Can I Build an ADU Myself? Find Out If It’s Possible & Worth It

Like many California homeowners, you’re probably excited about all the new laws that allow almost any homeowner to add an ADU to their property. Adding a second home, an ADU, on your property can have a ton of advantages and uses. But, there is no denying that it’s not a cheap project. So, you want to know, can I build an ADU myself? Can I DIY my ADU? Can I build an ADU cheaply? Read on to learn more.

Here at GreatBuildz, a free service that connects homeowners in Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego and Ventura Counties with reliable ADU contractors, we speak to homeowners every day about what it takes to build the ADU of their dreams – read on to learn more.

Can I build an ADU myself?

The simple answer from most people is NO. It’s not impossible, but it’s extremely challenging for many reasons which I will discuss below. Although it’s tempting to think that you can build your ADU for cheap if you build it yourself, you need to be realistic about what goes into doing such a substantial project.

Simply put, an ADU is a small house. Most people would admit that they don’t have the experience, time, or ability to build a house themselves. They would never even consider the idea of DIYing the construction of a home. It’s an extremely complicated undertaking that’s left to an experienced builder. The vast majority of us will buy a house, not build it ourselves from scratch.

Related: Can I legally build an ADU on my property?

Do I Need To Hire a Contractor or Should I DIY My ADU?

Build an ADU myself

ADU Costs

There is no question that hiring an experienced ADU contractor or builder to construct your ADU comes with a cost. The average contractor will charge a profit margin of 15-20% when building your ADU, or any other project. This makes sense…you are paying for their time, expertise, relationships, employees, insurance, etc.

And it’s tempting to think you can save a bunch of money if you don’t have to pay a contractor this ‘profit’ number. If you’re building a $150,000 ADU, saving nearly $30,000 is very significant.

However, keep in mind that this savings is far from guaranteed. Remember that contractors have strong, long-term relationships with their sub-contractors, so they are likely to get better pricing than you can. Contractors also get better pricing on materials in many cases. So, realistically, your savings may well disappear if you end up paying more for your subcontractors and materials.

Additionally, a contractor might use their own staff to perform some of the project work which may reduce the costs by cutting out the subcontractor and their profit margin. You won’t have that option; you’ll need to use a trade or subcontractor for every part of the project.

What do I Need to Know to Build an ADU Myself?

An ADU contractor has been building and renovating for many years and has the knowledge and relationships to get the job done right.

For you to build an ADU yourself, you will have to find the right team of trade or sub-contractors to build the ADU for you.

Construction Team: What Sub-Contractors are needed to build an ADU?

Finding, contacting, vetting, negotiating, and hiring this large group of professionals should strike you as overwhelming. If it doesn’t, consider that you’ll probably want to find three companies to bid your project for EACH of the following trades:

Grading  Foundation  Framing  Plumbing
Electrical  Survey  HVAC  Roofing 
Windows  Doors  Sheet Metal Insulation 
Stucco  Drywall  Paint  Gutters 
LID (rainwater capture) Solar  Fire sprinklers Cabinetry 
Flooring Finish carpentry Fencing  Landscape 
Tile  Appliances

So, you’ll need to hire approximately 25 different trade contractors for your ADU project. If you’re planning to save money, you’ll want to get competitive bids from at least three contractors for each trade. That means finding, contacting, scheduling, coordinating meetings, requesting bids, and following up with 75 different companies!

And that’s before the project even begins. Is that a realistic undertaking for the average person who has a family, job, and other commitments?

Time/Management

ADU stress

Those who have managed a significant construction project themselves will often characterize it as a “full-time job”. There is a good reason for that.

First of all, it takes a ton of time to manage all the coordination, meetings, and follow-up when bidding out your project.

Then, you’ll have to coordinate all the trade contractors and schedule out their work on the project in the right order. If one subcontractor misses a day, that will throw off the rest of the schedule and you will need to re-coordinate all the trades that come after them.

Once you throw in weather delays, inspection issues, material delays, no-shows, and quality issues, you can see that your project will turn into a “full-time job”. Keep in mind that everything will take you longer because you don’t have the experience to deal with issues as they arise…you’ll be “learning on the job”.

If you have your own full-time job or family commitments, it could certainly be very challenging and stressful for you to also balance the time needed to manage your ADU construction.

Stress/Headaches

When you’re in the planning stages of your ADU project, your biggest concern might be its cost. But if you decide to build your own ADU to save on costs, you’re taking a significant risk of creating a large amount of stress for yourself.

What happens when there is an issue and it’s something you have no experience dealing with? What do you do if one trade contractor tells you another one’s work is preventing them from completing theirs? What happens if a trade contractor uses the wrong item or material that doesn’t pass city inspection?

These types of problems, among a multitude of others, will come up regularly during the construction of your ADU. Each subcontractor only cares about their part of the job and not how their work affects all the others. Someone has to carefully manage them or else you’ll end up paying for them to tear out and rebuild their part to make way for another trade.

