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Try one of our new Construction Bargain Strategies for free. Coupon code: CBS. One strategy could save you $1,000 or $10,000 or maybe $50,000 when you build or remodel.

Construction Bargain Strategies Part 1

"Construction Bargain Strategies for the Commando Shopper"

"Construction Bargain Strategies for the Commando Shopper"

by Mark A. Smith with Elaine M. Smith

Author's note:

This list is a continuation of "100 Construction Bargain Strategies" available in the Third Edition of The Owner-Builder Book, copyright 2003, now available. The first 100 strategies are printed in the book and in our Special Report number 25 (See Bookstore).


101. Don't Pay for the Same Thing Twice

When we built the Riverbottoms house, we had some misadventures with slag.  Slag, a byproduct of the smelting process at the local steel mill, served in place of pea gravel as an underlayment for concrete.  Slag was a bit better than pea gravel, however, because it compacted into a very stable base and helped prevent and cracking of concrete drives, walks or floors.  We underestimated how much slag we needed, and had partially full trucks come out three times at about $100 a load. 

The cost of the slag itself was minimal, it was the hauling that cost money.  By planning more carefully for each of the needs for slag, we likely could have bought all three drops for a total of $100.

Later we needed to move a quantity of slag to the back of the lot for use under the back patio and porch pads.  Our concrete man volunteered to move it with his Bobcat loader.  This time, he figured how much to move and charged us $60 an hour to move the slag.  It turned out he overestimated the quantity, and a big pile of slag was left behind the house, which he charged us again to move back to the front. 

Same with the trenches dug for water, and sewer, telephone, and electrical power.  They were each dug on different days for a much higher aggregate cost than if they had been dug at one time. 

Many people wind up paying twice for design work because they buy their plans off the Internet and have to pay again to have them reworked to local codes by a local designer.

You may have to pay a $25 or $50 charge per lumber delivery and wind up have 10 or 12 lumber deliveries when good coordination with the framer and lumber supplier could get it done in one or two drops.

The most common "double pay plan" is rework.  Because of insufficient planning, some O-B's waste money on rework.  They are not happy with a part of the construction and have it torn out and reworked for a twice or three times the cost of getting it right the first time.  

 
102. Storage Unit Sales

Storage unit companies foreclose unpaid units and take all the stuff in them. They sell or donate that stuff. A high percentage of it is construction material.

103. Buy in the Off-Season

We've noticed wide fluctuations in the costs of lumber over the years, sometimes rising and falling 35% in the same year.  An industry veteran explained to me why lumber is cheap in the off-season:  "To maintain monthly minimums with their suppliers, the lumberyards have to mark down the lumber sharply in the off-season."

Another tip: because lumberyards have to pay taxes on standing inventory, buy during inventory reduction times, just before their tax season, usually the end of the calendar year.


104. Buy From a Freight Liquidator

With thousands of items going into your new house, it's possible you may be able to get steep discounts on high value items from a freight liquidator.  A Google search turned up freight, customs, and furniture liquidators. In some instances you can get on an email list specifying the types of materials you are seeking and be advised of goods as they become available. Search on the Web for "liquidator" or "liquidation", or unclaimed freight.


105. Build Bigger

Arizona Owner-Builder Matt C. featured on our Ten Commandments of Owner-Builders DVD Series Number VI (see our Bookstore), says "Blow it out!"  Once you've paid for plumbing, baths, kitchen, electrical, appliances, and the mechanical systems of your house, incremental space is a bargain. Normally, costs per square foot fall when you have a bigger house because many costs are fixed and amortize better over larger square foot number. Matt went from 3,300 feet to 4,600 feet for only $25,000 - less than $25 a foot - in a $100/sq. ft. house.

Matt says additional bedrooms are "cheap."  Garage space is cheap, patios and porches are cheap, second stories are cheap, and basements are cheap.


106. "Friend of a Friend"

Owner-Builder Lynn H. of Tremonton, Utah said, "Had friends in every trade. They all let me buy with their discounts at the supply house. Really all you need to know is how to make phone calls. Ask: 'Will you give me contractor prices?' They say, 'Sure'.

