I’m not a fan of most romance movies, but those few scenes in the Notebook where Ryan Gosling is building his dream house up in the mountains never fail to inspire me:
Now this is romance, just a man and his wood…
But in all seriousness, there’s something beautiful and honorable about a person dreaming up their ideal house and then building it more or less entirely with their own mind and hands.
But is it even possible?
Teaching yourself to build a single-family house, and then overseeing and partaking in the construction of that house, is a difficult venture to say the least, but it’s something that many people do successfully achieve.
In 2014 (a while ago but the only data I could find), 7% of new homes were owner-built, meaning the landowner acted as the general contractor of the homebuilding project.
This roadmap’s goal is to give you a self-education process and resources you can use to become a successful owner-builder.
A person who plans and manages the construction of their own home, hires professionals as needed, and does some or all of the physical work, whether it’s carpentry, painting, or plumbing, with their very own hands.
In other words, this guide is meant to show you what skills and concepts you should learn to build your own home, what resources are available to help you learn these things, and what rough order to do it in.
Of course, some people go in blind to house building and learn along the way, but others like to have some background knowledge of the craft before digging into the ground.
Quick Note: If your goal is to become a professional builder, who builds other peoples’ homes for a living, this guide will help you as well. But you’ll need more on-the-job experience and certifications before people will let you build houses for them.
On the other hand, if you do only a few of the steps, you’ll still come away with a valuable foundational education in home building, which will allow you to make smart decisions about who you hire, and intelligently communicate with your contractor.
That said, let’s dive into the 14-step process for teaching yourself the fundamentals of home building so that you can build your own house from scratch.
Feel free to jump around the roadmap and use it as a guide for what to learn, not a code of law.
Disclaimer: This is a guide for how I’d go about teaching myself this craft – something I plan to do in the future, as I have a dream of building a small home in the mountains of the Northeast. It’s not the only way to learn it. Also, although the resources and tips in the guide are based on the advice from expert home builders I found in my research, I am not myself an expert home builder. In this guide I’m sure you’ll find some who are, and you can read their stuff to get a more in-depth look at each step. This is just an overview, a roadmap of the learning process, based on my experience of teaching myself new things.
1. Get an Introductory Book on DIY House Building
The Complete Guide to Contracting Your Home is a great resource for learning how to manage the home construction process on your own.
One of the authors is a professional home designer and builder, and the other author built himself a custom home.
The book walks you through each stage of the construction process, from pre-construction and location all the way to flooring and even landscaping.
And it’s packed with useful checklists and worksheets that’ll help you learn the various skills required to manage home construction.
Though the book covers advanced topics, it’s well-suited for beginners:
“If I were a beginner, I’d buy this book and read it twice before attempting to build your own home. Think about this, the investment and time putting into this book will payoff huge amount of return on investment. Follow the book and it’s worksheets. There is a lot to read and absorb, but you can do this!” — Matt K.
To use this book effectively, you could skim it from start to finish to get an idea of what house building will entail, and then refer to the book throughout the building process as needed.
2. Start Watching Home Building YouTube Channels
I have a goal of one day building a log cabin up in the mountains for respite and escape, so I often watch YouTube videos of people doing exactly that, and I pick up a thing or two while doing so.
It’s no match for getting out there and doing it yourself, but it’s certainly a good primer and motivator. So consider adding it to your daily routine, or just watching videos from your favorite builders when you’re lounging around and don’t know what to do with yourself.
One great channel is Armchair Builder, which focuses on helping aspiring owner-builders learn important concepts and skills.
For example, here’s a video covering the cost to build a new small designer home on your own:
There are also channels out there where people document their home construction journey. It can be inspiring and instructive to watch owner-builders overcome obstacles, execute plans, and flex their skills.
For instance, below is the first video in a great series called Building a House by Myself:
If you have a specific aspect of house building that interests you and that you’d like to do mostly on your own, whether it’s framing or design, you can definitely find YouTube channels specifically dedicated to that one aspect of the interdisciplinary craft that is house building.
3. Choose a House Style & Study it
If you don’t already have a specific architectural housing style in mind, it’s important to learn about the available options, including farmhouse, cape cod, colonial, craftman, mediterranean, and ranch style houses.
A great way to learn about the various housing styles and their advantages is by reading the book A Field Guide to American Houses, which surveys the popular styles and includes hundreds of photos and line drawings.
When considering which style to build, and thus make your focus of study, there’s more to consider than mere aesthetics. You should also factor in the difficulty level, the cost, and the potential future add-ons the style provides.
Once you’ve chosen a house style, start learning about its nuances:
- Read up on the house style.
- Take tours of houses with that style.
- Watch videos of people on YouTube building that type of house.
Sometimes, first-time owner-builders pick a house style that’s easy to build, shying away from the more complex ones.
It’s a reasonable idea, but not if it means forfeiting your dream home to remove the challenge. It’ll be a challenge either way. That said, affordability can definitely be a hang up for some owner-builders.
Most Affordable House Style for Beginner Owner-Builders?
