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Savings vs. large-scale-development clone houses?


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By Amir in Montreal, QC on 3/2/2007


Hi,

I was wondering if anybody had any ideas as to the savings I would see if I O-B'd when compared to the selling price of the standard houses built by developers/builders on huge lots they purchase.

I understand the 30-40% when getting a custom builder for my own custom built house but what about when compared to a similar trim / sq. footage-based "standard" home.

Also if I am planning to spend like $160K will I hit any weird problems because I'm not "building big" - i.e. does that mean that considering a savings of roughly 30% the house would have cost me $225K with a custom builder (excluding land)?

Thanks,
Amir

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By Amir in Montreal, QC on 4/12/2007


Bump - I really want an answer to this if possible - a lot of people are discouraging me based on the fact that contractors only make a lot of money because they build a lot of houses...

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By Jon in Ellicott City, MD on 4/13/2007


Amir,

Since you haven't received any feedback, I'll offer an opinion. 

You could never build a house as cheaply as a mega-builder can. The Rylands and Ryans of the world buy land in huge chunks, so the house plots are far cheaper than you could purchase them individually. They're ahead of you before you even break ground. Once the building starts, it gets even more lopsided. They have the process, the materials, and the labor well-tuned to the specific goal of saving every penny they can.  These guys are housebuilding machines. Trying to build the same house more cheaply than them is like trying to underbid McDonalds or Walmart.

What you can do, as an O-B, is build a much better house, a house that is designed to address all your priorities and needs, and do that more cheaply than a custom builder. (The "more cheaply" part is wholly dependent upon your careful planning and diligence. It's not a given.)

I have no idea how much house $160K would build in your neck of the woods, so can't comment much on that. Where I live, you would pay twice that for a Ryland townhouse next to the freeway.

Just my $.02

Jon


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By Amir in Montreal, QC on 4/13/2007


I see, thanks a lot Jon - I'm gonna do a little more research and see what the price differential is like (taking into consideration quality too).

Thanks,
Amir

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By Jay in Elkhart, IN on 4/17/2007


Amir,

Jon is very right. You really have define what you are looking for. With experience in the large-scale homes, I can tell you as Jon stated you can build a better house for about the same price or more, and you can quite possibly get better materials. I can tell you a lot of times these "production houses" are just that - "production"; and no matter what factory assembly line you are working in, quality is always an issue. Especially where there are a lot more variables that can affect the outcome; e.g. subcontracted labor.


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By Neil in New Albany, OH on 1/29/2009


Amir:

I don't know where you are in the process now (I just noticed the post). I suggest that you read the book The Not So Big House. The book suggests ways to have a more livable house, and many of those ways mean a less expensive house. 

Consider bathrooms: One full bath is required. But how many is enough?  Each one costs as much as a car! And who is going to clean them all? Is your house there for your comfort, or are you there to keep up your house?

A production builder may not have floor plans that work for the way you want to live. Too many bathrooms. Do you dine in your dining room? (We do in ours, but we are weird). Do you live in the living room, or do you retreat to the family room? If you don't use these two rooms, don't build them - but no production builder will want to build that house for you. 

By chopping out a bathroom or two, plus the two wasted rooms, your house got smaller and easier to heat and easier to take care of. Either save the money or spend it on nice details like built-ins and woodwork.


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By Faye in Marseilles, IL on 1/29/2009


Amir, I am a little confused from the way you worded your question, but will do my best to answer.

Big developers buy raw land, subdivide it, make improvements (roads, water, etc.), then they also sell standard homes on each lot. I am assuming you are referring to those homes as standard homes. The developer is getting the lot much cheaper as well as doing volume pricing with their subs. They do have a high profit margin because they are taking a huge risk by laying out all that $ up front. I don't know what area you are in, but in my area a lot of the developers are filing bankruptcy because the homes aren't selling and all their cash is tied up in the land. So many of them are selling off just the lots to get some cash flow going.

Without knowing much about your situation, it's hard to say how much you can save. As far as not building "big enough" - I don't think you have to build a huge house to make it marketable and to get equity. You also can't assume that you will automatically have 30% equity just because you O-B.  It depends on many factors--the extras you put in, the amount of work you do, and how much you shop out bids and materials. It can also depend on the style of house. In my area, ranch-style homes are favorable over two-stories. The cost of land is also a big factor. If you spend too much on the land and its improvements--it will affect the value of the whole property.
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By DCG in Lago Vista, TX on 2/7/2009


I'm with Chuck, but I think the margin on a typical custom home in my area is in the 10-20% range, at least per a few custom builders that my wife does title work for.

