Building The Dream, Chapter 4: Carpenter Woes and the £30k Rule

Creating a ‘Self Build’ home for our family of five

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Hello Spring – finally, you made it and never in my life have I been so glad to see you! The weather has been up and down over the Winter months to say the least, which has made for a very bumpy ride indeed where our self-build home is concerned. But despite this, I have an absolutely jam packed installment to share with you all, full of progress, which may have been slow and grueling, but is finally really starting to show.

So, a run-down on the developments that have taken place from December through to February, whilst we were graced with the horrendously timed Beast from the East X Storm Emma phenomenon:

  • Brick and blockwork is up to roof plate level. Face bricks are looking splendid and all the visible blockwork you can see now, is to later be clad with oak. The garage will be almost all oak clad from top to bottom in a rustic country barn style, when we can afford to buy it! As it is not vital to getting us wind and watertight, but in fact more of an aesthetic detail, this is having to be pushed down the priority list for now.
  • First floor joists have gone in – meaning we now have a ‘ceiling’ to the ground floor. We have opted for higher than average/standard ceiling heights on both levels (2.7m) which we are very excited about. It feels so high! Although the knock-on effect of this is that we have created complications with what was already a fairly shallow and extremely complex roof design and is proving to be a headache of monstrous proportions. We’ll get on to that later.
  • The galleried landing is taking shape. This will be finished with a glass balustrade overlooking the grand, 5m wide, vaulted entrance hall below.
  • The roof trusses have been added to both the garage and the house. The roof of the main house is having to be done in stages, as we will be adding a huge feature oak façade to the front of the property and until that’s on, there will be a bit of a gaping hole to the front half of the house. In the meantime, the joists and decking to the first floor are swimming with muddy water, snow and sludge. It’s far from ideal. But hey, what can we do!?
  • The design studio and annexe above the garage has been kitted out with the most beautiful structural oak beams to support the mega vaulted roof in there, and are currently being ‘protected’ from the elements with some bits of black stuff. We are making it work. Kinda!
  • There are also Velux windows to the annexe now and the roof has been felt and battened ready for tiling.
  • Boundaries – it has come to light that the boundary to every plot has been specified in the planning permission landscaping strategy as needing to be a low level, two bar, post and rail fence, rather than the contemporary, horizontal plank, 6ft fence we’d had in mind. So after our initial excitement relating to our huge, solid electric entrance gates with brick pillars being approved, we are thinking this might now not be so in keeping with the rest of the countryside, farm style boundaries to our plot. In fact, I am amazed the gates were even given the go ahead, bearing that in mind, to be honest. It turns out that losing the level of privacy we were so desperate for might be a compromise which we have no choice but to swallow, although I am sure with some cleverly planted hedges and tall trees, we can still achieve the secluded feel we are after in the garden. Plus it will also save us thousands on 150m of fence panels! The landscaping strategy also states that we are required to install two bird boxes (Dan is a bit of a closeted bird watcher so we love this) and various species of trees including a couple of silver birch and a pear tree. I am very excited about that too. Notes on a postcard of different things to make in our new kitchen out of pears please!
  • Family – The kids have been chaperoned very carefully up ladders one by one, to see where their bedrooms will be for the first time. They are really into it. Particularly Heath, whom for at the age of 9, the novelty of sharing a triple bunkbed with his two fidgety little sisters who wake up at the crack of dawn and regularly raid his pants drawer for ‘hats’, has definitely long worn off!

