I recommend using the internet as a cursory search tool but for you to do the majority of your research in person. Yes, that means investing in personal interaction with other human beings!
Those who’ve read my book Going Off The Grid know I go into great detail about finding a good contractor, and what to do when you get a bad one. I ruffled some feathers with the information I included in that chapter, because I was pretty frank about my experiences dealing with contractors over the last twenty years. I’ve owned several properties during my life, include investment properties, so I’ve been dealing with the shenanigans of shady contractors for a very long time. I won’t re-hash all the information I included in Going Off The Grid, but I want to briefly cover what you can expect when dealing with a general contractor in today’s building environment.
After I released Going Off The Grid and the follow-up Living Off The Grid, I received a few comments and emails from readers wondering why I was using contractors at all, as their perception was that it’s not really what the off-grid lifestyle is about. First, those perceptions are incorrect, as I’ve spoken with and met numerous people living off the grid over the years, and only a few did the entire project themselves. And second, from what I remember, the individuals who were able to forego contractors were contractors themselves, so they weren’t a good sample to rely on when it comes to this topic. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have the equipment to drill a well 510 feet (that’s the depth of my water well), or install large propane tanks weighing several hundred pounds, so at some point, help is usually needed.
The bottom line is, most people trying to achieve their off-grid dream will need the help of a general or specialty contractor at some point in the process. Unfortunately, over the last five years, as the economy has improved, the contractor world has not only gotten worse from my perspective, but more expensive.
It’s well known in today’s labor market that there’s a huge shortage of manual laborers and tradesmen. I’m not trying to scare you off, but I want to make sure you take your time and do your due diligence before you get involved with a contractor on your project. It’s another reason why I’m such big fan, for those starting out, of gettting an RV to live in, as it gives you time to figure out what type of structure to build (if you want) and to find the right people for the job. As with almost anything in life, especially attempting to live off the grid, rushing will always bite you in the butt in the end.
One thing that’s been incredibly frustrating for me is that I’ve seen a dramatic rise in the cost of using contractors, but the quality of work is going down. To give you an idea, from a basic laborer to a specialty contractor such as an electrician, you’re looking at $50 to $120 per hour on average. And most of the time I find myself going back and fixing the things they did wrong. Luckily for me, I have a decent amount of construction experience so I can fix most of their mistakes, but it still gets me pretty steamed that I have to do it. But the average person won’t be able to tell when a contractor is not doing a good job until it’s too late, like when the toilet or roof leaks.
Also, most contractors today want nothing to do with a project in a remote area or off the grid unless it’s going to pay them big money. I’ve had a tough time getting contractors to even show up because it’s not easy to get to my property (four-wheel drive only). So what’s the answer? If you need a contractor, make sure to read the chapter in my book Going Off The Grid and/or go the do-it-yourself route when you can.
Do It Yourself (DIY) When You Can I won’t candy-coat this one: If you plan to live off the grid or in a remote area, you’re going to have to get your hands dirty (Yes, that is a picture of me with wood I cut, and the woodshed it goes in that I built 100% by myself and by hand). If you’re not willing to do this and learn a lot of new skills, I really don’t think this life is for you. I’ve not only acquired a couple thousand dollars’ worth of new tools, but have an entire tool chest of new abilities. Sure, some of it was painful at the time, but I don’t regret it for a second as I saved a ton of money, the work I did was better than if I hired someone, and I have a great sense of accomplishment.
Today there are a ton of videos and books on do-it-yourself projects. Heck, that’s how I learned to do things over twenty years ago when I bought my first property. I remember I bought two Black and Decker how-two books on electrical and plumbing, and I still have those books and reference them from time to time. I had no clue what I was doing, but I learned as I went along. I soon realized that contractors were expensive, so I’d better learn how to do it myself or make a lot more money! The payoff was that I learned a lot and made $50,000 on my first property in less than two years, which I was able to sell in two days. That positive experience got me started in my side business in the area of buying, selling, and renting properties.
Here’s a list of projects you can do on your own with little or no experience, and save a lot of money:
- Painting. The tools for painting are basically some brushes, rollers, painter’s tape, a ladder and, of course, paint. I’ve saved tens of thousands of dollars by painting the inside and outside of my properties. The best part is, if you screw it up or don’t like it, you can just repaint it.
- Plumbing. To install your own toilets, sinks and faucets, all you need is a crescent wrench and some patience—it’s much easier than you think. Plumbers today can be expensive and most actually hate doing these types of jobs.
- Electrical. You can do your own wiring in outlets, faceplates, ceiling fans, and lighting fixtures. Make sure you read up on this first, though, as electricity can be dangerous. Turn off all power and purchase an electrical current tester (this will tell you if you what you’re working on has power to it) to ensure you’re working under safe conditions.
- Flooring. Install your own tile and/or wood flooring. Over the years I’ve been offered multiple jobs because of my tile work. It’s not that difficult, but many installers rush it, making it look like crap.
- Window Coverings. Install your own blinds, curtains or other window coverings. I’ve done this on almost every home I’ve owned.
If you do just the above projects on your own, you could save up to $25,000, depending on the size of your home. That’s right, I didn’t misplace a comma. For more experienced people who build most of their home on their own, the savings are in the 50% to 70% range, when compared to having someone build it for them. With all the property projects I’ve had over the last twenty years, I’ve saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by doing things myself.
Here’s a basic set of tools I would recommend for anyone who’s looking into this lifestyle and wants to, at least partially, go the do-it-yourself route (you can nearly build a house with these alone):
• A cordless drill and drive.
• A miter saw with 10” to 12” blade
• A miter saw stand
• A table saw with 10” blade
• 16- and 18-gauge nail guns
• A framing nail gun (optional, if you plan to do some serious construction)
• An air compressor with a kinkless air hose, 25’ to 50’
I kid you not, the above tools are the ones I use about 80% of the time on my own projects.
I took it up a notch and actually built some of my own furniture and did all the finish carpentry, which probably saved me in the $10,000 range. Not only that, the finish carpentry I did is considered more on the custom home building side, so I also increased the value of my home.
The best advice I can give when it comes to accomplishing your off-grid dreams is to do as much of it yourself as you can. Then bring in a trusted contractor who’s a jack-of-all-trades when needed. I had a contractor who came for a day every week or two, to help me on the projects I couldn’t do myself, or ones that take more than one person. In order to gain confidence in his skills, I gave him small projects in beginning, then increased the complexity once he gained my trust.