remove tough stains from laundry
    • Arctic survival skills
    • Mens and womens fashion
    • Extreme sports
    • Gormet coffee reviews

    • by dghcasp ( 459766 ) on Wednesday June 19, 2002 @02:30PM (#3730824)

      Dental Hygene: Have some. Buy toothbrush and use it regularly, yet not more than four times a day. Unless you grew up in the sewers of Calcutta, at some point in your childhood a dentist showed you how to brush. Dredge your memory and do it - If it seems to take twice as long as normal, you're probably on the right track. Try to avoid having things caught between your teeth, even if it's a hunk of CAT-5 insulation.

      Auto Repair: Go to garage. Pay money. Would you trust your mission critical software to a mechanic who "plays with software?" Didn't think so...

      How to remove tough Stains: Point out stain to drycleaner. They will remove it. Unless you're the kind of person who regularly spills stuff on your clothes (in which case, try to stop,) it's cheaper to pay them occasionally than to buy a whole bunch of cleaning products that will sit unused under your sink 99% of the time.

      Arctic Survival Skills: Stay warm. It only takes a tiny fire to warm an igloo. Remember the fire needs a chimney hole. Note "warm" doesn't mean room temperature - It's surprisingly easy to melt a hole in an igloo, or have the whole thing collapse on you while you sleep, which kind of defeats the point of survival. If you kill a polar bear, don't eat the liver, as it has a toxic level of Vitamin A.

      Fashion (in general): Fashion is designed as "planned obsolescence" without an upgrade path. Designers want you to replace everything every six months - This is why fashion changes every year. The easiest rule to avoid wasting your money is only buy "the look" the year after it's first seen. If it's going to be around for a while, they'll be still selling it. If not, then you avoided having to toss out things after six months because that's "soooo last year." You do get what you pay for, but after a certain point, the incremental return is marginal. These points are (approximatly) Shirt: $45, Pant/Skirt: $80, Shoes: $130, Suit Jacket: $450.

      Men's Fashion: "Sloppy Chic" is not only out, it was never really in. Shirts should have measurements for both sleeve and collar, not S/M/L/XL. No woman on earth is impressed by your "Mozilla 1.0" Tee Shirt. It you're wearing a tie, you should barely know it - if it's choking you, either you tied it too tight or your shirt collar is too small. Pants come in other fabrics than Denim. Shoes should have laces, not velcro or buckles, and cover your whole foot. Mixing and Matching Rules: Solid+Solid or Stripe+Solid or Pattern+Solid - There are no other valid combinations. Easiest way to accessorize and match: Go to Macy's/The Bay/Marks&Spencer and buy the exact same outfits the mannequins are wearing. Don't try this at K-Mart/Zellers/Tesco. It's far easier to be successful dressing "somewhat conservitive" than "modern and fashionable." If you saw it in a magazine and the model's hair was not combed, you have almost a 0 percent chance of wearing that garment successfully. Try mixing in at most one (1) "fun" or "trendy" thing with your outfits (i.e. shirt, tie, shoes.)

      Women's Fashion: See "Men's Fashion," but you have both more choices and more lattitude. If a boot comes less than 1/2 the way up to your knee, you should not see the top of it (They're called pant boots for a reason.) Don't mix clunky with sleek. Undergarments should not show through clothes. If more than 1/2 the time you're wearing the outfit is indoors, wear hose or socks. Never be seen in public in a Mu-Muu.

      Extreme Sports: Have a good medical plan and life insurance first.

      Gourmet Coffee Reviews: I don't drink coffee, so I can't comment on this.

  • This is a lot of work and you had better have some idea of the nature of the business. Be really careful about doing this if:
    • you're not a good negotiator and you don't like negotiating
    • you're not a good judge of character
    • you don't know the difference between pine and poplar or which of black or white is live
    • you don't have lot's of free time

    That said, there are some really bad contracters out there. Some places have huge building booms (Toronto for instance :-) and all sorts of fly by night organizations and people are head contracting these days. Picking a good contractor can be harder that just doing it yourself.

    My dad just had a brutal experience last year where he ended up doing a lot of the project management because the head contractor was so bad.