 

  • Mum – my Mum has also paid a rare visit to site to check out the progress which I loved dragging her around to have a look at. She is far more interested in seeing it when it’s all finished though, for that element of shock and surprise. Plus, ladders and mud are just not really her thing. I must take this opportunity though, as I know both she and Dan’s Mum are enjoying reading these posts from their cosy, warm sofas, to express just how grateful we both are for their incredible support. It sounds cliché but there is absolutely no way we could be doing what we are doing without their continuous encouragement, advice, childcare and general all round selflessness. They both have all kinds of things of their own going on and yet seem to always put us all first, no matter what. We love you both very much and promise to feed you lots of delicious dinners in our new sparkly kitchen one day! (These will mainly consist of pear as we probably won’t be able to afford any other ingredients!)
  • My husband – Dan is somehow managing to keep that beautiful smile of his on his face (at least when the camera is out) although I know he is possibly even more stressed than I am currently, dealing with all the tricky bits that I don’t understand or just haven’t got time to care about! He has been utterly wonderful at keeping me sane during some of the really tough bits and is getting a lot better at valuing my expert design opinion 😉
  • Social Media – I have now set up a dedicated self-build Instagram account, @storeyselfbuild, to avoid spamming the wedding feed so much with images of piles of rubble and scaffold poles. So you can now follow along there with progress in real time and keep up with all the gory details (and pretty interiors inspiration soon too, I promise).
  • And the dog – Gaston is just chilling.

You may remember in my last chapter, my singing the praises of the ‘good eggs’ involved in the project so far, like our wonderful bricklayer. Well as he nears finishing the work that he can complete for the moment, he is on site less and less, meaning people like the carpenters (insert massive eye roll here) are being left much more to their own devices. It means Dan is having to take more days off to be onsite and oversee things which is just adding to his list of things to worry about.

The individual who we had the initial relationship with, has not actually been onsite and worked himself for us once.

I think the key difference here and the most valuable advice I could lend anyone else embarking on a similar self-build or refurbishment project journey, is this: The carpenters who we gave the job of building the roof are so busy (read ‘greedy’) that they send whoever is available on the day to do the job. The price wasn’t bad and we have seen their work, plus they came recommended (by the same developer that suggested our dreadful architect, as it happens!), which is why we went ahead to begin with, but the individual who we had the initial relationship with, has not actually been onsite and worked himself for us once. The guys that do show up are different every time, have nothing personal invested in doing a good job for us and could not make it any clearer that they don’t really want to be there. They are not working for us. They work for their boss.

So, instead of going above and beyond to impress and get good references and complete the job to the best of their ability in a timely manner, they make any excuse they can think of to leave site early or not start the job that day at all and go off elsewhere to an easier one….! It might be that scaffolding is in the wrong place, not quite high enough or that they didn’t bring any screws with them…. (apparently, we were meant to provide those – they were not in the quote!).

There have been things they refuse to do and the bricklayer, in pure disbelief at their lack of initiative and proactivity, has helped to lift, move and adapt the things that they couldn’t be bothered to address themselves, to help us avoid them having to come back another day and hold everything else up. It has been a laughable experience and to be frank they are just completely and utterly disgracefully lazy.

I would highly recommend that when bringing in various trades, rather than using one main contractor for your project, that you ask the question ‘will you be doing/attending the job personally or who will you be sending otherwise?’

As it would turn out, the quote was pretty much for the bare minimum (or a bit less, in fact) and probably why it had seemed to be acceptable value. Although I don’t know how we could have possibly assumed or foreseen that things like screws or motivation would not be part of the parcel. Anything else other than the most simple, basic tasks, they have not viewed as being part of the job, and the overall price has increased gradually as it has gone on. They have been things which would quite clearly be the responsibility of a carpenter building a roof and it would have been ridiculous to assume that someone else would have been taking care of them other than them, and therefore totally unreasonable to not be considered as part of the job we asked them to do. (This is beginning to feel more like a complaint letter than a blog post, but the rant is helping release some frustration. Bare with me!). They even left a huge gap in one rear section of the roof, because it was just a bit different to the rest. In fact, the bricklayer even heard them onsite saying (and I quote), “It’s alright, they’re obviously loaded. We can just whack it on the price of the job”.

Needless to say, I was disgusted when I heard this.

Which brings me on to my next point……

We are far from being ‘loaded’ and we never have been. I think I made that clear in chapter three. We are just an Average Joe, working class couple, who are ploughing every last bean and every ounce of energy we have into working towards making this happen. Our budget for this project is nowhere near as generous as it probably should be for a house this size and although I am sure you could describe what we earn between us as being higher than average, with big dreams and ambitions, come big bills and commitments.

