10 ways to save money as an owner builder

The easiest ways to avoid budget blowout when renovating or building your own home.

10 ways to save money as an owner builder

A big house on a nice, green block of land – it’s easy to visualise, isn’t it? Like many Australians, you could be starting to seriously think of turning that vision into a reality. And that mean’s money. Ugh, your hip pocket aches just think about it, but there are ways of actively getting involved in the construction of your home and changing how much you need to borrow. If you could save $50,000 by taking a few months of work, or shifting to a part-time or work from home arrangement, would you be better off?

What is an owner builder?

As the title suggest, this role sees the owner take on the role of a builder. This doesn’t require any theoretical or practical experience in building, but instead takes the weight of management and the cost of insurance off the main trades working on your site. This means they pass less costs on to you, but also saves time – and in building, time is money. Time is money. Time is money. Never forget that.

Let’s look at this concept through the lens of a real-world example for a moment. Let’s say a room needs to be painted before the windows can installed and the floor laid. If you’ve hired a builder to act as foreman and control the job, this is what could happen,

  • He/She stops working on other projects, calls a number of painters, gets them to come in so they can talk through the job, gets the best quote, brings them in and then passes the cost onto you (possibly with a mark-up and to include added insurance).
  • He/She or one of their staff stops working on other projects, goes and buys the materials (adds a mark-up), paints the job themselves and then goes back to their other project

In an owner-builder situation;

  • Your builder continues on the current project, you call around and get a few quotes, commission the job and pay them direct, and ensure it’s all done by the time the windows arrive.
  • Your builder continues on the current project, you go and buy materials, paint the easy bits (walls), then pay a painter an hourly rate to come in and tackle challenging components (doors, windows).
  • Your builder continues on the current project, and you do the painting.

The difference between these two routes could be thousands. Not to mention you pick up a skill that can help you save money for the rest of your life. Depending on the size of the job, there are hundreds of opportunities where you, as an owner-builder, can step in and source material or be actively involved in the labour to minimise being hit by mark-ups, and to save on time.

Here are ten tips we’ve learned from hands-on experience as an owner-builder that can help you save money:

1. Handle the waste


All stages of your build, from groundwork to finish, will produce waste. Be it offcuts of wood, bags of cement, or simply your builder’s Hungry Jack’s wrappers; it all has to go somewhere. Skip bins are very expensive, and builders will charge you commercial tip rates and time to remove the waste for you. Park a trailer outside your house, and when it fills up, take it to the tip yourself.

Example: In the first month of my project, I did no-less than 20 tip-runs. These were broken into recyclable runs (free), concrete/brick (minor cost) and general (expensive). It would have cost me in excess of $10K in skip bins to have had it moved on my behalf. As it was, I bought a new trailer for $1100, and spent about $200 in tip fees and my own time. Throughout the build I did another 30 tip runs at least, not to mention using the trailer to pick up materials, such as bricks, sand and wood.

2. Be available to run errands

Which leads us to running errands. You don’t want a trade charging you $60 to $90 an hour to head down to the hardware store to buy a bag of screws. Not only will that cost you 30min in their time for no output, but you’ll probably cop a mark-up on the screws, too. Make a point of saying, “you want it, I will get it” and make sure you demand a trade price at the wholesaler they send you too. Generally they will know the name of your tradie if your name-drop it. “Johnno from John’s Plumbing sent me to get a 50mm I/O” should do it.

Example: I would often buy lunch for tradies. $20 dollars for a few burgers and a drink is far more cost-effective than watching them pack up, drive off and come back 90min later to unpack again.

3. Source material


You’ll burn through a lot of material during your build, and a great way to save money is to make sure you source that material and get it prior to it being required. If the plan for the next day is to build a retaining wall; the day beforehand you can take your trailer up to Bunnings, buy the sleepers you need, bring them back and unpack them right next to the spot at which the wall will be installed. In the morning, all you are paying the tradie to do is build the wall.

Example: I knew I wanted some doors at the entrance of a little storage alcove to stop the weather getting onto things like bikes. I went to Bunnings, bought two bits of wood to make the doors, handles, hinges and magnetic locks. I then had them sitting ready to go and the skilled tradie was able to install them in less than an hour.

4. Research and negotiate

Builders will almost always fall back on who and what they know when it comes to sorting out trades and materials. As owner-builder, you can take an active role to not only find something suited to your tastes, but to get it for a lot cheaper. Research, go into “showrooms” and find what you want. Then locate the best price online and either source there, or take that to your local shop and use that figure to drive down the price or get bonuses (such as free delivery).

