Home Improvement – Should You Be Your Own General Contractor?

For those planning a home improvement project for which keeping the budget modest is a major factor, the question often arises, “Should I be my own general contractor?” Let’s take a look at the pros and cons.

First let’s look at what a general contractor is and does.

In a nutshell, a general contractor, or GC, is the person responsible for the overall, successful completion of the project. On a small home improvement project that could mean doing the actual construction work as well as managing the details such as permits and staying on budget.

For a larger project such as a room addition, a major structural remodel or building an entire house, it falls to the GC to hire, manage and pay the sub-contractors (the workers who will be building the moulds, pouring the concrete, doing the framing, etc.) as well as making sure the job gets done on budget, on time and accurately.

If you are thinking of being the general contractor for a large project, having at least an intermediate level of knowledge of the construction process, including pulling permits, local construction codes, contracts and proper insurance is very important.

Also, you need adequate time to supervise the goings on at your site. I don’t know many people with the free time away from a job to successfully manage this type of large undertaking. If you are short on knowledge and/or time, but are still thinking of acting as GC on your major home improvement project, I wish you good luck. This is not to say you can’t do it, but the headaches might not be worth the trade off.

Let’s not forget that the main reason to act as your own GC is potential cost savings. Since professional GCs generally mark up every piece of material and every sub-contractor salary, sometimes by as much as 30% or more, if you can save some of that money by acting as your own GC, by all means do it.

But if you are not familiar with the details of completing your project, those potential cost savings can turn into cost overruns in a hurry. With a smaller home improvement project, however, the stakes are not as high and so the potential benefit is there without the same degree of risk.

But even with a smaller home improvement project, there are qualities a GC should have that are important.

Unless you’ll be doing all of the demolition, sawing, nailing and finishing yourself, as GC, you’ll be hiring, managing and paying the sub-contractors. People skills, knowledge of finances and a healthy dose of common, good sense are necessary.

If you’ve never done a home improvement project similar to the one you will be taking on, a willingness to ask questions – even ones you think are just plain dumb – is vital. Also, having a “can do” problem-solving attitude is recommended. After all, you’ll be the one everyone looks to when a fix, change or solution is needed.

The main argument against being GC on your own job is a big one. If you don’t like the finished job, you have no one to point the finger at (or fix what you are unsatisfied with) but yourself.

The value of a good GC is his or her experience and ability to solve problems. While there will certainly be extra cost involved in your job by hiring a general contractor, in the end the peace of mind might be worth the expense.