What Work Should I Do Myself?

You will have to do some soul searching to answer this question in its entirety, since the question will have a lot to do with

  1. How much time you have available,
  2. What skills you possess and
  3. How much hired help you can afford.

To assist, we will list below the various construction processes required to build a Backyard Cottage and give a few recommendations about how and when to hire a professional to do part of the work. We’ll start from the layout and work our way through the process.

Our buildings are quite simple in plan and don’t require much skill to layout but if you have any doubts about where your property lines or utilities are, you may want to call for help. Nothing could be worse than having to tear down a building because it crosses over a setback or property line. The same is true for your water and sewer lines. You will need to cut a trench for water, sewer and electrical.  It’s not good to find out after the trench is run that the line is not where you thought it was. For peace of mind you can get the layout and utilities located quite quickly by hiring a local Land Surveyor. The layout fee might be $800- $1200 but it could save you a lot.

Concrete seems to scare a lot of people but it is really quite simple. Build a form, put in some reinforcing steel and pour in some concrete. If you study the drawings you will get the idea. If you have no experience with concrete, you probably should read up on it a little before you start your first foundation. Our favorite source for construction education is the Craftsman Book Company. There you’ll find an entire library of construction related e-books available for only $150. They have several good books on concrete and foundations. For a Backyard Cottage Project I would recommend some outside help at these stages:

  • Trenching – Our cottage foundations are laid out as simple trenches 12” wide. These trenches can easily be cut in an hour or so by a small 12” wide trenching machine. You can rent a machine or hire a local trenching company to save yourself a lot of shovel work. If you choose to have a trencher on the site remember all of your utilities can be set in a 12” wide trench also. It is smart to schedule all the trenches to be cut at one time and save both time and money.  Remember to locate the underground water, sewer and sprinkler lines or you'll have a lot of patching to do.
  • Concrete Pumping – Because our cottages are normally located in the backyard, there will probably be quite a distance between the concrete mixer and the cottage.  To avoid the backbreaking work of hauling concrete in wheelbarrows, schedule a local concrete pumping service. It will cost $300 to $400 but it’s normally worth it in terms of man-hours.  It also will allow you to concentrate more on how and where the concrete is poured. Remember to tell the concrete company that you will be pumping the load. They must provide a special mix design for a pumped pour.
  • Finishing – The skill of placing concrete with a smooth, hard and level surface is one of the skills in construction that is not acquired overnight. Good finishers are worth every penny you’ll spend on them.  If you decide to pump the concrete ask your concrete pumping company to recommend a finisher. To make things even easier, tell them you want them to “Pump, Place and Finish” the concrete pour and all you’ll have to do is watch.

Once the slab is out of the way the biggest task in the job starts, that of rough framing. It’s also the most fun because you get to see the overall form of the cottage take place quickly. Again we recommend that you turn to our friends at the Craftsman Book Company for basic advise on how to frame a wood structure. Between the drawings and your e-books, you probably don’t need much outside help with the framing. This may be the time you want to recruit your friends and family to help. There’s a lot to do and everyone seems to like “Raising a Building”. Remember to bring enough hammers, nails and tool belts. Otherwise you’ll probably have a lot more people looking than nailing. One note we should add is that laying out the wood wall plates takes a lot of time and thinking. You probably want to do that when there are no crowds to distract you. The more layout and pre-cutting of pieces you can do before your help arrives, the more will get done. If you get distracted by layout problems or setting up for cutting, the entire process will stop.

As soon as the roof sheathing is on and it’s been inspected by the Building Department you should get your building “Dried In” to protect the framing from water damage. “Drying In” a residential building normally means putting the roof deck protection (i.e. roofing paper) on. The shingles will have to wait until the flashing, edge drip and roof projections are in place.   