I don’t think we will ever be in a position where we don’t have to worry about money.

Some people just don’t seem to understand the costs of living, childcare bills, cash flow issues and business related outgoings associated with our work and lifestyle, that mean rather than being ‘comfortable’ we struggle just like most lower/average earners sometimes. We have periods where it feels like we work every waking minute of the day just to pay our taxes and afford our necessities to get by, with a few luxuries and maybe a family holiday. We do like nice things, but nice things don’t come easy and are not delivered to us on a plate. There are many things we don’t have or do without, like an expensive new car, smoking, drinking and big nights out, fancy new clothes every month. It’s all relative. For money to truly be no object these days, I feel like you have to earn an absolute fortune. I don’t think we will ever be in a position where we don’t have to worry about money.

We are both super ambitious and admittedly don’t always live within our means. We enjoy life, but that means we will never be cash rich. We are rich in many other ways but we do not have a bottomless pit of money to throw at greedy, narrow-minded people who try to take advantage. Fortunately for us, we are also not daft. The carpenters are now sacked (along with the architect who had the same attitude) and we have been lucky enough to find a young, ambitious and superbly talented sole trader to take their place, who is already making the others look quite ridiculous. He is mega speedy, can’t do enough to please us, his attention to detail is second to none and he also just happens to be about ten times cheaper! I only wish we had found him sooner.

Also, what is the deal with everything costing £30,000!? It’s as though this is the ‘safe’ figure that everyone who quotes for anything plucks from the air. Electrics: ‘£30K’, Plumbing: ‘£30K’, Kitchen (Cabinetry Only!): ‘£30K’, Oak Façade: ‘Oh that’ll be £30K please’. Incidentally, the oak façade is now working out at around £46,000, but I happen to think that’s worth every penny. I will tell you all about that in my next post next month.

Although Dan is not a builder, I think we are only (just about) managing this whole thing due to his contacts in the industry from owning a flooring company. He met our superstar bricklayer through fitting his flooring and was originally introduced to him by another builder he had worked for previously. Our roofers (who are also diamonds) are a company he met at a new development site, which he is fitting all the flooring for, and it is they who have introduced us to the amazing new chippy! I think to take all this on without one main contractor to save money (I don’t think we would ever have afforded the project otherwise) you simply must already have these connections with some/most of the individual trades. Without that, this whole project would be even harder.

Still, we keep hearing that the sheer scale and complicated design of this project is monumental for someone with no previous building experience to have taken on as their first ever build. And I’m very proud of us for that. Although, I can promise faithfully, it will also be the last! At least from scratch anyway. It’s no wonder we are a bit stressed out! But we’re feeling positive.

They say it’s tough, building your own house, and it really, really is. You can’t imagine quite how tough until you’re stuck in. But it’s possible. And we’re doing it.

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9 Comments

  • Great post Helaina, I’m loving watching your house progress and still in awe that you are managing to do it with full time jobs and three children (not to mention Gaston!) Sorry about your awful carpenters, we have been getting quotes for our much smaller renovation project and finding it such a minefield to know how much things should actually cost – a lot of cowboys out there who seem to just pluck figures out of thin air!

    • Thanks so much, Jo. It really is a minefield and sometimes just down to nothing more than luck unfortunately! Just get as many quotes as you possibly can and follow your instincts. If something doesn’t feel quite right, trust your gut! 🙂 xxx

  • I can’t tell you how much of this (the latter half anyway) resonates with me. We’re not self building but we have renovated and experienced exactly the same as you – quotes that bore no resemblance to what we paid in the end, a supplier/workman who was never on site himself. It really taught us a lot about the renovation process and spending your time wisely to research the workmen you’ll be parting with your hard earned cash with. We we so naive and didn’t get other quotes as we wanted to trust this guy. ‘Overboarding’ become a huge issue for us – what should have been a simple overboarding job turned into a huge, unauthorised overboarding of various walls in our house that we didn’t agree too! (They’d have been perfectly find just being skimmed and plastered). When we realised what was happening we put an immediate stop to it – but all that labour and material had gone to waste and good walls had been overboarded for no reason other than it was ‘easier’ than skimming and plastering and making the walls good. And in the process, the workmen overboarded key electricity points too. I mean………!? Crazy!

