Time to Build: Will You Use a General Contractor or Manage the Project Yourself?
You’ve chosen the great house plans you want in order to build your dream home. Now an important decision regarding the construction of your house has to be made: will you use a residential general contractor (GC) or be your own GC and hire a bevy of subcontractors whom you will manage?
How do you make this delightful, storybook Tudor style home a reality? Work closely with your general contractor—or subcontractors if you will run the project—to build a home to keep forever. (Plan #138-1270)
The majority of those who choose to build their own homes do use a general contractor because it is easier. The job of the GC is to plan the entire project and hire, oversee, and be the liaison between all the subcontractors working on the project. His job is to be your representative and create the agreed-upon outcome—a home built to your specifications. It’s a big job, with the planning phase being the most important: getting permits, planning the workflow, and making material estimates. All of that is key to a smooth home-building process.
It is possible to save money by doing it yourself—acting as your own GC—but it’s also possible to have cost overruns and jobs needing to be redone, and it will take lots of your time and patience. On the other hand, you have more control by being your own contractor: you will be making all the decisions.
Whether you hire a general contractor or deal with individual trades directly to manage your project, make sure to do the research before choosing just anyone.
Let’s go over the pros and cons of both options: being your own GC vs. hiring a professional for the job.
Not all states require a residential GC to be licensed. The National Association of Home Builders has infomration about your state’s specific rules and governing body. Some states have minimum amounts after which a project needs a licensed contractor, or for things like asbestos removal only; some states regulate contractors at the local level. It is worth knowing.
1. When working with a GC, you have one person to handle all of your questions, changes, or concerns on building your house.
2. You will save time. He or she handles getting permits and inspections and hiring all the “subs,” or subcontractors: plumbers, painters, carpenters, and various other trades. If there is a problem, the general contractor gets called first, not you; and he or she may already be on site.
3. GCs have expertise that you may not have. That can save time and potentially money—the GC is liable for problems rather than you.
1. You incur a higher cost to build the home.
2. As the GC is very powerful in the process, communication with him or her has to be excellent, so you need to be clear, concise, and vigilant.
Being Your Own Contractor
1. You will save money: up to 20 percent of the total cost. This is if all goes well, and there are no surprises like miscalculations or cost overruns. (Both are more likely if you are not experienced and in the business day to day.)
2. You will have more exacting control over the project.
3. You will gain a sense of pride at managing the entire process of home building.
1. The process will take more time than you may think. You will have to research and interview each sub. You will be on call for questions from the subs. You will need to do research and be up to speed on the house-building process for the best outcome.
As your own general contractor, you have to be prepared to deal with several trades, including framing companies…
2. You have to pull permits for electrical, plumbing, etc., which allow construction to proceed, and you will need to ensure that inspections are done to attest that your home is up to code.
Acquiring permits is another detail that falls under the responsibility of a homeowner who chooses to be his or her own general contractor.
3. You will plan out the flow of subs so that each process is completed in the right and most efficient order. You will be the one to settle any disputes or issues as they arise.
4. You will need to plan on making periodic, possibly frequent trips to the construction site. Will you have time to do that if necessary? Is it close enough to be feasible on short notice?
Dealing with Contractors
Whichever approach you decide to take—dealing with a GC or acting as one yourself and working directly with the subcontractors—some issues come into play. Here are some tips on what to ask for from general and subcontractors:
Ask friends, family, or work colleagues you trust for builders with whom they have had a good working relationship and—perhaps more important—any who they don’t recommend!
Do some legwork. Talk to those in the home-building industry. Perhaps a building inspector can tell you who routinely meets and exceeds code in the area. Go to your local lumberyard or big-box home supply or pro center, and ask around. They will know who buys quality materials, who pays on time, and the like. Those things are signs of stability and professionalism.
2. Get a written bid (three separate bids is standard), preferably with costs broken down. That way, if you, say, change the type of flooring in kitchen, you’ll know how much you are saving. Get a timeline estimate as well.
3. References: get and check references. Perhaps even go see previous builds to ensure that the contractor meets your standards. The homeowner may give a good reference, but yet it doesn’t meet your standards when you do a visit.
4. Choose someone who has been in your local area for some time. If his or her company has lasted a long time that’s a plus. It may also be easier to get the truth about his or her skills, and he or she will likely care more than someone traveling to your area who has fewer established relationships.
5. Make sure that the contractor or contractors are fully insured and licensed to do any work you will require them to do.
6. Be sure you sign a contract with each contractor, and ensure that everything you will require of them is in writing, including scope of work, timing of work, finish dates, and payment schedules.
The Construction Process
Once you have hired a GC or the various trade subcontractors (if you are acting as your own GC), you must stay informed and will need to get regular reports either from the GC or from the multiple subcontractors. Keeping a detailed schedule and staying on top of the contractors is imperative.
Among the trade subcontractors responsible for this finish are professionals in exterior design, brick/masonry work, windows/doors, roofing and lighting experts. If you act as your own general contractor, you have to get involved in the day-to-day operations. (Plan # 161-1030)
As construction winds down—and before the final payment is made when the job is at a point of “substantial completion”—you or the GC will check that all is in order and that every aspect of the home appears and operates as it should. You will draw up a punch list.
Before giving the final okay on your construction, list items that need to be fixed or finished and inspect all substandard work.
According to home expert Bob Vila. a punch list is created and given to affected subcontractors “when you’ve got more than two or three items,” that need fixing, and “after he [the subcontractor] has had enough time to address the fixes you gave him on the last list.” Click here for more about punch lists. Keep copies of the punch list. Be sure that the final details are contractually tied to the release of the last payment.
This timing is preferable and gives you more leverage than linking final release of funds to the Certificate of Occupancy (CO.) The CO can mean different things in different areas, and it may still leave you with details that are not completed as contractually agreed. Click here for more on the final check.
Some examples of the final inspection and the types of issues a punch list might cover include things like:
a window that doesn’t open smoothly
shower and/or tub not working
missing molding in one or more rooms
If you work with a GC, he or she will do this final inspection. As homeowner, you should take time—preferably with someone else—to do your own inspection. Try everything: open doors, turn faucets, etc. Take notes, and then do an inspection with the GC to create a complete punch list.
If you have chosen to be your own GC, then you will need to take this step with each and every subcontractor. This is potentially another major time sink for you.
You can see why the idea of control and saving money might motivate you to act as your own contractor on your home construction. But it is a substantial commitment, one that will most likely test your patience and research and management skills. So it comes at a cost.
It is best to do some research on everything that the role will entail in your area and then honestly access your skills, available time, and motivation to take on the task.
Whichever way you decide to go—hiring a GC or managing the project yourself—get building!
Footnote: The lead image (upper) in this article is a delightful two-story, four-bedroom, open-floor country house plan with gorgeous landscaping, a wrap-around porch, balcony and private deck. For more on this home, view: (Plan # 126-1132)