Preparing the House Site
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Very few people are qualified to perform all the construction steps for building their home, but you may be able to act as your own General Contractor (GC), hiring your subcontractors (subs) in the order they are required.
There may be some aspects of the labor you can do yourself, but only by understanding the entire process can you decide what work to tackle.
This guide outlines the basics and the chronology of organizing a house-build all by yourself. Hiring your sub-contractors on an as-you-need-them basis and saving money where you can by putting in sweat equity is the single biggest money-saver when it comes to building a house.
Pros and Cons of Being Your Own General Contractor
Pros: You can save an enormous amount of money. General contractors charge 15% to 25% of the total price for building your house. On a $200,000 job, you save a minimum of $30,000 by not hiring a GC.
Cons: You might easily get in over your head. Good contractors do earn their fee. They have an established list of sub-contractors ("subs"), know the permitting offices, have suppliers, and know how to coordinate to eliminate or minimize downtime. Good contractors earn their keep.
So let's imagine what goes into serving as the General Contractor for a house where plans are already drawn up by an architect.
The Site and Construction Basics
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First, it's time to get situated—literally and figuratively. Not only are you getting your project straight in your mind and on paper, but you are literally sitting your intended home on the building site.
- Clear the building site of brush and other debris, down to ground level and at least 25 feet around the planned house perimeter. This is often a separate labor crew that performs this work.
- A surveyor stakes out the lot, based on original plot drawings that indicate the property boundaries.
- Make alterations to the site's topography if necessary to alter the water flow across to the site. This often requires a contractor with earth-moving equipment.
- Order a roll-off dumpster to handle refuse during the building project.
- Order one or more portable toilets. This is essential unless you expect various subcontract laborers to use your home's bathroom.
- Order temporary utilities from the power company.
- Call an electrician to hook up a temporary electrical panel. This is often mounted on an existing utility pole.
Pouring Concrete Footings and Foundation
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Things will start getting serious now—both in terms of labor and spending money—with excavation and installation of foundations and slabs. Everything before this has felt like annoying prep work; now, you'll feel like you're building something.
This work is almost always done by excavation contractors and foundation specialists—an entirely different group of contractors than the carpentry crews that will soon be on site. This is the point of no return. Footings and foundation comprise such a large part of your entire house building cost that stopping after the foundation has been built means that you will have wasted a lot of money. Plus, you'll have a massive amount of concrete or masonry work cluttering a site, making a sale of the property exceedingly difficult.
Here's What Happens
Usually, you or the contractor will bring in a separate company whose sole task is to build foundations, as the job requires very specialized skills.
- The contractor digs trenches for frost footings.
- Inspectors arrive to check the dimensions of footing trenches.
- The Contractor pours concrete for footings.
- Footing drains are constructed, designed to drain water away from the footers and protect them.
- Contractor builds vertical foundations walls resting on the footings, using either poured concrete of concrete cinder blocks. Other types of foundations are sometimes used, though they are rare.
- The foundation is waterproofed all the way up to the finished grade level. Holes are created in the foundation wall to allow for the routing of water supply and drain lines.
Slab Variation: Running Plumbing and Electrical Lines
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If you are laying a slab-type foundation, you will bring in plumbers and electricians to "rough-in" some of the services prior to pouring that concrete slab:
- Plumbers: Pipes are laid down that will eventually get covered with concrete.
- Electricians: If electrical lines will run through the concrete slab via metal conduits, now is the time for these conduits to be run.
Pouring the Concrete Slabs
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With everything in place, it's time for the subcontractor to pour concrete.
- For a house slab, the contractor will first install slab foam board insulation.
- A 4-inch minimum gravel base goes over the foam board, forming the base for the concrete.
- A plastic vapor barrier comes next.
- Wire mesh reinforcement is next laid down, positioned, so it is raised slightly above grade. This will allow the reinforcement to sit in the middle of the concrete layer, where it will offer the most strength reinforcement.
- The contractor now pours the concrete slab, likely from ready-mix trucks that deliver a large quantity of concrete.
- If you're building a garage or basement, this is also the time to pour concrete in those places. It's expensive to bring the concrete contractor back for another pour.
Framing, Siding and Roofing
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With the excavation, foundation, and concrete work done, soon you'll start to recognize your project as a house. That's because now the framing carpenters will arrive to put up the lumber framework for the floors, walls, and ceilings, and then move to the sheathing, siding and roofing installation. This work can happen with remarkable swiftness. In the space of a week or two, you may suddenly recognize your house as a house.
Some homeowners are able to assist with the work at this point, though normally this work will be done by a skilled carpenter crew. Some homeowners, though, may tackle portions of the work, such as laying the floor sheathing over the joists or hanging wallboard.
