Pros and Cons of Owner Building

A Review Based on Personal Experience

Owner_Building_Covers_X4-sHaving just finished totally updating the ever-popular title, The Complete Book of Owner Building in South Africa I am left wondering whether owner building is a good idea or not. We’ve completed the exercise three times, and not once made any money, or in fact even got our money back on any of the projects. So why would it be a good idea for you? You might perhaps see it as a challenge? Or maybe it is an opportunity for you to prove you can do it better than me.  Maybe you’d do it just because you can! If you get it right, you could save yourself a lot of money and end up with your dream house.

Now if you’re wondering why this would persuade you to buy the new version of the book (which will, I believe be available from Random House Struik sometime during 2012 … hopefully before the world ends), the one thing these building exercises did teach us was what not to do! With this knowledge, we have put together a title which hopefully will help you achieve your dreams. We have also discussed every aspect of construction in relation to the local national building regulations. And there are lots of good ideas and beautiful photographs of other people’s construction projects and finished homes and gardens.

Our First Owner Building Challenge

One’s first experience of anything is always special in one way or another. We had managed to buy two tiny seaside plots with a small inheritance, and decided to build on one and then sell it to be able to build something on the second – for ourselves, rather than resale. The first project, we thought, would pay for the second.

The idea is a good one, but firstly you need sufficient money to achieve Plan 1; and then you need to be sure that you will make money on it within your time frame. In reality, even many full-time property developers have to wait a while before they make money on developments. And they usually have multiple units to sell, so they make money back progressively, over time.

We had a minimal budget. We spent more than our budget. Then we needed to sell quickly.

A downturn in the property market hit us hard, especially since this building venture was in a relatively remote spot that was, at best, an up-and-coming holiday spot. The fact that 10 years down the line the area began to blossom, was irrelevant in the scale of things. It was too late.

Our little beach house

The house was basic, but sweet. We couldn’t afford decorative finishes, or even basic appliances (like a fridge and stove), so that we could at least make use of it – or rent it out and recoup some money.

We had to sell, and were becoming desperate. After an unsuccessful auction, a qualified professional in the building industry bought the property for a song. We didn’t get enough out of the project to build on the second plot, and eventually lost that too.

Going… going… GONE!

Our Second Owner Building Challenge

This time we did it correctly, or so we thought. Certainly it was as right as we could have done it, but because we were owner-building, the buck stopped with us. We had nobody else to blame for errors, even if we didn’t make them ourselves.

We bought the plot, secured the finance to build using a solid quantification and costing programme, and then got down to work.

So what went wrong? Two major factors worked against us.

  1. The so-called professional who helped to survey the site didn’t pick up that we were building on a slope. The property looked flat enough, and we weren’t advised to formally assess the slope.
  2. Nobody realised that our neighbour’s soakaway drained way into our property, until after our foundations had been dug – not even the municipal health inspector.

That was enough to destroy a half decent budget. Not only was the slope considerably more substantial than everybody seemed to think, but we had to move the entire build forward to avoid the health hazard of the illegal soakaway (or French drain) behind us. It didn’t occur to us that we might have a claim against our neighbour.

So we went ahead and built the house which, I have to admit, while spacious and full of architectural features (for example, we only used doors and windows scavenged from demolition sites) had a few other follies. The most expensive of these was a long – admittedly very handsome – passage leading from a glorious front door we had rescued from some huge wonderful building we never knew.

Our fabulous folly in the form of a three-metre wide passage and ultra-high ceiling. The front door, complete with windows was rescued from a demolition site. The unusual wall sconces were a gift from artist and metal sculptor, Carrol Boyes. The floor was ordinary SA pine floorboards, painted with PVA and sealed.

The slope also cost us, because the foundation wall at the back of the house ended up over 2 m (or 6½ ft) high. Then there was the fill which had to be transported to site to fill the void.

Apart from the obvious additional costs, the major impact of the follies and mistakes (be they ours or other people’s) was that we weren’t able to finish the build according to schedule. We didn’t particularly care, but the bank insisted we finish. Bank managers visited the site and introduced their own tough tactics.


When you owner-build you will negotiate draws with your bank. If they release 100% and you haven’t finished the house, you have a problem. This is what happened to us, and the bully-bank (totally within their legal rights) forced us to take another loan to finish ceilings and other things that we believed we could temporarily live without – including the lounge floor. The house was huge and large enough to temporarily board up the lounge. But the bank wanted everything complete, IMMEDIATELY, if not sooner.