Our pal at the electrical supply house calls this the "Friend of a friend" strategy.  He says you can get much better prices if you "know someone."  The someone can be a sub that you already know or someone you meet doing pre-construction interviews. You could ask permission to buy under their account, paying cash, or just mention their name without specific permission. There's really no standard for how good a friend the subcontractor has to be. You're paying cash or with a credit card, and the distributor benefits from the sale.

Usually the friend also benefits from your purchase.  There may be prizes or incentives for increased purchase volume with the distributor, or lower prices on future purchases for the friend. If you have problems, try another supply house, or another friend.


107. Read a Lot

We get a lot of calls from people asking what would be the best book to buy before building a home.  I am happy to help but I have to smile, because all of the books out there have something to offer, and it's not that hard to read a book.  We think you could benefit from reading ten or twenty books before you begin.  Every one of them has a few unique ideas that are valuable, perhaps translating to $1,000 in savings or more per good idea.  By reading lots of books you get "immersed" and increase your fluency for the process and your confidence.

You don't need to buy them - you can get them at many libraries. But if you want to make notes in a book, refer to it later, or share with a friend,  use our Bookstore to buy at a discount, and take advantage of group buying prices.  The cost of these books is truly tiny in comparison with the monetary benefit you'll derive from building smart.


108. Get Bids for Upgrades on the Fly

Eric and Ember M of St. George, Utah (featured in our Ten Commandments of Owner-Builders DVD Series  DVD 1a) told me they got great bids from people who were already on site doing aspects of their construction.  It makes sense because the sub who is already working for you knows you are for real, and is already set up on-site and saves start up and marketing costs by doing more for you.

Jeff R. of Derry, New Hampshire did it:

"Got the floor from a man. I bought the materials and paid $2,000.   Usual price is $3,000 to $4,000 and he gave me a free 1,800 s.f. garage floor since the man needed to be on-site anyway. I didn't have to pay extra for a concrete accelerator, because they have to have the place heated anyway."

"Same with the framers who agreed to do shingles for $12.50 a square. I have 60 squares and I pay $42 for materials. He charged me flat rate of $3,200 if I bought materials. That makes $53 total cost per roofing square, versus $95 around here, because I had somebody who was already here who did this extra."

  • Check people who are already on the job against quoted prices you have for new subs to come out and do it.
  • Get extra work  and upgrades from an "in-place" contractor, through incrementalism. In other words, buy basic, and add in upgrades at in-place prices rather than at in-advance bid prices. The prices will be much lower.

 
109. Free upgrades from friendly subs

Even better is completely free upgrades from friendly subs already committed to your job.  By working closely with their subs and asking for suggestions, Jeff and Judy L. of Provo, Utah(featured in our Ten Commandments of Owner-Builders DVD Series Number IV) got a $4,000 add-on for free from a drywall sub who was anxious to please and keep competition out.  The upgrades often have very little real cost for the sub once they are set up and their marketing has been done.


110. Stay on the Grapevine

Stay on the grapevine. A developer selling exclusive golf course lots for $54,000 - $168,000 decided to have a fire sale so he could move on to the next project. Sold all for $34,000 - $68,000. He wasn't interested in spending to advertise the closeout, so he simply put the word out to real estate brokers.

111. Talk to People, Express Your Needs

Communicate with a variety of people in and around the construction business. Share your budget, tell what you are having trouble finding. Chase down their ideas and suggestions and report back.  If they are willing to talk to you keep them on a phone friends list and occasionally run the latest entries on your question list by them.  When building I got valuable tips on bargains and know-how from my phone friends and several times picked up on free items they were willing to share like a window well for my crawl space, and tiles for two bathrooms.


112. Appeal Your Property Taxes

Since your house is intricately involved with your finances, it affects many of your streams of ongoing expense each year you own it.  One such substantial stream is what you must pay for property taxes. 

Usually the mortgage company folds your property taxes into an escrow amount that is added to your monthly payment.  As the taxes come due, the mortgage company pays them each year, and you may not be consciously aware of them.  But it merits your attention, because people pay widely differing amounts of tax on similar properties.

As an owner-builder you are in a unique position to cut your property tax. Elaine and I saved $1,000 a year on taxes, times forever, by appealing our taxes with the local Board of Equalization.  We had two compelling arguments going for us.  One was the actual cost to build our home; far less then neighboring homes.  Another was our research on what other property owners around our city paid on similar properties.  Our Special Report #13 (See our Bookstore) lays out the steps we followed to appeal the taxes all the way to our state.