Example: The local Flower Powers and other nurseries name-dropped by my builder were selling Little Gem magnolia plants for upwards of $120 each. On Gumtree I found the farmer who sells the magnolias to the nurseries in the first place, and bought 10 of them direct for $50 each delivered!

5. Do the grunt work


Anyone can dig a hole. Or carry wood. Or mix cement. Or even just hold the end of a measuring tape. These kind of activities happen non-stop on a building site and they take zero-levels of skill, just 100% sweat. If you’re paying someone massive money as they know how to use high-end tools to produce perfect-finish carpentry, why are they digging a hole? That’s your job, so harden up and take it on. It’s a good workout, too – don’t be surprised if your significant other starts commenting on the toning in your arms and flat stomach.

Example: It became apparent that, for the sake of ensuring a downhill gradient, a proposed new sewer-line would have to travel 1.5m below the soil for 8m to connect up with the existing plumbing. So I got a shovel and started digging. When the plumber arrived, all he had to do was lay down the pipe and connect it up. He was done in an hour, and I saved about five hours on his labour costs.

6. Pay by the hour and learn from the masters

It’s not just the grunt work you should concern yourself with; why not learn some skills and contribute on the more complex jobs, too. If you’re able to set aside time to help a certain trade complete a specific job, you can offer to pay them an hourly rate. The basics of a lot of jobs are quite simple to master, and then if you’re able to take that load of the trade, they can focus on the higher-end skills. Together you will get the job done quicker, and the hourly rate (as opposed to a quote) will see you better off financially.

Example: I required a tiler for the best part of a week, and spent the first day with him learning how to cut stone and grout; essential, but not challenging jobs. With him able to concentrate on laying the tiles and measuring precise cuts, I did the cutting and the grouting. The latter I could even do on the weekend on my own. As a result I paid $4K for a job he originally quoted $7K because I saved that many hours.

7. Question design and be flexible


The quickest way to lose money on a job is to return home after your builder has been working for an entire day and to say, “No, that’s not what I wanted at all, it was supposed to be like this.” Making alterations and changes costs big, big money. And leaving trades to make decisions on your behalf – which can arise without warning at any point in the build (like a huge rock being where you planned to dig a hole) – can bog down production. You know what you want, so question builders and trades on design elements so that you can correct the course if required immediately, and be flexible enough to take the path of least resistance when it makes sense.

Example: I wanted a glass fence around my new pool, and made sure I was on the ground when the trade arrived to do the job. When it became apparent that a huge cost would be involved in cutting a pane of glass specifically to fit into a section in the garden, we adapted the plan on the spot to use black aluminium in the section obscured by trees to dramatically reduce cost without wasting time or affect the desired outcome.

8. Stay ahead of the build

The more you’re on the ground, watching and following what is going on, the more you can get ahead of what the trades will require. Work may stop for them at 4pm, but it doesn’t have to stop then for you. A few extra hours in the evening tackling menial tasks can allow the trades to come in the next day and hit the ground running.

Example: With rain forecast for the evening and knowing that work the following day would be focused in an area currently filled with dirt, I spend an evening setting up a tarp to keep the area dry, and purchased some cheap plastic from the local nursery to lay the walkway through the house. This not only allowed to work to start in the morning in a dry environment, but by keeping mud off the ground, it shorted clean-up time.

9. Speaking of clean-up

Unpacking and packing tools a timely enterprise for tradesman, and you’re paying for it. Prior to a build, do your best to set-up a secure storage space where saws, ladders, work benches, tools, paints and other such things can be quickly moved in and out – much more efficient than packing and unpacking a ute. In addition, volunteer to clean-up after a build. You can pick up bits of wood, sweep dust and mop stains from floors as good as them, so why pay for it?

Example: The day before building was set to commence, I did a huge cleanout of my garage, emptying all the clutter and storing away elements that gathered over time. I made a key for the builder and left it with him. For the following five months, he turned it into his own workshop, where he quick and easy access to what he required, including essentials such as water and power.

10. Energy

You’ll be amazed at how long and far tradies can go without eating. And then blown away by how much food they devour when they do. Energy levels are important to maintain, especially during the hot Australian summer. Small investments in things on your part can not only help solidify relationships, but also improve the amount of work in an hour. Buy a bag of Jelly Beans, a case of Solo/Lemonade, a bag of chocolate. When you sense that energy levels a low; perk it back up.

Example: On one particular hot Sydney day, I knew the heat was going to play a role in the groundwork scheduled to unfold. I bought a case of Solo cans and two bags of ice for under $20, and put them at an esky on the site.

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