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 to 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.
Using an architect can be helpful. They generally have experience working with building departments. They may have favorite subcontractor relationships and suppliers they work with. They can also help judge whether or not a project is too involved for you to take on.
Save money on contractor markup fee
Build list of contacts
Better control over project
Flexibility with project
Significant learning curve
No network of connections
Can be stressful
Time management difficult
Pros of Being Your Own General Contractor
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 go to other things that you need like vehicles, vacations, and school expenses.
Building a 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.
Being your own contractor for a major project like remodeling a kitchen or bathroom or building an ADU, room addition, or house addition cross-cuts through many different trades: plumbing, electrical, flooring, painting, and much more. After you act as your own contractor for one of those projects, you'll have a substantial and rich list of tradespeople for later projects.
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.
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.
As the old adage goes, "With great power comes great responsibility," and this holds true for acting as your own contractor. The more control you have over the project, the more you are responsible for all of the challenges that occur.
Being your own contractor means adapting the project to your own needs, schedule, and style. When you hire a contractor, you do have some flexibility. But the schedule is dominant. After all, you do want your project finished on a timely basis, and it's up to the contractor to see this through.
When you contract the work by yourself, a two-week-long small bathroom remodel can be extended to two months, six months, or a year—it's up to you. If money is tight, this type of adaptive scheduling can be valuable since it allows you to finish a sub-project when you have the money.
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
From the outside, it may look like contractors do nothing more than sit behind a phone and schedule the tradespeople. Yet even if that were true, their experience in 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.
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 experience a smoother process.
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 legitimate 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. It simply makes sense for the tradespeople to give preferential treatment to people they work with frequently—especially people, like contractors, who can bring them more business.
Contracting Is Stressful
Large home improvement projects are arduous and can place an enormous strain on families 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.
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.
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.
If you want to be your own general contractor, start small. Begin with a bathroom remodel and get a feel for organizing and scheduling the various sub-projects, as well as for working with the tradespeople.