 
113. Get Your Insurance Valuation Down.

Here's another stream of outgo that often goes overlooked: your homeowner's insurance premiums.  The premiums are set each year according to a very conservative index of what similar homes to yours cost.  Your premiums are based on an imputed valuation of similar homes, though they may be at very inflated prices. 

You can get your valuation down. It won't cut the amount they have to pay if your home is destroyed. They have to replace it. But they calculate the cost of a home with all the trimmings, such as land, which doesn't have to be replaced if the house is destroyed, and concrete work and landscaping, which are likewise almost never replaced if your home is destroyed. 

I was able to get my insurance company to reduce the valuation of my home by a third.  They wanted an appraisal of the house, so I gave them the revised house valuation from our county after I appealed my property taxes and succeeded in reducing the county's valuation.   This cut my premiums by one third or $200 a year.  

  • See what evidence it will take for your insurer to reduce your house valuation and gather it up for your adjustment.
  • Make sure the fine print in your policy doesn't prevent you from getting full replacement cost in the event of disaster, even if a contractor is used to rebuild.


114. Increase deductible on homeowner's insurance.

Following Clark Howard's advice (consumer advocate at ClarkHoward.com), I raised my deductible on homeowner's insurance from a typical $250 to my insurer's maximum allowed deductible of $1,000.  Again, my insurance premiums dropped by a third, saving me another $200 a year.  If we had an expensive mishap that ate up my deductible, I would earn it back through premium savings in 3 years.  Clark's advice is to save the premiums and invest the difference.  


115. Get Bids from General Contractors

  • When you are planning to build, get bids from contractors on the project.   Tell them they have to sharpen their pencils because you are considering owner-building as an option.  Also tell them to provide you with line item pricing and subcontractor names so you can compare to other general contractor bids you are getting. 
  • Then use the line item bids to improve your calculations as to your costs to build. 
  • Use the line items also as comparison and leverage to produce competition by category for subcontracted items.  If you see one general estimated footings at $3,000 and you have bids over $4,000 for that item, challenge your bidders to beat the estimate you have in hand, or go to the supplier the general contractor mentioned at that price. 

This is fair, because the general may wind up supplying items he has bid on the overall estimate.  It is not a major expense for general contractors to provide these estimates as they are usually canned on computer and they produce a potential opportunity for the general.


116. Buy Early

In general, costs are rising.  They must be, because Elaine's parents paid $600 for the home she was raised in, which is worth more than $100,000 today.  Therefore, if you can anticipate and buy what you need early, you can save in the long run.

This applied very markedly to land that Elaine and I bought to build the Riverbottoms house.  The land was going begging when we bought it at $28,500.  But our local market began to saturate with housing, and open land took a jump in price.  Two years later it was worth $50,000.  Six years later it had passed $100,000 in value.

This does not obviate the need to buy smart.  Occasionally we see items like tools and construction supplies at a discounted price which are heavily undercut a year or two later.  Know your purchase, shop around and buy smart.

117. Time things right

As general contractor on your project, you have the opportunity to create savings by planning the timing on things that could drive up your costs.  Some examples are:

  • Time it to heat your place with your own furnace vs. temporary heat when you build.

The Complete Guide to Contracting Your Home (see our Bookstore) says: "If you get your heating system approved early, normally by passing a quick test, you can turn it on before the house is finished.  This will also save you some money when other builders may have gone out and rented a space heater."

  • If you need a concrete pumper to pour your floors, walks, drives, foundations, or footers, get the cement delivered while your pumper is setting up and only pay the minimum charge for concrete pumping.  Owner-builder John Norton managed to keep the $100 an hour pumper cost to the minimum charge of $200 this way.
  • Same thing with crane charges, usually over $100 an hour.  Make sure the materials are ready and the needed lifting is clear-cut before the clock starts ticking.
  • Timing makes all the difference on land purchase, construction, appraisals for resale, and resale itself. 


118. Tile in Basement

  • Use ceramic tile in concrete basements as a floor covering. Materials only costs $1.25 a square foot or so, because tile can go directly over cement without need for backer board or mortar bed.


