Q: Will you need any tools to be your own general contractor?
A: You will probably need is a 25′ tape measure to confirm the correct placement of 2×4’s, fixtures, etc. Plus, as discussed in Dealing with Contractors, Part 2, you will need an expandable folder to organize each trade.
Q: What if you are afraid of making costly mistakes?
A: Let’s face it. If you have never tried to be your own general contractor before, you will make mistakes. However, you will also save a tremendous amount of money that you would have otherwise paid to another general contractor. In my opinion, if you have the time and desire, it will usually be worth it to try to be your own general contractor.
When I first tried to be my own general contractor, I made a note in my notebook of every costly error that I made. I wanted to learn from my mistakes, so the notebook was quickly filled with information. That notebook became the basis of this website and the basis of my Emory University course.
Never be afraid to make mistakes and always remember that every single person out there trying to take on this sort of work has to start somewhere and you can only grow from mistakes. Never dwell and always look at the bright side.
By learning from my mistakes, you will already be way ahead of the game.
Associated General Contractors
Q: What can you expect?
A: As you attempt to be your own contractor, you may be surprised to experience just how irresponsible and unreliable human beings can be! It is likely that you will have contractors who do not show up when they say they will. They will probably fail to return your phone calls, forget what you tell them, and neglect to ask you about important decisions. However, if you know this in advance, you will be prepared to be extra vigilant and energetic in executing your tasks. It is not easy to be your own contractor, but it can be very satisfying to overcome the many challenges.
Q: What is the first step to be your own general contractor?
A: First, you need to check with your local residential building inspection office for your municipality. You may be required to obtain a license. Hopefully, however, you will be exempt if you are not using corporate entities for your house ownership or your general contracting activities. In other words, If Joe Smith is general contracting on a house that Joe Smith owns, then it’s probably not going to require a license. However, if Joe Smith sets up ABC Corporation to renovate a house owned by XYZ Corporation, then a license may be required.
Contact an attorney or CPA for advice regarding whether or not it would be worth it to set up a corporation for any reason.
Q: How will you know how much labor is supposed to cost?
A: You will not know for sure, but as discussed in finding contractors, it is important to get multiple bids and compare them. As with almost anything when trying to be your own general contractor, ask an architect or other professional for help when you have a question.
O’Fallon Roofing INC.
Q: How much money can one save?
A: If you live in a hot housing market where there’s lots of activity (like San Francisco), then the remodeling contractors are probably making 25 to 30% profit on their work. If you are inexperienced, you will not save that much. Instead, on your first few projects, you could expect to save 10-15% due to novice errors and the lack of volume discounts on labor. If 10-15% is sufficient or if you hope to do more projects in the future, then it may pay to be your own contractor.
Q: What personality traits and other characteristics are required to be your own contractor?
A: It helps to be control-oriented, be self-motivated, be able to give plenty of attention to detail, have plenty of time available, not get stressed out too easily, be organized, be able to see the big picture, be good at scheduling, have low expectations of contractors, and be a good negotiator.
Q: How can you learn to be your own contractor?
A: There are continuing education courses available at local universities, such as the one I teach at Emory University. Also, there are some books available on the subject of how to be your own contractor; however, I haven’t found one yet that I could recommend. The best way to learn is by diving in, doing it, and asking the contractors questions as you go along.
- Ask your Contractor to save extra roof shingles for patching later (any reputable roofing company, as shown here, will have plenty of inventory to do so). Also, BE SURE that the Contractor saves you enough paint for touch-ups. Even if you don’t use the paint for touch-ups, you may want to refer to it later for a color match.
- Read the fine print carefully on all contracts that the Contractor is having you sign. I once signed a contract with an alarm monitoring company that locked me in for three years when I only wanted a few months!
- If you are installing granite counter tops in your kitchen, tell your Contractor that you want to inspect the slab of granite at the shop before it is delivered to your home. There are wide variations in this natural material, and you want to be sure that you are getting a piece without a lot of defects. It may not look like the sample you saw in the store!
- It is essential that you pay your contractors quickly. If you do not, then you will quickly fall off of their “preferred customer” list. Have a check ready to give to the contractor as soon as the project is completed to your satisfaction.
- When things go wrong and all else fails, file a complaint with the local licensing board. When things start to go wrong, keep everything in writing, including logs of calls and correspondence.
Be mindful of security while having people work in your home. Do not tempt anyone by leaving valuables out in the open. Consider getting a safe that can be bolted to the floor.
Continuation of Part 1 here.
- Test floors and sub floors before they are covered with carpet/hardwoods/tile to make sure that they don’t squeak! If they do, then the Contractor can screw them down tighter. Ideally, you want the sub floors to be “screwed and glued” to the floor joists anyway. I would specify this in the contract.
- I like to call my Contractors first thing in the morning (around 7:00 AM). They are usually too busy to talk later in the day and may not hear the phone ringing on the job site.
- If I have an appointment to meet a Contractor, I always call to confirm the meeting. “Are we still on?“
- You wouldn’t believe how many times you will be “stood up” if you do not call to remind.
- When the project is nearly finished, check for cracks or holes in walls inside of the cabinets or behind mirrors. These need to be closed up for insulation and pest control purposes.
- When on the job site, remember… “SAFETY FIRST, ALWAYS!” Job sites are inherently dangerous.