The application of asphalt shingles is a relatively easy process but it’s hard work and you need to pay attention. Roofing is the most dangerous of the trades and falling off of a roof is one of the most common causes of work related injury and deaths. If properly performed, you should have little problem shingling your own roof but you should do some reading first. GAF Roofing provides a series of high quality videos for the DIY builder. We highly recommend reading the safety practices they recommend, as well as, the technical material on roof deck protection, shingling, ridge caps, valleys and flashing.

If you would rather avoid the roofing process, you can usually hire a professional roofer for a weekend. That should be all the time it takes to roof the Cottages we offer. Because these roofs are so small, most roofing companies would probably not be interested. If they were interested their overhead would be so high, you probably couldn’t afford them. So we recommend you try and find the guy who actually pounds the nails. If you don’t know anyone who knows a roofer, try “Craig’s List”. Prices are negotiable but you probably want an agreement that is lump sum and not hourly.  Remember, that hiring a non-family construction worker on your project will require worker’s compensation insurance, so put that in the budget.

Waterproofing and Insulation
The waterproofing and insulation work on our cottages is quite simple and probably not worth hiring out. The following paragraphs describe where to go to find out more on the topics.

  • Waterproofing - For information on waterproofing of walls, windows, doors and openings we highly recommend the videos and instruction manuals provided on the Dupont-Tyvek website. It may take a while to work through the volume of materials Dupont-Tyvek supplies but all the waterproofing products specified on our drawings are described in detail there.
  • Insulation – For information on placing the batt and rigid insulation products we specify in our drawings we recommend you go to CertainTeed for high density batt insulation, and to RMAX Corporation for high efficiency rigid insulation.

Exterior Doors and Windows
The installation of exterior doors and windows is one of the more satisfying and simple tasks on your project. All you need to know is well covered in the e-book series from Craftsman Books, which was previously described. This is a job you will want to do yourself. Remember waterproofing of the walls and flashing of the openings must be finished before you start this task.

Exterior Siding and Trim
Most of our cottage exteriors are composed of Hardie products as manufactured by the “James Hardie Company”. This basic cement board product is an inexpensive, durable, fire resistant material that is available nearly everywhere. It is a product that can be easily applied by the typical Owner-Builder. However, the product has certain properties that should be understood by the installer before starting.  JamesHardie provides extensive information on how to properly apply and finish the product. We encourage you to read about it before starting.

Many people have asked if they could substitute wood for Hardie Cement Board products. The answer is yes with a caveat. Many of our cottages are built as “Accessory Structures” which can have a property line setback as small as 5 feet. Most Fire Codes require structures within 10 feet of a property line to be rated for fire protection. The same is true for structures located within “Wild Fire Hazard Zones”.   Nearly all Hardie siding systems are certified as “Fire Resistance Rated Wall Assemblies”. This certification is normally not available for flammable wood siding. We recommend that you ask your Building Department before you make a substitution of wood for cement board siding.

You can probably save a few thousand dollars by doing your own plumbing. A typical cottage plumbing plan is quite simple. But you should plan on spending some time studying the plans, the Plumbing Code and a plumbing instructional book. Craftsman Books has several books on the subject, including one in their downloadable PDF library. Our recommendation is that you ask for a little help with the plumbing, most particularly on the propane gas lines. Your local “Yellow Pages” (both on-line and printed) should have any number of plumbers who can assist. 

If you have some background in electricity, our backyard cottage electrical plans will probably be quite simple. If you are new to the field, you should realize that a mistake in wiring could endanger your family’s lives. We are not discouraging someone who wants to learn but we would recommend that you get some professional help with electrical if this is your first time in an electrical panel box.  If you can get a local licensed electrician to work with you, it is still possible to save thousands on your cottage. With guidance from your electrician you can dig the trenches, cut the holes in the studs, pull the wire and climb the ladder. Most electricians would be happy to have someone else do the “Bull Work” while they make the connections and set the fixtures. If you’re still determined to do the work yourself, Craftsman Books has a shelf full of electrical “How to”, Code books and training manuals to learn the trade.

