Our Adventures in the Owner Builder Process

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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!

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!

*update – Yea! We finally finished have moved in as of Feb ’19.

The rest of the process was much smoother, with the exception of two last hick-ups.

The first involved the grinder pump that our neighborhood required. (Which was one of the very last things to be installed before we could officially move in.) When we went to install the pump, a very important part was missing and it took almost 2 months to finally arrive. During that time, we had to be completely out of our rent house. So we had to pack everything up and the movers moved everything into the garage and we lived in our RV in a nearby RV park for a month.

We finally got the grinder pump installed and were granted a temporary certificate of occupancy. I had to pay the movers to come back and re-move everything into the house. And at least we were in! 

The reason we got a temporary certificate of occupancy was due to the window in our downstairs guest bedroom being installed too high, so the wall and stucco had to be ripped out and a larger window installed in its place. (We chose a larger window over lowering the window due to not needing to adjust the header/lintel.) 

Eventually, everything was done and we are happy as little clams over here. 

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  1. We are just a little bit more than a year till Hubby is going to retire and we will be moving about 65 miles from where we live now in Houston,Tx now(40 years now)This is not where we want to spend the rest of our lives at. We plan an ICF (Insulated Concrete Form)which is suppose to cut building time. One nice thing is our electrician will be our youngest son who is a Master.We pay for material no labor,I did that 47 years ago lol.We have a plan we found online and our architect told us not to buy it all you have to do is change 20% and that won’t be hard.We already done that it’s the bones we love and how it’ll fit on our lot we purchased 14 years ago.So paid for now. We can’t wait we live now in a loud(music & parties with live bands till 3-4am).If police are called they shut it down before they get there and when gone and they watch it’s back up and running.So we’re moving to a gated community with a strict POA.So we’re so ready.I have been on a major clean out every month I pick another room to go though so now to be over whelmed .Love reading your story one thing we’re going to stay in our old home for the beginning and then get stuff in pods and sell all big furniture need new anyway too.But we’ve wanted a new RV so we have looked and found one that will fit 4 medium parrots(all rescues)and 2 dogs(one a stray part german shepherd/Border Collie) and our Golden Retriever. Then we stay in the RV till our new home is done.Love hearing stories so maybe we won’t be totally surprised . As I type this all I hear is loud boom boom music through the walls.So ready !

    1. Jamie Sanders says:

      I don’t blame you. I personally prefer neighborhoods with strict poa/hoa’s. Yes, we get the occasional letter about leaving our trash cans out too long, but that’s our fault. I just want a nice neighborhood, lol. Good luck!

  2. We’ve never custom built the home. But we did act as our own GC for a second-floor addition on our lake house. We drove around the lake for years looking at homes that were being built, renovated, upgraded, torn down and rebuilt… We kept running across the same architect’s name, so we decided to give her a shot.

    We had some ideas, we met with her several times, she came up with a couple of ideas, and we reviewed them. We made some changes, we met with her again. She changed the plans and we reviewed them again.

    Looking back, I feel like she kept trying to make us make decisions more about the exterior of the home that about the interior of the home. She was pushing these protruding peaks on the front of the house, the street side. But she didn’t give us any suggestions on adding character to the lake side, the side where we live and breathe and enjoy the water and the air and the sun.

    And she spent a lot of time selling us on this wonderful separate shower and tub in our second floor bathroom. We’re not talking a master bath. It’s just a second-floor bathroom.

    We signed off on the plans, we hired our framers, we hired our sheet-rockers, we hired our siders, we bought our appliances, decided on finishings, did all the things we were supposed to do.

    And all of a sudden, we realized we don’t have a single closet on the first floor and we don’t have a linen closet on the second floor. Let me tell you right now, 11 years later, I would happily have a combination shower and bathtub in order to have a linen closet on the second floor. So what my husband did was take a pantry closet on the first floor, close off the access from the kitchen and open the back wall into the bathroom that’s on the first floor, so at least we have a linen closet down there.

    My only recommendation to anyone doing this, or thinking about doing it, you can never be too anal compulsive or too detail-oriented or too worried about bugging your architect or making too many changes. I love my home but I would never hire that architect again, and I would never give her a good recommendation. Absolutely, it was my fault and my husband’s. We totally missed it. But isn’t that her job, to guide us through those kinds of things?