The most affordable housing styles are ranch-style homes, which are usually a simple rectangular shape, and colonial style homes, which are symmetrical and boxy. All else equal, the simpler and boxier the design, the more cost-efficient the house.
4. Teach Yourself the Basics of Home Design
The next step in learning how to build a house is teaching yourself how to design your home using the available software and apps. You can take this as far as you’d like, from learning how to effectively cooperate with your architect to becoming a home architect yourself.
Of course, many owner-builders will opt for pre-desgined floor plans to save time. But some of you might want to actually get involved in the floor design process, especially if you’re particular about your home’s look.
Affordable design software like SketchUp make this possible for the non-architect:
Even if a licensed architect has to redraw or tweak your plan to get the residential construction permit, they’ll be editing a base that you created. Plus, these tools are fun to play around with.
Below are the four steps to designing your own home:
- Write Down Your Essentials: What are your must-have features? 3 bedrooms? A deck? An underground lair? List out the things you won’t compromise on.
- Learn About Your Lot: Review the lot’s plat map to learn property lines, easements, flood zones, regulations, and other things that affect your design plans.
- Use a 3-D Design Tool: Software makes it fun and easy for even non-techies to design a home. Consider learning how to use a free design tool like SketchUp.
- Show Your Design to an Architect: Meet with a licensed professional to see if the design you created is feasible, and suggest edits. Depending on your location’s building regulations, you might need to get your plan signed off on anyway.
For greater detail on the four steps outlined above, check out Bob Voss’s article on how to get started designing your own home.
If this seems like too much work, and you’d rather just learn enough about home architecture to effectively collaborate with the architect you hire, grab this book, The Forever Home: How to Work With An Architect to Design the Home of Your Dreams.
5. Educate Yourself on Home Construction Budgeting
Learning how to create a preliminary home construction budget is critical, as financial planning is often one of the first and most important steps in building a new home.
Having a budget ensures that you don’t overspend or design a house that you can’t afford to build. Creating one will also force you to come to terms with the actual costs of home building, and this will help you operate efficiently. For what we understand we can more easily control.
A preliminary house budget can be as simple as your average square foot cost in your area multiplied by the square feet of each part of your home.
You can find this sq. foot cost by talking with local builders and sharing the specifications of your home, its style, its flooring, etc., This will tell you the total cost of building a house.
After finding the estimated cost of your total project, you’ll probably want to divide that into the estimated costs of each phase of construction, some of which you’ll be able to undercut drastically by doing them yourself.
There are many house budget templates online. Some of them tell you the percentage of your total budget that each aspect of home building should cost:
To learn how to create a preliminary home construction budget, check out Owner Builder’s in-depth guide creating a budget estimate. And remember, your budget will change as you learn more about your construction needs.
6. Learn About Local Building Codes & Permits
If you’re planning to build your own house from scratch, you’re going to have to learn about local building codes and acquire any necessary permits from your local governing agencies before you start working.
These will depend on your location, and can change dramatically from town to town. Sometimes you won’t need any permits, but no matter what you will have to build a house that’s up to code.
Having permits and code in order will ensure that you get insurance and financing for your project.
For some reading, this article from Accidental Hippies is a good starting place to learn the ins and outs of staying in compliance with local building codes.
7. Understand the Stages of House Construction
Before you start building, it’s important to know the overall process for building a house. The home building process is typically broken into the following six stages — site prep, foundation, framing, electrical and plumbing, insulation, dry-wall, and interior and exterior finishes.
Even if you plan to hire contractors for some or all of the steps, you should know the work that goes on in each stage.
We briefly summarize the steps below, and also link out to helpful resources so you can learn more about the steps you might want to do on your own.
In this stage, the builder acquires the necessary permits. They also need to know that this ground is safe to dig and free of electrical lines and other potential hazards. To figure this out, call 811, the Safe to Dig hotline.
Next the builder levels the site with a bulldozer and a backhoe. This is to flatten the surface and remove rocks, roots, trees, and other underground debris that will get in the way of building. The builder also digs for the septic system and a basement if they’ll have one.
As an owner-builder, you’ll probably hire an excavator crew to do some or all of this part for you, but you could also learn to do bulldozer grading on your own to save money.
In the foundation stage, the builder will create the base (often concrete) of the home. This separates the house from the earth while also anchoring them together. This protects your home in the case of natural disasters. It won’t be swept away during a flood for example.
The process for laying the foundation is complicated and expensive, as it depends on your soil, climate, and local building codes and requires a lot of equipment.
Jay Cork, from The Family Handyman, says it’s the one aspect they always recommend DIYers to outsource:
“We don’t suggest pouring your own foundation. It’s expensive, time consuming and can be dangerous for DIYers. This is one project that you should hire a professional to do.”— Jay Cork, The Family Handyman
That said, it can’t hurt to learn about the foundation laying process. Here’s a helpful guide that will tell you all you need to know about laying the foundation for a home.
Often, when aspiring owner builders daydream about building their own home, framing is the step that comes to mind.
Framing is the act of erecting the walls and creating the roof and floor. After framing, you’ll have built the “shell” of your house.
To teach yourself how to frame a house, consider reading The Complete Book of Framing: An Illustrated Guide for Residential Construction.
