Being Your Own General Contractor

By Matt Cantor
Friday January 11, 2008

A woman I’ve been working with is toying with the notion of being her own general contractor on a rather large remodel she doing here in the Berkeley Hills. I have to admit that when she first told me this, I blanched a bit. I know what it means to do this job and it’s so much more than most people think that it was hard not to start shaking my finger at her right there and then.  

But for every rule there is an exception and a very few novices do have what it takes to become the job boss. A general contractor is an interesting animal. Part carpenter, part job superintendent, part boss, part H.R. manager and part salesperson, just for starts. It’s a surprisingly tough job and also a job that varies quite a bit as we move up from single-person crews to crews of five, 10 and 20. By the time you’re a contractor overseeing more than five people, it’s likely you will never pick up a hammer once on a job (unless it’s to show off for the client). There just isn’t the time. 

If you’re lucky enough to have a sales force and a job estimator (this assumes a crew of at least 12), you’re now officially a C.E.O. At this point, it’s all about managing a group of people and showing them what to do. If you’re lucky enough to have one or more good job supervisors running the jobs, you’re doing even less of that. But this is not true for about 90 percent of the contractors in the U.S. Most contractors manage crews of 5 or less and have to wear all the hats. It’s a daunting job. 

A good general knows at least a little about what every other specialist does, and has to keep each of them doing their job properly. Often, the cost of each specialty, such as electrical wiring, falls inside the overall bid and must be estimated in advance and controlled throughout the job. Everyone’s problem becomes the G.C.’s problem because it affects his or her bottom line and their ability to complete the job within the agreed upon time constraints. This makes the G.C. a whip, forcing reluctant sub-contractors to fulfill their obligations even when it involves some harsh exchanges.  

I was trying to imagine my client pushing the plumber to finish the work on time and under budget, and I was having trouble getting the right image. Not that she couldn’t be tough if she needed to be, but one also has to have the authority that comes with experience. It takes a while to know how each trade is expected to perform and what kinds of demands one can make. 

An electrician, for example, should know how much of the wood can be cut away to install wires through a wall stud and how to protect the wood surface if the wires are too close to the surface. An experienced G.C. can demand, with impunity, that the electrician come back and fix these things because they know how the sub should be doing their job.  

A homeowner is far less likely to know where all the edges lie. A G.C. who knows what “rough finish” for waste lines looks like can also know when NOT to issue a progress payment. When the plumber asks for money, an experienceD contractor, familiar with the protocols and the contract can respond by walking around the site and pointing out what’s required for the next payment to be released. If they know what they’re talking about, it’s rarely an argument. If they’re not sure and enough sob stories are on tap that day, a check may be issued prematurely. 

One of many areas of expertise for the contractor is knowing how to shop. Even if the plans are fairly specific, each component in a construction project needs to fit and has to be carefully measured, recorded, listed and bought. Even the best contractors can spend half their day shopping for various parts, tools and whatnot during many days of a complex remodel. It’s often a surprise (as well as a source of disbelief) to the homeowner that the contractor is spending that much time shopping. 

Managing your own crew is also quite a job. It’s rare for a G.C. to sub everything, although, in theory, it can be done. The problem is that there is so much interstitial makeup to every job that it simply doesn’t make sense to shop it out. Plumbing, electrical and heating are often subbed out along with tile and drywall, but carpentry and the many less-tangible items are usually left to the contractor and her crew. That’s an awful lot to know, as well as a lot of learning on the fly. 

With so many materials and construction styles changing today, it’s amazing that G.C.s don’t regularly screw up. Well, wait … Actually, they do, don’t they. Even great G.C.s make all sorts of mistakes but the good ones catch their mistakes and move through them gracefully and absorb the inevitable losses into their contingency payments (most generals include healthy contingency fees in their budgets proving that that one also has to be a fair accountant to do this job). 

A novice usually becomes flustered with the inevitable errors and gets bogged down rather than learning, fixing and moving on from each one. As with many jobs, experience is at the core of the skill set. This is a job one cannot be taught at school, although I’m sure one can learn many of the component skills there. 

Good quality help is often expensive. Oh well, life’s not fair … but trying to circumvent the cost of doing it well is often terribly expensive in ways that don’t become apparent until you’re hip deep in quicksand. Also, getting a good G.C. to step in once things are bad (over budget, late, screwed up) may be very difficult. Many will simply look at your debacle and say to themselves “Do I want to start out working for someone under these conditions when things can always get worse as we move along.” If they do say yes, it may be at high cost and with more rigorous conditions designed to protect themselves. 

Contracting, like juggling (actually a lot like juggling), looks easy before you try it. In fact, it takes years to become good, and that’s assuming you have the acumen and comportment for this particular vocation. So repeat after me; I will not perform a bone-marrow transplant on myself, I will not land the plane myself, I will not be my own contractor on a $250,000 rehab. Thank you, I feel much better.