A comprehensive guide to survive being an owner-builder

Embarking on an owner-builder journey? Superdraft shares everything you need to run your project like a pro.
How Owner-Builder Cut Construction Costs and Save 1/3 of their Budget

The owner-builder journey is exciting but equally challenging. We have worked with people who walked down this path and they have told us about their sleepless nights, anxiety attacks, and moments of self-doubt. It’s hard and it’s not for the faint-hearted.

If you want to pursue this path, you need to prepare yourself mentally, physically, and emotionally. It’s a rollercoaster ride. Here are our tips to help you manage your build and possibly save money without compromising anything: 

Pre-planning and design phase

1. Register as owner-builder and obtain a license

The first step is the most important step of all. If you didn’t register and obtain an owner-builder license, the building surveyor won’t issue a permit and you can’t proceed with any building works.

When you have decided to become an owner-builder, you also took the responsibility of:

  • Keeping the construction site safe
  • Supervising the building works
  • Obtaining all the required building permits, and
  • Ensuring the structure meets the building regulations and standards

You took the same responsibilities as a registered builder.

To register, go to your local council. Every state has different requirements. It is important to meet those before you commit to the idea. It will save you time in the long run and reduces frustration in the process.

2. Complete all drawings, drafted house plans, and get all required permits

Once you obtained your license, it’s time to engage an expert designer. Work with someone who specialises in the type of structure that you want.

So, if you want a sustainable home, it makes sense if you work with a designer who applies passive design techniques.

Here’s an exclusive tip. Tell your designer that you are an owner-builder and tailor their drawings to make it easier for non-builders to understand. Do this so you don’t end up deciphering a super complex technical set of drawings.

To help you out, check our guide to reading drafting drawings. We discussed everything there, from the kinds of drawings down to what the signs and symbols in your drawings mean.

Keep these in mind as well:

  • Organise a land survey prior to drafting the final drawings. Your designer needs to make sure the design suits the site.
  • Wait patiently as your designer works on the design, but make sure you two regularly communicate to perfect the design.
  • Obtain engineering drawings and energy/BASIX reports.

Next, submit your plans to the local council. Once approved, submit to the building certifier to get a building permit.

Here’s another exclusive tip… Find a designer who can help you get all of the documents you need and assist you in submitting the plans to the council. Not everyone does this, but Superdraft designers do it to make the process less of a hassle.

3. Hire a quantity surveyor

This is a must for first-time owner-builders. Engage a quantity surveyor to help you prepare a bill of quantities (BoQ). This document is a list of all the work and building materials needed — with everything measured and priced. It’s super valuable because it gives you an idea of how much your project will cost. The BoQ won’t let you dive in the construction phase blind.

4. Create a mood board

Here’s the fun part and probably everyone’s favourite part. Grab your phone or get on your computer. Save all the design ideas that you find attractive.

Then, make a collage — ideally per room. It’s a little old school but it’s better because you get to interact with the design longer. You aren’t just pinning or saving random photos in an album. Seeing photos side by side, you will visualize how certain design elements complement and contrast each other. You get a better picture of the interior design that you want. 

5. Prepare a detailed project specification

Before construction, it’s also helpful to list the project specification. It’s a checklist; like a recipe enumerating all the materials you need to build the house. It’s the verbal counterpart of the architectural drawings.

Unlike the BoQ, the specification document doesn’t include the cost. It only describes the materials and workmanship required.

It is best to develop the specification alongside the designer. It must be super detailed. The more comprehensive it is, the fewer uncertainties you have during the build.

Construction phase

6. Get the best deals

Here’s the part where you will try to save money on construction.

Grab the BoQ and the project specification document. Call individual trades, service providers, and suppliers and ask for a quote. Compare all the quotes you got with the quantity surveyor’s quote. Then, grab the best deals that you can find.

Note that not all the cheapest choices are the best choice for you. Consider the quality of the product and service. You don’t want to work with inexperienced trades and you don’t want to use substandard materials in your own house. Do your research. It’s the only way for you to come up with the right decision.

Also, you may need to juggle the money a bit. There are times when you save money on one item but you splurged a little on another. Remember, your one true goal is to build within your budget. Saving money is just a bonus. 

7. Focus on managing the build, a little on the construction work

Most of the owner-builders’ work is supervisory. Your biggest task is to build a team of skilled tradespeople and find the best suppliers in town.

You can help and strengthen your manpower, as long as you’ve finished all your main tasks.

Also, do the tasks that you’re truly good at. Never pretend. You don’t want to make a mistake that will devalue your home or will cause bigger problems in the future. You don’t want anything to re-do tomorrow. Errors suck up time and energy.

8. Ask for guidance, when necessary

It’s okay to ask for help from someone with more building experience. However, you are the registered owner-builder on-site and that means you are responsible for ensuring all works meet regulations and laws. If you are not 100% sure that you can pull this project off, consider engaging a builder.

9. Ask questions

Got questions about the design? Call your designer. Never assume something drawn on the paper. In fact, the more questions you ask about the design, the less likely for you to make a mistake.

Also, talk to the tradesperson you work with. You’ll be surprised that they have plenty of knowledge to share with you.

Some suppliers offer free services too if you ask them. For example, there are bathroom fixture suppliers who give clients a free installation service. Some lighting suppliers provide a lighting layout service for a minimal fee.

So, talk to them and you might learn something new. Not asking a question is a rookie mistake that you must avoid. 

10. Build in stages

If the project is too daunting for you, we recommend dividing the projects into multiple stages. Make the project more manageable. Complete a few tasks at a time. You will finish your home once all the stages are done.

11. Don’t let anyone’s negative opinion pull you down

During the construction stage, you’ll find out that everyone has something to say about what you do.

Family, friends, neighbours… some blurt out defeatist statements and negative opinions. You have no control over this. The only thing you can do is sort the facts from the unhelpful judgement.


12. Create a construction timeline and follow it

Time is money. As the owner-builder, make time your number one commitment. The amount of money you spend grows bigger as you extend your project’s timeline.

To avoid this, spend time on construction schedules, controlling costs, budgeting, inspecting the quality of the build, and a few more supervisory work. Use your time to ensure that your project runs like a well-oiled machine. Liked this article? Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. Or, ask help from our Sydney-based building designers.

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