Could we have said no? In retrospect probably yes. But they forced us to take a personal loan that we couldn’t afford to repay. Certainly today the relatively new Consumer Protection Act would have precluded them from doing this.

So we did put in some ceilings, including a glorious kitchen ceiling that incorporated a steel pressed section from a Victorian building that had been demolished in Claremont (Cape Town). Eventually the house was sold … and then sold again … I’m not sure how many times. Some years ago, when the house was on the market and there was an open-day show house, we discovered that a later owner had carefully removed the fill, and created an extraordinary double-storey home.

We wished we’d been able to buy it back again.

Our Third Owner Building Challenge

Now we knew it all! What could possibly go wrong?

In an endeavour to avoid potential problems, we employed an architectural designer to draw the plans, and a full-time builder to do the build. What we had “forgotten” was that the builder – at that stage also a friend – was the so-called professional whose advice led us to believe we had previously been building on a virtually “flat” plot. So retrospectively, we had only ourselves to blame.

But if the NHBRC had been in existence at that time, we would have been saved a great deal of heartache. Since we had to raise a bond to build, the contractor would have not have been acceptable to the bank unless he was a paid-up member of the NHBRC.

So what did go wrong?

In a nutshell, we were ripped off by a bogus builder. Sure this is what he did full time, but his reputation was so bad that when we later tried to sell the house, property agents wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole.

In the interim we’d had to call in a consultant to arbitrate (at considerable expense), because the workmanship was so bad. For example:

  • The wall on one side of the house was a brick course higher than the other, so the roof wasn’t quite level.
  • The walls inside the house that should have been bagged with plaster and been vaguely and unevenly smeared with a very weak mix. When we complained the builder set to work with a box of Polyfilla, in an attempt to even the surface.
  • Nails had been left protruding from exposed beams.
  • The brick-paved driveway was lifting and falling to pieces.
  • Worst of all, he had run out of money and wasn’t able to complete the build.

Eventually we did sell, and were able to repay the bond to the bank. But that was the end of it.

So would I ever owner-build again? And if I did, how would I do it differently?

I might, but only if I had the money to pay good sub-contractors and proven artisans that I could really trust to do a good job. And I would be sure to take every bit of my own advice given in The Complete Book of Owner Building seriously!

But for now I’m content to rent.

About Penny

Penny Swift is a highly regarded journalist and author of books relating to homes and construction.

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  1. Please advise where I can purchase your book on Owner Building. Thank you.

  2. Hello Anne. The Complete Book of Owner Building in South Africa is available from all good bookstores in SA. You can also order directly from
    We recently updated the text and have replaced all photographic material with brand new pix. This all-new edition of the book will be available soon.

  3. Hi Penny

    Is there more exact dates available on when to expect the all-new edition of the book?

    Kind regards

  4. Hi Theuns, We expect it to be on the shelves in June (this year!).

  5. NO Sam, that is the old book. The new one is hugely changed. I will post a pic of the new cover next week.

  6. Hi there Penny,
    can you help me with the following query:
    I would like to put up a granny flat urgently and was wondering if i could build it and take out the plans once it is built and have it passed or take out the plans whilst it is almost up as i am unable to wait 2-3 months for the plans to be passed and inspectors to call on the property to do their checks. Is this possible.
    Thank you for your help Penny

  7. Robert Russell

    Hello Penny,

    My name is Robert and I am a UK Building Maintenance Engineer and Author. I am at the moment looking into the possibility of purchasing land in South Africa to build a retirement home for my wife and I.
    Not being well read in the do’s and dont’s and must do’s of the South African building regulations and planning controls, I decided to purchase your new book the help arm myself in the ways that such a project should be tackled.
    Have you received any up to date comments yet about you’re new book, ie; post June 2012.
    Even if I do purchase land in the near future I will be sitting on it until I actually retire in around six years time. I will of course though if it is possible contact you to let you know how the project went. Naturally though once I have received your book (ordered today) I will leave a comment on your website.

    Gods grace and wisdom to you in any future building venture.

    Kind regards

  8. Wonderful stuff Robert. South Africa is a great place to live. I hope that my book is helpful. If you need additional assistance please come back to this site and ask. I will do whatever I can to help. We are also working on a new site, – so watch out for that in a month or so. And I would just love feedback on any building project you decide to undertake in this country. And feedback on the book will be great. I am currently working on another title about sustainable living in SA.
    Go well.

  9. Many people do this Lee, but you might be required to demolish the structure if the local authority doesn’t pass the plans. It’s not a risk that I personally would take. Rather make another plan (excuse the pun).

  10. Isabella Pitsa

    I need to lay a complain about the house which was not finish since
    2010 by the contractor and I like to lay a complain I need to know
    whats the procedure to follow with this matter

  11. Hi Isabella,
    Firstly you will need to find out if the building contractor is registered here with the NHBRC. They will deal with all complaints and claims if he is registered with them. If he is not I am afraid you will have to employ the services of an Attorney and put the builder to terms to complete the work. Please update us so that others can learn from your experience. You can also post your story on our other site

  12. Good day Please can you contact me regarding the above for a new home
    in Midrand. Ive attached my plans for you. Thanks

    File is attached: xxxxxxxx

  13. Good Afternoon, i was wondering if you could help, i have been looking
    for floor plans/blueprints for a unit i will be moving into recently
    and haven’t been able to find anything, i was wondering where usually
    one could find building plans?

    Thanks and Regards,

  14. Venessa Chetty

    I am the owner of the new development since 20/8/2012.
    I have informed the developer of water seeping through the lounge wall
    from the balcony. An inspector has been out and given a report but the
    developer is not commiting to sort it out. please assist with what my
    rights are?

  15. To Whom it may concern:

    I am building a new house for myself. Is it Law to enrol every New
    house with NHBRC and pay the Enrollment fees?

    Kind regards,

  16. Hi Daniel,
    Yes it is Law now to register every house and every builder has to be registered as well. As an Owner Builder you have to apply for an exemption. Have a look at our other site ownerbuilding-nhbrc that covers this in more detail.

  17. Hi Sarika,
    I am sorry but we are not contractors and we do not undertake any building work. Our aim on this website is to inform, and try to help the public understand the National Building Regulations and associated matters.

  18. Hi Vanessa,
    You have every right to contact the NHBRC and request their assistance.
    This is what the HNBRC site says about anyone involved with the house building industry: “Yes, every builder who is in the business of home building must be registered with the NHBRC in accordance with Section 10 of the Housing Consumer Protection Measures Act. In terms of section 10 of the Housing Consumer Protection Measures Act 1998(Act 95 of 1998) any person in the business of home building is required by law to register with the NHBRC.”
    They have the power to assist you and you can find their number in your area on their NHBRC-Contacts page.
    As you already have a report from the local inspector you have a strong case and the developer must organise the repairs asap. BTW if the developer is not registered with the NHBRC then he has broken the law and the NHBRC can take action.

  19. Hi Andrew,
    All Local Authorities around the country should have a Planning Department where all plans are kept. The countrywide list of contact numbers is too long to give here but if you go to the blue pages of your local directory you will find the numbers there.

  20. Hi
    My building extension plan has just been approved by the municipality.
    I have three qoutes for materals all coming just under R300k. The
    qoute i have received from the construction company (only labour and
    project managagement) also costs just about the same amount as the
    materials. Is that correct or is there another way of calculating the
    labour costs?

  21. Labour is not usually worked out according to material costs. There should be a fee for project management and then labour costs should be worked out independently. Normally a construction company will pay laborers set wages … if you were to hire sub-contractors, you would either pay according to a quotation, or according to hours worked. I suggest you get another two quotes from different companies for project management and labour. And it might be a good idea to get quotes for the full job (all inclusive).

  22. Good Day

    I am new on building industry not registered with nhbrc

    I’ll like to ask when you are renovating and old structure do you have to be registered with nhbrc

  23. Hi Bongani, Only “home builders” who renovate structures/houses for other people (i.e. as a job) need to register with the NHBRC. So if you are renovating a structure that belongs to you, it should not be necessary. However, if the renovations are structural, and require plans, you will need these to be drawn up by a competent person who will submit them to the local authority on your behalf.

  24. Franco Hanekom

    Good day Penny, I have your book and am planning a new house. The idea is to build a wooden house, but unfortunately your book doesn’t cover this construction method as extensively as it does the other, more traditional methods. You do mention though, the pole construction method. This is a method that I was interested in, because the americans use it as it saves a lot on timber, therefore it is cheaper and a simpler construction method. Do you have info on this method and how acceptable it is in South Africa?

