Becoming a Builder
I’d like to leave the corporate rat race behind and build houses. Am I crazy?
I’m 26 years old and employed as an engineer for a Fortune 500 company. I’ve had a little home-building experience and I’ve been subscribing to Fine Homebuilding for about a year now. I enjoy the magazine tremendously, but the more I read your publication, the more I’d like to leave the corporate rat race behind and build houses. Am I crazy? If not, how can I go about learning more before I leap into a building career?
Benjamin S. Barrall, Norristown, PA
Mike Guertin, a builder and Fine Homebuilding contributing editor, replies: A few years ago, I read an article in my Sunday paper that rated dozens of occupations by stress level. The job listed as having the highest stress level was residential general contractor. It went on to say that nationally, the failure rate of construction firms is second only to restaurants. That’s part of the downside of home building.
Your background as an engineer is probably as solid as anyone entering the home-building business. If you haven’t already, I suggest that you secure a professional-engineering or civil-engineering license in your state. Professional certification can go a long way with clients, building officials, and financial institutions.
One major decision is what exactly you’d like to do in the home-building field. Many people specialize in trades ranging from framing or roofing to crafting beautiful finish work. Or you can become a general contractor and spend your days — and nights and weekends — on the phone, lining up projects and organizing trade contractors. Then there’s my preference, which is to be a hands-on builder who does everything.
To learn more about home building, I suggest three simultaneous tracks. First, find a mentor in your field of interest, someone you can work with and learn from. Second, read, read, and read some more. There are hundreds of good books and many magazines that cover all the various aspects of building. Third, take continuing-education classes offered by institutions in your area, and attend seminars, conferences, and trade shows that focus on your trade selection.
There’s no way to instantly know everything about building. I’ve been working on homes for 20 years and I’m still learning every day, just like every other builder and craftsman I know. Home building is an honorable trade, even though people don’t always see it that way. The satisfaction you get comes from within. Standing back when you’re done with a job and thinking “I built that” is a pretty good kick.