By Murray Johnson

You read lots of stories about people building mud brick houses for $20,000. We feature one ourselves on this site.

It may be possible to build a very small, basic house for that, on a bush block somewhere, if you make the bricks yourself on-site, scrounge for years to get windows and everything for nothing, or next to nothing.

But these stories probably create a false expectation among some would-be owner builders, and put others off because their gut instinct says "that can't be right" or "it must be dodgy". For instance there are regulations these days, which stop you doing your own plumbing, gas work, electrical work, or even putting on your own corrugated iron roof. Septic tanks are probably on the way out, and more expensive water treatment plants are the future. All this pushes up the cost of compliance.

We had a fairly casual approach to our project, and basically guessed how much it would cost for each stage. We were reasonably close overall... saving in some areas and blowing out in others. Hopefully the costings below will give prospective owner builders a framework and some current costings to work off. If anyone else has comments/contributions to make on the issue of costs, please email them to:

Even if you have most of the skills to build a place (which few of us do), or have six brothers who are all tradesmen and will help you for nothing on weekends (good luck) there are still a lot of unavoidable costs.

If you're a couple planning to build a house, you need to discuss up front your budget and what you are prepared to do to save money. Will you be happy with a secondhand toilet, or mismatched old windows, and a kitchen or tiling you've done yourself. If not... you'd better budget for new items and professional tradespeople... and be fair dinkum about what this will cost. it's no good getting half way through and finding you've run out of money. The cost of extending your loan can be up to $1000 for a new mortgage, new valuation, new legal fees, bank fees etc... that's if you can get an extension.

There's no point glossing over the likely costs because building is a real process, and it costs. Be realistic about what you can and can't do... and about the cost-effectiveness of it all... and have a plan. For instance we took nearly a year of weekends to lay our mud bricks... when we could have paid a bricklayer to do it in a week or two for probably $2500. But we thoroughly enjoyed the experience and would do it again.

On the other hand we didn't want to spend years making mud bricks, so these were purchased from Hipwells in Axedale, and delivered on pallets by semi-trailer, ready to be laid right away for $1500. We are pleased we did that.

Building a house is a huge project... often compared with running your own business. It's likely to take you at least a few years no matter how you do it... and if you're not careful a decade. The stories of children growing up in tin sheds on owner builder sites are numerous... and true. I've met some of them myself. So you need to adopt a realistic, businesslike approach to planning, budgeting and running your project... otherwise you can end up with an expensive and messy headache. Insurance is a particular issue these days, post September 11 and HIH. No-one will touch a half-finished project, and if your construction insurance runs out you can find yourself in financial and risk management no man's land.

To avoid the 10-year project syndrome we decided to buy ready-made bricks and ready-made windows. We brought in tradesmen to keep the project moving, and at a certain standard... but all that costs money.

Mud brick, or straw bale houses, if built by professionals, actually cost more than the traditional "brick veneerial". Once you start spending your weekends lifting 1000 mud bricks, weighing 20 tonnes, into place, you will realise why the light pine timber "balloon" frame evolved... along with little bricks, cement sheet, plaster board and aluminium cladding. If you are committed to doing it yourself, and having chunky quality and the materials of yesteryear around you... you'll succeed... but expect that quality to cost.

Realistically you may save $20,000 or so on labor by organising the project yourself, laying bricks, etc, but you may well drop half that by paying higher casual rates when you bring in tradesmen, and by missing trade discounts on materials.

Saving money on materials takes a lot of time and effort... (and preferably a one-tonne ute). For most people time is money. That sounds very economic rationalist for an owner builder... but it's a simple fact. If you are embarking on an owner building project you need to factor in (if not cost in dollars) the thousands of unpaid hours you and your partner will put in... the strain this could potentially put on you and your kids... or at least the lost time you could have spent lying on a beach with them all. I say this so you can think it through up front... and plan a project which strikes a balance between self-sufficiency, saving money, sanity and practicalities like staying married.

You want to end up with a quality house... but don't want to spend a fortune.

You want to learn and do things yourself, but not to the point where you get sick of it... or cease to have a life (or a partner). It can be a fine line.

