Some people, who are building a house on a budget, have unrealistic expectations. If you’re building a home, it’s important to understand that when it comes to quality, time, and saving on cost – you can only have two out of three.
The magical unicorn home we all want would be:
1) cost efficient
2) built quickly
3) a veritable mansion
Unfortunately, you can’t realistically have all three things. If you want a cheap house that’s built quickly, you’re going to have to cut a lot of corners in regards to quality. If you want a home that’s of a very high quality AND built in a timely fashion, it’s going to cost you a small (or not so small!) fortune.
We work on a combination of quality plus cost efficiency. If you take the time to plan, gather supplies, and take advantage of opportunities to save money BEFORE you even get your permit – you’re setting yourself up for success.
Read on to find out how you can save money on your straw bale building journey
1) Never Pay Retail
One of the ways we saved money on our home was by shopping around for timber prices. Many hardware stores will have cheaper timber rates for builders, and will this will sometimes extend to owner builders. Ring around, let them know you’re an owner builder and will be needing decent quantities of timber, nails and other supplies. If they insist on charging you retail prices, then try somewhere else.
2) Frequent Salvage Yards and Recycling Centres
Don’t just go once. Or twice. You want to go there so often, the owners know your coffee order (just kidding, salvage yards don’t sell coffee. If they did I’d never leave!!). Scoring big at salvage yards is a game of chance, and the more often you’re there the more likely it is that you’ll find some great stuff.
We found tiles for our kitchen (all the same style and colour), timber for decorative internal posts, a working hot water system, external doors, and a kitchen sink. All from salvage yards. If we weren’t there every other week, we would have missed opportunities.
Bonus tip– if you’re friendly enough, you might even be able to get tip offs when the owners come across particular items!
3) Source Second Hand Tools, or Borrow Them
Before you spend any money on saws and nail guns, check with your family and friends to see what they have. Ask whether they would be willing to lend them to you. If they’re up for it, ask them to show you how they work (unlocking an unfamiliar drop saw is like trying to finish a double-sided jigsaw puzzle with no edge pieces!). Knowing how to look after your friend’s tools (they may need lubricating etc) will keep you in said friend’s good books.
If you can’t borrow tools, go back to the recovery/salvage yard and look for second hand tools there. Last week I saw a circular saw at the recycling centre, which would have been perfect! Make sure they’re in good condition though, or you’ll just end up buying the tool twice. Similarly, try not to buy bad quality tools. For the main tools you’ll be using -nail gun, circular saw, drop saw-you’ll need something that’s going to last your entire build.
4) Look for Bargains Online
Buy, Swap and Sell. Facebook Marketplace. Gumtree.
There are plenty of online spaces where people are eager to offload materials, tools and finishings they no longer need. If you’re careful not to get scammed, you can find some real bargains.
We found somebody who wanted to get rid of some large garden rocks. We happily took them off her hands and used them in a low retaining wall. Because she didn’t charge us anything, we made sure we helped her out by taking the rocks we didn’t want (covered in concrete, or the wrong style) and disposed of them at our expense. If somebody does you a solid, make sure you return the favour.
5) Enlist the Help of Family and Friends
If you can get your friends and family to help you build or even just render, you will save yourself money and time. If you plan on hiring Mark’s render pump services, it’s going to cost a lot less if you can rope your friends in rather than paying extra for Mark to employ helpers.
Offer your helpers lunch and snacks, or trade favours – offer to mow their lawns or help them with work on their property.
6) Know What Finishings You’ll Need, Ahead of Time
The best time to do this is before you get your permit, but that’s not always possible. Better late than never!
Knowing what you will need ahead of time, and even keeping a list in your phone or planner, means you can take advantage of money-saving opportunities when they arise. Micah and I found some of the windows for our home this way. They were sitting outside a nursery, and we bought them for a total of $10. They needed sanding back and painting, but that whimsical nursery trip saved us a decent amount of money.
Bonus tip – it’s a good idea to look up how to identify wood rot, if you’re planning on sourcing windows second hand! Windows will also need to comply with the BAL rating for your property (we will post an article about how to work out BAL ratings at a later date!)
7) Don’t Make Changes to your Plans
Sometimes making changes to your plans is unavoidable, but if you can avoid it – do!
After your plans are finalised, every alteration will cost you. Not just from the draftsman either! Making changes means the engineering has to be changed, and the construction design, and possibly even the energy rating. Lots of people end up spending thousands of dollars more on their plans, due to last-minute changes. If you are building a house on a budget, try to have a clear idea of what you want before you start this process.
8) If You Can, Choose Timber Stumps Over a Concrete Slab
As an owner builder, stumps are MUCH cheaper than a concrete slab. Sometimes because of soil type or fire rating, this decision will be out of your hands. But if it is your decision to make, and you are on a tight budget, consider using timber stumps.
Stumps have many advantages over a slab – the floor is softer, warmer, and easier on your bones. If a stump needs to be replaced, it is a lot easier fix than to repair concrete foundations. And with ant-capping and using the right timber for the stumps, termites are not a huge problem.
