Pros and Cons of Being Your Own General Contractor

Workman measuring the length of a support beam

 Ron Levine / Getty Images

A do-it-yourself approach is a great way to tackle many home remodeling projects. Thanks to good information and the availability of new building materials that are friendly to do-it-yourselfers, homeowners today can successfully take on many heavy, complex projects formerly reserved only for contractors and specialists, including floor installation, wall removal, and window replacement. Do-it-yourself remodeling not only saves you money but can be highly rewarding as you enjoy the successful results of your own labor.

How far does the do-it-yourself approach extend large-scale jobs like acting as your own general contractor? Though it's more about managing people than it is about wielding a hammer or saw, it can be one of the most complex and grueling home remodeling tasks of all.

Pros
  • Save money on the contractor markup fee

  • Build list of contacts

  • Better control over project

Cons
  • Significant learning curve

  • No network of connections

  • Can be stressful

  • Time management difficult

Pros of Being Your Own General Contractor

Saving Money

Along with the fun of taking on new challenges, the prospect of saving money on home remodeling is one of the main factors behind much do-it-yourself activity.

When you take on specific do-it-yourself tasks, you can sometimes save a moderate amount of money.

But the amount of money you can save by acting as your own general contractor can be nothing short of staggering. Figuring a typical 20-percent contractor's commission for a major room addition costing $200,000, you can save $40,000 by acting as your own contractor.

The money that you save can be applied to higher-end materials on your home, additional remodels, repairs, or can even to other things that you need like vehicles, vacations, and school expenses.

Better Control

No matter how much the general contractor intends or promises to execute your wishes, you will always lose some degree of control when you hire a general contractor.

Even in the best contractor-client relationship, some communication is always lost in translation. By acting as your own contractor, you have total control over every aspect of the project, from start to finish.

Is It Legal?

"Owner-builder" is a designation in many areas in which the homeowner becomes the general contractor on their own property. This owner-builder must take care of all matters that a general contractor ordinarily would: state and federal taxes, workers compensation, and other legal liabilities.

Establishing Contact List

By acting as your own contractor, you will be building up a contact list of names and contact information of companies and individuals who can help you later with other projects, such as installing flooring or windows, painting, hanging drywall, or landscaping.

Once a homeowner has acted as a general contractor for any major remodeling project, they rarely need to search for pros to complete similar projects in the future. Having established relationships with a group of subcontractors can lead you to even more references when you do need to search for other professionals. Your drywall contractor might know of a trusted house painter, for example.

Cons of Being Your Own Contractor

There are also some very notable difficulties in taking on the duties of general contractor for a major project. The problems can be serious enough that some homeowners vow never again to tackle such work by themselves after trying to manage it all without a contractor.

Significant Learning Curve

It looks like contractors do nothing more than schedule the tradespeople. Yet even if that were true, their experience at scheduling and supervising workers would still be invaluable. Contractors have a wealth of experience that is often hard-won. Instead of starting from scratch, you can buy into years or decades of experience for the cost of the contractor's commission.

A general contractor who has an extensive contact list of masonry pros, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, HVAC contractors, landscapers, and house painters is worth more than you can imagine.

Professional relationships being what they are, you may find it much harder (and sometimes more expensive) to hire the same subcontractors who readily work for established general contractors.

The general contractor may also have sources for economical building materials and appliances that aren't available to you. Disposal of demolition materials is also typically handled by the general contractor, which you will need to arrange yourself if you tackle the general contractor role yourself.

Try Starting With Small Projects

Starting as an amateur general-contractor at the same time as you start a giant project is setting yourself up for failure. A major room addition that will require excavation, foundation work, framing, siding and roofing, wiring and plumbing, HVAC work, and finish carpentry is nearly as complicated as building an entire house, and few homeowners are really up to the task of managing the entire job. By contrast, remodeling a bathroom is a much better project for homeowners to gain experience at contracting out work.

No Network of Connections

With experience comes professional connections. Seasoned contractors operate in a social and professional network from which you are excluded. An experienced, well-regarded general contractor can often speed processes that can stymie ordinary homeowners.

If you go to the permit office as a homeowner, for example, you may find that no one wants to help you immediately, or that your plans are scrutinized intently. An established contractor visiting the same office may find the office doors flung open instantly. Building officials and contractors speak the same language, they might see each other several times a month, and many have established friendly relationships. With a history of goodwill, a general contractor may enjoy concessions and perks from the building inspection office that homeowners don't receive.

Good subcontractors also tend to give preference to general contractors with whom they have established relationships. You may find that the electricians or plumbers willing to bid on your self-managed job are second-tier pros who aren't trusted by the established general contractors.

Contracting Is Stressful

Large home improvement projects are arduous and can place an enormous strain on family and relationships. One benefit of paying the commission to the general contractor is that you are insulated from some of the most unpleasant aspects of home remodeling. Families and couples tend to be happier when they can gain some separation from protracted jobs, such as building a room addition.

Another source of added stress is the challenge of managing all the individual subcontractors yourself. It is no easy feat to confront a building-trade professional with quality concerns or scheduling arguments, and one advantage of working with a GC is that they will handle any necessary confrontations with all the subcontractors.

Time Management

Any project, no matter how large or small, can become nerve-wracking the minute you impose a time constraint on it. If you are remodeling a second kitchen located in the basement or a guest bedroom, you may have lots of time to slowly pick away at the work. But if you are remodeling your only kitchen, time is of the essence—the project must be done as fast as possible. Every day that your kitchen is out of order means another restaurant meal or frozen dinner prepared in the microwave.

Similarly, remodeling the only bathroom in your home means you'll need to complete the work very quickly, which can be hard when you are performing the general contractor duties yourself. It is not uncommon for a major project that can be completed by a good general contractor in only a few weeks to extend into many months when a homeowner tries to manage the project.

It is in your best interest to tightly schedule your remodel so that it takes as little time as possible, but a general contractor is even more motivated to get the job done quickly. More time spent on your job means less time spent on other money-making projects. Contractors need to keep their job queue moving not only to make money for themselves but also to pay their subcontractors.

When Should You be Your Own General Contractor?

Serving as your own general contractor for a major remodeling or building project can potentially save you tens of thousands of dollars. But these savings come with a notable cost in terms of stress, time management, and perhaps even the quality of the work. Don't undertake this role unless you are confident in your abilities and have carefully weighed the pros and cons.

Acting as your own contractor can work if you have enough time to devote yourself to learning how the job is done. Also, the project itself cannot be on a tight timetable.