Can you keep this margin? Probably... Although these two builders do 20 homes per year, so their labor costs are impacted by the ability to provide another job immediately after the first. They tell me it's very hard to put a dollar cost to a single project, because the total cost of something like framing is impacted by how many homes they can keep in the assembly line.

It's easy to make a mistake. The more planning you do and the more specific your plans are--the more likely you are to catch *some* of your possible mistakes in the planning phases.

It's easy to get a bad contractor also. We now do extensive background checks on anyone who's applying to work at our job site.

I think O-Bs can get pretty close on prices of most major materials--maybe the same as builder cost. I think O-Bs can do better in terms of finish materials if they shop around... but finish materials account for a minority of project costs--under $10K in our case.

Note, I'm in TX and labor is cheap (as are the $$ per sq ft), so margins may be higher somewhere else in the US.


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By DCG in Lago Vista, TX on 2/7/2009


Chuck,

What are the typical responsibilities for a consultant? Is there any liability? 

 


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By Faye in Marseilles, IL on 2/7/2009


Chuck and other members, your obvious angling to get yourself hired as an O-B consultant is getting pretty sickening and very desperate. You came right out and asked me for a job in another thread and it was removed by the moderator. If you are such a great consultant--why are you trolling O-B forums? I hope that you are removed from this site.
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By Michael in Cave Creek, AZ on 2/7/2009


Unfortunately, in this economy many people who used to spent their time building or designing don't seem to have too much to do. So they will try just about anything to get a job.

Some people will benefit from a GC, a consultant, a site superintendent or an inspector. Others are quite comfortable handling projects on their own. If there are questions, you can always bring in experts to deal with the questions that arise. Unless you feel you need a lot of handholding throughout, buy your consulting a la carte as needed. 

As far as GCs, builders and consultants getting better prices at all, I think it is unlikely if the O-B knows how to shop and stays away from the Yellow Pages. A lot of successful O-Bs are connected with the same trade-supply houses that the local GCs and trade contractors use, either through their "real" jobs or friends.

I think an O-B who spends a lot of time on site and asks questions, might make fewer mistakes than a GC trying to manage multiple jobs all over town.

Just my opinions.


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By Chuck in Charlotte, NC on 2/7/2009


The responsibilities of a consultant depend entirely upon how the contract with the owner is outlined. I've seen contracts where the consultant only meets the owner three times during the course of the whole project. I have also seen contracts where all the consultant does is provide the owner with a list of subs and suppliers, whereas other contracts require the consultant to meet with the owner weekly to go over what has been done in the last week and spell out what should be happening and what to look for in the coming week.

No matter how may or few times the consultants meets with the owner or how the consultant's contract is spelled out, most everyone I have ever seen puts all of the liability on the owner-builder. That is why a consulting fee is so much less than a GC's fee. The GC is responsible for the liability and the consultant is not.

If you are considering hiring a consultant, meet with a few and review what each contract offers. If you are uncomfortable with anything in it, change it to your liking and have an attorney review it to make sure you are protected as much as possible.

I hope this was helpful,

Chuck


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By Amir in Montreal, QC on 2/7/2009


Very Interesting reading these posts one year after I posted my original question. In the end I bought a home at a good price and am doing renovations myself as time goes on (gives me some experience in the trades so I get an idea of things...). I'll probably O-B one day -- it seems like a great challenge and very rewarding.

In terms of getting a consultant as a non-trained individual who just has a good head on their shoulders, good organizational skills and an interest in the work, I would definitely have gotten a consultant/supervisor type who would be able to help me with:

a) evaluating work of the subs
b) connections to subs
c) general guidance and advice

In my research, I never found a response to the question that, "how would a layman know if the PEX piping is installed in the proper or best way" and that is why I think a building supervisor/consultant is necessary for a noob!!

Thanks for info - I hope other people benefit!

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By Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 2/8/2009


Chuck,

Honestly, I was getting the same emotional response to your posts that Faye put into words...  O-Bs are CONSTANTLY told "you can't do this... It is just too hard... That is why contractors make the big money being contractors..." This whole website and the books that go with it are designed to help dispel that myth.  And I still believe it is a myth.  And your posts, that reinforce that myth that we are all trying to dispel, cut against the grain of this website and therefore are a bit aggravating at times.