    Either way, as somebody else said -- ALWAYS and I mean ALWAYS take the time to buy the guys who are doing the work beer or coffee. Construction guys always do better work for somebody they know and think is an ok guy rather than some anonymous jerk who phones in complaints to their boss.

  • Can you build your own linux distribution, from scratch, starting with a kernel tarball and stub compiler? This project is FAR easier to complete successfully than being your own general contractor. One of my relatives builds houses on the side, and he's *always* on the phone to someone. But, as he's a workaholic, he doesn't mind. On the plus side he's picked up a nice Spanish-speaking ability with a mean Mexican accent and peppered with a wide vocabulary of vulgarities (according to my friend from Spain).
  • A Contractor Tale (Score:3, Interesting)

    by wytcld ( 179112 ) on Wednesday June 19, 2002 @12:17PM (#3729731) Homepage
    When my dad retired from a job with a building materials manufacturer he bought a lot in Florida to have his dream house built. He hired a contractor with a good reputation who'd been building high-end homes in the coastal town for over a decade. Half-way into the project, he hears from subcontractors (who he talks to frequently because he's renting the house next to the site) that they haven't been paid. The contractor leaves town, is tracked to the Panhandle, but by that time has transferred all his wealth to his wife's name. My dad is out $100,000 that he'd given the contractor to pay the subcontractors. His lawyer informs him that Florida courts consider this a "contract dispute," a civil rather than criminal matter to steal $100,000 in this way. There's zero likelihood he'll ever collect if he brings a civil suit, since the contractor technically has no wealth, having passed the bag to his wife.

    This was not the only project this contractor had going. He probably walked with similar sums from a half-dozen to a dozen other projects. So at least in Florida it looks like the cards are stacked so as to allow any contractor to at any point cash out with on the order of a million bucks without penalty. Thank the gods we don't have the kind of government which stifles initiative!
    • ... you could put out a hit on the contractor, and (maybe) his wife. It's important to make sure the subcontractor you hire to do the job has a good reputation for quality work, and won't do things with shoddy tools. You don't want the $5000 sub to just use an ice pick that could leave the hit still alive, when the $15000 sub could use a proper high-caliber weapon to turn his face to mush.

      Some are inclined to do their own contracting, but I've found that the federal inspectors tend to be grumpy in these kinds of situations. I'd suggest that folks leave the work to those with the right skills and cope with the additional cost.
  • I know someone who did this, and ended up spending more money on extras. $30,000 worth of extras is really easy to add. Unfortunatly for them, their house isn't worth that extra $30,000, so they paid more for the house than it is worth on the merket. When you allow $400 for lights (true case) and spend $1,300 it doesn't seem like much difference, but it all adds up a little at a time.

    Be careful, that extras do give you a better house. The $250 kitchen faucet is better than the $40 one, but they look the same and in the end your house isn't worth more after putting in the more expensive one.

  • I have watched many a self-contractor wash untold amounts of money down the drain as they dole out work to the cheapest bidding subcontractor. Not everyone who charges a lot of money is a crook. Some of them are actually better at what they do.

    Get references for your contractor and look at their past projects. If they don't have any past projects, don't pay them a premium.

    Don't be naive in thinking that you know plumbing and electrical just because you like to tinker. I have watched folks drop $200-$300k on bungled self-contracted jobs. Don't buy into the /. arrogance that tells you that geeks know better.

    • this is such B.S.... Get a book. The Black & Decker complete guide to home plumbing (& electrical) are awesome. I had a plumbing project bid out at $2500! $200 in supplies and two weekends later, it was done. Please, you program computers for a living and you think PLUMBING is rocket science? Gravity and pumps my friends. It's pretty simple, it's just hard, sometimes dirty work. If you don't want to do it, that's fine, but don't justify the $$$ by saying you CAN'T, because you can. Now for a small job, the overhead of tools you may not own could be a factor, but plumbing doesn't require many tools. Hack your house!
  • by w3woody ( 44457 ) on Wednesday June 19, 2002 @12:49PM (#3729975) Homepage
    My parents are architectual drafters. (They're the ones you would go to for house plans and engineering if you were to build your own house.) I've watched while I was growing up several people try to build their own houses. And while many save a lot of money, an equal number of people get into serious financial problems really quick.