119. Sell "By Owner"

  • Owner-seller. On a $300,000 house, owner-builder Gary Ziser saved $18,000 in Realtor commissions.  If you've ever sold through a Realtor, you know that one of the first conversations is an effort to get you to reduce asking price to a "realistic" number.  Thus, sometimes owner-sellers also gain from possible price improvement at sale.  In Gary's case, he sold for maybe $15,000 over the expectation of a Realtor, making his total savings for owner-selling more than $30,000.  His story is part of our Ten Commandments of Owner-Builders DVD Series Number 10, (see our Bookstore)


120. Be an Owner-Agent

If you don't want to go all the way and sell your property yourself, split real estate commission as an owner-agent with a Realtor.  Instead of paying a 6% commission to sell your house, you might pay 3%.  You will be listed on the Multiple Listing Service and receive certain selling assistance.  You would need to sign an owner-agent agreement with a real estate broker.


121. Free Trees

  • Find out off the Internet where you can get free seedlings to plant in your yard, or other free tree programs.  Check with your county agriculture extension agent as well. 
  • Nat'l Arbor Day Foundation gives 10 seedlings when you become a member.  
  • Owner-builder Preston Heiselt found a reforestation source and planted 6,000 free seedlings on his ten-acre property.  
  • Taylor Hurtt noticed that his city was widening a road and was able to get three free mature trees that were slated for removal.  Their value was over $1,000 each.  He paid $45 apiece to have them cut out with a big root ball and placed in his truck.  The rest was up to him.


122. Free Soil Amendments

When we built the Riverbottoms house we got free composted manure from a nearby horse ranch.  We had to arrange hauling, and bartered with a nearby trucker to do so.  Sometimes hauling is free for organic material that would enhance your yard or garden.  Owner-builders have gotten dump truck loads of free wood chips, leaves and ditch dirt from their municipalities who save space and hauling costs by bringing it to local residents. 

O-B Phil Smith of Spencer, NY used municipal ditch dirt to establish gardens and planting beds on his property:  "Let them haul it there the season before you need it.  It composts in place."


123. Free or Cheap Sod

Owner-builders Steve and Frances Orton got sod at a local college, which was planning to build and had to remove the existing turf before building. They went in with some others on the rental of a sod cutter and hauled off good grass for a nickel a square foot.  The story of their low cost high quality house remodel is part of our Ten Commandments of Owner-Builders DVD Series Number 2, (see our Bookstore)


124. Seed instead of Sod

The sod grass vendors in our region generally require payment for the product on delivery.  You may not see problems for days or months after. One of our neighbors spent $2,000 sodding his gorgeous riverfront property only to discover that the sod was full of coarse orchard grass.  Cost to remedy: an extra $2,000.

We think the best thing to do for grassy areas is to seed them.  You have control over the soil preparation and seed varieties that way.  We groomed our dirt and added topsoil and amendments (obtained for free) and seeded with a five way Kentucky blue grass blend purchased on sale for a thick lawn (it took a while) that is genuinely the envy of the neighborhood.  Cost was $45 or a penny a square foot out of pocket.  Sod suppliers get twenty cents for product and 20 cents for installation or more in our region.

Owner-builder Jeff Lewis had estimates of $2,000 to sod his lawn and seeded successfully for $145 under a hot July sun. ("Keep plenty of water on it, he says.") Photos of the process are included in the Lewis project album on the front page of our site.  The story of his $250,000 gain on a new home and video of the seeding operation are part of our Ten Commandments of Owner-Builders DVD Series Number IV (see our Bookstore).

 
125. Freebies from Demolitions and Road Widenings

Alan Keele talked his city into letting him haul off beautiful brick from demolished homes when a street was widened in his neighborhood.  Taylor Fitterer picked up free mature trees under the same circumstance. They had to be opportunistic and assertive and chip in any necessary dismantling and hauling.


126. Save on Land Commissions

  • When buying land, make sure you aren't paying 100% broker fee to a sales agent. If so, do as one pair of owner-builders did, and cut a deal with a friendly independent agent to split that commission with you. They saved $3,000: "We were looking for land and stopped at two developments before doing the deal.  The first one asked if we had a real estate broker, and said they might be able to reduce the price by the amount of the broker fees if there was no broker involved. But we wanted to buy from the second so we asked them for a concession in lieu of broker fees.  They said that was not possible."
  • "We went to Wendy's for lunch and talked it over and used the pay phone to call a friendly Realtor that we know.  We asked him if he wanted to pick up a quick $3,000. He said sure, and he called to the developer and brokered the sale for almost no work, splitting the real estate commission with us that the developer would have otherwise absorbed."


