Getting Started on Building Your Own Straw Bale House

Written by Andrew Morrison

Architectural PlansBack in October, I was asked to give some input and support to people who want to build their own house. The main question is about getting started on building your own straw bale house. There is a lot to consider and a lot more to actually do, so often the jumping in point becomes the freeze point. In other words, right when you should jump, you freeze and question whether or not you are crazy to even consider building your own place. This may not be a bad question to ponder. Let’s start there.

One question you can ask yourself is: “why?” Why do you want to build your own house? Many people tell me it is because they want to save money. Others say it is for the experience. Others say it is for both of those reasons plus the pride of knowing they did it themselves. These are all reasonable answers; however, it is important to make sure you can actually achieve the intended results before you jump in. Saving money is a great idea; however, it is easy to miss the real cost of building for yourself. Here’s why. When you are building a house, you need to be focused on that job, not any other work you might otherwise have.

You cannot go to work at the office 5 days a week and build your house on the weekend and expect to save money. In some cases it may be possible, but in most, you will end up losing money as the project will drag on forever and delays always manage to increase costs. That said, if you quit your “real job” or take significant time off, you won’t have your income anymore while you build. That is a cost that must be considered.

Don’t get me wrong, I truly believe that one can save money by acting as their own contractor; however, I believe they must know fully what they are getting into before the leap. By knowing what lies ahead, you will know what to expect and how to respond to situations in a way that keeps you on track and on budget. Consider that for the average house that I built over the last few years the owners paid $50,000 in profit and overhead. That sounds like a lot, but believe me, it is hard earned money.

If you are willing to deal with all of the headaches and frustrations of being then general contractor and are willing to do the homework to give you the skills to manage the job, then that money can stay in your pocket. That is worth it, no?

There is not much I can say about having pride in yourself for having built your own home. That is something only you can really know about. The same is true for having the experience of building your own home. What you learn is yours alone. What I do know for myself, is that I am my hardest critic. When I work on my own projects, I am able to see the most minute mistakes or blemishes that the average person would never know exists. So prepare for that.

If you are like me, you will need to cut yourself some slack. After all, you will be living in the home, so hopefully you don’t nit pick the house the rest of your life. If only I had used a thinner bead of caulk right there. If only that tile layout was a little different. I really should have used the other faucet in the master bathroom. These types of mind chatter can drive you crazy if you let them. So as James Taylor said “so don’t you let them.”

Nuts and bolts: getting started. If you plan to work on your own home and you plan on getting bank financing, the first obstacle will be you. Weird huh? Banks don’t like owner builders. For whatever reason, perhaps historical data or perhaps unbalanced fear, they believe that an owner builder is a flight risk and as such they make lending to such builders much harder and or more expensive. In today’s tight markets, the last thing you need is a harder and more expensive loan package.

One way to deal with this is to work with a contractor as a consultant and have him or her listed on your loan application as the general contractor. They will use their license number and they will oversee the project as a consultant, not as the GC. They will charge for this, but much less than the average 15% currently charged by many builders for overhead and profit. having their name on the contract will save you cash out of pocket in terms of the loan down payment AND you will have trained eyes on the job site to help you when things get tricky. Be sure to have a very clear contract so that the job description is laid out and both parties agree to what will happen as the job progresses.

Now the plans. Any bank will require a set of construction plans, along with a budget and perhaps even material specifications. These need to be accurate as the bank will fund according to them. If the plans are only a rough sketch of what you intend to build, your project will likely go over budget by the end as much will change during construction. Therefore, make sure your plans are detailed and complete. Skimping here will cost you money in the end. having a good set will save you time and money and is well worth the cost. Hire a professional, yet not necessarily the most expensive one you can find!

The architect or designer can help you with the material specifications. The GC you hired as a consultant can help you create a budget for the job based on the plans and the material specifications. The critical path, the schedule of how the house will be built and when, is the next crucial piece of information you will need. Review my posts on this blog for more on how to build one of those. Again, the consultant GC can help with this as can your subcontractors.

From here, once you have the loan, you will have to go to the building department and get the permit. In fact, you may want to go there before you get the loan to see what the fees will be for the permits. In some cases, those fees can be upwards of $20,000 so forgetting to include them is a bad way to start the process. Working with the City or County office is important and building a solid relationship with them is even more important. Again, read through my blog for advise on how to achieve a healthy relationship with these departments.

That’s a primer. Of course, there is a lot more to know and a lot more to master before you should jump in. This is a starting point. I suggest you study any information you can get your hands on. Saving $50,000 is a great concept but not being prepared and losing $100,000 is a real drag.

Want to learn more about straw bale houses and how to build one? Want to do so for FREE? Sign up for our totally free 16 Day Straw Bale eCourse! Find out more HERE.

10 Responses

  1. Thanks! We’re setting up a meeting with a green-friendly (so I’ve been told) loan officer. Hopefully we’ll get the ball rolling…

  2. Fabulous Andrew! This is all stuff that I would have loved to have read before we jumped in. But the painful truth …. if your HUNGRY to build your own home, especially a strawbale one…. you ignore the weight of those words. You don’t HEAR the importance of spending the time on organizing, planning, designing your building process. If your a risk taker like me, your more comfortable with jumping in. If your the complete opposite of a risk taker like my husband, then you’ll spend 5 years dotting all the “i’s” and you’ll miss out on some really fantastic moments and opportunities. This has been our blessing as we tackle building our own home. It has kept us balanced, and we’ve been able to deal with moments that might have lost others $100,000 … and worked through them.

