Ever since we put up the beam in the first floor I’ve been grappling with the unfortunate reality that I’m not as good at building houses as someone who does it for a living. This is an obvious statement, but it runs up against my perfectionism. We’re starting to do constructive work on the house rather than destructive work. I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time, but now that it’s here I’m forced to confront the fact that my carpentry skills are not up to my own standards. I’m also forced to either accept less-than perfect results or redo things I barely have time to do in the first place.

One of our primary goals in building our house ourselves was to make sure it was built right. To achieve this I’ve done a lot of research, a lot of reading, a lot of planning, and we’re spending a lot of money for the right materials. All of that still butts up against the lack of experience I have at physically doing it. I have a level, a square, a measuring tape and good eyes, but things still don’t wind up fitting the way I expect them to.

One of the things I take pride in is a level of honesty with myself and the introspection to see when I’m not doing a good job. Ira Glass talked about the difference between taste and skill, and while he was speaking about the creative pursuits, I don’t think there’s a difference. I know what good quality construction looks like. I can see what’s wrong with every building I walk into, and appreciate it when things are well made.

We watched a lot of Holmes on Homes before starting this project, seeing horror stories of bad craftsmanship from shady contractors. Because I knew I wouldn’t accept less-than-good quality, I convinced myself that I would do a better job, but I failed to understand that just because I would doesn’t mean I could. I recently read a blog post by Allison Bailes discussing his experience building a green home and the role his own self-delusion played in convincing him that he could do it himself and to plow ahead despite setbacks. In a separate post he said that one of the top ten mistakes he made building his home was thinking he could save money by doing it himself.

On the one hand, without the self-delusion, he (and for that matter, Sarah and I) would probably never have undertaken the project in the first place. The self-delusion is necessary to convince yourself to do risky things. Once you’re committed, you eventually work a way through it. However, the self-delusion is only useful up front. Once you’re in the thick of it, self delusion only serves to prolong the project by telling you you can do it all. The question becomes, when is it actually a good idea to do it ourselves and when should we hire out?

There are always things that are worth doing yourself. The basement steel beam is a prime example. We started out convinced we needed to hire it out, got quotes of fifteen to twenty thousand dollars, and wound up doing it ourselves for about two thousand dollars. However, without the help of our friend Mike, a construction welder that was able to buy the steel and help us put it in, it wouldn’t have been so straightforward.

A counter example is the first floor LVL beam. We were quoted a bit under five grand to have it done. We did it ourselves for roughly sixteen hundred. That’s still significant money saved, but the time and effort it took, the quality of the finished product, and the lingering uncertainty of whether it was done 100% properly add up to me concluding I probably should have just written the check.

If nothing else, I’ve reminded myself to at a minimum get a quote for the work so I can make an educated decision. With Sarah in grad school for the rest of the year, my evenings are dedicated to watching our son, Derek. That means I can only work on the house on weekends or if I take off work, and individual projects that would take a contractor a few days may take me a month or more. There’s value in that time, and I’m slowly realizing that sometimes I need to pony up the cash if it will get things done. To start with, I’m going to get a couple quotes for the joist levelling and the subfloor. If one of them is reasonable, I’ll save myself a ton of time and effort and hopefully have a better product than I could do myself with the time allotted.

Going forward, we’ll take it one piece at a time. We don’t have a construction loan, so everything is out of pocket. That means we feel it acutely when we make big ticket decisions, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth it. I expect we’ll still wind up doing most of this project ourselves with the help of friends, but maybe a bit smaller “most” wouldn’t be so bad.

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