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Building a house: what it takes to be your own general contractor

Suppose you want to act as your own general contractor and build a new house. Can you still get the money to do the job? In most cases, yes, although you've got to prove that you know what you're doing. With a little research, a lot of planning, and a bundle of confidence, you can get the go-ahead from most lending institutions.

Most places require that you furnish a list of what the building materials will cost and a separate list of labor costs.

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If you've done your homework properly, this should be no problem. The lists must be extremely detailed and complete, however. Your land must be paid for, too, because it will be your basic collateral.

To build a house, you first apply for a construction loan, which will later on be converted to a long-term mortgage loan. Of course, there's only one set of closing costs on both loans.

As the house is built, it will be inspected by the mortgage lender at different stages of progress. For the money to be released, the work must be approved.

Most institutions will release the money to you in thirds. One-third is given to you when the project begins, one-third when the house is framed in and a temporary roof has been installed, and the final third when the house in finished.

Your supervision will be crucial, since the lender may refuse to disperse funds at any stage if the workmanship is poor.

The know-how involved in being your own general contractor is tremendous, but almost anyone can learn how to supervise the building of a house. If you have the desire and interest, you will find it enjoyable to do all the mental work. Most home builders find it takes a good solid year of planning and building the first time around.

Perhaps the hardest part of all is finding good workers who will perform the steps of building to your specifications. To avoid costly errors, it is better to hire large, reputable companies to complete each project.

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In almost every city there are firms that will quote prices that are very close to what an independent worker would charge. Companies guarantee their work - and this is the kind of protection you need.

''Companies'' may turn out to be a carpenter and his brother, so always check out references.

What are the best reasons for being your own contractor? Are there certain advantages to taking on this kind of responsibility?

The basic reason is to save money, since you won't have to pay a builder to supervise the project. Another good reason is that you can make sure every detail is done correctly.

Even if you hire a builder, you'll have to watch every step like a hawk, anyway. No one is going to keep an eye on a building project as you would yourself. Only you know exactly what you have in mind, even if a project has been spelled out on paper.

An excellent book for anyone who's building a house to read is called ''It Takes Jack to Build a House,'' by Betty Wason (St. Martin's Press Inc., New York). The book's dollar figures are far out of date, since the book was published in 1968, but the principles are still the same.

The author, who had a house built, tells every mistake she made and how she corrected it, or tried to, along the way. Believe it or not, the book is enjoyable to read.

Just how much money can you save by being your own contractor? At least 12 to 15 percent, according to some estimates. In other words, if a builder is putting together a $75,000 house for you, he'll add on $9,000 to $11,000 or more. The $ 75,000 is above the cost of the land.

If you do your own contracting, you can take the time to shop for sales on kitchen and bath fixtures, for example, compare lumber prices more closely, and get some good deals on carpeting. A builder can't put in that kind of personal attention. The quality of the materials in your house can be a lot better, too.

Builders often buy everything where they have a charge account instead of shopping around for quality and price. They may tell you they can get everything at a discount, but in many cases it wouldn't be enough to make even a small dent in the total bill.

What kind of research and planning will you need to do in acting as your own contractor?

Books at your local public library are your best starting point. They often carry lists of free government booklets to send for. You'll need to study books on building until you know what goes into a house, from the concrete footings to the roof trusses to the flashing around the chimney.

Check for college noncredit courses on building in your area. Many high schools have adult night courses on such projects as adding a room to your house. Any courses you can take along this line will help.

Probably the most practical way to see what goes into a house is to visit homes under construction almost daily for a while. After the workers have left, drive out to the site with a notebook. Write down the steps of progress you see. Warning: Be careful about trespassing where you're not wanted.

Watch how a basement is waterproofed and drainage gravel is poured around the foundation. Look at how the windows are caulked and the fiber-glass tub is installed.

Development companies are often happy for you to look at homes under construction, but stay away from those that have ''no trespassing'' signs around. These houses are usually built by individuals. However, if you can catch someone at the site of his new home, try to get some conversation going. His experience in getting a house built could help you to avoid mistakes.

While educating yourself about home building, you should also learn to read a blueprint as an expert. It's not all that hard to learn what all the little signs and symbols stand for.

Spell out on paper everything that's to be done. Don't rely on a spoken exchange and then expect it to be done to your complete satisfaction. Most disagreements result from the fact that changes were not specified in writing, clearly and explicitly. So anytime you make a change, make sure that the workmen are aware that it's been changed on the blueprint. If you make a change, agree on everything ahead of time with your workmen - and put it in writing on the blueprint.

Have every detail symbolized, down to the number of electrical outlets in each room.

Avoid getting ahead of yourself by taking care of building preliminaries. Have your building permit in hand and your soil-percolation test finished before any work is begun. The percolation test is necessary to test how well liquid is absorbed for septic-tank installations, assuming you need your own sewerage system.

Acting as your own general contractor will be a major undertaking. You'll need to have plenty of spare time in the evening and on weekends. But the time you spend will be well worth it.

If you do your homework properly, you'll be getting a brand-new house for the lowest possible cost - unless you're careless along the way. So take your time, learn all you can about what has to be done, and then proceed one step at a time.

Besides, you'll end up having an awful lot of fun.

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