When Should I Build? – When Should I Buy?

Interested in a new utility trailer?  Or ATV Hauler?  We have plans for those, but when should you build a trailer?  And, when should you just go out and buy one?

These are great questions, and we have some answers.  Also note, while this discussion is in context of trailers, the same is true for Gantry Cranes, Shop Presses, and many other DIY things we build.  Here’s our take.

Material Cost To Build A Trailer

Cost is one of the big reasons people give for wanting to build a trailer.  Go look in a trailer yard and you might get sticker shock.  Search the ads and you might find only overpriced junk.  Often we feel it will cost less to build than to buy.  Is that true?

Almost all of the new trailers you see on a lot are factory built.  Those factories buy their materials (steel, aluminum, etc.) at rock bottom prices because they purchase in very large quantities.  They also use the materials more efficiently because they build many trailers so they don’t have as much scrap per unit.  The same quantity pricing is true for components like Axles, Wheels, Tires, Hitches, bolts and more.

Summary:  For raw materials and for purchase components, unless you have some amazing hook-up with a supplier, a factory buys everything cheaper.

What About Labor And Other Costs?

Factories have to pay people to build trailers.  They also pay to ship finished trailers to the dealer lots, and allow margin for their retailers.  They make a profit too.

Do-it-Yourself builders, do pay a higher price for materials (and components), and it does take us a lot longer to build a trailer than a factory.  But, we don’t pay shipping on the finished trailer, and we don’t pay retail profits. (Well, not on the finished trailer.)  Our profit is effectively the pride of ownership.

Labor, on the other hand, is something we pay in opportunity cost.  Time we spend to build a trailer is not paid, but it’s time that takes away from something else.  What is your time worth?  That’s the cost of your labor.  Yet, if you’re like me, the enjoyment of building and the satisfaction of producing something really great, is also part of the pay.

Summary:  There is a good case for DIY with the lower financial cost of labor, but labor cost alone is not really a convincing reason.  Satisfaction in your work, and pride of ownership, well, that’s another story.

So, When Should I Buy?

If you want or need a trailer that is just like the ones on the lot, then you should probably buy one.  In the end, factoring in the cost of materials, components, time for fabricating, building, painting, and extra tools you buy, it’s likely to cost more to build than to buy.

Is it heresy to say that? Keep in mind that I’m talking about a factory standard trailer.  If that fits your need, and it’s all that you want, then it’s probably better to just go out and buy one.  If cost is a concern, search the ads on Craigslist and other places.  It’s not uncommon to get a good deal on a standard type trailer.

Two other reasons to think twice before you build a trailer:  Tools & Space.  If you don’t have the right tools (or have access to needed tools), building will be much more difficult.  Also, you will need plenty of space to setup and build a trailer.

Why Build A Trailer?

Utility Trailer Options AnimationBuilding a trailer is a wonderful experience.  If you’re thinking about this kind of project, there are lots of reasons for building, and many may apply.  Here are the reasons I see to build a trailer:

Functional Reasons:
  1. If you want something different from the standard factory trailer, definitely build it.  When building, you can customize the width, the length, the axle placement, tongue length, etc..
  2. If you want custom options — like certain sides, a specific tailgate, a given spare tire placement (or none), a certain decking type, or any number of other options.  Building gives you the ability to customize the trailer any way you want.  You can make it perfectly fit your ATV, your tractor, your mowers, or whatever else you intend to carry.
  3. If you have a specific need, you can build a trailer for your Jeep (off-road camp combo) or your car (low, lean and efficient), or whatever you intend to pull it with.  Truly custom projects may have other economic considerations.
  4. When you’re building something truly unique, like your new Tiny House, build the trailer that gives it the best foundation. Or, adding a folding tongue or other major option.
  5. If you want a trailer that is robust from the start, build it.  Factories build trailers as cheap as possible — they meet specifications and not much more.  They take short-cuts like using angle iron for the frame supported by short sides (which work great when loaded well, but fail if the sides get damaged or if the trailer is loaded obnoxiously).  You can certainly build one better.
  6. When you build, you can address things like trailer bounce right from the beginning.  You can bias your efforts to the things you feel are functionally important.
Intrinsic Reasons:
  1. Then, there’s the pride of ownership.  Once you build a trailer that is really great, you’ll have payback every time you see it.
  2. Finally, if you love building — if creating is part of your mental relaxation — then build a trailer, for sure.  It’s a perfect project.  (Personally, I almost always like the shop better than the couch, so I get it.)

Summary:  No question, if you want something different, if you want something really robust, if you want something you can be super proud of, and if you have a love of creating and building, DEFINITELY, Build It !!

Build a Trailer for Your Needs

Final Thoughts

The case for building over buying is one of ending up with something that truly fits your needs.  As noted above, it’s not just a matter of cost, but also of enjoyment in the final product.  In our plans, we show lots of options, and we encourage customization.  Build a trailer that you’re proud of, and it will be a source of happiness for years to come.

For your tiny house, the foundation is the key to almost all other parts of the project, so yes, build that to meet your needs.  We have a great 20′, a 24′ and a 30’/32′ options to choose from — and customize.

Another point that we sometimes dismiss — enjoying the process.  The love of the journey!  Learning and expanding in ways that provide enjoyment is pretty important.  It adds richness to our lives.  Don’t discount that.

I might add that there is also a priceless education that comes from building something — especially if that’s not what you do every day.  Learning more about yourself and about how to do things will benefit you much farther than just the accomplishment of what you build.  I say “priceless” because there is no better way to learn than to do-it-yourself!

Good Luck with All Your Projects!

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