Property clinic: Do I need to hire a contractor to build my new home?

Your property questions answered

Construction workers looking at blueprints inside construction site

Construction workers looking at blueprints inside construction site


I have been left a site by my parents and recently secured planning permission to build a four-bedroom bungalow. I have never undertaken a build previously and I am not sure if I should appoint a building contractor or undertake the build by direct labour, which may save me money. What are the pitfalls?

The prospect of building your own home is an exciting one. Many people see the potential to save money as the driving force in their decision to take on a direct labour build. There is indeed a substantial financial saving to be made but generally at a cost. The decision to direct build should therefore not be taken lightly.

Unless you have a clear understanding of the principles and processes of construction, there is significant room for error. Mistakes can be made in the co-ordination of various trades. This can lead to a situation where one tradesman interferes with the work of another. I recently witnessed a radon barrier which had been cut by a plumber to recess heating pipes into an external wall. In another case, blockwork had to be taken down when the roofing contractor arrived on site. The initial setting out of the pitch line was incorrect. I have seen septic tanks relocated as they were incorrectly positioned. Issues often arise with regard to incorrect levels of insulation. I’ve seen difficult construction details left to improvisation with comical results.

Building is a craft. Part of the skill set required is the ability to plan ahead and foresee where issues might arise. A good general builder will anticipate such issues. Without this forward planning, construction projects can be problematic.

Direct build projects are typically slow to complete. An extended contract period can lead to considerable expenditure on alternative accommodation. Delay can be as a result of poor co-ordination between trades. Sometimes delay will be as a result of unreliability of tradesmen when tasked with this type of project. This is because tradesmen will typically respond to a main contractor first. A contractor may be their main source of work. Therefore, when faced with a choice of a direct build project or a project for a regular supplier of work, there is no contest.

As well as the extended timeframe needed to complete a direct build, you should also consider the demands on your own time to manage the project. You will effectively be the project manager and main contractor. This will demand a considerable amount of your time and resources.

When compared with managing a direct build there are many advantages in using a general builder. You will have access to all of his existing sub-contractors and experience. His subcontractors will typically be familiar with one another and this helps. The site and works will be covered by the contractors insurance. With direct labour, you must provide the insurance. He will be responsible for health and safety on site. In the event that an issue arises with the work, you will have one port of call.

With direct labour, it is generally difficult to point the finger at one individual. A general builder will be responsible for co-ordinating his sub-contractors and will assist them in doing the work. He will supply and erect scaffolding. He will deal with suppliers in terms of the delivery of materials and will typically be involved in the collection of smaller materials from suppliers as appropriate. The use of a builder will generally help with cash flow. Builders will usually have a credit arrangement with their sub-contractors. They charge you on the basis of work completed, rather than in advance.

Direct labour is attractive when you focus on the financial cost savings only. The many pitfalls associated with this route of procurement, should be fully considered before you break ground on your new home.

Noel Larkin is a Chartered Building Surveyor and member of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland,