HPH050 : Hiring Contractors and Subcontractors – with David Snell, Author of Building Your Own Home
David Snell, author of Building Your Own Home, shares advice on acquiring land, building up a skilled and reliable team, and keeping contracts simple. He is currently building his 14th house!
Interview with David Snell
Together with a group of friends David Snell built four houses in 1970. This was to be the start of his self-build journey and a philosophy that self-build is the only way to do things.
David has been a regular contributor to Homebuilding & Renovating over the last 20 years and he is also the author of Building Your Own Home (affiliate link).
Living in Someone Else's House is an Anachronism
David Snell has a different mindset to most people. If he wants or needs to move house his first thought is about finding a plot of land and then working out how to build.
It's First-Time Self-Builders that Struggle to Find Land
David says: “Finding land is not as difficult as you would imagine. It is all over the place. It's just how to look at it and where to look for it.”
The problem only exists for those who have never done it before, because seasoned self-builders just find the next plot and get on with it.
There are lots of websites dedicated to the sale of land (including Plotfinder, PlotSearch and Rightmove in the UK).
Quite often newbies just don't have the funds to buy in a particular area and they should realise this and try elsewhere.
Do Not Buy Land Without Working Out its Value First
As with any business, profit is the engine that creates development. So land always has a value relevant to the house that can be built upon it and this must include a profit.
Land Cost + Build Cost + Profit Margin (typically 20-30%) ≤ House Value
The first three elements can be juggled around but they must not exceed the value of the house.
Recommendations are Essential When Hiring Anyone
If you have lived in an area for a long time it's likely that your friends or family will have first-hand experience of using builders and tradespeople.
Ask them about their experiences, getting the good and bad.
Even if you're new to an area, start online (websites often have their own star rating systems) and then when you've selected a company get some references.
David says: “I would always ask any person who was going to work for me on a site to give me the names and addresses of other people they'd done the job for. And I would go and see them, and have the courage to knock on their door.”
Birds of a Feather Flock Together
After moving from Gloucestershire to Kent, David explains how he built up his team in a totally new area. He concentrated on finding the key trade first, which is his case was a bricklayer. He used the internet first and then went to visit the companies he shortlisted. Only by spending time getting to know them, seeing examples of their work and chatting to previous clients was he able to choose with confidence.
Once the key trade was in place he was able to get recommendations from that company for tradesmen in other disciplines. This is because they tend to work in laissez-faire groupings.
However, never ask for recommendations in their own trades because they'll never have a good word to say about anyone in their own discipline!
Use an Estimating Service to Get Ballpark Costs
After 50 years in the industry David has a good sense of how much things are going to cost. However, he still sends off his house plans to an estimating company. For about £150 + VAT he then gets back a set of figures that guide the project and hopefully accord with what he was expecting.
Don't Argue Over Price
With a cost estimate there should be no need to beat people down on price. If you do they will perceive that they have been robbed and so they'll either skimp on the job or charge for extras to recoup their money.
Most Self-Build Projects Won't Have a Written Contract
Having a big thick contract can scare off some builders.
A simple form of 5 or 10 pages, in plain English with tick boxes, is what David sees as a good solution.
It might state:
- Start date
- Finish date
- Payment schedule
- How both parties agree a termination
No Labour-Only Subcontractor is Going to Sign a Contract
With a plumber or electrician who is there to supply and fix, it's really going to be a question of offer and acceptance. So you'll ask for a quote, they'll provide one and the contract will be formed by offer and acceptance.
Don't Pay Upfront for Work
No builder should need any advance for the work because everything is paid in arrears.
Also make sure that you're not paying too much for each stage. David gives an example: “You've agreed to pay a bricklayer £12,000 to do the brickwork on your house. At what rate is he going to be paid? If he thinks he's going to be there for 12 weeks and you pay him £1,500 a week then 10 weeks into the job you're not going to have anything left on it and he might perceive that, hey I can go down the road and get more money and might not finish.”
Replacing a Builder Can Be Difficult
If something has gone wrong and you need another builder, for example, you may find that it comes at a price.
Even if the work is 75% of the way through, it will probably still cost 50% of the initial job to finish things. This is because they have to be careful what they're getting themselves into!
If you're in the UK, David recommends using an NHBC registered builder as they would help you in this eventuality and it would also be covered by their insurance.
Build a House to Accommodate Your Life and Lifestyle
David's needs have changed over time but he has always built to accommodate his life and lifestyle.
When his kids were at home he built them their own lounge so they could lead a semi-separate existence. David believes this extra space was important for relations between the generations.
Self-Building is Empowering
In David's view self-building is life-changing.
Most people make a lot of money with increases in equity and there's also a sense of power for those who have always been employees. Suddenly you are the boss and you're paying out massive amounts of money to people who are relying on you.
Download a transcript of the interview with David Snell.
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Our Question for the Comments Section
How did you find your contractor or subcontractors?