Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Thoughts on being an owner-builder

(Originally posted to LiveModern 1-18-2005)
I got up yesterday morning at 6a.m. to make the one hour drive to our lot to supervise the unloading of our steel floor and roof trusses, beams, and decking. The temperature was -18 and rose to a balmy -6 by afternoon. Standing around outside freezing my butt off prompted me to think about the pros and cons of self -general contracting one's own home.

First I have to admit that I am a control freak, so the decision that I was going to act as our General Contractor was almost a given. I also have the thirst for knowledge, and it would have killed me to know that I could have learned something and missed out by not being as involved as I could have been with our project. Now that we are nearing the halfway point in actual construction, I have some definite opinions and a better picture of whats involved with being an owner-builder that I hope others may find useful.

Skills: I'll begin with what I feel are a few indispensible skills for the self-GC. First, the ability to communicate effectively with people from a variety of different backgrounds is key. You'll talk to thousands of people while getting bids and during actual construction, and being comfortable and clear in communication is essential to getting what you want and getting things done right. On that same note, it's absolutely critical that you know as much as possible about everything that's going on and into the home at every stage. When you don't know something, you need to have the desire to find the answer or know who to go to that can give it. I think it helps a lot to be interested and curious. Third, you have to be able to go with the flow and not get freaked when things change or are vague. When we started this thing, there were way more questions than answers about the project itself and the actual process. As we progressed those questions got answered, but it was a huge effort and often very stressful to work around the gaps and not get too lost in the details. Likewise, trying to structure everything down to the last dollar and detail in advance probably has some advantages and might work well for some people, but I think it's just setting up for added stress in the long run. Fortunately this is not my style anyway, but I feel like the more flexible I can be, the better. Almost nothing has gone exactly as planned or cost exactly what we anticipated, and stressing out about it changes nothing. My motto is “accept and move on” and I'm getting better at it every day.

Time: I believe time is the biggest obstacle most people face with the decision to self-CG. It's a major commitment both before and during construction. I'm fortunate in that I can devote as much time is necessary to our project and have the ability to be flexible in terms of making last minute scheduling changes, getting on site on short notice and being there on an all-day, everyday basis. I consider it my full-time job and my first priority. Were it not for this, the process would be much more stressful and much less convenient. Having subs you trust makes a huge difference in this regard. We're fortunate that our biggest and most involved sub, our ICF contractor, is trustworthy, dependable and extremely hard working whether I'm on site or not. On that same note, it's a huge help to have subs that will work with you in addition to working for you. Even though you're the one writing their checks, I've found that a sub that understands and can be accommodating to your non-expert status and is willing to cooperate with all aspects of the project is worth a great deal more than the cheapest sub or one that just shows up, does his job and leaves. I look for people who seem interested and excited about what I'm doing and are willing to act as a partner in the project. Having to constantly babysit subs would make it a whole different project and experience. If we begin to see that side of things as we move forward I know I can make the time to deal with it but if that were not the case, I'd probably have chosen to hire a GC instead.

Costs: I've come to believe that much of the cost that one would save by choosing to act as their own GC is spent in other ways yet this is not necessarily a negative. A good, experienced GC has a pools of subs for any task from flatwork to finish carpentry, whereas I make ten or twelve calls or more just to find a sub that's interested in my job and seems competent enough to get the bid. A GC is likely to already know the sub and the quality of their work, while I have to investigate, check references or be blindly faithful that the end product will be of acceptable quality.

The professional GC is likely to get a better price and to have a higher degree of subcontractor loyalty because they're a volume employer. He or she builds homes on an ongoing basis and those subs want to be hired again and know they're likely to get repeat business which sustains their profitability. I on the other hand, am likely a one time only job.

A professional GC is in it to get paid, which from my perspective has the potential to force decisions prioritized as easiest and biggest profit=best choice rather than best solution for the situation=best choice. I'm a control freak, remember? I like to have as much information as possible and feel comfortable making decisions based on knowledge I've sought. If I was relying on a GC to provide that information I think there's a greater chance I may not hear the whole story. My experience with the construction industry thus far has revealed a huge knowledge gap when it comes to current products and methods. The technology exists but very few “professionals” are paying attention. I've learned to investigate (or exhaustively research) everything myself because 99% of the time, a contractors' “best” is really just whatever product they've got a vested interest in, are most familiar with or whatever makes them the biggest profit with the least effort. When it comes right down to it, construction tradespeople are mostly in the business of time equals money which is not always the same as the business of building the best house.

Overall Pros:

Control over who you pay and who does what

Complete control over materials and methods

Steep learning curve

You set the schedule

Immensely rewarding...I've put the plan into action, coordinated the team and gotten the house built. I'm seeing it grow from start to finish and had a hand in nearly every decision that's been made along the way (I guess this could turn out to be a negative as well).

Overall Cons:

Big time commitment: Countless hours on the phone and Internet sourcing subcontractors, materials and methods.

Steep learning curve

You set the schedule

The “it's better not to know” factor. Being one's own GC puts the many small and sometimes costly details front and center. If something goes wrong it's your fault, you'll know about it and you'll pay for it, with time, money, headaches or all of the above. A pro would presumably insulate you from this for better or worse.

Even more time: I've spent a lot of time educating and hand holding potential subs on what we're doing and how. This can be frustrating since they're the ones that are supposed to be the experts, but it also goes hand in hand with our deviating from the status quo and gives me a good idea of a subs' flexibility and cooperativeness.

I believe that if the time is there or can be found, anyone can be their own GC. At this point I'm still happy with the choice but it does require tenacity, resourcefulness and the willingness to ask a lot of potentially stupid questions without fear. I'd love to hear others' experiences and opinions on the subject.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excuse me, but are you a Virgo?

11:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

too funny, I am restoring a concrete house built by an amazing woman named Kate Gleason in the 1920's ( its actually a concrete house village with 46 tiny three story concrete homes built to resemble a village in France) I am the GC, as well as wearing a few sub hats, and as I was reading this blog all I could think was hahaha she is so right on, and I bet she is a Virgo just like me :-))

enjoyed the blog, and yes I agree completely. It is likely if you love to learn and follow modern trends that will sometimes know more than many contractors. I am 50 and have found that younger contractors with a keen interest in energy efficient building are learning new tricks, but in general, like many institutions, the trades are slow to change.

I do like to work the older guys who have stuck with one thing, like plumbing, chimneys and fireplaces, and take pride of doing great work.

Good luck on your house you have inspired me to blog on my concrete house project.

7:47 PM  
Blogger splatgirl said...

hey, thanks for your lovely comments. Sounds like you've got a really interesting project underway! Do consider a blog with lots of pictures, and be sure and get back to us with the link!


9:35 AM  
Anonymous Liz said...

I just discovered your blog and read through this post. I am really enjoying your blog and I have to say, as my husband and I GC'd the two new houses we've owned so far, + misc labor on both houses as well, it is a LOT OF TIME like you said - people should definitely know that. I think it can be easy for people to think only about the cost-savings, but as you pointed out it still costs a lot of time and energy, and stress!!...and also costs you discounts a builder might've just handed you. You really have to hunt down your own deals, people, resources, information, etc.
Anyway thanks for the great blog. I love your style of house and wish I had the balls to build one like it! Someday!

12:45 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home