Our HVAC systems are typically set up to allow the Builder the choice of two different heat pump types.  The options are both based on hi-efficiency heating and cooling heat pumps but they have significant differences:

Option 1: Mini-Split Ductless Heat Pump - These systems are manufactured with two components, a separate air handling unit placed inside the home and a condensing unit placed outside.   The mini-splits are extremely efficient, very quiet and require no duct work.  They are the most efficient heating and cooling product on the market with SEER values above 20 for the units we specify.  They are also the quietest heating and cooling system you can buy.  However, they have a few drawbacks when compared to the PTHP units described below. 1) They are more expensive than PTHP systems, 2) They are more difficult to install, 3) They require charging of the refrigerant lines with restricted chemicals.  This last requirement usually means that you will need a certified air-conditioning technician to install and charge the lines with refrigerant.  In California you will also have to add the cost of a "Cal-Green" inspector to verify the charge.  The costs for charging the lines adds significantly to the overall installed price of the system.

Option 2: PTHP Through-the-Wall Heat Pump - The "Packaged Terminal Heat Pump" (PTHP) we specify are high efficiency, single unit, self contained heating and cooling systems that slide into a hole in wall.  The units we specify are much like through-the-wall air-conditioners we're all familiar with in motel rooms, however modern PTHP systems are much quieter than the units of old.  The modern PTHP systems have high efficiency ratings when compared to their predecessors but nothing like the ratings on our mini-splits.   The same is true of the noise levels, although much quieter than older models they are still much noisier than mini-splits.   The real advantage of PTHP units is that the DIY Builder can install them himself.  With lower first cost and no technician charges needed, the PTHP units will probably cost half that of a mini-split system.  If you are in California you will probably have to use a mini-split because the PTHP systems are normally not usable below 25 Degrees Fahrenheit without electrical resistant heat back-up.

Hanging drywall is a dusty and laborious task but there isn’t anything intellectually challenging about it. You will probably save $.50 to $1.00 per square foot if you choose to do it yourself. You will need at least one assistant.

Finishing drywall is not a physically demanding task but it does require a bit of practice. If you would like to spend a few hours watching YouTube videos on how to finish drywall, and another hour or two practicing, you will probably master the art to your satisfaction. If not, you’ll have to add another $.50 to $1.00 per square foot for professional help. This is a job particularly suited to using “Craig’s List” and advertising the work as a weekend job. Most drywall finishers would love to make a little money on the side, and you won’t have to pay all the overhead. You’ll also get a cleaner finish than you could hope for by doing it yourself.

After the Electrical, Plumbing, HVAC Rough-in are in and the Drywall is finished it’s on to the Finish Trades:

Interior Doors
If you’ve set the exterior doors already, the interior doors will be easy. You might want to first look up the topic in your Craftsman Book’s e-library, but with pre-hung doors this task is simple enough. You will save some time if you can find a helper.

Finished Carpentry
If you’ve bought some new tools and done a lot of the construction work already then you will probably want to do the finished carpentry. It’s light work and fun to do. Set up the tools in the largest room and go for it. Remember again that Craftsman Book’s e-library has all the information you’ll need to set trim, install cabinets and place the casing.

Painting is a job it seems everyone has done at one time or another. It is a job we can recommend you do for yourself. The cost of labor, overhead and profit in a contracted paint job is probably 80% to 90% of the total price. Paint is cheap. You could easily save $4000-$5000 by painting your cottage. Technically, it’s probably enough to say, read the side of the can before you start.

Finished Flooring
Whether you’re going to lay down carpet, tile, wood or linoleum, this is a job you probably should do yourself. The mark-up and labor costs on interior floor finishes are normally a large proportion of the contracted price.  With a small job like a cottage, the percentage of overhead is even larger. Again, you might want to look up each of these topics in your Craftsman Book’s e-library they have plenty of information on anything you might want to do.

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