As Mark constantly says, it is a matter of taking the time to research and plan.  Yes, I "can" hire a consultant to shorten the required research and planning time, at a cost to me...  Or I can spend more time researching and planning.  I bought my land almost two years ago now.  I have been researching and planning for the last year.  I'll probably research and plan for another year.  I am educating myself to the extreme. I'm doing more "planning" than Mark suggests has proven to be successful for numerous other O-Bs. And you are here making posts that imply that a consultant is still needed. Many of us don't "buy" that, even if you believe it sincerely.

Of course, I don't consider myself the "average" prospective O-B.  I have an engineering and construction background.  I have construction experience among family members, and I have developed relationships with most supply houses in this area.  I also have guidance from my architect.  Faye is not average either...  BUT I believe Mark, that the "average" O-B can do this, (even with just the help of a draftsman for a "typical" home) and can develop a lot of equity in the process.  I hate to see someone discourage that, no matter how noble your intentions.

I have to admit, I was pleased with your response to this thread.  You responded professionally and compellingly regarding the innocence of your actual intentions.  You obviously "believe" what you are saying and are only trying to help. But there are going to be many people on this website that don't agree with your opinions regarding the necessity of a consultant and believe that Mark has documented the numbers to prove it...  And when you publicly disagree with the whole "thesis" of this website, over and over again, you can probably expect some backlash.

The reason this website has more O-Bs coming to it than any others, is because we find the information here that does give us the confidence and the plan for how to succeed as O-Bs, as PROVEN in Mark's documentation. Just don't post things that undermine that thesis unless you want to provide surveys that document and counter Mark's extensive evidence that an O-B really can do this. Your beliefs may be sincere, but they come across as scare tactics when all of Mark's evidence points to the contrary.

In regards to material costs, O-B's who take their time and plan are better shoppers.  For the GC, their time is money.  They go to their routine suppliers for quotations and don't shop around. Their suppliers know this and stay in a competitive "ballpark" to keep their business, but pad their quotes as much as they can get away with.  They know the GC isn't going to shop around spending extra hours to save a few hundred dollars at a more expensive cost of their valuable time. For the O-B, their time is an investment in a dream, and not perceived as the same kind of "expense."  In fact, for most O-Bs bargain shopping is almost a "fun" hobby and an enjoyable way to spend any available time.  In contrast to the GCs, the material suppliers know that the O-B getting quotes from multiple suppliers is going to pinch every penny, and they give them the best price they can manage in order to try to secure the sale that isn't as likely to happen otherwise.  The O-B will also search eBay, reclaimed material stores, Habitat for Humanity stores, etc. for "real" bargains.  Finding a "one time" bargain is not as valuable to a GC as the long-term relationships from bulk commodity purchases; the GC will never shop for such "bargains."

In regards to labor costs, smart O-Bs tend to get more quotations from more subs than a GC will.  The GC likes to feed their reliable subs and pays them a premium to keep them coming back to their projects and to get preferred scheduling from them. It is an absolute "crock" that GC's get better sub pricing than an O-B.  Admittedly, GC's have more leverage with their subs to prevent scheduling delays. 

In regards to project efficiency savings, GC's spread their "planning" across multiple projects at once, and I believe a dedicated O-B does a better job at managing their own project than a GC does. I've seen too many GC projects where the sub crews are on-site twiddling their thumbs waiting for supplies, while no one has even been notified and are not following up on why the supplies haven't arrived.  That doesn't happen on my sewer construction projects, and it won't happen when I build a house.  And I'm certainly not going to pay a GC to create such inefficiencies for me.

As far as dedication of the subs to my project goes, the GC may have more of the wallet of the sub-contractor, but I can win the hearts of the crews in a way that no GC ever will...  A few well-timed pizza deliveries go a long way.  I am going to inspire pride in their work as well.  They are going to be excited to be contributing to the creation of a true work of art.  I am building an energy-efficient home the likes of which none of the craftsmen will likely ever have had an opportunity to participate in before.  And I am going to make sure they feel like craftsmen and not just "laborers."

