When to be your own general contractor

Barbara K

View photos

Heed the words of Russell Nill, a contractor in Southampton N.Y., who says don't let money be your sole guide when choosing a general contractor for home renovations. 

"Once I gave an estimate for a new roof," recalls Nill, who has 30 years' experience installing all types of roofing and copper work. "I included removing the siding to install proper flashing. But the homeowner got another estimate where this was not included.

"Needless to say, the roof leaked shortly after it was installed. I had to fix his mistakes by ripping off both roofs, plus the siding. It cost the homeowner $10,000 more than my original estimate."

Horror stories abound about contractors orchestrating shoddy renovations, taking weeks, even months longer than expected to get the job done, or running up unforeseen costs. It's situations like these that make acting as your own contractor, in other words orchestrating the renovations you want on your home, particularly appealing. That's especially true when money is tight.

As a homeowner and a professional general contractor, I know firsthand that taking on a big home improvement project by yourself can be a good idea – or not. Some jobs might be better left to a professional contractor who is supposed to oversee all the subcontractors, or "subs," to ensure they get the job done right and on time. 

[Think you might need a general contractor? Click to find the right one now.]

How do you decide?

First, consider the scope of the project. If it's something relatively small, like finishing a basement or changing out the cabinets and fixtures in a kitchen or a bathroom, it could pay to be your own general contractor. In these cases, you're not actually altering the layout of the room. You'll save the money a general contractor charges – between 15 and 30 percent or more of the cost of the project. 

Screening out subs

View photos

Becoming your own contractor means you have to hire the subs. So shed any fears you might have about talking to a plumber, an electrician, a mason, or HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) specialist.

You have good instincts right? The only way to learn is to dive right in. Interview at least three people per trade, get estimates, and check references. Call the Better Business Bureau to research if there have been any complaints. Even if it means doing a little legwork, at least you get to work with professionals of your choice.

GCs usually use the same subs repeatedly, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. But you might find labor and professionals that are just as good, and cheaper than the general contractor's crew, and you can choose to work with trade people that you really like.

In addition, some GCs like to get fixtures and materials from their own sources. This can be good because they often get trade discounts not available to the layperson. Then again, a contractor's materials can be more expensive than you might find on the Internet or elsewhere. Sometimes contractors are loyal to certain providers of construction materials and home furnishings and want to give them business even if it costs the homeowner more money. I have sourced materials on my own that turned out to be less expensive and of higher quality than what a contractor offered to me.

Consider the big picture. Managing your home project gives you tremendous control over the work crew and the quality of the work, right down to the finishes. I have built and renovated many residential properties, both big and small, so I can't stress enough how important it is to find the right people to help you get a construction project completed. And remember, when you act as GC, you're the boss, and for better or worse, everyone answers to you. And if it all works, there's tremendous pride and sense of fulfillment in the journey.

However, there are downsides to going it alone, even on small projects.

For one, there are learning curves. Expect to spend one to several hours a day for several months learning about the inner workings of your home, and dealing with some aspect of the renovation.

A hands-on job

Second, managing the transformation of any space in your home, while it does not require that you be on site every minute, does require that you check in often to inspect the work being done. You also have to pay bills to all the subs, rather than just the contractor. You also have to consult with the trades who are on site, and coordinate and schedule them. And don't forget about arranging for the rubbish removal.  

On larger projects, such as adding a room, or redoing a kitchen or a bathroom to the degree that the floor plan and plumbing must be completely reorganized and rerouted, a GC is a good idea.  Once you start moving walls, fixtures, electrical and plumbing, you might be required to hire an architect and file drawings for a permit. Always check with your community to understand what the rules are.

A GC could help with this. A truly qualified GC knows a great deal about how a home "works" and can hire and manage the right experts, and coordinate and schedule them as required to complete your project. GCs take care of the permitting, which can involve enormous red tape. They can also keep nosy neighbors at bay.

[Click to find the right home contractor now.]

When hiring a GC, ask how much of a percentage will be charged for the service, and what it includes, so you know exactly how much you're paying and what you're paying for. Therein lies the central advantage of hiring a GC. There is one person you deal with on what is typically a wide range of issues and questions surrounding the project, from local building codes, to safety requirements, to what makes the most sense in terms of aesthetics and functionality.

Reno gone wrong

Take the recent case of a townhouse in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan, where one of the apartment owners was doing her own gut renovation of a two-bedroom apartment, and some of the other owners decided to do the same but without filing plans and getting permits from the city.

Bad move. They cut the wrong wire and 13 units ended up without power. Not only did the homeowners face hefty fines, they faced a whopping electrical contractor bill and the animosity of their neighbors. If there was a general contractor on the scene, the whole incident might have been avoided.

Ray Ramano, of Ray Ramano Contracting in New York City, who has 25 years' experience as a GC, has saved many "wannabe" homeowner GCs.  He recalls that on one project, the owner believed that just because he had an engineering degree, he was well prepared to GC his own project. But the owner didn't realize that he needed a permit to build a deck and midway through the project, he ended up with a stop work order, a hefty $2,500 fine, and everything he built had to be ripped out. Ramano came to the rescue.

Barbara K @barbarasway is a former NYC contractor and author