Owner Builder Costs and Challenges

Owner Builder Costs and Challenges

Renovations, Tips and Advice, New Homes

The challenges confronting owner builders

More and more people worldwide are deciding, for a variety of reasons, to build their own houses. Some like the idea of the challenge while others strive for the sense of achievement they will get when they complete this challenging task. In addition, most believe that they will save money by being an owner building.

Since the cost-saving factor is usually paramount, various figures are produced from time to time in an attempt to establish just how much money owner-builders can – and do save. Individual circumstances and abilities vary so much that it is difficult to come up with precise figures, but a common estimate ranges between 20 and 30 percent. The question though is: What defines an owner builder?

beechmont new home sectionsCertainly, the person who takes on the role of laying bricks, doing carpentry, laying tiles and painting is going to save a lot more money than a person who simply becomes his or her own project manager, outsourcing all the work. But unless you are skilled in these disciplines or you’re an experienced do-it-yourself builder, you will not achieve the same level of quality without help from at least some professionals.

Various surveys show that in fact, very few so-called owner builders take on every component of the project themselves. A great number, realising the vast challenges involved, in fact simply take on the job of project manager, paying the architect or designer and other professionals including engineers (where required) and accountants for their individual services. They may also take on the function of a building contractor, sub-contracting building professionals and/or tradespeople (including bricklayers and carpenters) to build what has been designed for them.

While very few owner builders rise to the challenge of doing the building work themselves, a fairly high percentage get trained professionals to build a structural shell, and then finish this off themselves.

So as you can see there are many different “levels” of owner building.

There is no doubt that direct involvement in any building process will always bring tangible rewards – provided the project is handled well and the house is completed on time and within budget.

What this means is that if you are determined to owner build, you will need to define exactly which level is right for you. If you weigh up the pros and cons and assess the potential pitfalls before you start this important project, you will be more likely to avoid problems. If you don’t, you may end up spending more money in the long run.

Planning and costing

For a building project to be successful, it is vital to establish a budget and then keep to it. Even before you have plans drawn up, you need to know how much money you have or are able to raise. If you aren’t good with money, consider employing an accountant to help you.

The design of your home is crucial to the overall liveability of the project. Presuming you don’t have the skills to draw your own plans (most owner-builders don’t), make sure that enlist the assistance of a skilled architect and make them aware of your overall budget.

You may be able to help by shopping around for materials and coming up with some of your own specifications, but keep in mind that professional architects know what they are doing, and the more ‘input’ you have the longer it can take for the design to be completed, costing you more money in the long run. If you have the cash you will also be able to take advantage of cash discounts and special offers. Just remember though that contractors often get much better value because they buy in bulk at prices that are generally lower than those available to the one-off amateur builder.

The shell

The skills required to build a structural shell will obviously depend on the type of house you want. If you do have specific building skills and want to do at least some of the work yourself, it will make sense to ensure your skills can be utilised. So if you are good at woodwork, a timber frame home with a suspended wooden floor would seem like an obvious option. But be sure to cost the difference between a concrete slab, together with its finishes (tiles or carpeting for example) before you make a final choice.

Remember that when building contractors take on home-building projects, they work with a variety of tradespeople, who all are expected to work together to ensure progress proceeds at an optimum pace. For example, when bricklayers reach sill height, the carpenters or glaziers will come in and position window frames so that the brickwork can continue without interruption. Similarly, the bricklayers will work with the carpenters or roofing specialists when the brickwork reaches roof height.

Ask yourself whether you will be able to ensure this same continuity. Paying tradespeople to wait around while you finish your projects is not cost effective.

Plumbing and electrics

The laws governing both plumbing and electrical installations are extremely strict, and whatever level of owner building you opt for, you will need to work with registered specialists.

Finishing off

There is no doubt that any motivated owner-builder will be able to save money by doing the finishes. But to be able to do so successfully, you will still need some basic skills. To be able to tackle tiling, for example, you will need to know how to lay tiles correctly. Lots of owner-builders do their own tiling. On the other hand, carpeting is better left to specialised carpet companies that build in a fee for fitting the carpets they sell.

Cupboards are fixtures that some owner-builders opt to do themselves. You can certainly save money by fitting these yourself, but again, you need to know what you are doing – especially when it comes to hanging cupboard doors.

Painting and varnishing are also jobs that you can tackle and save money on. Manufacturers give advice on the suitability of products, and if you follow their instructions, there isn’t a lot you can do wrong – except make a mess!

So as you can see there is much to consider before undertaking an owner builder project. Whilst the savings can be significant, it is dependent on you having a reasonable skill level. If you would like any further advice on this, or any other building or renovation related topic, please feel free to speak to one of our architects at dion seminara architecture.

Dion Seminara Architect


Hi, I am Dion Seminara, practicing architect and licensed general builder for 20 years as well as an environmental sustainable design (ESD) expert. I graduated from Queensland University of Technology (QUT) with honours, QLD in 1989. Registered as an architect in 1991 and registered as a builder in 1992, I am also a fellow member of the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA). Having received 12 ArCHdes Residential Architecture Awards, LJ Hooker Flood Free Home Design Award and the 2016 AIA Regional Commendation for Public Architecture, my expertise with both residential renovation (to all types of houses, especially Queenslanders, 50s/60s/80s), new contemporary homes and luxury residences has earned me a reputation as one of Brisbane's architectural specialists in lifestyle design architecture, interior design and landscape design.