    By the way, I bought a house rather than building my own, dispite being in a family who is in the construction business. Partly I did so because building your own house is a serious time commitment (you don't think that $20-80K savings comes for free, do you?), and partly because where I live (Los Angeles), the only available buildable lots are located tens of miles away from where I live. (The closest lots I could find in my price range were located about 30 miles from the Glendale/Pasadena/Burbank area where I worked--while the house I live in is in Glendale--I can see the downtown skyline from my front yard.)

    Anyways, the two most common mistakes that I've seen are (a) overbuilding what you can afford, and (b) not settling on a design before beginning the construction process.

    In the first problem, many people who try to build their own house try to "overbuild"; that is, they try to build a much bigger house than they really can afford. It's not that they can't afford the shell of the house; they just can't afford to put stuff in it, and plant the lawn, and pay for the cooling costs and everything else associated with house ownership. Sure, perhaps at $70/sqft you can afford to build a 4,000 sqft house--but all those rooms are going to look rather stupid if you don't have any money left over to buy furnature. Likewise, if you are paying all your money into making the strokes on your house loan, how are you going to pay for electricity, water, gas, sewar?

    My parent's advise is to always build smaller than the biggest thing you can afford. Instead of building a 4,000 sqft house which maxes out your monthly budget (and omits property taxes, utilities, that extra T-1 line from the equation), build a 3,000 sqft house but then decorate it nicely.

    Keep in mind that "McMansions" are no longer in style, by the way, but smaller (but cuter) "bungalo" houses are all the vogue nowadays. Your profits after reselling your house will be higher, and your enjoyment of your house will be greater, if you build under what you can afford, so you can live in your house comfortably.

    The second mistake many people make, which eat up that $100K promised savings faster than an OC3 connection, is not to plan every detail of their house before pour the foundation. Meaning they will often decide, after the foundation is poured, that perhaps they really want a 9 ft. plate line instead of an 8 ft for higher ceilings, or maybe that downstairs bathroom should be moved over two feet so they can have a bigger closet. Granted, each change doesn't seem like it should cost that much, and often you think of things that didn't come to you in the planning phase that you really wished you had. But take it from someone who has seen a couple of folks driven to bankrupcy (literally!): creeping featurism in the house can suck your wallet dry.

    Part of the problem is that a house is a complete system: each change you make can have consequences farther down the line which you didn't account for. For example, making the ceiling taller may only take an extra few thousand in framing costs--but it can have consequences on the plumbing of the second story, or the exterior windows, or the amount of siding you need: in short, that one change can seriously affect your budget in other areas in unexpected ways.

    Further, unless you plan right down to the fixtures from day one, you may find yourself doing stupid things like throwing in the $800 sink instead of the planned $80 sink in the bathroom, or upgrading the kitchen cabinets, without realizing these things can quickly eat an additional $30K real fast. (When I redid the bathroom in our house, we upgraded the fixtures and cabinets. The price difference in that one upgrade (four prefab cabinets, two sinks, one toilet and one bathtub) was around $5K--for one 7x9 bathroom! We did it knowing the price, but some people just start writing checks without keeping track of their budget, and quickly blow their budget out of the water.)

    Oh, and on finding the right subcontractors: I would seriously talk to the archetectual drafter or designer in your area for references. You'd be supprised the number of contractors out there who simply don't bother to show up at the job site, or who flake out, or who are completely incompetant.

    And my other advise: learn how the framing schedule and the standard framing details work, as well as how siding should be applied and how wallboard should go up. (Pick up a book at your local "do it yourself" hardware store such as Home Depot.) You'd be supprised at the number of guys out there who will cut corners and use structurally unsound framing or construction techniques in order to cut corners or to use hardware he happens to have in the truck rather than going out to buy the correct fastener or the proper nails.

    Just my two cents worth.
  • BEWARE! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Overzeetop ( 214511 ) on Wednesday June 19, 2002 @12:54PM (#3730031) Journal
    This book is not a typical story. I'm in the industry (structural engineer with an architectural firm) and have seen many different scenereos...many of them not pretty. Here's some basics:

    If you take a typical tract home (built by an experienced, if average, builder) with basic finishes (paint, carpet, vinyl, MDF trim) and standard items you can expect $80/SF for the house and $20/sf for the land/improvements/utilities to purchase the house...we'll use this $100/SF number as a good basis number.