You want to recycle and be environmentally sensitive... but on a budget. Being Green is actually much more expensive than you might expect. You can put in an electric hot water service for about $1000... but solar will set you back three times that. Likewise a water treatment plant, which recycles waste water onto your garden, will set you back about $5000+ compared with $3500 for a simple septic tank. Insulation isn't cheap either, and neither are double glazing, energy efficient wood heaters, water jackets to capture energy for water heating, five star appliances, large water tanks to catch rain off the roof... the list goes on.

In fact I would venture to guess you could easily spend at least $20,000 on that little list of features above... before you start on the house itself!

But don't despair. There are savings to be made by doing things yourself. One of the aims of this site is to help owner builders share their tips on budget building. If you have any suggestions please share them with us here and we will add them to this site to help others.

Our muddie is a 16-square two-storey post and beam with corrugated iron roof, 300mm x 200mm recycled wharf ironbark frame, oregon rafters, and corrugated iron roof. It's on a colored concrete slab (we're just going to put down a few rugs for now), with custom-made timber windows. The house has four bedrooms, a balcony, 1000 gallon corrugated iron water tank, Solahart solar hot water service and Clearwater 80 water treatment plant. It has stainless appliances, a Nectre wood heater, polished floorboards, ceiling fans and a claw foot bath on 1.3 acres an hour from Melbourne for $135,000 including land.

For the record... it took two years of working most weekends to get it to lock-up, and cost $75,000 to that point. We've now spent $105,000 and are within probably $5000 of getting the essentials finished. Landscaping (which can be expensive on a big block) will be on top of that.

With friends paying $320,000 to $370,000 for renovators' delights in Melbourne, we're happy with our project. We love our little piece of the country, the fresh air, and seeing our house come together. The kids are never short of subject matter for "show and tell" and we've got a kick out of doing it as a family.

Here are some real (current 2002) costings compiled from typical owner builder projects that we know of. I hope it's a reality check and a helpful guide to anyone planning to build their own house: These figures are based on a mud brick house similar to ours of 16 squares with corrugated iron roof and stud/plaster internal walls and medium quality internal fittings.


  • Loan establishment, valuation and legal fees $1000
  • Construction insurance for three years $1200
  • Draftsman to draw up our plans $1000
  • Driveway excavation/grading and site levelling $1400
  • Connect water to site and one tap $500
  • Termite treatment or Termimesh $2000+
  • Concrete slab labor for setup and pour $2088
  • Concrete for slab 9 X 15 metres $4662

Total setup/foundations cost $13,850


  • Plumber to set up slab $740
  • Roof iron and insulation $4159
  • Plumber to install roof $3000
  • Plumbing of house frame and footings $1740
  • Septic tank permit $150
  • Clearwater 80 water treatment plant $3300
  • Transport of Clearwater 80 and hole excavation $440
  • Installation of Clearwater 80 and sewerage connections $1628
  • (Allow $400 for electrical connection of Clearwater 80 in elec specs)
  • Shower base $130. Install show base $200
  • Shower screen $1500
  • Corrugated iron cladding for gables $300
  • Plumber to fit stormwater pipes from guttering, set up water tank, fit corrugated iron cladding to gables $2500
  • Sink $150. Laundry trough $150
  • Solahart solar hot water system + installation $2300 (price is $1000 below cost thanks to Victorian Government's current rebate)
  • Toilet suite $300
  • Vanity basin $200
  • Tiles, tile cement and waterproof membrane paint (for shower) $500
  • Tapware $1300
  • 1000 gallon corrugated iron water tank $500
  • 30mm poly water loop for garden 200m + fittings = $500
  • "Dingo" digger hire for water loop trenching: 1 day @ $400
  • Resin reproduction claw foot "Heritage" bath $1200
  • Plumbing fitoff inside house and garden water system $3000

Total plumbing labor bill: $12,408 + materials $15,999 including roof, stormwater, water tank, taps, basins, toilet, bath, shower, solar hot water, water treatment plant and basic garden water supply loop!


