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Working solo

Davin E. | Posted in General Questions on

I know there are a lot of builders in the group and I am really impressed with the level of knowledge and sharing on this site. 

At the risk of looking like a fool I am going to put this out there anyway.

I’m new to the industry and starting a energy retrofit on my house.  After that I plan on purchasing other renovation properties as funds allow.  

Not looking to make millions, I just like being creative and building things with my hands.  And helping to create a comfortable, healthy, efficient home for people as a career is a dream I am chasing.  

Want to do as much of the work as I can myself.  As for better or worse..  I usually abide by the adage of if you want something done right you should do it yourself.  In this case… mainly because I don’t think anyone is going to care as much about your house as yourself.

Plus I get way more satisfaction out of sweating out a project and standing back when it’s done than writing a check to someone else.  

I have been trying to figure out ways to work on things in sections.   

This worked out well recently as I completed about 1500 sq ft. of engineered hardwood flooring.  I would work on a room.  Give my back a break and work on another project, then come back to to it (I’ve been an electrician for about 15 years now and my body is starting to get a little finicky of repetitive work/postures)

My question is.. do you guys have any advice/guidance for a solo worker /help if required?

I have heard of carpenters that built spec houses during the boom by themselves.. so I assume it can be done…

Specifically I have been trying to figure out if siding (along with exterior foam of course)  and roofing can be done in sections?

Are there any resources that you think would be helpful on this or any general thoughts?

I did find a book that I have coming from the library that may or may not be helpful:

Working Alone: Tips and Techniques for Solo Building (For Pros By Pros) by John Carroll

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Replies

  1. Expert Member
    Zephyr7 | | #1

    If you know the other trades you can make it work, but it’s a LOT of work. If you aren’t familiar with all of the trades, hire some guys you know on your first project and work with them as their apprentice to learn their trades too. Once you have a decent level of confidence with the other trades you can do some one-man projects. You’ll probably find some things you like and some things you’re loathe to do.

    For me, framing and electrical are my favorite, finishing drywall is probably most hated. I can do it, but I get OCD about it and spend too much time trying to make it all perfect. It’s usually cheaper for me, if I value my time, to just sub the drywall finishing out to someone who does mud and tape all day. They’re faster and they do a better overall job with less material.

    I’d start with small projects first, and work your way up from there. Smaller jobs need less material, less time, and less money. Since there is less of everything, there is also less chance of you getting in the red. If there is anything you’re unsure of ASK someone. You don’t want to get most of the way through a major project and then find out you messed up something early in the process that will require a lot of rework (time, money) to correct.

    Bill

  2. raul4817 | | #2

    Davin,
    "Specifically I have been trying to figure out if siding (along with exterior foam of course) and roofing can be done in sections"
    It can be done, This is what I have always done. You may look at investing in some pole jacks or a couple sections of scaffolding, space permitting. Pole jacks you'll need an extra hand to setup and break down but after that your rockin. Roofing can be done solo, most of the newer synthetic underlayments are rated for exposure for 90-180 days. I usually try to pick a week with no rain in the forecast and get after it. You'll be sore for after that first day of walking shingles up a ladder but it gets easier. I've even hung 50' one piece gutters solo with some creative pulley rigs and a couple of 10lbs weights.
    I've only paid for help when I know I cant physically or do it myself in a timely fashion without an extra hand. Most of my neighbors have been great about giving me an hour or two here and there so that has saved me some money as well. I've also found it to be more cost effective to labor for any pro working for me to bring the cost down. Last year I Upgraded my panel, meter socket, and service drop to 200amp service, I didn't feel like having the lights off for longer than a day since i live in the house, so I brought in a pro paid him $900 for the 12hr day we put in, my neighbor recently had the same exact work done to a tune of over 5k! Granted some of that was material but not $4100.