The biggest advantage is the cost. A concrete slab can easily set you back an extra $20K. We built our whole extension for that amount.
9) Get a Soil Test BEFORE You Buy the Land
The soil on your property will determine what sort of foundations you can have. The worse the soil type, the more expensive the foundations.
We go into this topic further in Soil Classification. You can read about other vital information you should know about before purchasing a property, in our article on the Section 32.
10) Contact Truss Companies for Trusses Manufactured to the Wrong Specifications
If your house is going to need trusses, then this tip could save you a tidy sum. Sometimes trusses are made to the wrong specifications. These trusses then can’t be used to fill the order. It’s possible that you may be able to acquire these for a cheaper price than custom trusses.
It is important to make sure you secure the engineering specifications as part of the deal with the truss company, as you will need to provide them to your engineer. We also advise you to contact your building consultant before purchasing, to find out what you would be looking for in a truss and whether your property is affected by things like high winds (which can impact how the truss should be made).
11) Build Kram Internal Walls
With a straw bale house, the external walls are obviously made from literal bales of straw. But what about the internal walls?
People choose to do a variety of things when it comes to internal walls. Some people just build stud walls with plaster. Others like the look of exposed brick as a statement wall. Some even choose full thickness straw bale walls. We recommend Kram walls, which are timber stud walls with chicken wire on either side. The wall cavity is stuffed with loose straw, and the walls are rendered to match the external walls.
This is a lot cheaper than the other options (although plaster is cheap, paint is not), provides excellent room insulation, and gives your home a uniform appearance. Plus it is much easier to do well, compared to plastering! Our online building course covers Kram walls, so you don’t have to fly blind!
12) Don’t Throw Out Offcuts
While it’s important to maintain a clean and organised worksite, it’s also good to hang on to all the little bits of timber you have left over from cutting your longer lengths. When you’re building a house on a budget, every time you make use of offcuts is money saved. You never know when you’ll need one for a noggin or bracing, or to wipe excess Liquid Nails onto.
You can also use offcuts to make pegs for fixing points in straw bale walls.
13) Use Tree Trunks Instead of Expensive Posts
While a lot of engineers don’t like it when you use tree trunks as structural posts, it is possible to find engineers who will do it. If you can find a log that’s big enough and sturdy enough for the job, they should be able to put it in the plans for you. This can potentially save you money as you don’t have to buy heavy-duty, pricey posts. (Obviously this depends on your ability to find logs – don’t go chopping down the forest!)
You will need to know the species of tree the trunk came from, and the dimensions of the trunk excluding bark. It is important to make sure the trunk isn’t cut down it’s length, or else you will need to pay to have it stress tested (which you want to avoid if you’re building a house on a budget).
When choosing your tree trunk, make sure the top of the log is directly over the bottom of the log. You can use a plumb bob to work this out (not a spirit level). You can ignore any bends in the middle of the trunk.
14) Go to Carpet Auctions
When it came to sourcing carpet for our house, Micah went to the Melbourne carpet auction. We got enough of the same carpet to use for our whole home (stylish dark grey) and it was brand new! It was left over after a carpeting company fitted another house, and so they sold it at auction.
Just goes to show you can get new items for much cheaper than retail prices.
15) Go to Home Improvement Auctions
After you’ve exhausted all second-hand options, consider going to home improvement auctions for anything else you may need. New items are sold off cheap because they are end-of-run, and you can get some great deals. We bought several toilets, an oven, and a king size mattress all brand new, and for very competitive prices.
Building a house on a budget sometimes means making concessions. If you are looking for new items for your home, and are willing to be a bit flexible about what you want (silver oven dials instead of black, maybe not your first choice of brand etc) then home improvement auctions would be the right fit for you!
16) Do Everything Yourself
As a straw bale owner builder in Australia, there are some parts of the build that you can’t do. It is a legal requirement that you employ a qualified electrician to do any electrical works, and a plumber to build the roof and connect the plumbing. We also don’t recommend for owner builders to lay concrete slabs, as it is an expensive job to get wrong.
However, the carpentry, stump hole digging, installing the straw bales, and rendering are all jobs you can do yourself! Even if that prospect seems daunting right now, our extensive course means you will have help every step of the way. It’s literally our job to teach you how to do all those things (and more!).
Building your own straw bale house can be done while working full time, if you utilise your weekends and holidays. Don’t plan your holidays before you have your permit. Many people have wasted planned leave by underestimating how long it takes to get the engineering and the permit.
Building a house on a budget isn’t easy, but then nothing worth doing ever is!
I hope this list has given you some ideas on how to save money. If you’ve built a house and thought of different ways to save your dollars, let me know in the comments.
And if anybody finds a salvage yard in Victoria that DOES serve coffee, please share the details. Asking for a friend.
We take our job seriously, and that’s why we offer a 30 day money back guarantee on our online building workshop. Try the course for 30 days and if you don’t feel we are worth your money, we’ll give it back!