  25. Franco, I have added some information about wooden houses in the new version of Owner Building that was published last year. Originally, when I wrote the book more than a decade ago, there was very little interest in timber homes. So hopefully you have the “new” version. There is also more info about using timber to build in the updated SANS 10400. For instance pole construction of roofs is now included in Part L – but it doesn’t give a lot of info.
    Regarding pole construction itself; I have a rather old American book that gives plans for barns and similar structures using the method. When we did our book Build Your Own Garden Structures in Wood for Struik many years ago, we built a small structure using the pole construction method. It’s the little “shed” seen here. But for a house you’d obviously need insulation plus plus plus.
    At one stage we tried to help promote timber homes and worked with SALMA – now Sawmilling South Africa. If you go to their site there are some links that will probably be useful, particularly the Institute of Timber Frame Builders. They ought to be able to help you.

  26. Thabo Pretorius

    Hi Penny,
    I am about to embark on the final part of a significant home renovation and addition. I had the raft foundation designed by an engineer and done professionally by a contractor and intend to start building shortly. I have downloaded the Owner-builder exemption form and will complete and submit it before commencing. The house alterations have been designed and drawn up by a registered professional and signed off by the municipal counsel. I do intend to do most of the actual work myself, building walls,roof, floors etc. Water and electricity will be done by a professional in that field. What other legal/regulatory requirements am I missing here?

    I do not intend to sell the house in the next ten years.
    Should I decide to sell the house after ten years what legal/regulatory requirements should I look out for and get in place?

  27. Thabo, You need to appoint a competent person to take responsibility for the project. This person will need to sign the relevant paperwork that is contained in Part A of SANS 10400. Your local authority will probably also have copies of these forms. Essentially this person will then officially take responsibility to ensure that the plans are followed and work/materials etc adhere to the requirements of the National Building Regulations. He/she will also sign the build off at the end. Of course the local authority’s building inspectors and health inspectors will also do their own inspections at various times. The local authority will also give you a completion certificate – once the competent person has supplied all the other certificates – e.g. for plumbing, electrics, a certificate from the engineer who designed your foundation, possibly a truss manufacturer etc.
    In terms of the NHBRC, you are permitted to sell the house after five years. Their warranty is only for five years for those whose homes are enrolled by building companies registered with them.
    The only possible hitch would be if when you sell, the buyer wants to raise a loan and the bank calls for an NHBRC certificate. We have had complaints of this nature – but frankly it is nonsense because it’s worthless after five years. Just be sure to keep copies of all the certificates for backup (just in case).

  28. I am urgently looking for advice. We where approached by or neighbours who want to build a double story flatlet in their yard behind their house. I have a problem with this as my walls on my side are low and this is going to infringe heavily on my privacy. What do I need to do?

  29. Charesse, If they need your permission to build, then you can refuse this on the grounds that it will infringe on your privacy. If they are asking out of politeness, then it’s another story. If they DO need your permission it will probably be either because they want to build closer to the boundary than they are allowed, or because of a height restriction. I would check this first.
    Two suggestions you could make to them would be:
    1. That they build a single storey unit – this may mean that if there wasn’t already a boundary line issue, there may now be – and they would need your consent.
    2. That they build higher boundary walls to ensure that your privacy is maintained.

  30. I appreciate your help Penny. I have no knowledge of this type of thing, but my logic was telling me I needed to ask someone.

    Many thanks

  31. Good luck. Don’t let them bully you. If you’re not sure, ask. 😉

  32. Hi Penny
    im considering starting a bussness in Soweto building and selling houses. this is not yet going to be on a big scale. finding vacant stabds prefarable amoung existing house taht are already serviced and zoned.what are the legal implication and procidures that i need to follow

  33. Themba you need to talk to estate agencies. Apart from anything else, you will need the relevant qualifications, viz: “A new entrant to the industry is required to achieve the qualification FETC: Real Estate (NQF level 4), to complete a 12-month internship under the mentorship of an experienced estate agent and to write and pass a professional designate exam (PDE) at the end of the internship.”

  34. Charlene Smith

    Building Guide

    Good Day,

    I want to build a house, but I do not have any building knowledge what so ever. I have tried to look on the internet about building regulations and so on but can not find very much.
    I want to take a bond to buy the land but personally finance the actual building and do as much of the building my self.
    Would you know where I can find regulations on owner building?


  35. I want to build a house with hollow bricks. Some say you require 11 bricks per sq.meter. Is it true?
    and does the building regulations allow hollow bricks for external walls. and is it compulsory to plaster those walls as per building regulations.