I am going to have my project written up in the local newspapers to encourage others to use green-building practices.  I am going to invite all of the local home builders for scheduled open-houses to showcase the key green building features going into my home.  My house is being built in a high-profile neighborhood of 5,000 sf to 10,000 sf houses.  This will also be an opportunity for these subs to showcase their work to all of the GCs in the area, which means they are going to want to do their VERY BEST on my high profile project.  I will give the suppliers/installers of these technologies the opportunity to either come give presentations to the GCs themselves, if they wish, or to send me presentation materials that I can give on their behalf.  (I give around 45 engineering/construction oriented technical presentations per year around the world.) There will be an informational package detailing all of the technologies used in the house and contact information for all of the sub-contractors.  This information will also be provided on a website for the house.

I am going to let every construction worker know that when the house is completed, I am going to host a special open house for the community and will have special hours specifically for them to bring their families and friends to see the house that they helped to create.  (Prior to us moving in, so that I can clean it up afterward, I am even considering hosting a huge "party" for all of the construction workers and their families where they can all come for the day and use the pool, sauna, hot tub, etc.)  They can also see and share it all from the house website.  During construction, I am going to try to regularly put posts on the website about subs or specific workers who went above and beyond to make my house an even better home than it might have been otherwise.  There will also be a bulletin board at the job site specifically for sharing such posts.

No GC or consultant will ever be able to get the workers to take "ownership" of their creation the way I am going to. The upsides are that I will get special attention to detail from the craftsmen on my house, and I am going to draw plenty of public awareness to green building practices.  The downside is I am going to be turning my house into a local "celebrity" with all of the sometimes unwanted attention that comes with such status.  I intend to open my home for the annual ASES Solar Home Tour and perhaps a couple other such tours per year.  We will showcase the solar hot water heaters, the passive solar design (including the solar sauna), the pre-planning for future PV panels, the tight envelope, the energy-efficient appliances and fixtures, the energy efficient heating/cooling system, the water-efficiency systems, etc., etc.

I've rambled a bit, but I can't imagine ANY GC being able to accomplish what I think I am going to be able to accomplish as an O-B.  And while a consultant might be able to slightly "enhance" what I can do, I don't think it is worth the typical cost of such a consultant.  I looked into using a local retired contractor as a consultant, but honestly, I can find the subs as well as he can, and I'd rather spend that kind of money on a general site superintendent who will be at the site catching problems as or before they happen instead.  I'm gathering the information (from the suppliers, the internet, books, etc.) to develop and provide site inspection checklists for every step of the construction process (after the house is built and completed I promise to upload the final version of such materials to OBB as a thank you), which I can use together with my grown children, bother-in-law, father, and site superintendent (if hired).

Once my house is built, the architect is a friend, and if he is willing, I may get his permission to also turn all of the house plans into "freeware" as well.  (It is primarily my design, anyway, after all.)  Maybe such a public "donation" will encourage more green building in America.

Regards,

Grant 

P.S. One last note on the house.  I probably won't be finishing the walk-out basement when we build (over 3,000 sf basement).  It is just bonus space for big pool parties and for visiting guests.  It also functions as a passive temperature buffer for the rest of the house via passive convective flow from the bonus attic space down from the north end of the house to the basement space and then up from the south end of the house.  But after we have the house committed to the ASES Home Tour, I think I'm going to go around to green material suppliers and ask for donations of scraps from their projects and do a hodge-podge finish of all the spaces in the basement (and perhaps the attic as well) incorporating as many different green building materials as I can manage (and putting them all into the solar tour hand-out folder), so that tour visitors can touch and experience as many different available materials as possible.  Since such "madness" will have such a good reason, I think I will be able to finish the basement and attic very inexpensively this way.


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By Faye in Marseilles, IL on 2/8/2009


Grant, Very eloquent! Having received the first message from Chuck along with a link to his website, I was irate and that's why I was so blunt. I simply don't agree that consultants are necessary to O-B a home and don't understand why Chuck keeps harping on it if he truly only wants to help. O-Bs come here for advice and I think the advice they get for FREE here is probably every bit as good as they would get from a consultant. If I didn't have the knowledge or time to manage my own project, than I would hire a builder to do it for me. Bottom line is that this site is geared towards owner-building. So does it makes sense to tell the members that they should hire a "pro?" I don't think so. You and I do have more experience in the trades and our projects are also more ambitious, but I truly feel that most people can O-B successfully if they put the work into it. They should never be told they can't, especially here.

