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Our Adventures in the Owner Builder Process

The owner-builder process can be challenging, but oh-so-rewarding (this is our 3rd owner builder home – and better be the last, lol!) This blog post is a little off-course from my regular recipe and sewing type post, but we’re so excited to have finally begun the process of building our next home and I wanted to take some time to fill you in on what has been getting all my attention lately –  our newest home building project.

Navigating the Owner Builder process

Since I haven’t ever written about our project, there is a lot of catching up to do, which means a lot of reading and not many photos…  I tried to break it up into manageable paragraphs and my future posts will be shorter and hopefully more photos!

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In the beginning

Let me start at the beginning…

My husband is in the Insurance/Real Estate/Construction line of work and we have owner-built our last 2 houses (when I say owner-built, I mean we are our own general contractor.) I really thought our last house was going to be our forever home.  That house had a lot of square footage and was located on the most perfect lot in a lovely upscale neighborhood.

Since we built the house ourselves, we were able to negotiate our labor and material costs really well. 

I spent a significant amount of time on the Internet sourcing really good deals on lighting, appliances, plumbing fixtures, etc.  (In fact, my best deal was a 48″ panel ready GE Monogram refrigerator that I had found brand new at a scratch and dent place at 50% the cost of retail.  There was a small scratch near the handle and that scratch was covered by the wood panel anyway.) It was gorgeous it is still my favorite part of that kitchen see the picture here.

To Sell or Not to Sell

Unfortunately, no matter how much it cost to build your home or how moderate your finish out is, the property tax man will get what he thinks he deserves!

They raised our taxes the maximum amount year after year. We fought it every time and never once won anything worth reporting. One year, my husband had a meeting one-on-one with the tax collector.  They came prepared with neighbor’s home values and even had aerial photos of our roof-line and property.  He told us we would never win because, quote:  “see the number of corners and all the ridges and valleys of the roof? That’s a custom home and the value will always be higher. ”

Anyway, after that meeting, my husband began to apply serious pressure and talk me into putting our house on the market. It took about three years for me to agree and another 20 months to get the house sold.

The main reason I didn’t want to sell the house was that I was certain we would never find a piece of land that was equal to or better than what we had. (3 and 1/2 acres with a creek running along the backside of the property.) 

Due to the way the creek was situated and the amount of tree cover we had, even though there were other houses around us, it was actually very private.  With all the wildlife around and privacy, it felt like we lived in the country but still in a neighborhood with a community swimming pool and close to wonderful shopping and activities.

We found a lot.

We began looking around at lots for sale and found a very interesting neighborhood near the lake, yet still part of the hill country.  (There is kind of a dividing line that runs through the Austin/San Antonio metro area that divides the hill country from more flat land – I believe it has something to do with the Balcones fault line and the Edwards Aquifer.) 

With this neighborhood, I still got the rolling hills and trees that I love, the tax rate was lower, and the biggest bonus was that they were on CITY WATER!  (No more septic, yea!)  We also planned to build a slightly smaller home, so there’s an automatic saving there, lol.

We got lucky in our search and found two long narrow lots right next to each other. We planned to buy them both and then replot the two lots in the one.

how to be an owner builder

Let me tell you, the actual move was a killer!  It took us a full month to organize a couple of garage sales, (we sold at least half our furniture, much of which we had had since the mid-to-late 90’s and needed to go anyway) clean everything out and divide up what was going to storage and what was coming with us to our rent house.

By the time we were done and settled into the rental, we just took a well-deserved little break before moving on to the next step in the home building process.

Starting the re-plotting process

The Austin area is a pretty busy place and it turned out, we had quite a bit of trouble finding a surveyor to do everything we needed to be done on our two lots to move forward.

We needed a topographical survey, tree survey, and a lot survey.

On top of that, if we planned to break ground between the months of September and March we would also need a bird study due to this area being a known habitat of the protected Golden Cheek Warbler. (Knowing that, we decided not to break ground between September and March, lol.)

The problem we were running into is that we just couldn’t get any surveyors to either return our call (they weren’t interested in our one-off project) or they were quoting outrageous price and we weren’t able to get our project on their schedule for 2 to 3 months.

After about 4 months of search, we did finally find someone and got the survey done. (and now we have a great go-to survey company)

Designing a floor plan from (mostly) scratch

During the survey process, we had been working with an architect in designing our home plan.

I decided I wanted a mostly one-story home with just my office/craft room, a playroom and a bathroom upstairs.  One of the aspects I loved about our old house was the large kitchen/dining/living area space.  It was spacious, beautiful and perfect for entertaining and hosting large family gatherings.

The best feature (IMO) was it was not a completely open floor plan – I can’t tell you how much an open floor plan does not work for me.  The way it was set up, was there was a dividing wall between the main part of the kitchen and living room. The breakfast area was open to the living room and the rest of the kitchen (and messy cooking part) was hidden from sight when sitting on the couch by a high breakfast bar.  The kitchen sink was located at an angle next to the breakfast bar, so I was able to see out into the living room (and tv) when standing at the sink or breakfast bar.

So I gave the architect our old plans and a few ideas for the rest of the house, and we got started.

The architect encouraged us to wait until we at least had the topo survey done, but we wanted to make up for the lost time, so we moved ahead designing the one-story plan anyway.

