How to Be Your Own General Contractor

May 19, 2017
Blueprints and Calculator on Workbench

Whether building a new house or simply remodeling, being your own general contractor is tempting. Homeowners who take on that role can save as much as 35 percent of the project costs when things go smoothly. But even for weekend handymen, there’s a steep learning curve.

1. Have the right skillset

General contractors have specialized knowledge, subcontractor contacts, and materials discounts that can save time and money. The average homeowner has a lot of catching up to do to match that kind of background.

Ultimately, whether you should try self-contracting your home depends on your own skill sets. “No one knows what you want better than you,” says Anthony Mancuso, home inspector, with Home Inspector Experts in Hampton Bays, N.Y. “If you have the ability, time, and know-how to be your own contractor, then you should use the money you save to buy superior materials.”

Mancuso’s encouragement for would-be contractors hinges on having the skills, abilities, and time to manage multiple subcontractors. Homeowners often focus on potential cost savings without thinking through the project.

When you don’t have the right skills for the job you may run into problems. “They fail to accurately assess their limitations and don’t understand the importance of proper pre-planning and the need to constantly monitor their project once building begins,” Monica D. Higgins, founder of certified construction management firm Renovation Planners, points out. When that happens “they are virtually guaranteed to run into problems, delays and budget-busting surprises,” Higgins says. “It’s no wonder it is estimated that 30 percent of a contractor’s work stems from do-it-yourself projects gone awry.”

2. Manage subcontractors

If you do decide to self-contract, “you need good business skills to sign contracts with subcontractors who will perform the plumbing, electrical, cabinetry, tiling, HVAC and other work,” John Bodrozic, co-founder of HomeZada, says. “Those skills include understanding how to develop budgets, read and evaluate quotes, track costs, track progress, make multiple payments and ensure subcontractors have the right insurance and warranties.”

In selecting subcontractors and suppliers, rely on research and referrals – including those from your carpenter or other trusted workers – to locate and hire the best subcontractors in your price range. Hiring your own subcontractors does have benefits. You can find an excellent tradesman who works construction part time and is willing to work on your schedule. By working directly with specialists, you can begin to learn about these trades and increase your own skillsets. “You’d be amazed what someone with a little common sense combined with proper research and referrals from local, trusted sources can accomplish,” Mancuso says.

General contractors, however, already know the subcontractors, so they don’t need to gather referrals. Those relationships create leverage homeowners lack, as self-contractors don’t offer continued business.

However, you must be able to stop tradesmen mid-job if their work quality doesn’t meet your expectations

3. Learn building code requirements

If you decide to be your own general contractor, learn the language of construction. “Homeowners will need to educate themselves on building code requirements. That can be done by working with your local building department,” Mancuso says. “Not understanding the code requirements (and need for permits and inspections throughout the process) could hinder your ability to get a certificate of occupancy.” Small mistakes also can trigger expensive, time-consuming tear-downs and reworks.

4. Understand the blueprints of a house

To help ensure you meet local building codes, you must be able to read a blueprint and understand the notations. General contractors do this routinely.

Blueprints show the structural, wiring, and plumbing diagrams for a building, but they also contain general notes specifying such details as the type and size of nails or screws for each application, the thickness of dry wall and the spacing for drywall screws. Those details only appear in the notes section of the blueprint and are expressed in symbols and abbreviations. The general contractor, therefore, must understand and interpret them correctly.

5. Understand the scope of work

General contractors understand the scope of work and can quickly determine what a job entails. Homeowners, depending on the size of the project, often may lack that knowledge. “One of the cons of being your own general contractor is that if you don’t know pricing, you’ll need to get multiple quotes from many subcontractors to begin to understand the overall cost,” Mancuso says.

Hiring a general contractor also helps mitigate risk. When you’re self-contracting, if something goes wrong it’s either your fault or a subcontractor’s fault. A general contractor provides a buffer between you and the subcontractor, absorbing that risk.

Taking on the role of general contractor is time-consuming. It requires managing both the business and construction aspects of a project, including multiple trades, and understanding the requirements of the local building code. Also, you ideally should be available to be on site several hours per day.

Ultimately, whether you should be your own contractor depends on your own skills, time, and comfort level. If you’re new to construction, start small before taking on the general contractor role for a large project. Or hire a general contractor and be involved – particularly when multiple subcontractors are needed. Of course different projects require various levels of skill and cost. If you have a specific home renovation in mind, find out whether or not it’s easier to do it yourself or hire a contractor.

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