Owner Builder Homes
What every owner-builder aspires to receive.
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto
Becoming the owner-builder of your own house is a great adventure. It gives you the freedom to design and build what you want, provides great personal satisfaction if you do the work yourself, and can save a lot of money along the way. But for many people who dream of building, it’s hard to dismiss one nagging thought: “What if they won’t let me?”
“They, ” of course, are the folks at the local building department. Complying with building codes can seem intimidating. However, if you think of it as a process, much like the actual building of that dream home, you can get through it one step at a time.
Doing your homework is essential, especially if you plan to build with alternative materials or techniques. Knowing what you need to do and where to find the information you need will help you get your building approved and may even improve your home’s design.
Where to Start
Building codes establish minimum standards for safety and health, and if you decide to build your own home, you’ll need to prove that it meets these standards. There are three main phases of the process:
- Gathering information and doing the initial planning.
- Designing the house and submitting your specific plans for approval and permitting.
- Building, passing the inspections, and getting your certificate of occupancy.
Where you build matters because building, zoning and other regulations vary from place to place, as do the conditions at and around every building site. Building codes in rural areas tend to be less stringent than those in the suburbs or in town, where buildings are closer together and people are more concentrated.
Today, most city, county and state governments have Web sites with information about their permitting processes, zoning laws and other requirements. They often answer common concerns and provide information on how to get additional help.
Becky Baker, chief building official for Jefferson County, Colo., has advice for owner-builders at the beginning of their process.
“Ideally, have a conceptual meeting with the building department early on to talk about what you want to do, especially if it is unusual, ” she says. “You can find out what you need to do and what codes are enforced in the area.” Baker says most building departments provide handouts that describe their processes, fees, minimum requirements for plans and inspections, guidelines for standard construction, and checklists for other approvals needed.
Be sure to ask about requirements specific to owner-builders. Some jurisdictions restrict what work can be done by homeowners, so knowing what the rules are where you intend to build is crucial.
“Although we know we’ll have to spend more time with most owner-builders, we don’t mind, ” Baker says. “We start with a premise of respect. We assume that owner-builders want to do the right thing and that we have the same end goals — a safe, affordable, durable, comfortable home.”
Baker has one more piece of advice for those who haven’t yet bought their land, especially for those who want to build with alternative materials or techniques: “Make visiting the building and zoning departments part of your routine, like checking out local schools, before deciding where you want to buy land, build and live. It makes it much more likely that you will get to build what you want to build.”
Getting the Technical Plans
A checklist from the building department, describing what plans and inspections are needed for a permit, also reveals what the codes cover. Whether you can produce these required plans yourself or will need help with the design or drawings will depend on the complexity of your design, your level of skill and knowledge, and local codes and rules governing when a design professional is required. At a minimum, you typically need:
- A scaled site plan showing adjacent streets, dimensions and locations of existing structures, setbacks, easements and any other significant features.
- A detailed foundation plan.
- A dimensioned floor plan showing rooms and their uses with locations of plumbing fixtures.
- A roof framing plan (possibly a floor framing plan).
- Elevations (exterior views) of all sides of the building.
- Section views (views cut through the structure) to show structural details and connections.
- An electrical plan showing the location of the service entrance, lights, outlets, and special circuits for electric stove, clothes dryer and air conditioning equipment.
- A plumbing plan showing water, drain, waste and vent lines.
- A mechanical plan showing heating, cooling and ventilation equipment and ductwork.
- General structural and architectural details, notes and specifications.
Some technical design questions can be answered by the building department, but don’t be a nuisance. If you are new to designing houses but want to do your own plans, consider hiring an architect or professional designer for a couple of hours to have him or her review your preliminary plans. An architect will usually have insights and strategies that can save time and, frequently, more money than their fees.
Be willing to admit when you are in over your head. For example, you may need an engineer for the structural design or the septic, mechanical or plumbing systems. Better to seek help in the design phase than after your plans have been submitted and rejected, or worse, discovering what was wrong with the design after building it.
Consider this approach for any part of the process you don’t feel confident tackling yourself, including once you begin building. You often can hire experienced tradespeople by the hour to help with the work and teach you how to do it at the same time.
Beyond Building Codes
It is worth noting some of the other regulatory hoops through which you may have to jump, depending on where you decide to build. The most obvious are zoning and land use codes as well as specific restrictions that may apply to your particular piece of property, such as subdivision or homeowner association CC&Rs (covenants, conditions and restrictions). Other restrictions typically relate to water, gas or electric utilities, easements, grading, erosion control and highway or street right of way considerations. In historic districts, you may have to comply with architectural rules governing what can be done with both new and existing buildings, and many places have ordinances protecting indigenous plants and wildlife.
Don’t be discouraged by these restrictions. You probably won’t have to deal with them all, and most are fairly routine matters. The folks who administer these requirements usually are well versed in helping people through the process.