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Thank you, Mark and Elaine.
Cary O., Menifee, CA

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.
Interview with the Nortons
Before Breaking Ground

Tell me about yourselves.

We are a young couple college graduates, I'm a stay at home mom, and John is a computer programmer.

What made you want to build your own house?

We couldn't afford to buy a nice one, and we wanted too much for what we could find. We dicided to do it how we want it.


Do you think you can save money doing this?


Are you doing the actual work yourselves?

Some, but just a little. Electrical, tile, landscaping, maybe wood flooring.

What resources do you bring to the project?

Organizationally, we use computers, spreadsheets, that sort of thing. We know people who have volunteered to help us, like the tile layer, the hardwood installer, my dad, who is a jack of all trades. We have a friend who will inspect our electrical and advise us. We know maybe ten owner-builders, who have been a big help. We are on a limited budget, and that motivates us to search for good prices. We are getting well-educated by doing interviews and research before starting. We are trying to get it all laid out before we start.

What are you building?

2,000 square foot single story brick home with hipped roof, two car garage, full basement, two and a half baths and three bedrooms plus an all purpose room.

What kinds of features will be in it?

Hardwood floors, tile, two tone paint, vaulted ceiling in family room, and ten foot elsewhere, bay windows on back, eating nook, island in kitchen, corner sink with window in kitchen, prewiring for alarm, telephone, automated lighting, satellite, data.. Solid surface countertops, jetted tub, separate tub and shower, large walk-in master closet, large pantry. French doors off master to backyard, kitchen desk, crown moldings.

What ideas do you have to save money?

Doing some of our own work, thorough bidding process, with a round robin period where we look for soft spots in the original bids and get improved pricing, building in the off-season, talking to people to duplicate their best deals, spreadsheet bid comparison, getting five bids in each category.

Tell us about your neighborhood.

All custom home, every floor plan has to be different, the outside has to be stone, brick or stucco, 2,000 square foot minimum livable, many in the neighborhood are owner-building, a good source of suport. Quiet, big lots, not cookie cutter, good schools, not far from the freeway to Salt Lake City.

What have you done on the project so far?

We have researched subs, interviewed subs, interviewed other owner-builders who gave us lots of sub lists, looked into appliances, flooring, and other items. Found cheap and some free fill dirt that we needed. Gotten plans drawn up. Gone to home shows, we've kept a journal, written a list of features, written a resource list, made a list of questions, read The Owner-Builder Book , set up financing, done a preliminary budget, walked thorugh model homes getting sample measurements.

What is your schedule?

We will hopefull break ground in October, 2000. Our optimistic completion time is four months, and pessimistic is six months. We're not going into seven months, let me tell you!.

What's your budget?

Well, we have been discussing that. We were going to try to stay at $100,000 for a smaller house, but we had to make it bigger, and we decided to add more brick, and a steeper roof. Now we are looking $120,000. That's $60 a square foot finished.

What does a house like this cost in the market?

The one next door is going for $260,000 and I think ours would be $250,000.

So, how much would you save?

The lot was $55,000 so we hope to save maybe $70,000. Not bad for a step-up home.


Has this been a big stress for you?

Not yet. Well, maybe it has been. The main stress is money, but it's not only that. There are so many decisions to make, and you fear that if you make the wrong decision you will wind up hating your house. However, it's not so stressful that it's an overwhelming thing.

How do you cope?

Go to bed, don't talk to each other, but you know, you just get over it. You have to compromise on some things. He has some things he won't compromise on, and so do I. There, we just compromised while we were talking. John suggested a door off the porch into the garage, and I said, No way I'm having a door off my porch into the garage that will be ugly." So I shot it down. John's reasoning is that since I stay home all day, I get the benefit of the doubt usually.

Have you ever done this before?

No. But my father built a house, and had a big fiasco with a general contractor, and had to finish it himself as the contractor. And lots of our friends have done it.

What roles do you each take?

We have tried to split it up as much as possible. John takes plumbing, footings, foundation, pretty much the first half. Jessica is taking all the aesthetic things like cabinets, windows, floor coverings, brick, shingles, mostly the second half of construction. All the other preparation and work we've done together.

Are you enjoying this?

Some parts of it. The plans. The funnest thing was to see your ideas come out on paper. Going places looking at things, seeing what we like has been enjoyable.

What did you learn about the process of interviewing subs?

For Jessica it was helpful in a few ways. I got some idea about cost, I realized I could talk to these people and not be intimidated. I don't know if I really got a lot of useful information, though I got some ideas. I don't know if it's that I'm female, but they don't give me a lot of information. The basics about cost, and who you really want bids from and who you don't.

