More professional advice for the DIY General Contractor

This article features advice from DIY General Contractor expert Pay Fay, author of The Pat Fay Method: How to Manage Your Home Remodel or New Construction Without a General Contractor to Save Serious Money.

Mr. Fay offers some interesting insight into the growing trend of do-it-yourself General Contracting:

The actual cost of home improvements is not aligned well with the prices being charged, the quality of work has been declining and the working general contractor is slowly disappearing. Many now simply arrange subcontractors and provide minimal supervision. Quite frequently, general contractors will take the cost of the materials, add labor, then triple it. People are being charged $200-$250 per square foot for projects that can be accomplished for half that price.

Read How to do it yourself – as a general contractor on the Seattle Times.

Read reviews for The Pat Fay Method on Amazon.com.

See my previous post, The Top 5 Unexpected Pitfalls of being your own General Contractor.

The Top 5 Unexpected Pitfalls of being your own General Contractor

Acting as your own General Contractor is a DIY option which sounds good on the surface. What a great way to save lot of money on your renovation (typically 15%) by replacing the General Contractor. How hard could it be?

Hard. Here are your responsibilities as your own General Contractor:

  • managing the details of the renovation project,
  • securing the required building permits,
  • hiring, firing and scheduling subcontractors,
  • ordering building materials & supervising installation,
  • inspecting the work of subcontractors,
  • coordinating formal building inspections (with the permit office),
  • ensuring work is done to code, and
  • troubleshooting design or logistics issues.

That’s a tall order. It should be clear from the job description that not every homeowner is suited to being a General Contractor.

Acting as your own general contractor works best if you’re highly organized, detail-oriented and have a clear idea of what you want in your home.
- Bankrate

Even if you’re “organized”, you still need to decide if it’s truly worthwhile as the pitfalls may eat up your savings handily and then some.

“Don’t do it just to save some money,” he said, “because it’s a lot of work and a lot of research. If you’re not interested in the process, if you don’t want to learn more about construction than you thought you’d ever want to know, then don’t do it.”
- Graham Irwin from Remodel Guidance, SFGate

Ok you’re highly organized, good at planning and management, and really want to learn the ins and outs of construction. Most people understand that they will pay more for supplies which seems to be an acceptable trade off for the control they gain over the process. And everybody knows they have to do their research when hiring subcontractors. But are they aware of the surprise gotchas?

Here are my Top 5 Unexpected Pitfalls of being your own General Contractor.

1. Not having the same relationship with Subcontractors

A reputable general contractor usually has a good long-standing work relationship with the subcontractors, the ones who actually do the work. The general takes care of them and the subcontractors make an extra effort to do a good job on schedule.

If you are your own general contractor, the subcontractors will not have the same allegiance, so you can plan on running behind schedule a little. This can eat up at least 5 percent of the savings
- Ms Builder

That’s 5% gone …

2. Not having the time to closely monitor the project.

You need to be available to spend time on site. When needed. Could be anywhere from 10 to 40 hours per week, depending on the stage in the process. If you have a demanding full time job, be prepared to take time off. You must also

… have an intimate knowledge of the plans so that you notice any accidental deviations. If you miss something early, repairing or modifying the plans later, to accommodate the error, can use up much of your 10 percent savings. …
- Ms Builder

Ok so now your 15% savings could be gone and maybe some of your vacation time. What’s next? Ah yes …

3. The Building Permit Maze

Many people underestimate the time it will take to get building permit approval.

“Sometimes half of the project is just getting the permits … Go into the permit office as early as possible in the process to find out the restrictions. That way, you’re not spending time and money developing plans that you can’t get permits for.”
- SFGate

This homeowner relates how his building plan estimate went south because of permit problems stemming from a lack of awareness of the local building regulations, among other things. “My conservative estimate of six weeks for plan approval was woefully inadequate”.

4. Liability Insurance, Workers Compensation & Lien Laws

When you act as your own General Contractor, you become responsible for any third party injuries that may occur on your property or damage to property by subcontractors. If they aren’t covered the claim could end up landing on your homeowners’ insurance … or worse. Also, if your subcontractors don’t pay their suppliers or subcontractors, a lien could be filed against your property.

And finally, on a personal note …

5. It can KO Your marriage.

Anderson, the Oakland homeowner, remembered a book that “quoted a higher than normal percentage of DIY construction couples ending in divorce,” he said. “Be sure you’ve got a strong relationship and that you’re in 100 percent agreement about doing it yourself.”
- SFGate

Summary Judgment:

This testimonial summarizes the pitfalls very well:

While we learned many things while serving as our own GC, the top three lessons are as follows: first, if you are looking to save time, don’t be your own general [contractor]. We can easily say that the project took twice as long due to our lack of experience and limited time. Second, be sure that you and your spouse can work together and are like-minded when it comes to what you are looking for in a finished product. Last, what we saved in money we paid for in sleepless nights worrying about what needed to be done before the next subs arrive, lack of free time, and lots of other unforeseen costs.
- Jonathan Norling

How can you act as your own General Contractor, get around these pitfalls and sleep better at night? I would suggest hiring a Renovation Advisor to help bridge the gaps in your knowledge and experience. Yes it’ll cost you a few bucks but in return you might be able to keep more of your General Contractor savings, a good return or payback on your consulting investment.

Interior Designers vs. General Contractors

In response to a recent post Interior Designers vs. Decorators vs. Political Commentators, Stephanie from Bungalow Insanity commented:

… interior design professionals need to do a better job of helping the public understand what it is that they “do” and how it is that they add value to a building/renovation project.

She makes a great point – I hope someone out there (like the American Society of Interior Designers) is listening.

Meanwhile the public confusion continues, as this news story about prominent Visalia, CA interior designer David E. Gonzales in hot water with the California Licensing Board illustrates. Gonzales was doing project management for the implementation of one of his designs and maintains he was only helping find subcontractors to “make things convenient for the couple”. But

… the Tulare District Attorney’s Office maintains that whatever title Gonzales went by during the Ortegas’ project, he essentially was working as a contractor, taking the couple’s money and paying subcontractors for their work and materials as well accepting a fee for doing it … Unlicensed contractors in California can face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, according to Tulare County Superior Court records.

Gonzales claims he didn’t know he was breaking the law and I believe him, for all the reasons above. Think about it. An interior designer is knowledgeable about “construction, local zoning and codes, experience working with architects and contractors, knowledge of construction materials”. An interior designer usually knows lots of good contractors. It seems a natural jump to coordinating the design implementation and helping clients choose and manage subcontractors. He’s been doing it for years.

Except that he’s been doing the work of a general contractor and that’s against the law without a license. It’s only because this project had quality of work issues that he came to the attention of the California Licensing Board and ended up with a misdemeanor charge for contracting without a license.

Gonzales’ story is a cautionary tale, of how easy it is to end up on the wrong side of the law … when you don’t know enough about what an Interior Designer, as well as related professions, can and cannot do.

Read the full story Designer required to be licensed.

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