    I too have thought of getting into the rehab business when i'm finished with my own house and im not running the kiddos around for games every weekend. My focus would be on building efficient and durable homes. I occasionally help friends and family purchase homes as I am a licensed agent and I firmly believe that the finish work is nice and all but what's critical is whats behind those walls. I've seen some pretty bad rehabs around here.
    Bill, I can relate to your loathing of drywalling. My father was a drywaller and as you could imagine most of my winter and summer breaks were spent laboring for him. hanging it not so much but taping and sanding is the worst
    You have definitely found the right place, this site has really opened my eyes to the science behind building and a lot of knowledgeable people here to help you along the way. Good Luck.
    Raul

  3. Expert Member
    Zephyr7 | | #3

    I want to add something I should have mentioned before: some things should absolutely NOT be done alone. Two biggies here are electrical stuff and roofing. Why? Because both of those things can injure you in ways that will kill you if you don’t get help quickly, and there needs to be someone around to call for help. You can fall off a roof, or zap yourself unconscious with electricity, or get “stuck” which is very dangerous. Any electrician will tell you that they fear being “unable to let go” when the electricity causes their muscles to clamp down so that they can’t let go and sit there sizzling, basically.

    Always put safety first. Plenty of stuff in construction can be rewarding and fun, but there are many dangers to be careful of too. Have a helper, or just a watcher even, when doing anything that could potentially hurt you in a way you wouldn’t be able to call for help yourself.

    Bill

    1. raul4817 | | #5

      Bill,

      I totally get your point. Safety is always 1st for me even when I've worked solo. No need to be a cowboy with two small children. I've have always done electrical work by myself but not something like a panel upgrade or service upgrade when I have to deal will the live service drop. I prefer to pay someone with experience and labor for them.

      But ive done quite a bit of work up on the roof solo, with exceptions of course. I've shingled by myself, vented plumbing stacks and bathroom exhaust but my wife is always home and I alert her when I'm going to be up. She is pretty diligent about checking on me frequently. I never rush, working slow and steady, even have a harness to clip into. My current roof is now a 5/12 so I feel pretty good on that even without a harness. But you are correct bill always be safe work slow be smart.
      Raul

    2. T Carlson | | #20

      You shouldn't be doing electrical if you aren't a licensed electrician. And their are thousands of 1 man electrical companies. You work safe and no problems.

      Roofing solo is fine, just play it smart and follow fall protection guidelines.

      If you sit back and watch a construction site, most all tasks are most efficient with one guy in charge and 1 or 2 competent helpers, skilled or unskilled depending on task. More than that on residential and you get overlap waste.

      Always put safety first.

  4. DCContrarian | | #4

    I always find it helpful to look at the way things are usually done. Some trades are usually either a guy by himself or with a helper, some are usually a big crew. I'd say roofing, framing and drywall are usually a big crew while plumbing and electrical are usually 1 or 2 guys. A lot of the finish trades tend to be 1-2 guys.

    The thing that roofing, framing and drywall have in common is that a lot of the job is just hauling materials into place and a lot of the work isn't that skilled, you can have one guy who really knows what he's doing and a bunch of guys who just carry stuff and follow directions. The guys who work these trades tend not to be that skilled nor that well-paid.

    Most tradesman would rather do the whole job themselves, so if they work with a helper there's a reason. Either there's a lot of unskilled work, or there are things that just require a second set of hands.

    Just as a ball-park I'd say there's about five man-years of labor in a house. If you don't want your project to take five years or longer, you need to decide what to delegate. Set a dollar value for your time. Outsource anything that costs less than what your figure your time is worth, plus anything that you don't feel competent doing or takes more hands than you have.

  5. Expert Member
    Rick Evans | | #6

    Davin,

    You should check out "Crazy Framer" on YouTube. He frames entire houses alone in Canada and films it.

    It's really fun to watch as I often dream about leaving my office job to work in the trades.

    1. DCContrarian | | #10

      I watched the first seven episodes. It's impressive, but I had hoped he would have all sorts of clever tools, techniques and equipment for doing things by himself. Nope, it's mostly moving heavy objects with shear muscle power. I wouldn't say anything he does is unsafe, but it would go a lot easier with a helper. Watching the episode where he stands up the walls with wall jacks is painful -- he pumps one jack a few inches, then goes down the ladder, moves the ladder goes up and pumps the other jack, then moves the ladder again and repeat. Two guys, two ladders and it's done in a minute.

  6. W Ramsay | | #7

    While some work can be done efficiently with one person there are numerous where two or three people are much more efficient. Framing is one where two people can typically do as much in a day as one person in three to four days.

