For those who love to D.I.Y.

Special to The Times

In this fifth edition of a book that’s been around for 25 years, contractor-author Carl Heldmann has written the bible for people who want to act as their own general contractor.

And Heldmann’s point of view is obvious from the book’s title, “Be Your Own House Contractor: Save 25% Without Lifting a Hammer.” The volume has great information for people in the planning stages, but when it comes time actually to break ground and lay the slab, most readers are likely to hire a pro.

The book covers the basics, from how to shop for the right lot to figuring out the “cost-to-build” formula. “Find a new home being built by a professional builder that is similar in size and style (and quality) to your dream house and do the following: Take the sale price and deduct the land cost, real estate commissions and 25% builder profit and overhead and you’ll have the real cost to build,” Heldmann writes.


Strewn throughout the book are interesting tidbits a layman probably wouldn’t hear unless he showed up at a job site at break time with a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. For instance:

* It’s illegal to tear down a house that still has a mortgage on it. The construction lender will pay off any mortgages, and the first draw from the new loan will be used to pay for the teardown.

* Lots with mature trees are more expensive and more difficult to build on, but you’re generally assured a better resale value.

* The most expensive parts of a house are its roof and foundation. Therefore, adding a second story is almost always a smart way to increase square footage and value.

* Ask the seller of a lot to conduct a soil test. This is an inexpensive test to check the load-bearing capability of the ground.

* Building during the winter will likely find you higher-quality subcontractors since construction work tends to lessen during that time of year. Of course, the current lull in the home-building industry has put many talented individuals on the market for work.


Much of the book deals with the headaches of cost overruns and how to avoid them, including the mantra that every contractor tells everyone who’s building a home: Make changes early. “On-the-job changes are expensive, so live with the decisions you make on paper or expect high cost overruns.”

There’s a small chapter covering the basics of getting a construction loan and plenty of tips on finding good subcontractors, shopping for fire insurance for the construction site and an overview of the city or county inspection process -- in other words, topics that a general contractor has to worry about.

Although Heldmann is all for being the contractor on your own project, he’s reticent about people taking on the physical labor unless they know what they’re doing. “This is especially true in painting,” he writes. “People think it is easy, but unfortunately it comes at a time when the house is quite far along, and construction disbursements will be approaching their maximum amount. . . . If you seek perfection in painting, wait until you’re living in the house and do your own touch up.”

In addition to the book, Heldmann recommends checking out its accompanying website,, where you’ll find downloadable spreadsheet software that tracks building costs and links to sites with house plans, new products and more.

After reading this guide, you may be inspired to take on a project by yourself, but it’s probably wiser first to speak with others who have already accomplished this. The gap between reading and doing can be great.