So you think you want to build?

2012-02-23 14:00

Georgina Guedes

After years of “move or build?” heartache, my husband and I decided to demolish our defunct outhouses and build an office and staff rooms out back when I was pregnant with our second child. Courtesy of a royal stuffing about by our bank (thanks, no really, thanks), the building project started two weeks before our baby arrived.

It was supposed to take three months. Our son will be celebrating his half-year birthday at the end of this month. The builders are still here. So that’s double the amount of time anticipated. The costs have been around 30% to 50% more as well.

All of this I was prepared for, and I must mention that through all of this, we have maintained a great working relationship with our builder and our architect.

However, despite mental preparedness for the project, there was some… let’s call it “hidden awfulness” for which my loins weren’t girded (especially having just borne fruit), that I wish someone had told me about. So, if you’re considering a building project, take heed of the following:

Don’t cut corners

Any corner cut will have to be uncut – at considerable expense. Submit to council for approval. Get neighbours’ signatures if you have to. Helpful citizens phone the relevant departments, and unlike for instance, Municipal Billing, Building Inspection at the City of Joburg is actually quite committed to its job.

We were fastidious about doing it all properly and some neighbour still complained when a pile of building sand toppled half into the road one weekend. Instead of complaining to us, they phoned the Council. You will have to deal with this sort of pettiness and go through this red tape.

Hidden costs

Everyone warns you about hidden costs. You think you’re forearmed. You think you have a buffer that will cover them. You are wrong.

First of all, if your builder’s quote has a chapter called “Contingency”, that’s a good start. Now take that heading, and change it to “Miscellaneous costs”, consider those spent, and add another called “Contingency”. Make that about 30% of the project.

Builders and architects put down every cost they can think of in the quote. They’ve thought of those things. They will bill you for them. There are lots of things they haven’t thought of. Engineers will be suspicious of your soil and require extra concrete. That wall you thought was strong enough to form the foundations of the new building will collapse. You’ll realise you can’t live with the low-cost option roof truss your builder specified. Ka-ching, ka-ching, KA-CHING.

Add to this the fact that most quotes don’t contain things like fittings or tiles because you can have a raw concrete floor or tile your palace in gold. These will be costed separately, but won’t be cheap, even if you go for the kakest option. You’d better have access to extra cash.

You’ll become a crime target

Building sites attract crime. Sorry, they just do. Miscreants know there will be tools lying around and security might be compromised. You’ll get vagrants wondering in when the gate is open at best and at worst you’ll have a full-scale break in. We had both.

Noise and dust

Unavoidable. Not schedulable. Accept this.

Someone needs to manage the project

Even if you’re using an architect, a project manager and a foreman, there are going to be decisions you have to make, things you have to fetch, showrooms  you have to visit and people you have to let in. This thing is going to consume your life.

Whoever takes responsibility, the other partner won’t have any idea of the levels of activity involved or be grateful enough. If you’re the other partner, be very, very grateful.


Those people you have visiting in six months are going to be bunking with your kids. The cottage will not be built. Don’t make any plans, no matter how far from now, around the availability of the new space.

Things will have to be redone

The light at the end of the tunnel? It’s only the floodlights that allow you to see what the things that have gone wrong. These things will need to be fixed. Again and again. The law of hyperbolic consequences states that that which takes a week to build takes six weeks to repair. Your builder will sweat and cry, but he’ll have to fix it. Your guests will have to wait until he does.

Our biggest kick in the teeth was the crooked tiling in the pool. It was off by a centimeter, only visible once the water was in. It is still unfathomable to me the amount of time this has set us back by.

The end is in sight for us and has been for months, but I honestly think we’ll be smacking a bottle of champagne against the side of our new cottage-cum-office very soon (or is that what you do with ships?). I hope it will all be worth it. But if you’re considering building, read what I’ve written – none of it is exaggeration – and be very, very afraid.

