Should You Be Your Own Contractor?

Home construction engineer verifying a measurement
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First off, when I researched this, I did not find a single website or home renovation guru who advocated homeowners being their own contractor. Some articles have promising titles ("Be Your Own Contractor! Save Money!") but quickly turn into a rant against homeowners who have the gall to think they can be their own contractor. Second, based on my own experiences, I have reservations about wholeheartedly advocating that homeowners act as their own contractor.

Why You Should

1. It's Cheaper

Save money. Big money. Huge money. This point requires some deep thought.

When you take on other do-it-yourself jobs, you save a healthy proportion of money--but the total dollar figure for the job often isn't that great. For example, if you sand your own floors rather than hiring a crew, you may save several hundred dollars, depending on the size of your floors.

Nothing to sneeze at. But the amount of money you save by acting as your own contractor is staggering. Figuring a 20% contractor's commission (which is not top end of the spectrum) on a $200,000 addition, you'll save $40,000 by acting as your own contractor. Kick that commission up to 30%, and you'll have pocketed $60,000. That buys a lot of hardwood and granite for that addition, or sends one of your kids off to college.

2. You Have More Control

No matter how much the contractor claims to be an instrument of your desires, you will lose some measure of control. The foundation guys will show up on the Saturday you specifically requested a "stop work day" because you're throwing a baby shower that day. Or the windows aren't quite right. Or costs have escalated and you're not quite sure why. By acting as your own contractor, you have total control--for better or worse.

3. You Get to Build Up Your List of Subs

One benefit of paying the giant commission to the contractor is that he insulates you from some of the less-pleasant aspects of home remodeling. But this also means that you're insulated from some of the trades you might need later on down the line. By acting as your own contractor, you build up a Rolodex of names and numbers of companies and individuals who can help you lay flooring, install windows, or paint after your initial project is done.

Why You Should Not

Has the DIY craze gone too far? I think so. Post 2000s, with the wave of reality DIY shows, every homeowner seems to have the idea that he can do everything.

I love to encourage homeowners to stretch themselves with remodel projects. It's highly rewarding to walk on the tile floor that you laid down yourself or enjoy the beauty of exterior paint you sprayed yourself last Summer.

Myself, I had the pleasure of turning on lights and plugging in appliances as a result of my DIY whole-kitchen wiring project. Fun though it was, it took me roughly 10 times longer than if I had paid an electrician, no joke there. So, is enough enough sometimes?

I think so. Taking on the contractor role can mean biting off more than you can chew.

1. Contractors Do More Than Make Phone Calls

Sure, it looks like all they do is schedule the subs. Even if that were true, their experience at scheduling is invaluable. But contractors have a wealth of experience that is often hard-won. Instead of taking the hard knocks yourself, you can buy into the experience for the mere cost of his commission. Which will you have?

2. Contractors May Have Valuable Connections

You go to the permit office and can't in to see anyone. The contractor goes to the permit office and doors open for him. While this does not pertain to every contractor and regulator, it is true that social connections do help. This is not to say that back-room dealing goes on; it's only to say that regulators and contractors speak the same language.

3. It's a Time-Sensitive Project

Any project, no matter how large or small, can become nerve-wracking the minute you impose a time constraint on it. For example, if you are remodeling your second kitchen located in the basement, you probably have lots of time to pick away at it. But if you're remodeling your only kitchen, you need it finished ASAP. Every day that your kitchen is out of order means another meal at Denny's. It's in your best interests to tightly schedule your remodel so that it takes as little time as possible.