    For those of you who need a point form list of “what to do first” …. I would love to one day write that book … lol… but for now … Accept that you MUST have money of your own. You can not start this process thinking that a construction loan will cover your expenses. It will help you pay construction bills you will accumulate… but you NEED your own cash-flow.

    It starts with a few things that will come from your own checking account or credit card. And depending on where you live, and who you hire to help you, it will range from an easy $20,000 to $80,000.

    If you’ve been thinking about building for the last 8 years like I had, you NEED to account for inflation on all the costs you’ve been researching. All things related to construction have for some reason almost doubled in the time I started feeling the thirst to build, and that has been a harsh reality for me to accept… actually, I still haven’t accepted it.

    First cost: Hiring a consultant. You may choose to barely have them help you, but you NEED them on your construction loan application if you want that part to go smooth. Their initial down-payment might be as little as $5000, but could be more and will be one of your first “out of pocket” expenses.

    Second cost: Blueprints. You HAVE to have this step hashed out and finished before you can even begin to account for how much your house might cost to build. And if your using custom materials like we did, you need to have all the research about those materials to give to your designer, engineer, or architect. We got a fabulous deal on the cost of this step, but it is NOT TYPICAL. Expect to pay from as little as $2500 to well over $20,000. And this will come from your own wallet. If you think you can draw these plans up yourself and for-go the professional prints … then expect stress down the road, when everyone will treat you like a novice and make the bar you have to jump over higher.

    Third cost: Actual cost to build summary. You NEED this to take to almost everyone. Your loan officer, your lumber yard, your title office… Look at your house as a business you are starting. You need a business plan. A COMPLETE outline of costs will keep you from crying, and being surprised over and over again. Getting this cost outline together takes time… if your anything like me, optimistic and willing to jump in and see what happens, then STOP RIGHT NOW!! … lol… YOU NEED A real outline of costs. Then when you get that list, add 15% more for those items you simply can’t think of right now, but will show up later. If your working full-time, and will be your own GC … this step alone could take you almost 6 months to get right. Is a 2-3 year timeline to build acceptable to you? If not, maybe being your own GC isn’t right for you. I say 2-3 years, because depending on the climate you live in, you might end up “waiting” to break ground… or “waiting” to schedule a sub-contractor. But if you have a shorter construction season like we do … and your planning process needs 6 months of attention from you… then you could well need to wait till the next year to actually start your physical build. If you do this step yourself you save money, but make sure you have a consultant that KNOWS the industry. And make sure you “double check” their advice. They are motivated to get your money too and can “sell” you advice that “you want to hear” so you will hire them. Only after you’ve paid them will you find out they have no idea how much it will cost to get a well put on your property. Best way to check them out, is ask them what they think things cost in your area… and then get 3 quotes of your own from local contractors. If the numbers look about the same, then they are telling you the truth. If their numbers are consitantly different…. Are they an actual expert, or someone posing as one to just get your money? The cost to put this list together is more time than money in the owner-GC situation … but time IS MONEY … you will at some point be paying as much as your mortgage cost to carry your construcion loan, and still not have your house finished. If you plan this out right, your actual construction time can be very little, and that savings in time to construct, is a TON of money in your pocket later. So PLAN, PLAN, PLAN … and SAVE, SAVE, SAVE.

    Okay, sorry Andrew… apparently I am needing to write all this advice down to get it out of my system … lol …

    Thanx for all the free content and hours you have put in. We appreciate it immensly,

  3. Is there a site where I can look at straw bale house plans that are already designed. Who is a good architect for straw bale homes in or around Ohio. Any information will be appriciated.

  4. I am in the design stage of building a strawbale house on Vancouver Island and a question arose about building an attached garage or having a detached garage.

    The garage will be a traditional construction while the house will be strawbale non load bearing construction. If the garage is attached along one side or along a section of the strawbale house, what construction considerations need to be addressed? Or is this combination not advised?


  5. Great starter information, I especially liked the part about saving money – but if you are doing it yourself you should make sure to calculate that in as an expense. So many people tend to over look this “Small” detail, that is actually very important. Thanks for posting your thoughts and ideas.

  6. Absolutely true Todd. That is so often not included and it really needs to be to get an accurate cost estimate. This is especially true if you are taking time off of work to work on your project. Including lost wages is equally important to including a cost estimate for yoru actual labor.

  7. Andrew, my husband and I have been dreaming of building our strawbale home for many years. We own the land to build it on free and clear now but unlike many people I see commenting here we have no building codes except for state regulations for septic system. My husband is getting ready to retire and we would really like to do as much of the work as possible ourselves we are both quite handy and I’ve done a lot of remodeling on our present home that is something we enjoy doing. We have a detailed sketch of the house we would like to build. We have not seen any house plans that we would like to use. We don’t have a lot of money we are retired military but we will have a lot of time and as I said before we would really like to do most of the work ourselves. Architects are expensive.. are there any alternatives? The house we are planning on building is quite large …we have a large family we also plan to open our home to people in our ministry for retreats and other ministry functions. We are really excited about getting started but not sure where to start. We have all your DVDs we’ve read every book I guess we just need to take that first step..We are located in North Texas just a stones throw from the OK border on 20 acres. We plan to incorporate solar power in our plans as well as a rain water collection system. The wind blows and the sun shines here all the time.

  8. Hi Bobbie. Sounds like an exciting time for you both! You can talk to designers like Chris Keefe ([email protected]) to see if they are more affordable to you. It’s a good idea to spend money on the design so that you don’t end up wasting it later on mistakes that could have been easily avoided. Let him know I sent you and he will take extra good care of you. He is a good friend of mine. Other than that, you may want to see if you can find a builder who can mentor you along the way either as an act of kindness or for a small fee. Have fun and best of luck!

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