  3. Rosemary B says:

    Wow, I do not think hubbs or I could ever cope with doing your own building.
    We are pretty stupid haha. We live in Northern Virginia and living in a shabby stick built house in the suburbs.
    I love floor plans. Right now, we have a huge house, the family home. Our daughters are grown and moved out, married babies etc. This house is fine…. but a lot of work, and the yard. I do like having my sewing room right next to the kitchen (in the large morning room) and that would be a hard thing to give up when we down size, or ….. housing is expensive here. I love it. we are far enough away from DC that we do not have the craziness and weirdos but sprawl is happening.
    I do not know where we will move. My daughters and babies are here. At present I am taking care of my 94 year old daddy. I love him.
    I would love to down size and live on a one level home. A big home, not a little square hut.
    I admire your courage and wowie, what a view.

    1. Thank you, It is a lot of work and at times you stress over the dumbest stuff. For example, I just spent 2 weeks trying to pick the right tub for the master bath. I thought I had the perfect one chosen. Really big, super good price, and from home depot. Turns out, I didn’t understand that when the architect wrote in 42 by 72 in the tub area, that was not the size of the tub, but the entire amount of room for the tub and decking. I went back and forth over a freestanding tub vrs a smaller drop in tuc, with the drain in the right position. After a couple of weeks of looking, I was pulling my hair out and ended up settling for something much smaller and more expensive. But a least I’ll have a tub deck and a step where can lay my clothes (and stand on so I can see in the mirror) since I don’t really take baths anyway, lol.

  4. We just did a house reno and although we had a contractor and decorater …. I say this laughingly…. because they both turned out to be flakes, anyway we ended up having to sub contract in others in to fix the pro’s mistakes ( there were tons of them) you are a better women than I…. I was ready to move out. Anyway long story short house got finished and original contractor being sued. I almost cracked under the pressure of remodel…. build a house ha have to add a padded room to the plans. Glad yours came together and gosh what a view you have ??

    1. I will say, I think living in a house that is being renovated has to be much more difficult than living in a cozy rental and managing a build from a distance 🙂 .

  5. It’s BEAUTIFUL, Jamie!! You MAY have convinced me to custom build. ?
    I hope things continue to go well for y’all & you get moved in quickly.
    As co-owner of a design/build firm in the Austin area, I was feeling your pain while reading about the framer (UGH!?) & the p.i.a. of dealing with the city. Austin kicks back permits for misspelled words!
    Best of luck to you guys.

  6. Nikki NeverWithoutPolish says:

    Oh my! You are a brave and patient soul to be your own contractor for the THIRD time! My husband and I built our house three years ago, and it was the most stressful thing we have ever done (and that includes quitting our jobs, picking up all of our stuff, and moving it 1500 miles away with no jobs yet lined up in the new city), not to mention we hired a general contractor!

    There was SO much that went wrong… We finalized our plan in October of 2014 not knowing the city had changed zoning and coding law/regulation that went into effect January of 2015. So, we had to rework everything based on the new rules to get permits. The setback allowance changed in our favor, so our house is the only house on the block NOT in line with the others, which some of our neighbors had an absolute fit over. I didn’t care, it’s my house, my money, and the city approved the plan – guess what? They got over it because the house is where it is :P, but it caused a bit of drama for awhile. All the subcontractors disappeared or were so far behind at one point or another… my husband ended up putting in the light fixtures himself. We failed inspection 4 times the day before we had to move in (our rental was up and we had to be out), and our contractor barely got us a contingency certificate of occupation at the very last minute (Friday late afternoon, we had to vacate our rental by Monday). This caused us to have to move everything in a hurry, so instead of having it organized and tidy, it basically all got stacked anywhere it would fit. Three years on and I’m still sorting out boxes. >.< We were so far behind schedule with winter looming in Minnesota that we were forced to pay for a few things we were planning to do ourselves, but no longer had time to do and the city wouldn't sign off on the house until it was done. For example, planting grass! In late October! In Minnesota!! We were planning to do that in the spring ourselves, but had to pay a landscape company to get it done quickly.

    All of these things either caused stress or required more money! Totally went over budget! But I love this house! I fought for it, in some ways. It's beautiful and it's mine!

    Good luck! And hang in there! ^_^

    1. Oops, I bet this post brought up a few memories, you didn’t want to remember! We’ve run into lots of similar issues the first couple of go-rounds. (including running out of money and moving into an unfinished home. Wee also had a lot of theft on the 2nd last build – shingles stolen off the roof twice ) That was 8 years ago and most of the bad memories have faded away (kind of like childbirth, lol) I wrote a little about that experience here: https://www.scatteredthoughtsofacraftymom.com/kitchen-and-mudroom-reveal/

      Hubby has 7 home builds under his belt now (he has done a couple of spec homes and one custom home) and we’ve both learned a lot. So fingers crossed for a better experience this time!