    On the other hand, WOW! So much progress in these images Helaina, so exciting to see how things are coming along – even seeing the windows in now makes it all seem so much closer. I can’t wait to get to the point where you guys are actually moving in and making it your home, decorating and filling your space with all the things you love.

    Really enjoying this series very much indeed xx

  • I meant to add – I really appreciated your honest note about money too. We very, very much feel that our chosen suppliers too thought we were ‘loaded’ and took us for a ride. We’re not, we work our backsides off for every penny we have and had saved hard for our renovation work. It’s very sad that workmen can take advantage of you like this, you do really have to have your wits about you and learn not to be afraid to challenge quotes or go elsewhere.

    • Absolutely. Need to be so careful. It’s disgraceful how many people seem to have been treated the same, but reassuring to know we are not the only ones. Sometimes I feel like I have more knowledge of what I am asking for than the ‘expert’ I’m asking!! There are a LOT of pi** takers out there. But for every one of those, there is a wonderful, trustworthy, hardworking and honest tradesman that really deserves the work. It’s just about patience, savvy, sifting out the good from the bad and a bit of luck I suppose! xxx

  • As ever I’ve enjoyed every word and your writing makes it feel like we’re right there with you. As you know from IG I’m currently battling with costs/perceptions and it’s so refreshing to hear you speak so honestly about finances. Not enough people do. It’s easy to assume everyone undertaking large scale projects have cash to burn but so often that’s just not the case. We live in a village that’s regarded as very posh by outsiders so quotes attract an insulting and ridiculous uplift. We’re 1. Not rolling in it and 2. Not stupid. But that doesn’t stop it happening.

    I’m so sorry to hear what an awful experience you’ve had with your roofers. Thank goodness you’ve found a good egg in the end. It’s such a massive gamble isn’t it. All you can go on is recommendation, price and availability when choosing trades. There’s nothing really to mitigate for a recommended, available tradesperson at the right price turning out to be completely awful. Again this is something we don’t really hear about, I think people just don’t like to admit when they’ve been burned so thank you so much for being so frank.

    On one hand I’m consumed with envy at your opportunity to self build from scratch, it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. But on the other it sounds utterly terrifying and thoroughy draining. I have absolutely no doubt though that you’ll be an even stronger happier family for doing this together and will end up with the most incredible home you’ll be so proud of.

    Loving your Instagram and looking forward to the next instalment, it scratches my itch while I wait (and wait… and wait…) to get started on ours!

    • Thanks so much again for taking the time to write such a thoughtful and encouraging response, Philippa. I’m so glad you inspired me to start the self build account on IG. It’s great to compare notes with others undertaking similar projects and I feel part of a little community of cheerleaders for each other. No better way to learn than from the advice of those who are on a similar journey 🙂

      Just to clarify, it’s the carpenters, building the actual roof structure that have let us down so badly, rather than the actually ‘roofers’ doing the tiling etc. They have been absolutely wonderful, thank goodness! Luckily, the competent ones that go above and beyond, just about balance it out so the whole experience doesn’t tip me over the edge and instead keeps me just dangling precariously over it haha! I think it’s become apparent that it is every bit as much down to their attitude as it is about their level of skill/ability/expertise to be honest! It has such a positive impact on stress levels and enjoying the experience generally and how they work well with the other trades when they simply approach the job with the tenacity and level of commitment and professionalism that you would expect from someone you are paying £30K odd!

      Loving following your progress too. I have envy right back atchya of your restoration of such a beautiful old building full of charming features. But I am sure that comes with so many more nightmare conundrums and obstacles! Your vision is just wonderful though. I am so excited to see your get started. And finished! 🙂 xxx

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