So you want to be your own GC on your upcoming remodeling project, eh? Well, first of all, good luck, you will need it. Contrary to popular opinion, though aligning strongly with common sense, being a general contractor is a learned skill which takes years of experience to master. Far too many well-meaning homeowners have made the mistake of thinking they can do away with this crucial individual and expect the same results–but it can be done by the well-prepared DIYer.
First of all, what exactly does a GC do? A lot.
The general contractor is a friend, a sounding board, a design assistant, an accountant, a magician, a manager, a salesman, an expert, and often the difference between a disaster and a thing of beauty. Not all GCs are alike or posses the same strengths. Some wear collared shirts and hold clipboards, others wear belts and boots, but they all are there to help you get your project done on time and on budget.
If you want to act as your own GC, here are the most critical hats you must wear.
There are a heck of a lot of moving parts and people on a jobsite. Someone has to keep it all together. The GC manages his employees and subcontractors, interfaces with the designer, architect, and engineer, and also, manages you and your expectations. He maintains communication with vendors and suppliers, and takes responsibility for fixing problems when they occur. Cabinets arrived broken? Subcontractors are late? Didn’t pass the rough inspections? Designer forgot to draw the built-ins? Dumpster is overflowing into the neighbors yard? The contractor addresses these issues as they arise to get the job back on track.
When you are acting as your own gc, get to know your subcontractors and suppliers. Communicate with them throughout the project on your progress so they know when they need to be onsite. If the plumber shows up to find you switched from a 50 pound acrylic tub to a 500 pound cast-iron monster, he’s not going to be thrilled. The savvy GC would schedule the delivery on a day where there are more hands on deck.
Every job is different and therefore has differences in costs, but a good general contractor can get into the ballpark at a glance. Estimating carpentry labor or the square footage of tile you will need before the walls have even gone up is a skill most homeowners may not possess. That decision you made to bump the bathroom wall over a foot may have seemed small, but the consequences–say an extra 80 square feet of expensive were not. Inexperienced homeowners will often overlook critical areas like waste removal, underestimated the length of the project and the number of dumpsters needed to manage all of the construction debris.
While I’ve never met a contractor with a side business as a CPA, most smaller contractors run their own books, or at least used to in the early days, and therefore have a good sense of how to run a budget. A contractor will provide you with an overall job cost and make his or her business to stay within budget.
When you take the reins, you will be responsible for keeping the money under control. Break down your project into subcontractors and materials, get quotes ahead of time, and stick to your numbers. If you find savings in one area, hold off on splurging on that fancy vanity, until you’re certain you won’t need it elsewhere.
Well let’s face it, you’re not going to top a GC’s 25 years of experience in the field, but you can at least get a head start. The internet is packed with information on remodeling and construction, whether it be trade magazines, blogs, tv shows, or youtube, you have to read, watch, learn, and repeat. Study up and talk to the experts, that’s how most GCs get their training. Spend an hour at the paint store talking about VOCs, sheen, and coverage; talk to the plumber about how the heating system works; call local haulers and talk rates and dumpster sizes.
The bottom line is if you want to be your own general contractor, and put that extra money into your pocket or project, you have to act like one. This is a trade that people spend years learning; it cannot be learned overnight, but a determined individual who prepares himself for the task, will do just fine on a smaller project.