Being Your Own Contractor Saves a Ton of Money, But I Don’t Recommend It

published Dec 9, 2018
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(Image credit: Lana Kenney)

It’s funny how most of us know we can’t be our own physician or attorney after watching a few YouTube videos, but ask us if we can run our own renovation and an awful lot of us think we can handle it just fine. Who needs a contractor when you can find your own sub-contractors online and order all your own materials? Why pay them a percentage of the cost (ranging from 10 to 50 percent) on top of your already over-budget budget when you can just DIY?

Well, I’ve done it. Twice. And I hope I never, ever do it again. Yes, you’d think I’d have learned my lesson the first miserable time, but I did it again. Why?

Finding the right contractor may be more of an elusive hunt than meeting the right partner. You have to be able to trust them implicitly. My husband and I had an absolutely horrendous experience with a contractor on our first renovation; he billed us twice as much as he’d bid without telling us costs were running over, it took months longer than he said it would, and, because it wasn’t done properly we had to hire new sub-contractors to re-do the work, so the final cost was triple. We ended up needing an attorney to get out of the relationship. No wonder I was scared off for good.

Even if you can find someone trustworthy (and they are out there—my own dad is a general contractor on new construction and his clients love him), good luck hiring them. The good ones stay booked up so far in advance that you have to plan months if not a year-plus in advance.

And when you’re on a limited budget, being your own contractor can really be a very cost-effective way to keep a rein on things. But, before you do, stop and think about what it takes to be your own general contractor. Here are some of the responsibilities—and pitfalls—of taking on the job yourself:

Choosing the workforce: Put on your HR hat to find the right subcontractors for each job based on price, quality, and reliability—not to mention availability. Check references on all new subs, and make sure they’re legit and have everything in order, from insurance to permits. The wrong choice here can seriously derail things. Keep the good ones happy and figure out how to handle the not-so-good ones.

Managing the budget: Now you’re an accountant. Set the overall budget, get bids for every project and estimate prices for all materials, track costs for everything, from the giant big-ticket items down to the $10 light bulbs. Provide draws (payments) to the subs and log those. Review progress with subs to make sure you’re staying on budget. When you’re not, find ways to cut expenses elsewhere. Log all expenses, pay credit cards (hey, at least you get miles!), and log that.

Managing the schedule: Determine in what order things have to happen, and plan the schedule accordingly, allowing time for delays, mistakes, and miscommunication. Wrangle subs so that each piece is done on time, and double and triple and quadruple check with them down the line that they’re still going to be on time. PAD THE SCHEDULE. Realize that there’s next to no reason they’ll show up to your one-off job whereas a general contractor who will call them again and again will have the sway to get them to work. Figure out what to do when they’re not on time or when they don’t show and the dominoes starts to fall.

Planning design and choosing materials: Work within your existing footprint to develop the design. Choose every single color, fixture, material, appliance, and accessory, from the light fixtures down to the grout and everything in between. That could include crown molding, baseboard, multiple types of tiles, stain color, paint colors and finishes, cabinets, countertop style, color, material, and edge. And about a million other things. Source vendors for every single item, making sure it all stays on budget, and then adjust when it doesn’t.

Monitor material and supply delivery: Make sure the things you order are shipped on time and arrive in time. Look ahead and check with vendor when the order is late and adjust schedule as needed.

Control quality control answer all questions: Check subcontractors’ work to be sure it’s correct to specifications and satisfactory (do you even know if it’s correct!?). Provide instruction and feedback as needed. Learn to deal with that sinking feeling in your gut when a sub yells “hey, can you come here?” Respond to questions immediately as they arise. Research what you don’t know. Cause delays when your ignorance slows down a sub’s process, or they have to stop work to answer your questions. Make mistakes that cost money and time.

Crisis control: Deal with unfolding situations, ranging from water gushing through a ceiling when a pipe is cut, to the roofers dumping debris and blocking your neighbor’s entrance, to a deliveryman who won’t bring your 400 pound appliance inside, to the demo crew dropping and breaking things and tearing out things they shouldn’t. Figure out what to do when the drywall truck is here but can’t get the materials in the third floor because of electrical wires and your drywaller won’t carry them upstairs. Come up with a back-up plan with the appliance won’t fit through the doorway.

Site clean-up: Make a token attempt at not letting your house turn into shambles. Shop vac. A lot.

Make a living and have a life: Continue your actual job and meeting your own deadlines during this process. Somehow also get food, walk the dog, and do laundry.

By the end of this last project I vowed to go to trade school before doing it again. Just kidding, I will NEVER do this again, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.