    Multiple people on a site have two additional benefits; as already mentioned - safety, and having someone to bounce ideas off of when problems or conundrums arise is extremely beneficial and can save you hours or days of rework.

    Solo can certainly be done and some people seem to be able to do it quite well but exceptions are not good rules. :-)

  7. Expert Member
    Akos | | #8

    Looking at the material you use can make a big difference when working solo. Sheathing with plywood is much eaiser as the panels are lighter.

    Build with TJIs instead of dimensional lumber.

    You can make built up beams out of light gauge steel (I like the Steelfom stuff as it is even lighter), much easier to handle than LVLs/ I beam.

    Always have a cellphone with you. Always. I've locked myself out by accident on a third story balcony in the winter, lucky that a window nearby was not locked.

    Putting up scafolding around 1/2 the house makes siding, trim, windows, soffit, eaves trough, roof much easier. Rental cost is not that much, I find it much more comfortable to work on.

    Make sure the house design has a large window or door near the front so you can get materials boomed in.

    One of the build blogs here was a solo build, good ideas there:

    http://www.savingsustainably.com/building-net-zero-house/

  8. Joe Norm | | #9

    Size and complexity of the house design plays a big part in this as well.

    Simple and on the smaller size = not too daunting to tackle mostly alone

    Large and complex = Plan to be there forever and burnout doing it

  9. Nathan Scaglione | | #11

    Sounds like two separate lines of thought to me.

    Doing something like a deep energy retrofit yourself on your own house can make a lot of sense in terms of cost savings. Savings in the renovation itself, as well as future maintenance minimization, lower energy costs, simpler heating and cooler systems, and overall comfort.

    Using excess money to speculate in real estate with skills you don't have is likely to be inferior to a well diversified portfolio of equity and bonds.

  10. Doug McEvers | | #12

    It's harder than it looks. There is nothing easy about the building business, it is certainly not an ATM. Forget about flipping houses, that is made for TV nonsense. I agree with Nathan, a DIY energy retrofit makes a lot of sense as the work takes an average skill level, can be time consuming and expensive if hired out.

  11. Davin E. | | #13

    Yes I agree that safety should be first and would not undertake anything that would be dangerous.

    I like the idea of working with pros and learning new trades until I have the skills needed to do some things on my own

    And having a helper on hand for safety and extra hands does seem to be a wise move

    Just to clarify I’m not planning to build on my own (although maybe someday?), just looking to retrofit small single family homes

  12. Walter Ahlgrim | | #14

    I don’t want to be the naysayer but if you do this please do it with your eyes open.

    First admit to yourself you are a house flipper or you have an expensive hobby

    Second understand this is a very competitive business. The only way to survive is to know what your customer wants in each neighborhood and what they will pay.

    Third time is money when you are paying interest on a loan and if you paid cash you are losing the money that money should be earning in the market.

    Understand that the people that spend time thinking about the stuff we talk about on this forum are a little obsessive we invest money in building that take 20 plus years to pay off when most people move in less than 6 years. My guess is most of the customers looking at flipped homes do not care about insulation for mechanical systems and are more excited about granite counter and barn doors.

    If you bury a ton of time and money inside the walls of a house most people will fail to see the value and will not pay a perineum for your house.

    Walta

  13. Eric Habegger | | #15

    I'll offer an example that uses my own experience. If you are serious about being a real craftsman and doing the job right then I am with you. When I renovated my own home I had the same motivation and I did 95 percent of it myself. It has been a labor of love and I knew from the beginning that I didn't have all the foreknowledge of what I needed to do. I had to learn as I progressed and it made the work go slow in addition to working by myself. It took 10 years. I'm not kidding. Probably 5 of those years was just laying on the couch trying to imagine what I was going to do next or else recovering from the extremely hard work of doing the job alone the day before. I didn't work every day.

    It was never about making money but was instead about the daily process of learning the subject and adapting that learning to build a (mostly) green structure that also appealed to my personal aesthetic. I've gotten a tremendous sense of satisfaction out of doing it myself and having a house now that I really, really enjoy. I can't imagine doing what I've done if it wasn't for the fact that I'm retired. I also could use the fact that I didn't have a lot of money as an excuse for doing it slowly and for doing it myself.

