Pros and Cons of Being Your Own General Contractor

Workman measuring the length of a support beam

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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 DIYers, 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 it can be highly rewarding as you enjoy the successful results of your own labor.

But does the do-it-yourself approach extend to serving as your own general contractor, one of the most complex home remodeling tasks of all? Managing a large remodeling or building project can involve interviewing, negotiating contracts, and supervising the work of many subcontractors, so it helps to know all aspects of the job before you plunge ahead with this task.

Advantages of Being Your Own General Contractor

There are some decided advantages to cutting out the middle man—the general contractor—and managing a major remodeling or building project yourself.

You Can Save Money

The prospect of saving money on home remodeling is the chief motivator behind all DIY activity. When you take on specific do-it-yourself tasks, you can sometimes save an impressive amount of money, although in other cases the savings are more modest. For example, if install your own flooring, the savings can add up to thousands of dollars, while if you sand your own floors rather than hiring a crew, you may save only a few hundred dollars, depending on the size of your floors.

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. That money can be applied to higher-end materials on your home, additional remodels, repairs, or can even be applied to college expenses or vacations.

You Get Better Control

No matter how much the GC 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, and it's important to remember that the contractor's unstated goal is to maximize his own profits. By acting as your own contractor, you have total control over every aspect of the project, from start to finish.

You'll Establish an Important 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 on with other projects, such as installing flooring or windows, painting, hanging drywall, or landscaping. Once a homeowner has served as a GC for any major remodeling project, they rarely need to search for pros to complete similar projects in the future. And having established relationships with a group of subcontractors can lead you to additional references when you do need to search for other professionals. Your drywall contractor, for example, may well know a good housepainter.

Disadvantages 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.

You Lack the Experience

It only looks like contractors do nothing more than schedule the tradespeople. Yet even if that were true, their experience at scheduling and supervising workers would 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 housepainters is worth more than you can imagine. And 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 GC, which you will need to arrange yourself if you tackle the general contractor role yourself.

Small Jobs Are Easier

Many experts caution that homeowners should avoid serving as their own general contractor on very large jobs. 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 learn the ropes of GCing.

You Don't Have a 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 very 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 your 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 Is More Difficult

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 GC 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. The 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.

The Bottom Line

Serving as your own general contractor for a major remodeling or building project can potentially save you tens of thousands of dollars. But this savings comes with a notable cost in terms of stress, time managment, 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.