So You Want To Be Your Own Contractor

If you have the time and the knowhow, you can save money. Even more important, you can get exactly what you want

Everyone has heard of the renovation job from hell that took far more time and money than the homeowner expected -- and the general contractor usually gets the blame. If you're thinking about a remodeling job, maybe you should consider hiring yourself as the contractor. You can save money -- 15% to 20% of the project's cost -- and perhaps more important, gain more control over the outcome.

It's not a decision to take lightly. "If you make a lot of mistakes, it could end up costing you even more" than if you'd hired two contractors, says Greg Susman, founder of, one of several construction-information resources on the Web. You need time -- a few hours a day before and after work may be necessary -- and enough flexibility in your job to attend to a crisis. It helps if you have a basic understanding of construction, but more than that, the job requires managerial knowhow.

A general contractor hires and oversees all the tradesmen who work on a project. In that role, you also handle all the scheduling and resolve design problems -- for example, when the plumber says he can't put a toilet where the architect wants it. Plus, you are responsible for ordering supplies and arranging for permits and inspections. Finally, you are in charge of cleanup, whether it's hanging plastic sheeting to control dust or arranging for heavy trash pickup.

"You can't imagine all the little things you have to deal with," says Guy Leflar, a business consultant in Houston who, with his wife Debbie, supervised the construction of a home office and photographic studio over their garage. The project, which cost $61,000, was completed in 1999. It took five months -- three more than they had anticipated. But, says Leflar: "We got exactly what we wanted." That would not have been the case had they let someone else supervise because "we were there to catch things before it was too late."

This assumes you can spot mistakes. Susman says owner-contractors "need to know just enough that if someone is screwing up, they can stop them." To get up to speed, you can get information about proper installations from trade groups such as the National Wood Flooring Assn. or the Plastic Pipe & Fittings Assn. And get chummy with your local building inspector, whose job it is to spot shoddy workmanship.

Finding good, dependable subcontractors is a challenge. "You don't have a lot of clout when you're not in the business," says Bobbie Schultz, who, with her husband, Vernon, supervised the 2001 renovation of their three-bedroom Lake Shore Drive condominium in Chicago. While professional general contractors are repeat customers, you're a one-time shot. That makes you less of a priority when it comes to submitting bids and completing work. The Schultzes' carpenter went to France for two weeks when their kitchen was half-finished. "I was powerless to stop him," she says.

Get three subcontractors to bid on every job. Tim Carter, a plumber and carpenter who writes "Ask The Builder," a syndicated newspaper column, says you should ask each candidate for three references from three different time periods: "Talk to people the guy worked for 90 days ago, 18 months ago, and 4 years ago." That way, you'll see recent work, work just out of warranty, and work that has been subjected to the test of time. Remember that the lowest bid may not be the best deal. You'll likely get terrible work -- or they'll ask for more money and threaten to walk out if you don't pay up.

Make sure the subcontractors you hire show proof of liability and workers' compensation insurance. And check with your insurance company about increasing your homeowners' and liability insurance due to higher risk during the remodeling. Take out a course-of-construction policy in case of theft of materials, vandalism, flood, or fire. The cost will depend on the size and expense of your project.


Before anyone swings a hammer, make sure you've got an airtight contract that says the subcontractor will follow the specifications laid out in your blueprints. The American Institute of Architects has standard construction/remodeling contracts available for sale at Be sure to include a mutually acceptable date of completion. If you want to have penalty charges for time overruns, you should also have incentives for finishing early. The demands on you will vary by the stage of construction. For example, you'll probably have to take a day off work at critical times, such as the laying of foundation.

You'll save a lot of time and aggravation if you have detailed building plans. "You want your blueprints to specify absolutely everything," down to whether you want nails or screws to secure your floorboards, says Carter. Such plans should include meticulous scale renderings known as elevations. Drawing them up will force you and your architect to think through every detail. For example, an interior elevation would show the exact locations of all electrical outlets, how they should be wired, and even the type of cover plate. This will ensure you have all materials on hand and should prevent midstream changes that could be costly.

Equally important: Treat your subcontractors with respect. This may seem obvious, but John Rusk, a New York contractor and author of On Time and On Budget: A Home Renovation Survival Guide, says homeowners have an "us and them" mentality when it comes to tradesmen, perhaps stemming from horror stories of feckless laborers. "As a homeowner, you really have little leverage, so it's in your interest to be nice and let your subcontractors know you think the world of them," says Rusk. Besides, you don't want to have an adversarial relationship with anyone who knows how to operate a nail gun.

By Kate Murphy

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