  • Heavy recycled timber posts and beams $5317
  • Builder to erect heavy timber frame $2620
  • Heavy and recycled timber transport $925
  • Scaffolding for heavy timber frame erection $200
  • Sandblasting of timber frame $800
  • Crane to erect heavy timber frame $550
  • Roof timber ­ oregon rafters, battens and ridge beams $4000
  • Builder to pitch roof $2400
  • Recycled floor boards for upstairs study $500
  • Chipboard flooring for upstairs bedrooms $400
  • Cement sheet and labor for lining one metre eaves $3500

Total post and beam frame cost $21,212


  • Mud bricks and delivery $2000
  • Mud brick mortar mix and delivery $500
  • Two courses of regular bricks (seconds) to get mud bricks up off slab $590
  • Allow $400 for a new cement mixer for mixing render
  • Damp course, wall ties and bricklaying tools and wheelbarrow $500
  • White cement and Bondcrete for render $300

Total cost of mud brick walls $4290


  • New timber windows x 8 = $4000
  • Recycled bay window $225
  • Glass for fixed glazing (10 angled 6mm panes) a bargain at $1200
  • Labor for fixed glazing a bargain at $500
  • Recycled leadlight window for toilet $150
  • Three new glass French doors $550
  • Recycled old front doors $400
  • Internal solid hardwod doors secondhand 6 @40 each = $240
  • Door jambs x 6 @ $45 = $270
  • Door furniture/locks/hinges $1000
  • Recycled hardwood 50mm x 150mm $1460 + transport $800

Total cost of windows and doors $7195


  • Stud pine for internal walls $3000
  • Plaster $3000 + delivery $250
  • Steel battens, screws, stud adhesive, tape etc for plaster $1000
  • Plasterers to hang ceiling plaster $200 a day x 12 man days $2400. (Allow extra $2400 to hang wall sheets + finish off, or do it yourself)
  • Paint $2000

Total cost of ceilings and internal walls $11,650


  • Connect to mains, incl.100 metre trench, meter box etc $2050
  • Electrical wiring of house frame and footings $1280
  • Follow-up electrical wiring of inside walls $1000
  • Stainless steel ceiling fans 5 @ $180 = $900
  • Light fittings $1350
  • Exhaust fans & IXL Tastic for bathroom $350
  • Electrical fitoff inside $3000
  • Light dimmers X 10 = $400
  • Electrical goods: oven, stove, dishwasher, range hood $3300
  • Installation of second phone line $75
  • TV aerial $100 plus antenna man's visit to get good reception $200
  • Electrical connection of Clearwater 80 Water Treatment plant $400

Total cost of electrical labor: $7805 + electrical goods/fittings $6400


  • Recycled white pine for kitchen benches etc $1500
  • 50 X 25mm pine for framing benches and cupboards $400
  • Stainless steel splashback $400
  • Tiles, glue, grout, $350
  • Mini corrugated iron to clad parts of bench $400
  • Cupboard door handles, hinges etc $500
  • Shelving systems $1500
  • (Kitchen sink and tapware included in plumbing specs)
  • (Lights stove, oven, rangehood, dishwasher, power points etc included in electrical specs)

Total cost of DIY kitchen benches $5050


  • Nectre woodheater $1300
  • Strategic Rent a Bomb ute hire x 15 days @ $70 a day = $1050
  • Strategic trailer hire X 10 days @ $50 = $500
  • Triton workbench $350 + Triton circular saw $350
  • Miscellaneous power tools: router, electric drill, battery drill, belt sander, electric planer, angle grinder etc about $1500
  • Miscellaneous hardware and tools from hammers and spirit levels to strings, router bits and drill bits to screws, glue, sandpaper, stud finders and other gadgets. $3000 +
  • Tin garden shed for tools lockup $350
  • Wire fencing $1000
  • Trees $1000

Total cost of miscellaneous hardware etc $10,050


Total $115,859 for 16 squares = $7241 per square


Plus $5376 for 12m x 5m shed:


  • Prefab roof trusses for 12 X 5 metre shed and carport $726
  • Sand, plastic and reinforcement mesh for 12 X 5 shed slab $900
  • Concrete for 12 X 5 metre shed $750
  • Recycled hardwood for shed posts & oregon for beams $1000
  • Recycled corrugated iron for shed walls and roof $1000
  • Slate grey paint for shed iron $200
  • Recycled windows (2) for shed $200
  • Electrical connection to shed, with 2 lights and power points $500
  • Home-made double doors from old floor boards FREE
  • Heavy duty padbolts and padlocks for security $100


Email: Murray Johnson (

Snail Mail: 16 David St, Carlton, Victoria 3654

Phone: 0417 339 203