A Review Based on Personal Experience
Having just finished totally updating the ever-popular title, The Complete Book of Owner Building in South Africa I am left wondering whether owner building is a good idea or not. We’ve completed the exercise three times, and not once made any money, or in fact, even got our money back on any of the projects. So why would it be a good idea for you? You might perhaps see it as a challenge? Or maybe it is an opportunity for you to prove you can do it better than me. Maybe you’d do it just because you can! If you get it right, you could save yourself a lot of money and end up with your dream house.
Now if you’re wondering why this would persuade you to buy the new version of the book (which will, I believe be available from Random House Struik sometime during 2012 (reprinted/updated 2018) … hopefully, before the world ends), the one thing these owner building exercises did teach us was what not to do! With this knowledge, we have put together a title which hopefully will help you achieve your dreams. We have also discussed every aspect of construction in relation to the local national building regulations. And there are lots of good ideas and beautiful photographs of other people’s construction projects and finished homes and gardens.
Our First Owner Building Challenge
One’s first experience of anything is always special in one way or another. We had managed to buy two tiny seaside plots with a small inheritance, and decided to do an owner building on one and then sell it to be able to build something on the second – for ourselves, rather than resale. The first project, we thought, would pay for the second.
The idea is a good one, but first, you need sufficient money to achieve Plan 1, and then you need to be sure that you will make money on it within your time frame. In reality, even many full-time property developers have to wait a while before they make money on developments. And they usually have multiple units to sell, so they make money back progressively, over time.
We had a minimal budget. We spent more than our budget. Then we needed to sell quickly.
A downturn in the property market hit us hard, especially since this owner building venture was in a relatively remote spot that was, at best, an up-and-coming holiday spot. The fact that 10 years down the line the area began to blossom, was irrelevant in the scale of things. It was too late.
The house was basic but sweet. We couldn’t afford decorative finishes, or even basic appliances (like a fridge and stove), so that we could at least make use of it – or rent it out and recoup some money.
We had to sell and were becoming desperate. After an unsuccessful auction, a qualified professional in the building industry bought the property for a song. We didn’t get enough out of the project to start owner building on the second plot and eventually lost that too.
Going… going… GONE!
Our Second Owner Building Challenge
This time we did it correctly, or so we thought. Certainly, it was as right as we could have done it, but because we were owner-building, the buck stopped with us. We had nobody else to blame for errors, even if we didn’t make them ourselves.
We bought the plot, secured the finance to build using a solid quantification and costing programme, and then got down to work.
So what went wrong? Two major factors worked against us.
- The so-called professional who helped to survey the site didn’t pick up that we were building on a slope. The property looked flat enough, and we weren’t advised to formally assess the slope.
- Nobody realised that our neighbour’s soakaway drained way into our property, until after our foundations had been dug – not even the municipal health inspector.
That was enough to destroy a half-decent owner building budget. Not only was the slope considerably more substantial than everybody seemed to think, but we had to move the entire build forward to avoid the health hazard of the illegal soakaway (or French drain) behind us. It didn’t occur to us that we might have a claim against our neighbour.
So we went ahead and built the house which, I have to admit, while spacious and full of architectural features (for example, we only used doors and windows scavenged from demolition sites) had a few other follies. The most expensive of these was a long – admittedly very handsome – passage leading from a glorious front door we had rescued from some huge wonderful building we never knew.
The slope also cost us, because the foundation wall at the back of the house ended up over 2 m (or 6½ ft) high. Then there was the fill which had to be transported to the site to fill the void.
Apart from the obvious additional costs, the major impact of the follies and mistakes (be they ours or other people’s) was that we weren’t able to finish the build according to schedule. We didn’t particularly care, but the bank insisted we finish. Bank managers visited the site and introduced their own tough tactics.
NOW HERE IS A BIG LESSON YOU CAN LEARN FROM
When you are owner building you will negotiate draws with your bank. If they release 100% and you haven’t finished the house, you have a problem. This is what happened to us, and the bully-bank (totally within their legal rights) forced us to take another loan to finish ceilings and other things that we believed we could temporarily live without – including the lounge floor. The house was huge and large enough to temporarily board up the lounge. But the bank wanted everything complete, IMMEDIATELY, if not sooner.
Could we have said no? In retrospect probably yes. But they forced us to take a personal loan that we couldn’t afford to repay. Certainly today the relatively new Consumer Protection Act would have precluded them from doing this.
So we did put in some ceilings, including a glorious kitchen ceiling that incorporated a steel-pressed section from a Victorian building that had been demolished in Claremont (Cape Town). Eventually, the house was sold … and then sold again … I’m not sure how many times. Some years ago, when the house was on the market and there was an open-day show house, we discovered that a later owner had carefully removed the fill, and created an extraordinary double-storey home.
We wished we’d been able to buy it back again.
Our Third Owner Building Challenge
Now we knew it all! What could possibly go wrong?
In an endeavour to avoid potential problems, we employed an architectural designer to draw the plans, and a full-time builder to do the build. What we had “forgotten” was that the builder – at that stage also a friend – was the so-called professional whose advice led us to believe we had previously been building on a virtually “flat” plot. So retrospectively, we had only ourselves to blame.
But if the NHBRC had been in existence at that time, we would have been saved a great deal of heartache. Since we had to raise a bond to build, the contractor would not have been acceptable to the bank unless he was a paid-up member of the NHBRC.
So what did go wrong?
In a nutshell, we were ripped off by a bogus builder. Sure this is what he did full-time, but his reputation was so bad that when we later tried to sell the house, property agents wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole.
In the interim we’d had to call in a consultant to arbitrate (at considerable expense), because the workmanship was so bad. For example:
- The wall on one side of the house was a brick course higher than the other, so the roof wasn’t quite level.
- The walls inside the house that should have been bagged with plaster and been vaguely and unevenly smeared with a very weak mix. When we complained the builder set to work with a box of Polyfilla, in an attempt to even the surface.
- Nails had been left protruding from exposed beams.
- The brick-paved driveway was lifting and falling to pieces.
- Worst of all, he had run out of money and wasn’t able to complete the build.
Eventually we did sell, and were able to repay the bond to the bank. But that was the end of it.
So would I ever owner-build again? And if I did, how would I do it differently?
I might, but only if I had the money to pay good sub-contractors and proven artisans that I could really trust to do a good job. And I would be sure to take every bit of my own advice given in The Complete Book of Owner Building seriously!
But for now I’m content to rent.