Being your own general Contractor Building House
One couple who hired Conley Construction Co. a few years ago to remodel their Colorado home simply gave contractor Tim Conley the keys.
“We’re going to Cabo, ” they said to Conley. “Call us when you’re finished.”
Sybille Hechtel, on the other hand, has remodeled or built seven homes, including her current house in South Boulder and an Earthship in Silverthorne. She learned from each remodel, did a lot of the work herself and contracted out the rest.
These are the extremes of how homeowners go about remodeling. On one end is the hands-on “Hechtel style.” On the other end is the couple who wanted only the finished product.
In this economy, remodeling projects are no longer an all-or-nothing choice between full involvement and a laissez- faire approach. Some homeowners act as their own general contractors but don’t actually do any work; others hire a general contractor but remain involved in the process. These days general contractors, whose job it is to organize and oversee an entire project, including the work of subcontractors in specialty trades, tend to be flexible.
Of course, the more that homeowners are willing and able to do, the greater their savings. Even without lifting a nail gun or paintbrush, homeowners who hire their own subcontractors save roughly 15 to 20 percent over those who enlist a general contractor, according to construction-industry sources.
But it’s a trade-off, and the more the homeowner takes on, the more time and knowledge are required. Acting as one’s own general contractor can be daunting.
It can sometimes also be false economy, cautions Roger Reinhardt, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Denver. “There are things that can offset savings, ” he says. For instance, “homeowners who finance their remodels must carry the cost of a loan during construction.”
Because of ongoing relationships with subcontractors, general contractors can set and keep to tighter schedules than most people. And if a “free-wheeling subcontractor walks off the job, ” Reinhardt notes, general contractors have others they can call in to finish.
Another upside to using a general contractor: They assume a level of risk. They will carry adequate insurance and also warranty that the work has been done correctly and stands the test of time.
Robert Palecki owns Home Remodel & Design in Littleton. He points out that it’s his job to keep up with code changes, especially involving popular kitchen makeovers with behind-the-walls plumbing and electrical systems.
He is licensed in 17 jurisdictions and says every one is different. “There’s a thick book of federal requirements, and every city or county has its own code book that is frequently amended and updated, ” Palecki says.
The 40-year industry veteran describes one common scenario common that can be frustrating for homeowners: An inspector will show up, without warning, say the code has changed and for that reason, so must the remodeling plans.
Experts say homeowners tend to enjoy the fun stuff — picking out cabinets, appliances, plumbing fixtures, tile, flooring and paint. But most don’t enjoy researching building codes, deciphering blueprints or haggling with inspectors or subcontractors. A general contractor takes those challenges out of the homeowners’ hands.
Randy and Carol Philp knew they wanted to be heavily involved in building their Coal Creek Canyon home when they met Bob Hinz and Mary Knowles of HomeWrights at the Colorado Garden and Home Show. The contractor-client relationship worked out so well that they’ve become friends — and that’s rare.
“HomeWrights screens the contractors, so we didn’t worry about being taken. We got two or three bids for everything and picked the ones we preferred. We were in control of the process but didn’t worry about getting taken, ” Randy Philp says.
Mike Ebeling of Lyons, now a literary agent, was a contractor for five years. “A general contractor has relations with the subs, ” he says. “They’ll get people to the door faster when something has to be done.”
Tom Conley, whose company can handle everything or just act as a consultant, lets clients have all the input they want. “I encourage them to be involved, ” he says. “A lot of people have a friend who’s an electrician (or other tradesman). I’ll pull the permits, and if my customers want, they can do everything themselves.”
But he’s also available to troubleshoot and pick up the pieces when a do-it-yourself job goes wrong.
Tammy Leakas is a Boulder County architect and planner. She sees advantages and disadvantages to hiring a general contractor.
On the one hand, “People don’t always get what they want. Contractors often try to change a design to what’s easy, quick and cheap.”
She adds that to be one’s own contractor, the homeowner needs to be a good scheduler, a good coordinator, a good time manager and “strong enough to insist on getting your own way” without unreasonable add-ons on the back end.
Strident do-it-yourselfer Sybille Hechtel has learned to wear all of those hats, citing earning a Ph.D. as good preparation. “I learned how to make a list of everything that needed to be done and then stick to it, ” she says.
Her friends know her to be unusually diligent, organized, meticulous and disciplined.
For homeowners who are looking at nothing except price (because doing a remodel without a general contractor is likely to be cheaper) Palecki of Home Remodel & Design likes this slogan: “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of a low price is forgotten.”
And that, at the end of the day, is an important consideration for homeowners embarking on a remodel.
Make a list of what needs to be renovated and which optional improvements you want.
Set a budget but plan for the unexpected. The older the home, the more surprises you might find.
Set a timetable but be prepared to be flexible — just in case.
Consult with an architect or designer for ideas or total plans.
Consider how your furniture, artwork and entertainment system will fit into the renovated or added rooms.
Be realistic about your limitations and knowledge. Adding an extension or an entire story, or gutting and reconstructing a kitchen from the floor joists up, is a complex project that might be best handled by a general contractor, while changing paint colors, replacing flooring, installing new countertops, adding wood trim or other cosmetic upgrades can be handled by almost anyone.
Consider the adage: “Remodel where the water is.” If your main objective is to increase your home’s value, conventional wisdom is that kitchen and bathroom remodels bring the greatest return on investment. But they are also the most disruptive to everyday life.
Go to the Home Builders Association of Denver website (hbadenver.com) and click on “Consumer Resources” for basic information and also a list of member builders and remodelers.
Being the contractor
Know what’s involved. The Renovation 101 website has a checklist of issues to consider.
Keep extensive records of every component of the project from bids to bills.
Be conscientious about checking out subcontractors with your local Better Business Bureau.
Make sure that every subcontractor is properly insured, including carrying liability and workman’s compensation insurance.