By reading the book, you’ll learn basic carpentry for framing, and how to install walls, roofs, floors, door and window openings, and even stairs.
Electrical, Plumbing, & HVAC
After framing, the house’s plumbing, AC, and heating items are installed, including bath and shower fixtures, HVAC vent pipes, ducts, water supply lines, and more.
After that, an electrician will put in the electrical wiring, outlets, switches, and other electrical equipment.
Usually owner builders hire specialists in these trades to do these tasks. If you do any of them yourself, your work will have to pass inspections to ensure its up to code and safe.
Insulation keeps a house’s indoor climate comfortable and also improves home energy efficiency. Heating or AC air won’t easily escape, and cold or hot air from outside won’t easily enter uninvited. Proper insulation lowers your home energy costs as well.
There are different types of insulation material, not just the pink fluffy stuff that looks like cotton candy.
Here’s a video on the 2 major types of insulation material: mineral wool and fiberglass:
Many DIYers choose to do this on their own to reduce the costs of this stage. According to Insulation Institute, “insulating fiberglass or mineral wool are simple DIY projects.”
If you’re using more complicated insulation material, such as spray foam, you’ll probably need to hire a professional home insulator.
To learn how to do home insulation by yourself, check out The Family Handyman’s helpful article How to Insulate a House.
In the dry-wall stage, the builder puts in the dry-wall, a construction material used for your house’s ceilings and interior walls, as well as other interior fixtures.
Here is a great video series that teaches you how to install dry-wall on your own.
After the dry-wall is in, your house will start to look lime something you could actually live in. The house construction process is nearing its close.
Interior & Exterior Finishes
During this stage, the house will start to look like a finished product. You’ll install cabinets and hardwood flooring, carpeting and all the other finishing touches. You might also handle landscaping in your yard or manage other exterior finishes.
After you’ve completed this stage, and you do a final inspection with a certified inspector, you’ll be able to move your stuff in and enjoy your dream home.
8. Start Doing Smaller Building Projects
A great way to learn some basic house building skills is to do smaller, low-cost and low-risk DIY home improvement projects around the house, like putting in a closet, building a shelf, or expanding a deck.
Doing these smaller projects will force you to learn new construction skills and concepts that will come in handy when you decide to build your own house.
If you don’t own a home currently, you could put your skills to the test on the homes of your friends or family members.
Another thing you could do if you have the money and time is to start buying and renovating fixer-uppers, cutting your building teeth with each project.
9. Enroll in an In-Person Home Construction Course
Consider taking an in-person homebuilding course. This interactive environment will allow you to get your hands dirty with the guidance of a professional.
One popular school is called the Shelter Institute, which receives lots of praise for their teaching methods:
“I want to give you a yardstick, a gold standard, by which to measure good schooling. The Shelter Institute in Bath, Maine will teach you how to build a three thousand square-foot, multi-level Cape Cod home in three weeks’ time, whatever your age. If you stay another week, it will show you how to make your own posts and beams; you’ll actually cut them out and set them up. You’ll learn wiring, plumbing, insulation, the works. Twenty thousand people have learned how to build a house there for about the cost of one month’s tuition in public school.”– John Taylor Gatto
Unfortunately, they’re up in Maine, and they don’t seem to franchise. But people do travel from all around the country to attend, staying in the area during the course.
If you can’t travel, they do offer online courses, which are more affordable:
There also might be other businesses in your area teaching people how to build houses. Googling “in person home construction classes near me” is a good first step.
10. Build a Tiny House, Shed, or Log Cabin
Tiny houses, sheds, and small log cabins are great practice grounds for building a full dream home.
Requiring fewer materials and money, they give you opportunities to practice and hone your skills without taking on too much of a risk.
Plus, they’re pretty cool to have on your property and can easily be converted into a home office, cozy getaway, barroom, or something else fun. If not, they can always be used for storage.
Here’s a cool video about how to build a shed in your yard (w/o sheeting or foundation):
Even though they’re small projects, still be sure to check with building code and land regulations whenever constructing something on your property. If it’s small enough, you probably won’t need a permit.
11. Volunteer With Habitat for Humanity
The non-profit Habitat for Humanity focuses on building and restoring shelters and homes for those in need.
By volunteering on a build site, you’ll not only give people a safe and comfortable place to live, but also gain building skills that you can then apply to your own projects.
Working alongside skilled homebuilders, learning from them, observing them, and asking questions will help you grow as a builder, while giving back to your community.
Finally: Build Your Custom Dream House
The aspiring artist learns more from the act of painting than they do from reading books about painting.
Through action, they identify their knowledge gaps and weaknesses, and they bump up against problems that they need to solve.
These findings guide their self education. They know which questions to ask professionals, which masters to study, and which books to read.
Plus, after they learn whatever they needed to solve their problem, they can apply that technique, which makes the knowledge of it stick in their memory.
This same dynamic applies to teaching yourself homebuilding as well.
The best way to force yourself to truly learn the art and craft of building houses is by doing it and learning as you go.
So get out there, start the homebuilding process, and go try to choose a house style. You’ll learn a bunch in just that first step.