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Some cost-saving lessons for prospective home owner-builders

``One hundred and twenty dollars a square foot!'' Such was the startled response of a young professional woman in the Boston area recently when quoted an approximate cost for building a modest home. Another young family, living in the Finger Lakes region of New York - an area where costs are relatively lower - discovered that it would take $154,000, excluding land and site costs, to build a 2,200 square foot dwelling for its five members. That's a ``low'' $70 per square foot. Small wonder that many families are turning to building their own homes.

Owner-builders fall into three general categories: First, those who ``contract'' the work themselves by hiring skilled tradesmen to do the job (experts estimate realizing a possible total savings of 10 to 15 percent doing it this way); second, those who do most of the work themselves, using high-quality materials from local suppliers (with a possible total savings of up to 40 percent); and third, those who do all the work themselves, using good, but unusually acquired material, such as lumber milled from trees off one's own land (many have reported saving up to 70 percent in this manner).

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One young family in Maine, for example, recently built a 2,600 square-foot home for its five members at a cost of approximately $31,000.

The man in this family traded a foundation for firewood which he cut for the mason from his own land. He cut trees and milled his own lumber. And he arose at 4 a.m., put in a day at his own job, then worked on his house, often until midnight.

Building your own home can be a wonderful experience. But it's a little like earning a PhD or having a baby - you should understand the size and importance of such an undertaking before you start.

Most owner-builders report a series of ``overview'' lessons which are best thought through at the start. Many of these same people report having learned the lessons themselves only after the project was under way and adjustments were necessary.

Lesson 1. Before you start, take a family inventory. Is the family up to the task at this time? ``A ready-for-action man (or woman) is not all that's required,'' one owner-builder said. Every family member should be included in as much of the planning and work as is possible.

Don't forget children. In everything from arrangement for child care (young children do not usually fare well for long periods at the building site) to design of bedrooms, children need to be included in the process. Remember, too, say the wiser owner-builders, homebuilding requires many long hours at the site. At times, it's best to let the house go for a day or two and spend time with the family.

One young family followed a rule laid down by the wife and mother that there would be no timetable on the house, and that family time would always come first.

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Lesson 2. Virtually every veteran owner-builder advises, ``think about the family income before you start. Don't wing into this project thinking that money for living expenses will drop from the skies.''

Allow two years for the home to be ready, they caution. Where will the income come from during that time and who will bring it in? As a footnote here, remember that the one supporting the family will need time for rest and relaxation apart from caring for children or doing household things while the other partner is working at the house site.

Lesson 3. ``Believe it or not,'' one owner-builder said, ``some people start a home without a budget!'' Carefully cost out your home first, he says. There are master material and labor (contractors and architects have them) check-lists available that can aid you.

``In our case,'' says this same owner-builder, ``we consistently used the ``worst-case'' dollar amount [the highest cost likely on any given item] and then we were always `saving' money.''

Lesson 4. Consider your home site carefully as you think about your home. A wise New Englander once told me, ``Find the water first'' (assuming one is building in the country, away from city services). The next consideration might be drainage, to ensure foundation dryness and ease of sewage disposal. Then, solar access via a south facing slope. After that, perhaps, comes road access, windbreak considerations, and aesthetics.

Some owner-builders advise that if you have a spot which you love above all others on your land - one that begs for a house on it - you'll be happiest in the long run if you try to ``stretch'' that spot to meet the other requirements. Be alert, however, to potentially ruinous sites (often due to wetness in the soil).

Most owner-builders are careful in placing their homes. ``You wouldn't frame a Rembrandt with an orange crate,'' one man said (he had just finished a lovely home nestled in a meadow, framed by a nearby woods). Nearly every piece of land has its beauty, and by carefully ``framing'' the home in its natural surroudings, you'll have a picture that will last many years.

Lesson 5. In planning your home, don't cut yourself short. Plan your dream, then build what you can. Later, you can complete the ``dream.'' Of course, all owner-builders caution against a ``dream home'' that neglects the basic practical considerations.

Another tip in planning: Use the best materials available. Use stronger, over-sized material. Beef up on the floors. Thicken the walls. This often compensates for an inexperienced builder. Try to create a friendly relationship with a good local lumber yard. The counter people will usually get behind you if they realize that you're building your new home. They can point out differences in various materials that an inexperienced person might not think about.

Lesson 6. Enlist local friends and family to help. When and if you need hired help, look for neighborhood people. In our case, we were befriended by two wonderful neighbors - a young man of 19 who was wise and skilled beyond his years, and a retired army engineer with a twinkle in his eye who was always muttering ``no problem, no problem.'' These two worked with me in the early stages for minimum wage (they really did it for the fun and cameraderie).

Lesson 7. When the road to completion seems long, take the time to enjoy what you are doing (the happiness is really in the doing rather than in the finishing). Remember, you are building a warm, safe, and beautiful home for your family which will last many years.

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