- If you are going to spend a lot of time at a construction site, invest in eye protection, dust masks, boots, and gloves. Some experts believe that sawdust is carcinogenic and there is plenty of it floating in the air at a construction site.
- If you feel odd wearing a mask on-site when the workers are not, just tell them that you are allergic to dust.
- Watch out for boards on the floor/ground with nails sticking out of them.
- Note that pressure-treated wood is treated with a dangerous chemical. Keep children away from these materials and wash your hands after handling the pressure-treated wood.
Now that we know how to find the right general contractor, we can begin to talk about actually dealing and working with them.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could just sign the contract, hand over the keys, and have the job done ahead of schedule with no follow-though required on your part? Unfortunately, you almost always have to be pretty involved in the renovation in order to get the best result. Here’s how to do it:
Organization Tip: If you are being your own General Contractor, keep an expandable folder (“redwell”) with individual folders inside for each trade. For example, I have an expandable folder for each house that I’m working on, and inside are manila folders labeled “Plumbing”, “Electricity”, etc.
There is no substitute for being on the job site! While you are there, check for things that you won’t be able to see after they are covered up.
- This is an important technique to keep the job moving quickly: Ask your Contractor what work is going to be done next and when he expects it to be done. Check to be sure that it will be done on schedule and if it isn’t, ask the Contractor about it (see references below).
- Photograph the walls before they are covered up with the boards of drywall. That way, you can see if any jacks have been covered up, and you will know the positions of the electrical and plumbing elements for future reference.
- Check the smoothness of the drywall before and after painting. Put your head close to the wall and look along the length of it while shining a flashlight on it. This will enable you to see any bumps on the surface that need to be smoothed out. Mark the areas with a pencil or with colored masking tape.
- If you are being your own general contractor and expect to use the subcontractors on other occasions, I find that the best policy is to use gratitude and appreciation instead of a lot of praise. I find that excessive praise of a job well done tends to drive my prices up. Again, there’s nothing wrong with expressions of sincere gratitude and appreciation. My prices go up when the Contractor feels indispensable!
Associated General Contractors of America
- Of course, it is helpful to ask how long the Contractor has been in business.
- Ask for references. Sometimes I ask for three references and then will later ask for another three. The second set tends to be more accurate! Be sure the reference is not a friend or family member. The Contractor should be able to provide you with names of RECENT satisfied customers. Questions to ask the references: “How was the Contractor with items that needed to be repaired? Was the Contractor responsive? Was the job done on time?”
- I find that the prices go up when the Contractors know that I am in a big hurry to get the job done. I try not to disclose my desire to get the job done yesterday!
- Here are some good questions to ask the Contractor during your first meeting: Can you give me an exact date when you could start? Can you give me a finish date? Can I have your home phone and cell phone numbers?
Just like asking them to show proof of general liability and workman’s compensation insurance, the questions above are an excellent way to get a general idea of the kind of contractor you will be working with. If you are having any second thoughts or are not being given the responses that an honest general contractor should be giving, then it is probably best to move on.
- During your initial visit with a Contractor, incentivize him/her with the hope for more work in the future. Contractors prefer to establish relationships for repeat business, so if you plan to do more renovation in the future, by all means, let them know about it.
- Be wary when encountering home remodeling Contractors who are not busy. This may mean that they are inexperienced and are just starting their business. Or, it could mean that they have a bad track record with little repeat business.
- Take this advice with a grain of salt: I am cautious when a home remodeling Contractor comes to give me a bid and is not dressed in work clothes. This may mean that he/she is not hands-on and is more of a supervisor. I would prefer to work with a hands-on Contractor who does at least some of the work himself. At the very least, the Contractor needs to be ready to step in if there is an urgent situation to get some work done.
- Be wary when you get a home remodeling estimate that is very much lower than the others. This may mean that the Contractor is inexperienced and is trying to get started in the business or simply does not know how much things cost. Or, in rare instances, it may indicate that the Contractor is in financial trouble and needs work/money fast. (This has happened to me before.) You get what you pay for, so do not necessarily jump for the lowest bid.
Contractors with ridiculously low prices reminds me of the old joke about not wanting to join any club that is dying to have me as a member!!
In order to follow my previous 5 tips, take a look at how to find the most trusted and reliable contractors for your renovations.
- Word of mouth is the best way to find a good home remodeling Contractor. Ask your friends, family and acquaintances for good references. The best contractors do not advertise. Their good work is their advertisement, and they can rely on a steady supply of referrals.
- Other sources for home remodeling Contractors: materials supply houses, home builder’s association directory (it may be worth joining your local association just for this). Also, if you have a good Contractor in one trade, ask him if he knows of any good workers in another trade. Often the good ones know each other.
- I like to keep a running list of home remodeling Contractors who work in my neighborhood. As I drive around, I note the phone numbers from trucks and signs. I also note the address where the Contractor was seen
working in case I want to ask that person how the Contractor performed for them. (You can do reverse address telephone number searches on the internet.)
- If you are working with or know a residential architect, ask him/her for a good referral.
- Be sure to get multiple bids for each house renovation job. Expect wide price variation. Be wary of Contractors who may be “fishing” and hoping that they will find someone to fall for their exorbitant pricing. These “fishing” Contractors already have more work than they can handle, but they’ll fit you in if you’re willing to pay their very high prices.