Here is the general sequence of work for the carpentry crew:
- Work up a framing order of needed lumber, nails, builder's felt or house wrap, and adhesives, based on your building plans.
- When good weather arrives, the carpenter crew arrives to frame the house walls, including the floor, ceiling and roof skeleton. Framing is the basic "shell" of the house, minus siding and roof surface. The rough openings for windows, doors, and skylights will be framed at this time. The basic sheathing of the wall and roof surfaces concludes this stage.
- Install the windows, doors, and skylights. Usually, this will be done by the same carpentry crew that did the framing, though sometimes a manufacturer's crew will come in to do this work. It is also a job some homeowners can tackle. At this point, when the building is sheathed, and doors and windows are installed, the subcontractors doing the electrical and plumbing work may now arrive to begin the rough-in portion of their job.
- The finished siding surface is now installed over the sheathing after the house sheathing is first wrapped with some form of weather guard membrane. Again, this work is often done by the same contractor who did the framing and sheathing.
- Finally, the roofers come in to complete the application of roof flashings and the shingles or other finished roof surfaces. The basic shell of the house is now completed.
Installation of Rough-In Electrical and Plumbing, Then Insulation
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Now the interior work on your house begins with the arrival of masons, electricians, plumbers and HVAC specialists.
- Masons build the chimney if your home has one. This generally involves the application of brick or stone veneer over a base of concrete block that was laid by the foundation contractor.
- Electricians and plumbers do the rough-in work for electrical circuits, plumbing pipes, and HVAC system ductwork. This work is obviously easier without the wall, flooring, and ceiling surfaces in place. After completion, these contractors will disappear for awhile, then return after the walls and ceilings are in place, to complete the final connections of various fixtures.
- Inspections are made of rough-ins. Arranging for permits and inspections are handled by the contractor, but if you are tackling this work yourself, the responsibility for inspections falls on you.
- Install insulation in walls and attic. This is sometimes done by the carpenter crew or a specialty contractor, but many homeowners find that this is work they can do themselves to save money.
Hanging Drywall and Installing Trim
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In the next few steps, the interior will begin to look finished, as wall and ceiling surfaces get installed.
These are steps that some homeowners can take on themselves, provided they have good DIY skills. If not, then this beginning finish work is often done by a crew of finish carpenters, usually part of the same subcontractor team who provided the framing carpentry work. Finally, the interior will start to look like a real interior. Here is the typical order of tasks.
- Drywall is hung throughout the house. All wall and ceiling surfaces are usually hung before any further work continues.
- The drywall seams are taped, mudded with joint compound, and finish sanded.
- All interior walls and ceilings are primed. This is often done with spraying equipment and happens very quickly, as there is no need to worry about trim moldings and floor surfaces.
- All trim moldings are installed, including door and window casings and crown moldings.
- All cabinetry is hung in bathrooms, kitchens, and other areas.
Painting and Finish Work
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After the messy work of installing drywall and priming the walls is done, it's time to bring in the painter again.
- Walls are painted, and ceilings are either painted or finished with texture. Again, these are jobs homeowners can tackle themselves to save money.
- Kitchen and bathroom countertops are installed. This may be done by the finish carpenters, by homeowners, or by cabinet and countertop specialists.
- Installation and hook-up of finished electrical and plumbing fixtures are done. Due to the fact that there are code issues involved here, only the most skilled DIYers should tackle this.
Installing Flooring: Final Cleaning
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The interior of your home is now nearing completion. Still, a few things left to do:
- Lay down the finish flooring surfaces throughout the house. They may include carpeting, hardwood, laminate flooring, ceramic tile and other options. This is often a job for yet another subcontractor, though homeowners can tackle the installation of some kinds of flooring.
- Cleaning up the worksite. That's what your dumpster is for. If you choose not to do this yourself, there are companies you can hire that specialize in cleaning up after construction work.
Installing Driveway and Landscaping; Having Final Inspections
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The last lap in your DIY house-building project involves the exterior work, along with a bit of red tape to clear up.
- Complete exterior landscaping. This can sometimes be a DIY project, but there are also many contractors who will design and install a stylish landscape for you. This is labor-intensive work, so think carefully before taking it on yourself.
- Call the disposal company to pick up the dumpster and specify that you do not need a replacement.
- Arrange for final inspections by the permitting agencies.
- Final walk-through if you are using a general contractor. If you are acting as your contractor, you will "walk-through" after each trade (sub-contractor) has finished his work.
- Final inspection by your lender, if you financed the building of your house with a construction loan.