    And for the roof without gable roof just using rafters which rafter is good wooden or steel

    Thanks for your response


  36. Yusuf it depends on the size of your blocks or bricks. When you say hollow, you are clearly referring to blocks. Two of the common sizes are 390 x 140 x 190 mm and 390 x 190 x 190 mm and you will need about 12 and a half blocks for every square metre you build.

  37. Charlene there is everything about Building Regulations on this web site. We have a second website that has additional information. My book Owner Building in South Africa might also be helpful.

  38. Hi regarding extensions,once a plan has been approved and foundation done,is there a time period to complete building or can i complete as my budget allows?

  39. H Jerry, Here is a quote from the City of Cape Town FAQ’s: “A building plan is valid for 12 months from the date of approval. You may apply in writing to your local district planning office for an extension before the expiry date. ” and as far as I know most municipalities in SA do the same.

  40. Dear Penny

    I have a plot in an estate in South Africa, Pretoria. We stay outside South Africa and would like to hire a builder and buy the material and finishings ourselves. How much is reasonable these days per square metre in South Africa if I am providing the material and just need the builder? I am receiving all sorts of varying quotations. We paid up the plot and so we were hoping that we are cutting out all the extra bank regulations.

    Thanks for your response


  41. Hi,
    Penny & Janek.
    I am a non resident, have approved plans, have appointed an engineer. Therefore my question is do I require an owner builders permit or exemption to owner build. The structure is Light timber frame and my trade background is carpentry.

  42. Hi Stephen, Apologies for the delay in our reply. It has nothing to do with being a non-resident but everything to do with constructing a new building on a property. You can apply for an owner builder exemption from the NHBRC but be aware that you may not sell the house for a period of 5 (five) years if you do this. You can also project manage your own build but you will have to complete a short questionnaire with the NHBRC has set to demonstrate that you have the knowledge to oversee the build.

  43. Hi Janek,

    Thank you for your reassuring and informative reply.



  44. need to build a new building can I get help from your organisation

  45. Sorry but we only give help with online queries. The best is to contact an architect as they are experienced in all aspects of the industry.

  46. Hi Penny,

    I have a vacant plot and have just had my building plans approved. Regarding electricity, water and sewerage, when is the right time to apply for such services?


  47. Hi Penny

    I am building a house from scratch currently waiting for approval of plan from the municipality.Building material is ready for building I will only wait for the NHRBC 15 days waiting period after we get the building plans from municipality.I keep on worrying that l am missing something.I am a perfectionist is there an advise for me to make sure l am on top of my game.

  48. Generally the sooner the better so that you have water and electricity on site for building.

  49. Sorry I don’t understand the question. If you are waiting for the NHBRC it sounds as if you are registering with them – or using a builder that is registered. If you are owner building you need to apply for an exemption. In any case, in terms of the building regs you need to have a competent person involved in the build. This person should be able to tell you if you are “missing something.” Good luck with your build.

  50. Unfortunately we can’t help you Tembisa.

  51. Hi Penny,

    Could you please reconfirm the link as it says page not found.


  52. Hi We merged two websites ownerbuilding and buildingregulations toward the end of last year (2014) unfortunately some of the links remained, should be this site

  53. Hi Jerry

    I built my own house back in 1993 and as per Janek the building plans are valid for 12months, however that means you have to start your build within 12months of the plans being approved, otherwise the approval will be cancelled, however once you have started to build I believe there is no time line for completion, there certainly wasn’t in my case.

  54. Hi

    I want to know the next step I have to take when building a new house. The plan has been approved by the municipality, so I want to know what I should do next.

  55. Mike MacLeod

    Hi Penny, do you have any info pertaining to A-frame houses, I want to build one and was wondering if there are any guidelines?

  56. Mike the building regs apply to all buildings. The NBR doesn’t deal with specific building methods or building types and styles. Since A-frames are generally timber frame you will need to pay particular attention to the sections of the regs that deal with timber walls. Foundations, plumbing +++ will all be the same as any other building. You might find a book (probably American) that would help you. Sorry I can’t be more helpful.

  57. Get quotes from builders who are registered with the NHBRC and then contract one to build your house for you. Good luck.

  58. Hi,

    I had house renovation plans approved to use cement tile roofing. But now I’m thinking of using metal sheeting as my roofing material. Can I just go ahead and do this or do I need to get approval for that change?


  59. Hi NKululeko, A different roof covering will require a different roof truss design so to answer your question, yes you will need to get permission and alter your plans accordingly.

  60. You will need approval for the change – apart from which, depending on the original cement tiles specified, there may be a difference in terms of purlins or battens in terms of size and spacing.

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