    The contrator is only going to pay about $55/SF to build your house in material and labor. That means he's going to make $100 on a $75 investment. Remember, he'll have to pay $3-5 to market/sell, $3-5 in interest expenses, and his time and liability exposure.

    You'll be competing with this guy for subs and materials. He'll probably only use one material supplier (or just a few) because HE GETS A DISCOUNT! Sometimes is overt, like 10% across the board. Often it includes perks like free job-site delivery, or extras such as a boom truck on drywall deliveries. It's only a couple of percent, but it adds up. You'll be paying full price. His subs, to whom he supplies work on a regular basis, will get to his job before yours - even if you called them first. So what - it's just time right? Well, if you're paying 9% on a construction loan, time is money.

    Don't forget that you're going to need flexible job hours - often your low bidder sub (and even some high ones) aren't nearly as particular with their work when they're not being checked. A neighbor-owner/contractor had the felt left off his roof assembly by his roofer. He found out when a shingle blew off and there it wasn't! He got the roof replaced for free, but only after several weeks of arguing and calls to the building department. You don't need to be there all the time, but you do have to be able to check in on them.

    Finally, if you don't understand how buildings go together, you could be in for a nasty suprise. A contractor generally started as a carpenter, and has seen lots of houses go together. He recognizes when something is not-quite-right. You won't. Trust me - you'll miss something. Did you check to see that the all the hurricane clips were installed, installed properly, and in the correct quantity before the drywall went up? Do you know what the right one looks like - there are different types!

    Which leads me to liability. If you build your house and it doesn't work the way it's supposed to (it leaks, sags, cracks, or worse) you are the one responsible. Sure, you can try and strong arm the subs to fix it if its one discipline. But what if the problem is not obvious, such a coordination issue (framing to siding, or plumbing through the roof?) Normally, you'd stick it to the General Contractor - they're required in most states to warrant their work for a year. Guess what - THAT'S YOU! YOU are responsible, financially, for those problems.

    Finally, if you're getting a $500,000 house for $300,000, you're doing your math wrong, or aren't comparing apples to apples. Most building products are commodity items. Same time, same area sales won't vary by more than 5% or so. You'll save the GC fee of, say, 20% to 25% of the cost of the construction, but you'll pay a little more for everything you get. That cost may be direct, such as paying $30 for every delivery or not getting the 15% volume builders discount at the Midtown Tile Hut, or it may be indirect such as the time it takes you to run around and compare prices, or wait two weeks for the electrician to get around to you because he has higher priorities.

    Oh, one more thing. That lot you just paid $45,000 to buy? The buider paid $5,000 or less because he bought ten acres and cut it up into 10 lots. Don't forget the whole picture. If you "built" your house on a lot you owned and spent $120k, and the neighbor paid $160k for the identical house next door, you've just spent all your time and effort for the exact same thing as your neighbor got for signing a check. Don't laugh...I bought my 8 acres for $55k two years ago. The land next to me (11 acres) just sold for $90k. No well, no septic. The builder down the street (and a good friend, I might add) bought 35 acres of the same farm three years ago for $35k and is putting up six houses. He just bought 55 more acres down the way for $130k, and is getting about $50k for the timber on the land, then he's going to divide it up into 5 acre chunks and build some more houses.
  • It's called Opportunity Cost...

    Basic Economics. I couldn't afford to be my own contractor. Say, if you make $100/hour, you can't handle pissing away all that lost billing time to make sure that the plumber shows up on the right day and installs things properly. All those hours supervising adds up to a big total.

    I had a truly custom house built recently and stopped by almost every day after work. With all the decisions I had to make, I can't imagine how much more effort it would have been to have to manage the subs and all the other stuff.


  • Check out the monolithic dome institute's website []. Some very interesting concepts for building your own house. I don't work for the company, but I am interested in one day building one of these for myself, when I can afford it.

To be a kind of moral Unix, he touched the hem of Nature's shift. -- Shelley