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How to pull off being your own general contractor

POSTED: July 31, 2014 8:00 p.m.
Trina Knudsen/

AFTER: Before you attempt to be your own general contractor for a major remodel or new construction, try managing a smaller project like this fireplace remodel.

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Recently, we had a conversation with a construction manager for large commercial projects about home remodeling and construction.

Shaun Johnson is starting a consulting firm to help homeowners act as the general contractor on their home remodeling projects. The primary motivation for this approach is to save money. The mark-up for a general contractor is currently around 18 percent to 20 percent of the construction cost. You can plan on saving about 12 percent if you don’t hire a general contractor, but you will have to earn every dollar saved.

Time is money, and it takes a lot of time to manage your own project.
In addition, you assume the stress of finding subcontractors and keeping them on schedule, as well as managing the entire budget — payroll and all. It is a tough job, and not every homeowner has the business and construction skills to execute the project or the emotional strength to cope with the pressure of it all.

We have had a few clients who have successfully completed their project without a general contractor. The majority of these folks had friends or family (or both) "in the trade." In other words, they had connections to plumbers, electricians, excavators, framers, etc. — all those types who come in handy when the roof is torn off your house.

The other approach to acting as your own general contractor would be to associate yourself with someone with construction expertise who would be willing to coach you along and perhaps share valuable contacts. This role of mentor/adviser is critical if your project has any level of complexity.

According to Johnson, one of the most important factors of being your own general contractor is to have a good set of professional plans. He advises using an architect if you are designing a new house or doing a major remodel (moving walls, doors, windows or any other structural portion of your house).

“Professional plans are the key to any good project,” he said.
We are always happy when construction professionals see the value of what we do. We spend a good deal of time trying to convince homeowners of the benefits of using an architect, so it makes us seem less self-serving when other construction professionals back us up. On the flip side, we also see the value of skilled construction professionals. Designs and plans would never become realty without them.

A few years ago, we met the most organized client we had every encountered. He is one we will never forget. In our first meeting, he informed us that he was planning to serve as his own general contractor. We knew he meant business when he showed us a full construction schedule he had developed himself. It was a strict schedule and even the subcontractors said they were amazed by how organized and accurate he was. Clearly, he had given this idea a great deal of thought.

He was planning to remodel his house in phases and live there during construction. We remember him saying that when he decided to live in the house during construction, he decided to manage his own project. He figured that if he were going to live there, he might as well be his own general contractor.

It is important to know that this client was a retired engineer. There are two important words in that description: "retired" and "engineer." He had both time and experience on his side. He approached acting as the general contractor like a real job, from which he was paying himself in savings.

He understood that the savings would not be free money, but would be carefully earned by his performance. With the help of a professionally designed and detailed master plan, a hardcore construction schedule and the gumption to pull it off, he was a successful DIY general contractor.

For most of us, a general contractor is a key factor in the success of our remodeling projects. A competent contractor brings years of experience, contacts and skills to bear on each project he or she undertakes. They, too, earn the money set aside in the budget for oversight. They also provide a warranty on their work and the work of their subcontractors and the peace of mind knowing you can pick up the phone and get help if anything malfunctions is worth a lot, too.

At the very least, practice being the general contractor on a smaller job before taking it on for a major remodel. You will either thrive on the challenge of pulling together a team who will accomplish your end goal, or you will never again begrudge the general contractor’s fee.

Ann Robinson and Annie V. Schwemmer are the principal architects and co-founders of a residential architectural firm focused on life-changing remodeling designs at RenovationDesignGroup.com. Send comments or questions to ask@RenovationDesignGroup.com

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