127. Buy Stock Plans from a Production Builder

You can shop for a plan you like by walking through model homes of production builders.  Rather than pay for a custom design you may be able to buy the plans from that builder, all properly adapted and annotated to local codes.  One reader paid $.38 a foot to buy the plans.


128. Buy Stock Plans from an Architect

Although costs for custom architect designs may range to 10% of a residential construction  budget, some readers have bought stock plans for around 1% of construction cost from architectural firms.  In seven or eight states of the U.S., where an architect's stamp is required to build, this is an economical option.


129. Buy Plans from the City

  • Edmund and Emily M. of Coppers Cove, Texas found their plans for an apartment project at the city planning office at a huge savings: "The city will sell blueprints for apartment complexes that have previously been built in our city. They sell them to us for $3.25 a page at Planning and Zoning. And these are already stamped and certified by them."


130. Share trash trailer with subs

The cost of hauling trash from your project is one of those overhead categories that you may be able to manage.  A little creativity here can save you five hundred plus dollars in dumpster rental and pull fees.

  • Share a dump trailer with your subs.  Make part of initial agreement.
  • From The Complete Guide to Contracting Your Home (See our Bookstore): "Burn or bury trash if you can.  It is cheaper than hauling off the material."
  • From The Complete Guide to Contracting Your Home (See our Bookstore): You could have excavator dig a quick trench for you. Two hours of excavator time are suggested.
  • From The Complete Guide to Contracting Your Home (See our Bookstore): "If you do not own a pickup truck and can't borrow one, try to buy an inexpensive trailer that can be attached to your car.  You can sell it later, after the project is over." 
  • Put up scrap boards from your framing phase on the sides of the trailer to increase hauling capacity.  Process your waste to fill your trailer in an orderly way to cut down on dump trips and dump fees.


131. Install a Temporary Toilet

Another manageable overhead expense is the cost of a temporary toilet at your job site. 

  • Put in a temporary toilet to avoid portapotty rental. Your plumber may be amenable to loaning you a fixture for your basement that will later be replaced with a permanent one, but affords convenience from an early point in construction.  You can easily hang a tarp around the area for privacy
  • If you're building a whole house or large addition, a little creativity here can save $500.
  • Dennis Stoutsenberger bought an old  portapotty for $100 and resold it (after processing) after finishing a mountain cabin.  He suggests keeping a deodorizer cake in the urinal.
  • In some locations, bushes will do. Not to be indelicate, but a high percentage of residential jobs go without the portapotty expense.  The subs use the restroom before they arrive or on lunch break.  Bushes or trees around the property are occasionally called into service.


132. Use a Build Your Own Pool Service

Some of our readers have saved money through owner-builder management of their swimming pool construction.  Matt Clifton used a "build your own pool service" to cut his pool estimate from $25,000 to $16,000. The story and video of his near half million dollar gain on a new home are part of our Ten Commandments of Owner-Builders DVD Series Number VI, (see our Bookstore)

O-B Gerry R. of Austin, TX did it with a consultant: "I can bypass the pool general, use a consultant, hire directly, and save about $20,000 on a $40,000 pool in our area.  Foundation guy, gunnite guy, rebar guy, plastering guy, etc. I'll go direct for all that."

 
133. Make the House Work for You

Keep in mind that you house is intricately involved in the river of outgoing cash that constitutes your cost of living.  In many ways a house can obviate the need for or replace costs that you may currently fund:

  • Make house work for you by including such features as a pantry, home office, or home gymnasium.  A storage pantry can allow you to capture savings in your grocery budget by buying in quantity and storing items you use regularly when they come on sale.  A home office can save you rent and create tax deductions and conveniences that are profitable for many people.  A home gym can save you time and club fees
  • Anything you are now spending money on, or want to try in the future can be built in.  You can prewire for an alarm system that calls the for you at need and spare you the cost of home security monitoring by an outside service.  You can build in a TVantenna that may make it unnecessary to subscribe to a satellite or cable service.  By planning for information systems using the Internet and your in-home Ethernet, you may eliminate your need for a daily newspaper subscription. 