What's been the most helpful thing you've done so far?

Talk with other owner-builders and get list of subs from them. See the work the subs have done. You're not so blind after that. You talk to people they've had to deal with. You find out about people who do a good jub, but it's iimpossible to get them to come back and take care of little things. So that's been helpful. Also to see other people's finished products has been helpful.


What would you say to other people who are thinking about doing this?

I would have to say a couple of things. If you're not willing to put the time in... You are going to get bigger savings and a better if you put more time into it. I've known people who have owner-built and put less time into it, and they do get a good house and they save. But, I don't know that they've gotten the best savings. I think it's a good way to get the house you want and the quality you want. You don't have to worry about a contractor putting in lesser quality material and lesser quality subs. Even if people aren't really after a huge financial savings, like one person we know, you can still get exactly what you want in every detail. And our friend will be very happy with her house.

After Completion.

How do you like your house?

We like it.

Has your life changed?

We have room to put things. And a mortgage payment!

What did you learn?

Not to do this again for a while.

What would you not do the same again?

Try to have a full-time job and build a house. It takes a lot of time to find the best deals. My neighbor is owner-building and he is self-employed, and he has found better deals.

Where did you spend too much?

What surprised us was the cost of concrete work, soffit and facia, rain gutter, electrical we probably overdid.

What were your biggest bargains?

Painting. The flooring. Cabinets. Appliances.

Did you get anything for free?

We had some friends who helped. Nothing else.

Did you put anything into the house that facilitates a hobby or activity you enjoy?

Not really.

What do you like about your house?

Everything. The fact that it’s our own. We picked everything in here and so we like it a lot.

What are things you wish you had done, or thought of, when you were building this house?

A way to cover the back deck because of its western exposure. It’s hot in the evening. Wish I would have thought out light switch placement in the little bathroom and light switch in my office.

Did you manage to put some little luxuries in your design?

Night lights. The photocells to trigger them. Big kitchen. Hardwood. That’s nice. Master bath with the travertine stone is luxurious. The terrific mountain views.

What was your most valuable planning/preparation activity?

Budgeting. We had a somewhat realistic view about what things would cost. We didn’t run out of money.

How did you find other owner-builders to network with?

The neighborhood has lots of owner-builders. Also talking with people at work turned up a couple more owner-builders to talk with.

How did you find a construction lender?

Through a friend who knew a mortgage broker.

How did you find good subs?

We didn’t always. Referrals don’t mean much. The problem is the referral doesn’t mean you’ll like them. We ran into unreliable people who wouldn’t return calls or show up, even though they were recommended.

Was there any benefit to the time you spent on-site?

I spent a lot of time on-site. During framing for example, they had questions every day that I could give answers.

What work did you do yourself?

Electrical, tile in hall bath, half-bath and laundry area. Prep work for painting, temporary deck to pass inspection. Cleaning up was a lot more work than I envisioned.

What work did you regret doing yourself?

Cleaning up. I’d budget for that next time. Electrical was challenging in the cold weather.

Any regrets about the subcontractors you used?

Where do we start? Yes and no. No guarantees there were better people out there. Some were very slow but did good work. Nobody was really fast. Some wouldn’t return phone calls when they didn’t show up. The cabinet guys took way longer than planned, but they are very good cabinets. Some would say they were "men of their word" and still didn’t come back to fix mistakes. When that happened, I realized I could never pay a guy until the work is right.

Any big problems with subs, for instance, did any of them lie to you?

Telling us they were going to be here. That happened a lot. One who said they would make it right, but after getting paid wouldn’t come back.

How much did you spend?

About $70 a foot.

How much did you save?

Probably $50,000.

Based on what?

What houses are selling for here, and what a general would have cost us.

What if a contractor had built your house with all of the extras in it?

On that basis more than $50,000. We have a lot of extras like can lights, wood floor, upgrades on all the finish material like granite tiles on countertop, cherry cabinets, vacuum and alarm prewire.

Did you have any problems with inspectors, did they hold you up?

Only one. I had to fight a few battles.

What could have been done to avoid that?

Ask for a different inspector.

Would you do it again?

Now, no. Down the road, maybe. We built this house to live in, not to sell.

Do you have any advice for other o-b's?

Basically, it’s going to be hard no matter what. Much more work than you think it is.

Good web sites you could recommend? We didn’t find a lot of others that helped in a practical way.

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