If you’re up for an intense and stressful learning experience for a period of six months or more, you might consider DIYing your ADU. But be prepared to deal with all the ‘renovation nightmares’ that you see come up on all those HGTV building shows.

Relationships

What happens if you have an issue with one of the subcontractors (trades) you hire? Will you have to fire that company? Will you have to find another company to finish the work?

You don’t have long-standing relationships with subcontractors and you really don’t know the quality of their work or their level of honesty. You’ll likely have to fire at least one subcontractor from your job for poor performance or poor workmanship. In this case, you’ll end up paying twice to complete the same work.

A general contractor, on the other hand, knows the quality of their workers and subcontractors. They work with the same companies over and over, so they know the work will be done right. If for some reason, there is an issue with one of their subs, they have others that can come in to resolve it.

This will never become your problem…your general contractor is responsible for handling such issues.

Building Plans

ADU construction planset

Contractors know how to read and understand building plans. The average person does not. So you’ll be at a significant disadvantage when working with subcontractors because you just can’t speak the language. They may try to deceive you during the project because you are inexperienced and can’t really question them. They may tell you something is important when it’s not or vice-versa. It is really hard to manage people when they know a ton more than you do.

Inspections

The job of city building inspectors is to make sure each element of the job is being done to code. This is a valuable service that makes sure your contractors don’t cut any corners. That’s hugely important, especially if you’re building your own ADU and don’t know if the construction is good or bad. However, inspections often can and will cause delays and cost overruns.

Because inspections must be passed after each stage of construction is completed, you would need to actively manage scheduling them; otherwise, the next trade contractor cannot start, and you will quickly end up with project delays. You and your subcontractor will need to be onsite during each inspection, so be prepared to devote a lot of time to this.

By the way, inspectors will give you a window of time for their arrival, so be prepared to wait for up to two hours. And don’t forget, your project will not pass every inspection. A contractor will need to correct their work and you’ll need to call for the same inspection again.

Feedback from People who DIY an ADU

If you go online and read the comments of people who build their own ADU, there will be varying opinions of the experience.

There are certainly some people who have a good experience and do save money. But they will often mention how difficult and time-consuming the process was and tell you that it’s not for everyone.

Others who manage their own ADU projects will tell you it’s a total nightmare. Some posts mention that their budget ended up well more than they expected to spend, while others say it took them YEARS to complete their ADU.

If I Don’t Want to Build an ADU Myself, What’s the Best Option?

If you’re dead set against hiring a general contractor, you should consider hiring a project manager or owner’s representative to help you manage the job. Paying this person will eat into the cost savings you’re trying to achieve, but they can surely save you tons of time and headaches.

The bottom line is this: the best option for building an ADU – which is a small version of a house – is to hire a legitimate ADU contractor. They have the experience to get the job done right. They know everything there is to know about the building process, while most homeowners have very little understanding of construction.

If you want to build an ADU and your main objective is to save costs, there are ways to do that while still hiring a quality general contractor. First, you should get multiple bids. You can start with three, but nothing is stopping you from getting more. You’ll certainly find that the bids from different contractors can be wildly different, and it’s not impossible to find a contractor that’s 5-10% cheaper than another.

Second, have your contractor help you by  “Value Engineering” your plans. If you ask a good contractor to look at your plans and suggest ways to save costs, they will certainly find you some options. Finally, talk to your potential contractors about material suggestions that will save you money. They have many supplier relationships they can leverage to get you a good price on materials. Contractors get special pricing on everything from lumber to windows to kitchen cabinets.

Find the Right ADU Contractor

Good ADU Contractor

If you’re convinced that building your own ADU is best left to a professional, you still need to find a reputable ADU contractor that can fit your needs. You absolutely need to find a contractor that’s fully licensed and insured. They should have plenty of experience building ADUs or similar structures. You’ll want to ensure they have great reviews and references from previous clients. And certainly, you’ll want someone whose prices are fair.

If you want to learn more, we’ve got a ton of resources you can read about finding the best contractor for your ADU project:

How to Find a Great Contractor

How to Screen Contractors

Questions to ask Potential Contractors

Can you help if I don’t want to build an ADU myself?

And if you want to make the process even easier, you can contact GreatBuildz who can match you with great ADU contractors who have already been thoroughly screened and vetted.

Just reach out to us to be personally matched with three of our trusted, pre-vetted contractors in the Los Angeles and Southern California areas. Contact GreatBuildz today at 818.317.3567 or visit our website for more information.

Hi, we're Paul and Jon - Co-Founders of GreatBuildz. We believe everyone deserves to find a great contractor, have a stress-free renovation, and enjoy their beautiful new space. There are so many contractors out there and it's often hard to tell the good from the bad... until it's too late. We started our company to help simplify your contractor search and help you have a stress-free renovation experience. We're always available to help, no matter where you are in the process. Click here to learn more about our story.
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