134. Carpet Remnants

While whole house carpet is usually a special order of a single color in quantity, carpet remnants are available for far less money.  If you are breaking up your floor covering design with wood, tile, stone, and varying carpet colors, you can take advantage of one of a kind bargains at special prices.  By using more durable surfaces like tile in high traffic areas, you greatly increase the life of your carpet, saving on life-cycle costs as well.


135. Be a Parade of Homes House

Larry Ott saved $30,000 on his contractor-built house by acting as a Parade of Homes showplace in the annual event in his community.  Doug Nielson, who built a million dollar home with a contractor, likewise saved $100,000.  Since the homes were visited by more than 20,000 people, the contractors involved were able to get concessions from subs and suppliers who used the showcase for marketing to the public.

But you have to use a contractor to get this one.

136. Be a Demonstration House

When we built the Riverbottoms house, somebody had the bright idea of calling the cabinet manufacturer and asking if we could be a demonstration house for the product line.  It turned out they had a program for that, and furnished us with a 10% discount, (over $1,000) and free upgrades for the baths and laundry rooms.  Our duties wee to open our house on short notice for any prospective customers to see.  In our case, nobody ever called.

137. Be a Demo Site

When I manufactured a roofing product in the 1980's I had a marketing budget for free field installations of our new product to use for publicity, installer training, promotion, and experience.  We actually looked for opportunities to spend the money.  As mentioned above, we took advantage of this phenomenon when buying cabinets for our house.  Later we found big savings on an all-vinyl deck by doing the same.

  • Call or email materials suppliers and say "Are you doing any tests or anything, do you want a demo site?"
  • You could do the same with subcontractors who are looking for a start and want a place to showcase their work.  You would be willing to take pictures and write letters of referral.

 

138. Be a Solar Tour Home

John and Cyndee M. of Bend, Oregon told me: "We think we can do it for $165,000 and it appraises at $280,000. It will be on the solar home tour. We're getting some items at half price. Ecologically sensitive. We live on the east side of the Cascade Mountains. Terrific view. Five and a half acres on a mesa, we can see every mountain in the Cascades, and can see the Deschutes River.

In our community there is also a solar home tour, an energy home tour, and a hidden gardens tour. By planning ahead, you may get leverage to "sell" the traffic that will see your home to subs and vendors.


139. Use MDF for your Woodwork

  • Use MDF composition molding instead of finger joint molding material for base and case carpentry in your home.   It's cheaper to buy and install and better, except in baths.


140. Brick Smarts

Owner-Builders Gary and Cynthia Strong suggest: "Use normal brick instead of oversized. Problems with mortar joints, they don't match up as well."  The Strongs are featured along with their seventh owner-built house in our Ten Commandments of Owner-Builders DVD Series Number V (see our Bookstore).

  • Owner-builder Gary Matthews picked up brick from a demolished public school for his custom home and barn for twenty cents each.  Of all construction materials, brick is very reusable, and you may find good sources in recycled and surplus yards.
  • One local brickyard here has an annual cash and carry sale for discontinued and overstocked bricks.  Substantial savings are available if you plan ahead.


141. Lock in Prices before increase

Owner-builders Thomas and Joanie L. featured in our Ten Commandments of Owner-Builders DVD Series Number III (see our Bookstore), reported: "Yesterday talked to Mr. Wallace. He does framing. He told me that lumber is going up 25% today. I had a bid for lumber good until last night which I had well shopped. I called and they let me lock it in."

  • Since prices fluctuate through the year on common building materials, it's smart to take advantage on both sides of the cycle.  Buy when it goes down, and lock in if it's going up.

O-B Lynn H. of Tremonton Utah said: "Bought cement by self bought lumber in advance, before price went up , and they held it for me, hired a contractor to basically build it. I hired the subs, and he did the framing."


142. New Technology Savings

Owner-builder Steve Godfrey told me: "I decided on Fast Foot footing form which is a fabric form that uses no lumber, and is fast. It's awesome. You have to have yokes, which you can reuse, and they cost, but other than that, it's a real bargain. You can get perfectly level footings.

Although there's a risk in using untried technologies, sometimes they just plain make sense.  Today's sheetrock was forty years in the wilderness before universally accepted by construction people.  Structural Insulated Panels have been earning their spurs for more than a decade and are well proven in most climates.  Other examples that save time or money could be Insulated Concrete Forms, wood foundations, and steel framing. 

  • For some people Insulated Concrete Forms, like the Fast Form product and like insulated flex tubes for HVAC are examples of a more do-it-yourself technology that lend itself to simple installations which even an amateur can perform
  • Owner-builder Jeff Robertson studied panelized construction when he planned his new home:  "I am doing panelized construction, and I 'm going after the Canadian market. Panelized is starting at $15 a lineal foot per floor. Manufactured in a controlled atmosphere with good quality. When your first floor is decked they deliver it. They can erect a ranch-style house in one day. Avantek has a 50 year warranty. Say it comes apart or swells, floor or roof, the mfr. will replace and pay for the labor. The cost on that is more money than OSB but pennies shy of plywood. More glue than an OSB. When sent through it's final pressing points it knurls it for easy walking when you do a roof. Usually you do 7/16'' on the outside of a structure. When they do tongue and groove on a floor, you should leave a nickel's worth of space in each seam. With the Avantek, they have left out the nickel's space, it is self-spaced. With 2X4's and 2X6's, you have a certain percentage of culls. I hand select everything. On a whole house that's impossible. But this stuff is done in a controlled environment. You need to be plumb, level and square and in target. You will get a blueprint in color when you stuff is ready to be shipped. You get a nice field assembly when it's erected."

143. Work for a Contractor

Connie K. OF Plymouth, Minnesota said:: "Since I work for a contractor, I can get appliances half off, plumbing half off. New advantium microwave, convection oven. Washer and dryer, too. Special deal on windows. They have a showroom near here."

Owner-builder Curtis Brown told me: "I can get stuff at work at a discounted price. And you wouldn't believe what they throw away on commercial projects. Framing lumber, rebar, mesh for concrete. I can buy stuff at wholesale from the subcontractors. I can ask technical questions of everybody on our jobs."


144. Become a Contractor

Yes, you can easily become licensed as a general contractor if you wish.  It takes only one day and $400 in some places, and it may or may not get you better discounts from subs and vendors. Most discounts are based on competition or proven volume.  By getting multiple bids you create competition that brings prices down fast, with or without a license.


145. Cultivate Your Inspector

John and Cyndee M. of Bend Oregon told me: "Our neighbors are using a sand filter system and a drain field for our septic. Because the excavator met with the county septic supervisor, we can do a pressurized cap and fill which saves us $7,000 over the sand filter system. We cultivated him, and it paid off."

O-B John Norton, who is featured on our web site and in Ten Commandments of Owner-Builders DVD Series Number VIII, (see our Bookstore) got a savings from his inspector, too, who went to bat for him with the city council over a zoning exception, and later he overruled another inspector who hassled the Nortons.


146. Savings Ideas from Your Subs

Most subcontractors wind up being owner-builders, some of them exemplary in exploiting their knowledge of the industry to save.  You can profit by talking with them about your needs, both in preconstruction interviews and on the job site.  Sometimes the savings are huge like when one sub arranged for an O-B to share a well with a neighbor, saving $5,000. 

Our subs gave us advice, help and freebies when we built the Riverbottoms house.  For example, our framer told us to cross out the line in the credit agreement with our lumberyard which said that returns would be liable for a 25% restocking fee.  That simple move gave us protection and convenience while building that we wouldn't have known about.
 

147. Eliminate change orders

Owner-builder Curtis B. of Valparaiso, IN told me: "I'm in commercial construction, and will break ground end of this season on my own home after 8-10 mos. of planning. We want to make sure there's no change orders.  Curtis and his wife Cheryl are wisely investing most of a year planning because as his construction background has taught him the economics of change orders.

According to Custom Builder Magazine, the average custom home goes over budget by 12-19%.  I love that statistic.  Typical builderspeak.   An average is a single number, not a range.  But if you state it as a range, people can hope for the lower end, which may have been the lowest case measured.  My guess is that actual direct costs went over budget by 19% and with added builder overheads, and interest costs for delay, easily 20% over.  