- Georgina Guedes is a freelance writer. You can follow @georginaguedes on Twitter.

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  • Gert - 2012-02-23 14:28

    You can't be more right on your don't cat any corners stance. I have been in construction for while now and I know this from experience. Get a professional architect to do the design, get as much samples and pamphlets from building material suppliers as you can (especially lighting and tiling, but you can't go wrong with paint samples). Have the work estimated by a professional quantity surveyor. He is the guy who must juggle your budget, the architect's need to express himself in his design and the contractor's attempt to make as much out of your little project as possible. Hiring a QS can be expensive, but so is being tricked into paying more for something that wasn't your fault, but you didn't know it. Have the work measured and estimated by a professional quantity surveyor,

  • Pippa - 2012-02-23 14:42

    13 years of building and still going...I feel your pain.

  • arno.pieters - 2012-02-23 15:40

    my advice, appoint a professional architect. he is your principal agent, and he is the only one with total project comprehension. project managers are a waste of money when it comes to residential projects, as they are a middle man between the client and everyone else. architects are trained to be principal agents and principal consultants. all decisions should pass through him - this then means that all responsibility lies with him. most important, sign a Client Architect Agreement with your architect, and sign either a JBCC agreement, or a PROCSA with your contractor. your architect is responsible for managing these. lastly, if you have R2mil to build with, this is not what you have for construction. 15% will go to the engineer and architect, that leaves you with R1.7mil. take off 30% for contingencies, then that leaves R1.2mil for construction. that should be your starting budget. at the end, your total bill should be close to the original R2mil

  • Wollie - 2012-02-23 17:45

    Having built 2 houses so far, I have had none of these problems. Some issues but non that escalated to the point as you describe. The way I do it is simple. I contractually commit them to deadlines, with finantial penalties if they are not met. Further, all expenditure is itemised beforehand and any expenditure above that requires the builder "filling forms out in triplicate", i.e I make it very difficult for them. So why would the builder do this? I also include financial benefits if the project is concluded on schedule and on budget and of the agreed standard of quality. Some builder don't want to work this way, but the one I am using now is raking it in as I now also recommend him to others.

  • Dan - 2012-02-23 17:46

    ah thanks hey, i started on Monday!!!!

  • Zakithi Mdakane - 2012-02-23 20:47

    This is hilarious I am definitely reading your next column

      Zakithi Mdakane - 2012-02-23 21:26

      Oh I am so sorry I commented on the wrong column.

  • annempho.masenya - 2012-02-24 10:52

    though my building project is much smaller but i have to brace myself for whatever might go wrong. I'm still buying building material for now and will start building once everything has been bought.

  • Meshack Letswalo - 2012-02-25 18:06

    I'll never build again. All trades and contractors are a pain. When you look away for a second they take all short cuts you can imagine. They use labourers without supervision just to save money.

  • Karin - 2012-03-08 16:29

    I was reading this, with our contractors hammering away at a wall as background "music". We moved into our house in August last year and when we bought it, we knew we will be adding on to it. We started in October, after all the paperwork was approved. I had the (unrealistic) expectation that we will be settled by December. Totally naive! We're using a contractor who doesn't cut corners, whose quotes were spot-on and who warned us in advance about dust, delays in getting building materials offloading when it's raining, dust, cost of fittings, dust and his fears of boulders under our existing foundation, where they have to break through into the newly build main bedroom. Oh did I mention about the dust?! It gets in everywhere. I've stopped wearing dark colours and am sticking to khaki - I'm probably known as that "boere tannie" in the area. We knew it was going to take time, but I never expected it to consume every waking moment of my life. I can feel my personality changing as the project starts to take over and I become the building. I have dreams at night where I'm retired and still squatting/camping in my half furnished house with the echo. In spite of all this, I'm hanging on, clinging to the hope that the newly painted wall, or newly fitted bathroom tiles offer. They're chanting 'we're in, one less thing to do, just hang in there, it will finish....someday!!'

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