    It sounds like you are in a different life situation. I think that 5-man-years going into the creation or total renovation of a house is a really good estimate. I don't think I would take on what you are thinking of taking on unless it was for my own home, and it would also have to take into account that 5-man-year time horizon. That isn't even considering what you would be putting your family through during that time horizon. Being independently wealthy, or at least retired, seems like the proper background to doing what you want to do.

  14. Davin E. | | #16

    Hey Walter,

    Very true, I know going into it that energy retrofits don’t usually make much economic sense for ROI, as you pointed out appraisals and home buyers don’t usually pay extra for the hidden insulation, etc

    That is why most flippers just do cosmetics and as little major items and mechanicals as they can.

    My plan is to hold the properties and rent them, unless selling makes sense in a particular property

    1. Expert Member
      Akos | | #19

      If you are in an area with good demand for rentals go for it. Best thing I ever did.

      Always keep in mind that an income property needs to make income, so you have to sharpen your pencil when it comes to all decisions. Splurging a a bit on looks goes a long way in getting better tenants.

      With rental time is very valuable. While you are working on the property, you are paying interest but also not getting any income so it is a double whammy. There is also a lag between the property being finished and being rented, frustrating to have it sit empty but no way around this.

      What I've found works is doing the major general work, than finishing each unit in sequence. This lets you rent the unit out as soon as available while continuing to finish the other ones. Landscaping is last, getting an attractive low maintenance setup is definitely worth it in the long run.

  15. Robert Opaluch | | #17

    Davin,

    I say "go for it!" As long as you are motivated, sensible, and a hard worker, which it appears you definitely are.

    I agree with Joe that keeping the project reasonably simple and a reasonable size is key. After only having built a room in someone's basement during college, doing miscellaneous small repairs and replacements, and reading as much as I could after getting some experience (otherwise not very interesting reading IMHO), I built a 1500 SQFT home with attached garage mostly solo (~80% of the labor). But I designed the home to be easy to build as well as energy efficient. Did all the electrical work, almost all the framing, since I had enough experience and knowlege; and hired someone to work with me to teach me concrete, roofing, tile, and rough plumbing work. Drywall I didn't have a great teacher so hung drywall with him, but had someone else do most of the drywall finish work (I didn't get good and fast at it, and drywall is cheap to sub out.)

    Luckily there are some places that allow owner-builders to do just about everything, and we had LOTS of inspections to pass (which is a good thing).

    Injuries are bound to occur in construction work. I ended up in the ER twice with minor injuries, but saw someone fall off a second story while roofing a nearby home under construction. Maybe I'm a bit reckless but if you are sensible and avoid doing jobs you find risky, I believe working alone is reasonably safe. Especially now with cell phones.

    Also building or gut renovation work is a LOT of work, as you know. I'd get tired of doing one type of work by the time it was finished, but then moved on to the next phase. Took one year to get a CO, and once I moved in, got a full-time job and continued the work part-time. Great experience!

    Renovated three homes afterwards. The nice thing about renovation is that you can live there and proceed at a slower pace sometimes.

    I read parts of the "Working Alone..." book years later, and found many of his long list of ideas interesting and worthwhile. Did similar things while building, sometimes you do need to be a bit inventive to work solo.

  16. T Carlson | | #18

    Check with the permitting office, some things while you may be able to do, you cannot do in a permitted job without the correct license, especially if you do not occupy the property.
    Can come back to haunt you if prospective buyer is cunning and checks with the permit office.

  17. Joel Cheely | | #21

    Figuring out how to do something that at first seems impossible to do solo is one of the joys of doing it. I put up all of my WRB, window bucks, exterior insulation, strapping and siding by myself. I got the wife to help on two pieces of siding (horizontal corrugated, up to 22 ft. x 32" w.) and then figured it wasn't worth it so figured out how to do it solo with homemade block and tackle. I do jump around from trade to trade because.... well, I can if I feel like it.
    I can't do it all; I know that, but I try to get the best bang for the buck, and do the details the way I couldn't get other tradesmen to do.
    One advantage is that with the money I save I get to justify buying better tools!

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