Thanks,

Faye
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By Faye in Marseilles, IL on 2/8/2009


Grant, BTW what do you think of my stained concrete floors around the pool? 1,200 sf of flooring -- $150 and two days work! I think besides the radiant heat, the floors are going to be one of my favorite things in the house.
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By Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 2/8/2009


The stained floors are absolutely gorgeous. I've just almost convinced my wife that this is the route we should go as well...

I'm somewhat shocked at how inexpensively you managed to do it and would love to hear more...

Regards,

Grant


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By Faye in Marseilles, IL on 2/8/2009


Grant, I was very lucky to find a supplier through eBay that turned out to be 10 miles from my home. I used two gallons and it was $45 per gallon for the stain. I rented a commercial shop vac for $20 for clean up and then put on $15 worth of wax. I used a garden sprayer that you find at the hardware store to spray on the stain. It was very easy and actually a lot of fun. Hubby was a little nervous too, but told him we could always tile over it! Now he loves it.
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By Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 2/8/2009


I paid cash for the lots, no interest. Besides, while the timing was premature, I got the property at half of its tax-appraisal value (I only paid $42K even though it was listed for over $90K) by purchasing it when I did (the last joint property of a divorcing couple; when I offered to buy it, it allowed them to complete their divorce settlement), and thereby walked into a lot of equity on the perfect passive solar lot in a prime neighborhood (actually a little "too prime" for my tastes). I'm only out the non-homestead property taxes I've had to pay. Walking into an extra $50K or so of equity was well worth spending the money earlier than planned. 

In the interim, I have not only been planning, but have also been building additional equity to contribute to the future project. (Building equity in several rental properties I own.) I am also waiting on my father to finish paying me back $45K he owes me. I got $8K back from him this past year. We've also been purchasing the furniture that will go into the house on zero-interest terms and making the payments with the difference that we will be applying to our higher mortgage payment in the future. By doing this now, we have been able to prove to ourselves that we can comfortably handle the higher mortgage/interest/insurance payment that is going to come with our dream house. Besides, we don't want to be purchasing tens of thousands of dollars worth of furniture AFTER we get straddled with the new mortgage payment.

All of this "planning" time is allowing me to save up enough equity that I can build the house I want to build and still stay within the Freddie/Fannie mortgage loan limits. (I could probably get approved for a "jumbo loan," but I'd rather not pay the higher interest.) Walking in with an expected appraisal potentially more than two times my mortgage cost (although, I may not finish the attic and the basement until after my COA and mortgage appraisal are set in stone, so as not to pay higher property taxes) should get me an excellent interest rate... particularly with talks of 4% mortgages coming down the pike... I can almost guarantee those won't be offered on "jumbo loans."

Regards,

Grant


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By Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 2/8/2009


Chuck,

If you encourage a few people who would have given up on the idea of owner-building to go through with it anyway with the help of a consultant, that would be wonderful! Kudos to you... 

But I "feel" like the inertia is too heavily against prospective O-Bs finding the confidence that they can do it on their own. With all of my background I doubted myself, until this website gave me the courage (and the ammunition to convince my wife <grin>). If all you are saying is, "If you can't O-B on your own, you can still O-B with help," then that is a worthy message. Just please don't feed people's doubts about their own abilities and encourage them to just automatically pay to get a consultant. That is exactly the mentality this website is trying to fight... And as I described in my post (and as Mark describes in his publications), you were certainly short-selling the prospective advantages of O-B'ing. 

Quite a few of us, will post to counter any such "advice" as was given in this thread. Having said that, I have appreciated many of the expert opinions I have seen you share in several threads that help O-B's recognize things they might have missed. That is what we are all trying to do in this forum for each other, and for "free."

Once again, not begrudging your experience, expertise, or your livelihood, it's just not what these forums are about...  Builders earn an honest living too, just like consultants. And some people genuinely need a builder and shouldn't be O-B'ing at all, not even with the help of a consultant. And unofficially speaking, as far as I can tell, this website isn't designed to attract those people. And quite frankly, it doesn't appear to be designed to attract your kind of clients either. They might pass through here, but they aren't likely to stay and participate much. This website is designed to appeal to and provide resources for those of us who want to O-B while holding each other's hands (for free) and without paying a consultant to hold our hands.

Regards,

Grant


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