A couple build the frame of their house

When the plan pulls together, being an owner-builder is rewarding. But many first-time DIYers have visions of saving money and enjoying getting their hands dirty, often oblivious to potential overspending, the long hours and mishaps.

For advice and ideas, follow our simple guide to putting up your own house.

What it takes

As an owner-builder, you take on any work in constructing or altering a dwelling, including supervising and coordinating. All the risks and responsibilities of a registered builder are yours, such as overseeing tradespeople, getting permits and approvals, and ensuring safety.

A permit is required for work costing more than $5000 and you must do an approved owner-builder course for work more than $12,000.

Building is regulated in different states based on the Building Code of Australia, which provides a legal framework and technical standards you should keep in mind at every step.

Do your homework first, says legal advisory service HomeSource, as the state departments keep tabs on illegal building projects.

Building with a difference

Some owners take on building if they have a unique idea and can’t find a builder to do the job.

David and Susan Adler wanted to be totally self-sufficient, living off their garden and animals. They also wanted to establish an eco-friendly home and a centre where they could educate others about green living.

David used recycled tyres for the house framework, with timber boards between to keep the mud in place.

Working alone

As an owner-builder, the responsibilities and liabilities that are usually the preserve of a registered builder become yours, including overseeing work practices, meeting legal standards and putting up the right signage.

At age 73, Alan Laing drew up the plans for his dream passive-solar home. He laid 11,000 blocks himself, always keeping his mobile phone within reach as he mostly worked alone. As a former sports therapist and aircraft engineer, Alan recognised the importance of safety on site.

Expert advice

Licensed builder, TV presenter and writer Luke Van Dyck says you’re responsible for everyone on site, from qualified tradespeople to visiting friends.

‘Display the site safety instructions and carry out a full site induction,’ he advises. ‘This means walking visitors around and pointing out potential hazards, emergency exits, first aid and amenities.’

Here are a few extra tips from Luke:

  • Have a Materials Safety Data Sheet for recording hazardous substances brought on site.

  • Use scaffolding, as it’s safer than ladders.

  • A safety folder with all the right documentation should be kept on site for quick reference.

How to save money

A main reason for building your own home is usually to save money. Keeping a concise budget that reflects your actual spending is tricky given unexpected costs that invariably crop up, so it’s important to budget for hidden extras.

Nathan Insall bought a termite-riddled home, fixed the damage and prepared to build a new property on the site. But when the bank wouldn’t increase the loan as he’d anticipated, he was forced to sell another investment property to pay for building a new house.

A quantity surveyor can advise on construction costs, breaking down the job in detail for accurate budgeting, but follow these tips:

  • Stick to a timetable, as every extra day on site costs more.

  • Overspending often happens when owner-builders make last-minute decisions to include more expensive items than planned.

  • A simple actual-vs-budget graph can help you see where money is going and keep control financially.

Hiring tradies

Check that each contractor you hire is properly qualified and has a current licence, and draw up a contract so you both understand the work conditions and expectations of the project. It also serves as a legal document if anything goes wrong.

Having worked at the local council, Liz Smith had interacted with tradespeople and knew what to expect. She says getting tough with them is part of the process, especially when you’re paying an hourly rate.

She even terminated a contract with one she thought took too long. Liz advises getting four different quotes before hiring, and visit other building sites to check out their work.

Contract talk

Building inspector Kevin Blundell says that it’s a legal requirement for work over $1000 to have a contract that protects both parties. While legally binding, these are jargon-free and include clauses specific to the project.

The contract has a five-day cooling-off period, and outlines costs and progress, with guidelines for dispute resolution. Before hiring, ask a tradie for:

  • Their professional licence number.

  • Examples of their previous work.
  • Their current workload.

  • How much supervision they need.
The price of the deposit and costs for the labour and equipment.

  • Start date and estimated date of completion.

Taking out insurance

Insurance cover is compulsory, so factor it into the budget. Around Australia, houses are worth about $8000 to $10,000 per metre squared.

Jodie and Paul Whatman had lots of nasty surprises, including unforeseen geological problems. The massive insurance bill was a shock, as was the extra cost for covering Paul, who had to do the work himself when they had trouble finding a builder because of the slip area of the land.

Building the framework of your home

Here are a few more tips for getting underway from builder and designer Darren Baensch:

Enlist your mates

When you’re standing the walls, get some help and have two people hold up the frames to speed up the process. Ahead of time, mark out the top and bottom plates so you can cut most of the studs at once.

Make a clean hit

Skew the nails for better hold. Before driving the nails, run the end of the hammer over some concrete to clean any residue off the striking face so the hammer doesn’t slip off the nailhead.

Mark it up

Set out and cut the timber for framing, but make allowances for windows and doors. Using a pencil, mark where the stud, rafters and noggings will be.

Keep it tight

When fixing the bracing, use strapping and tensioners. Measure and check everything is straight, then tension it until the bracing is tight and secure.