Navigating the Owner Builder Process:

House building tip #1- Listen to the architect

When the architect tells you to hold off on your floor plan until the survey is done, you should probably listen. He was right!

It turned out; our lots sloped much more than we originally thought. And due to the cost of concrete, (and the fact I didn’t want a 15-foot foundation on one corner of the house), we scrapped the one-story plan and reconfigured much of the floor plan to put the children’s bedrooms upstairs along with my office and the playroom.

House building tip #2- Red tape

One thing to note if you are ever considering combining two lots into one is that all the red tape makes the process take forever and you need to factor that in.

The actual surveys were completed fairly quickly once we found someone, but once that is done, the real wait begins.  Once we turned all the paperwork into the city, it went from desk to desk to desk and person to person to be signed off by every department.  We also had to have all of the utility releases on the cable, electric, gas, and water which also takes time to get.

After this lengthy process, the plan has to be finally submitted to the city council to get on their agenda at the next meeting for a vote on approval. The next step is for the city to take your approved amended plat (by hand) to the county (usually in another city or a different location) for filing. 

You must wait until the amended plat is updated in all their systems and once that’s done, you can go ahead and submit for permits!

Approval from the HOA/POA

Our property owners association for this neighborhood is…  I can’t think of a better way to phrase it, so let’s just say… Very tightly governed.

To submit your plans for approval, you have to submit your project on a tri-fold poster board to the architectural control committee. (Yes, the kind of poster board that kids use for science projects.)

They want to see a complete color presentation of your floor plan, with all the finishes. Stone/stucco, complete landscaping plan, outside lights, where the driveways are going to be (and how you are going to finish it) colors of your window frames, roof, just about everything you can think of.  If they don’t like any part of it, they’ll send it back with notes for you to fix and resubmit.  (And don’t get it in your mind that this required approval possess is free, lol.)

Breaking Ground

The good news is, all that’s behind us we have broken ground,

The Owner Builder process.

We ended up rotating the house on the lot just a smidge so the length of the house follows the lines of the contours of the lot.

We also decided to drop the foundation in the garage by about 3′ to save on concrete costs and to keep from having an 11′ corner on that side of the house.

That means we will have a short staircase down into the garage.  That wasn’t my 1st option, but I think in the long run it was the best choice.

I feel like we made really good time with the plumbing that goes under the foundation.  We sailed through that inspection quickly and moved on to pouring the concrete.

The Owner Builder process. The Owner Builder process.

The foundation is still pretty high, even with dropping the garage.

Navigating the Owner Builder process.

Waiting for the foundation to cure

The foundation/concrete needs about 5 to 7 days to cure before being ready for framing.

This is where we ran into our 1st big construction/contractor related hurdle.

Hubby had spent a few weeks sourcing the best deal on lumber and booking a framer.

Home building tip #3. Lowest contractor bid is often low for a reason.

As I’ve mentioned before, the Austin area is absolutely booming with construction.  For the framing hubby decided to go with an un-tested-by-us framer. (This particular framer had framed the home of our HVAC person.) His bid was significantly lower than our normal framer.

When it came time to get started on the framing, this framer must have realized it was too low (or he got a better job) which we wouldn’t have like hearing, but we understand how the market works…

Unfortunately, (and to the embarrassment of our HVAC person who recommended him) instead of letting us know he couldn’t do the job at the quoted price, he just disappeared at the time he was supposed to begin framing.

So, we ended up going back to our favorite framer (who has worked for us before) and contracted with him for $10k more then we budgeted with the 1st framer. Ouch! (Every time something like this happens, one of my dream items disappears.  This time it was the 48-inch dual-fuel range cooktop and marble countertops.)

Navigating the Owner Builder process. how to be an owner bulder

Lake View/changes to the plan

We ran into another obstacle, but what I say obstacle, I really mean opportunity.

Once we were able to walk up on to the 2nd floor, we were so surprised and thrilled to find out we had a very nice lake view.  Unfortunately, our current floorplan gave us no way to really enjoy the view. We went back to the architect and had him help us figure out a way we could add a deck off the back of the house.

We loved his idea and moved forward with it quickly.

Navigating the Owner Builder process.

The added deck ended up being a bit more work ($$) for the framer as he had to drop a beam he had to take apart some of the work that they had done.  More $$ to the architect and more lumber.  (This one is costing me my built-ins in the master closet.)  But everyone involved agrees that this addition was totally worth it.  (Not just for the view, but for the added resale value.)

Navigating the Owner Builder process.

Navigating the Owner Builder process.

That’s pretty much where we are now.  Framing is about 3/4 of the way done.  We went out again last night, and most of the roof decking is on, all the cornice work is done, as well as most of the exterior sheathing and about half of the windows installed.

Hashing out the fine details in framing

We went out again last night to go over some of the fine framing/detail work to prep for a meeting hubby has with the framer tomorrow.  Deciding on how the arches will look, (full arch vs eyebrow arches) how to work around some of the beams in the ceilings, I want little niches in all my bathrooms,  bumping out a wall for more closet in my missy’s room, stealing a little attic space for my office, and several other adjustments like that.

Shew!  This was a long post…  Stay tuned for more updates to the building process!

I’ll just leave you with a photo of last night’s sunset (because who doesn’t love a pretty sunset picture?)

pretty sunset

I’d love to hear from you!

Have you ever acted as your own general contractor on a new home build or extensive remodel?  I’d love to hear your stories!

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