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3 Essential Tips for Being Your Own Contractor

Thinking about acting as the general contractor for your own timber frame-building project? Here's what you need to know.

  Photo by Life Of Pix / Pexels


There are a few things to consider before you dive in. Whether you want to have more control over the building process, are chasing a profound sense of accomplishment or just want to save a few bucks, the temptation to serve as the general contractor for your custom-home project can be pretty powerful. But it’s not a decision you should make without investing plenty of thought first.

We asked Dan Ramsey, a California-based contractor and author of several books about home building, including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Building Your Own Home, for his best advice for first-time would-be contractors. Before you pick up a tool belt, check out his tips:

1. Realize there’s no one-size-fits-all approach

“A general contractor is really just a manager,” Dan says, “so you can participate in the project in a number of different ways.” For those with little to no previous construction experience, he recommends sticking to paperwork and scheduling of subcontractors. Those who feel a little more comfortable with the nuts and bolts of construction, however, might want to take a more hands-on approach. “People who have experience with plumbing or electrical work might become a subcontractor to a general contractor and save some money that way,” Dan suggests. If you’re worried about the time commitment, only take on as much work as you can complete easily in the evenings and on weekends. “The idea is to spend less time than it will take to make you lose your job,” he says with a laugh.

2. Do a trial run

You wouldn’t buy a car without taking it for a test drive first, right? Nor should you make a major decision like this before getting your feet a bit wet. While you can’t exactly build a test-run house, there are several ways to determine your interest in and aptitude for contracting work, according to Dan. Perhaps the best way is to tackle a remodeling project on your current home, but you also can get a feel for the process by reading books or taking a construction-oriented class at a local community college. If, after you’ve done your homework, you’ve still got the contracting bug but are feeling skeptical about your ability to manage the project on your own, don’t hesitate to call in a construction consultant. “A consultant will spend maybe one afternoon a week with you, helping to prepare you for the next week’s work,” Dan says. “It still saves money over a full-time general contractor because you’re doing most of the work yourself.” 

3. Beware of potential pitfalls

Contractors who have been around the block a few times are well versed in common headaches on construction projects and can circumvent them. You can minimize the learning curve by schooling yourself on possible trouble spots ahead of time. Scheduling and payments are often points of contention, says Dan, so make sure you have delivery dates for materials timed properly, and that all of your subcontractors know when to be there. (A phone call a few days before should do the trick.) Making some friends at your local building department also is a smart move: “They hold the keys to your house, so it’s a good idea to meet them and find out what their requirements are early on,” says Dan. Finally, resist the urge to make tweaks to your design after work is underway. “If you’ve never done this before, it’s easy to start making changes here and there,” says Dan, “without realizing that each time there’s a change order, it’s going to cost more and take longer.”

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