Construction writer Ron Horne says that the average custom home goes over by 20%.  These are contractor-built homes, and with the average new custom home now over $500,000 a 20% increase could ruin your whole day.  Why does it happen?  Change orders.  You agree to a budget number, you see what you get, and you change your mind.  Then you undergo the cost of taking out and redoing something, far more than doing it right the first time.

The antidote is planning.  If you do your shopping and cross the T's and dot the I's, you'll get what you want the first time.  The average owner-builder reported to me a cost overrun of 5% due to changes.  Much better than contractor-built, and another reason owner-builders save money.  But even the 5% can be eliminated by good planning.


148. Ask for Discontinued or Sale Items

There are sales and there are sales.  It's a lot of bother for a vendor to do an official sale with newspaper ads, remarked prices and special displays.  But they may have items that they need to move informally.  You can make your own sale simply by asking.

O-B William B. of Brooklyn NY said, "When I went looking for ceramic tile, they showed me several styles, and then I said, 'Do you have any discontinued styles, or ones you have a lot of?'  He showed me several then that were only $1 a foot. I found some I was happy with."


149. Have a Barn Raising

I was first introduced to home repair and maintenance through group projects.  A bunch of us would gather to repair the roof of an older person in our church.  We recovered existing roofs several times, and even tackled one where it was the fourth roof replacement and we had to tear off the existing shingles.  It was really fun to see how much an enthusiastic group could do in a hurry.  

When it came time to reshingle my own roof, I invited the same group for a single session and made sure all the materials and tools would be on hand, and planned a big potluck supper for the families.  That was one of the most wonderful days of my life.  I found good sources for materials and got a $10,000 job done for less than $3,000. With kids, there were about 65 people there.

Tom Sawyer made the strategy of getting your friends to do it famous when he painted the white fence in a Mark Twain classic.  You may be able to do the same with some unwieldy tasks on your project.  Robert G. of Tucson, AZ describes it:

"Wall raisings are not uncommon here and is quite something to see 50 or 60 friends and strangers working side by side on a job site. Most come to help and learn how to do themselves. When they are finally ready to build we go help them. There usually is a great deal of experience and lots of practical help from all walks of life at these events. A great way to save thousands building and make important contacts. And talk about enthusiasm!  Walls go up in a weekend usually. The same can be done to stucco the house etc."

A few ideas:  

  • Practice reciprocity - do for those who do for you.
  • Practice safety.  Overdo it, because you bear a liability when people help you.
  • Practice planning.  Make good use of scarce time.
  • Provide supervision. A few skilled people can keep the less skilled from messing up your project.
  • People have done it on framing, roofing, painting, laying sod, and almost any project that needs helpers.

150. Finish Some of House Later

It's not my preference to only finish part of the house before moving in.  I really prefer to be done with the project and turn my attention to other things.   But some O-B's thrive on continuing to build and finish, and they clearly save money doing so.  Dr. Jason B. of Pleasant Grove, Utah told me: "We built our house and left the basement unfinished until after the assessor filed his report, then we started finishing it ourselves.  No sense having twice the square footage to pay taxes on."

By taking this approach, you can save on taxes, loan fees, permit costs, and interest.  When you apply for a loan, you pay a fee on the overall amount.  If the scope of the project is initially smaller, you pay a smaller fee.  Permits with the local building department are the same.  The costs are based on the gross project dollar size.  Later, when you are building, the carrying cost of the gross cost comes through as interest.  You can reduce this amount by taking the project in steps.

Another variant on this strategy is to move in early.  Even though the defined living quarters you are building are not finished, you can get in a bit early and save money.  You save by shutting down the lodging costs you are paying elsewhere and by turning off the construction loan and its interest and beginning on your permanent mortgage payments at a lower interest rate.  Some municipalities let you occupy before things are really finished, others insist that every last lick is in place before issuing the certificate of occupancy.  Owner-Builder Kevin Watson lived in one of the former types of areas:

"The area I will be building in does not require finished floors and painted walls to obtain occupancy and only one bathroom and kitchen must be operational.   That means I can do the painting, flooring, and baths 2-4 after move-in.    This saves cash and time as I see it."

Check with your building inspector as to the exact requirements you must meet.

"Construction Bargain Strategies for the Commando Shopper"



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