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.

Pump up your Home Remodel with a Renovation Coach

Browsing the news, a phrase caught my eye – “Renovation Coach“. What a marvelous idea! Personal coaching & training has been all the rage. So now you can get a coach for your home improvement projects?

I imagined a “Renovation Coach” as someone who calls you early on Saturday morning to get you back on the renovation horse when you’ve fallen off or have an unpleasant maintenance job to do. Or gets you up at 6am to go to Home Depot for those needed materials. Or trains you with that nifty new nail gun before you hurt yourself.

Well … not really. A Renovation Coach is the same as a “Renovation Consultant”, which although less catchy is every bit as useful. In 2007, the Renovation Coach or Consultant is an idea whose time has come.

Previously, I wrote posts about the rising number of DIYers needing to be bailed out by professionals. And interviewed online “Electrical Coach” Wayne Gilchrist. But it’s not only the DIYer using and needing this type service. People who are going to hire someone to do the job are also discovering the benefits of a little “renovation coaching”. This Old House goes so far as to call them “a new breed of therapist “.

“The thing about home renovation is that very few people have been able to practice for it,” says Irving, who honed his skills working on 33 whole-house projects in his 17 years with the show. “They get wound up and ner­vous, facing this potential money pit, and it doesn’t have to be that way.”

I second that emotion. An experienced Renovation Coach can help with …

  • setting goals or developing a vision for your large home renovation
  • determining the return on your renovation investment – Cost vs. Value or Move vs. Remodel – to help you decide
  • identifying the professionals you will need (like an Interior Designer) for a quality renovation
  • giving you a ballpark figure against which you use in evaluating quotes from contractors
  • navigating the building permit maze
  • a wealth of experience about products & approaches, pros and cons
  • negotiating or communicating with contractors during the process
  • planning and project management
  • Quality Assurance to ensure a job well done and up to code
  • mediation in disputes with contractors

And yes, he or she can even go shopping with you for building materials and supplies if need be.

Although they work on an hourly rate, and they usually don’t come cheap, the benefits of using a Renovation Coach or Consultant are numerous. They bring planning, project management and experience to both flesh out and ground your renovation ideas. The result? More understanding for you the homeowner. More control over the process and your budget. A successful project. An empowering DIY experience. And of course, a beautiful renovation. All you need to be “home improvement happy”. And put in that context, well … maybe they are therapists after all.

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