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Every year, more than 8000 Victorians apply to the Building Practitioners Board for permission to take responsibility for much of the building of their own property. While some owner builders restrict themselves to project managing qualified sub-contractors, many undertake much of the less skilled work themselves.

Owner builders make registered builder Neil Coulter angry. With decades of building site experience under his belt, Mr Coulter says property owners should not be allowed to do work that requires skill and experience.

He blames reality TV shows like The Block for giving people the impression that building is easy.

“They don’t understand that behind those people on those TV shows there’s a whole team of people co-ordinating that build,” he says.

“I think people look at those shows and think they can do that, or better, but then they get a bit of a surprise when they go to do it themselves. They might know the general specifics of how to build a house, but they don’t know the intricate bits that a builder with 20 years of experience knows.”

Mr Coulter says building sites can be dangerous and owner builders don’t know enough to ensure tradesmen are not cutting corners.

“I have demolished houses before where they have put an add-on and you might have a whole heap of rubbish under floor spaces obstructing the natural air flow, which can have an effect on the performance of your footings and subfloor, and that sort of thing can cause health issues with dry rot and mould.

“I have seen some houses where owner builders haven’t even put simple things like air vents in or … things like expansion joints, where they haven’t been put in at the required intervals and that can affect the structural stability of the walls and can have cracks forming because buildings move.”

Brian Heaton, chief executive officer of Owner Building Solutions, has trained thousands of owner builders over the years and says the potential to save a Registered Builder’s fee, which is usually about 30 per cent of the cost of a build, is the big attraction.

“Some of them get a lot of self-satisfaction out of physically building something themselves, but the main motivator, of course, is to save money.”

Despite his involvement in training, Mr Heaton is not a fan of owner building, having witnessed the stress and heartache when things go wrong, usually when inexperienced owners try to do work themselves.

“One of the problems with owner builders is they think they are a lot better than they are, and that’s when they get into trouble,” Mr Heaton says.

However, Barry Plant property consultant James Brougham says the input of an owner builder can result in a unique property.

Mr Broughman recently listed a Wonga Park property that was transformed by the work of the owner, a flooring expert.

“I think what they have created is just so different, you are not going to get that out of a Metricon or from a builder’s property range,” Mr Brougham says.

Mr Broughman says the obvious attention to detail, combined with signoff from the council, would alleviate any potential concerns buyers may harbour about the quality of the work done by the owner builder.

Sustainable building designer Tim Sonogan’s enjoyment of his new home in Torquay is heightened by his sense of satisfaction from project managing the build and undertaking much of the physical labour.

“The main reason I did it was to improve my knowledge of the building process to further enhance what I do in my design, but a massive amount of satisfaction has come out of all the work I have put in,” he says.

And while it took him three months longer than anticipated to complete his home, Mr Sonogan is convinced he has created a superior property, in part because he was very particular in overseeing the subcontractors’ work.

“The plumber said he would never work with another owner builder again – I guess I might have been a bit pedantic.”

As for anyone considering becoming an owner builder, Mr Sonogan suggests they talk to someone with experience of building their own home.

“The info they can give you … you couldn’t put a price on it.”

Case study

Nine years and a lot of hard work by floorer James Orpwood and his partner Merren Winter has transformed a one-bedroom unit into a unique home that suits their lifestyle.

The couple, who love entertaining, can relax at the full-length bar in their living room; play billiards in the covered pergola, with outdoor kitchen; or, watch TV from their spa, grabbing a cold beer from its adjacent fridge.

If they are feeling more active, there is storage for their jet ski, and a golf swing practice area.

“When you’re doing your own extension, there’s not a lot of time to get out on the green,” Mr Orpwood explains.

Not that he has regrets about being an owner builder. “We were in no rush to do it up quick and borrow a lot of money. We have done it with our own hands basically. I look at it like a second job, or doing overtime.

“Everything’s done with pride and care. I have worked on a lot of building sites and some of the housing they are putting up is slap dash. I would double check everything. I didn’t want to look down my hallway and see the skirting was bowed.”

Itching for a tree-change, the couple are now selling their home but plan to recreate it in Mildura.

“There’s not a lot we would change,” Mr Orpwood says.


Posted by Kate Robertson – Domain (Fairfax) on 5th April, 2015