3 Mega-Important Tips for Being Your Own Contractor

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABeing your own contractor sounds easy enough—right? At least that’s what many homeowners often think before they find out that they’ve gotten in way over their heads. Failing schedules, rotten subcontractors and grumpy building inspectors are just a few of the things that can make a seemingly good thing turn nightmarishly bad. But don’t let that scare you away from being your own contractor. It’s not as tough as it sounds and with the right advice—who knows? You might actually like being your own contractor.

Breaking Bad

Courtesy of Project management guru.com
Photo – Project Management Guru.com

You don’t need to be a high school chemistry teacher who deals crystal meth to break bad. As a contractor, the first step for you is to break the job down into specific phases. It’s called CPM a.k.a. the critical path method. Basically, you break the job down into small phases, each with its own schedule and budget.

I always start out with a basic template I call a cost breakdown list. It defines the projects specifications into two separate categories: materials and labor. Once I have these basic parameters set, I can then tell how long each phase of the job is going to take and create a CPM of the job.

For instance, if I have eight arch windows going in a house, I know that each arch is going to take one hour of labor to complete. That’s an eight hour day gone just in framing arch windows. I can also compute how much labor and material is going to go into the arches, so I can define the total cost of the arches in my budget.

Contractor DIY Tip #1:
Create a cost breakdown list, a schedule and a well-defined budget before breaking bad (or ground) on your building project.

To Sub or Not to Sub: That’s a Good Question

Subcontractors, not sub sandwiches, are what make any building project come to life. Although a good sub sandwich never hurt jobsite moral. From plumbers to framers to trim carpenters to electricians to—you get the point, there are a million trades that do a million different things in the building industry. So choosing your own subcontractors can be tough, especially if you don’t know any subcontractors on a first name basis.

Subcontractors cost more than Sub Sandwiches
Subcontractors cost more than Sub Sandwiches

If you have to flip through the phonebook to find subcontractors, you’re going to have your work cut out for you. You’ll need to do plenty of research on each subcontractor before you even ask for a bid. It’s a lot like detective work and you’re on the case to dig up any dirt on your subcontractors, just like a private eye checking on a cheating husband, minus all of the drama. A service like Angie’s List can also help tremendously during the research/CYA phase.

Besides checking to see if licensing and insurance is up to date, always be sure to get a few references from a subcontractor’s past customers. It’s always nice to have subcontractors who have a long list of happy customers. Portfolios are nice to have, but don’t always denote a true character. Without at least three contactable references, you might as well be hiring a stranger off of the street. Talking to a past customer can tell you whether or not they did a good job, and even if they were courteous, polite and well-mannered.

Contractor DIY Tip #2:
Check your subcontractors licensing and insurance with a quick call to your local building department and follow up references with a phone call, email or visit in person.

Red Tape Machete

Courtesy of Costa Consulting Bureu.com
Photo – Costa Consulting Bureu.com

Once you’ve got the budget set, blueprints and your subcontractors all ready to go, there’s only one more major hurdle left before you can break ground: the government. This is the part where most homeowners throw their paperwork up in the air and run away screaming. It’s called red tape and if you don’t have a machete to hack your way through it, then you might want to stop reading this article now and call a general contractor.

Getting a building permit is designed to be hard. They don’t want any Joe Blow off of the street building rickety structures all over town. Being a homeowner trying to get your own building permit is a lot like getting your teeth worked on in San Quentin, minus the anesthesia – it’s going to be excruciatingly painful and is probably some of the hardest time you’ll ever do in your life (excluding the DMV) Knowing that ahead of time can help ease the pain.

Many building departments limit the amount of work a homeowner can actually do on their own job as well. You’ll end up getting the lecture of your life from building official after building official when you get your permit. But don’t take their advice for granted, you’ll need every bit of help you can get from these guys because when the building inspector comes to your job for an inspection, they’re not going to take it easy on you. Your building project is going to get picked apart like a turkey on Thanksgiving Day.

Contractor DIY Tip #3:
You may want to consider hiring an outside source to pull permits for you. It can save you a big hassle in the long run to have a professional handle the harrowing paperwork challenge that comes with the permitting process.

Photo of author

About Eric

Since Eric built his first skateboard ramp in his parents driveway; he’s breathed, slept and eaten DIY construction. As a second generation master carpenter who runs two Florida-based construction firms, Eric’s had the chance to work on everything from Mcmansions to your local mall to the cat lady’s bathroom. So when it comes to dealing with construction s@#t; he’s the man—literally. There isn’t a tool or construction material that Eric hasn’t used and abused, and if there is; it’s rocking in a dark corner nervously waiting for him to show up for work.

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3 thoughts on “3 Mega-Important Tips for Being Your Own Contractor”

  1. Grate tips. IMHO Having first a detailed and accurate set of plans is the way to go. From the plans you can budget and make schedules. it also helps visualize your CPM and the building process…do your self a favor and take a class at the community college on blueprint reading and estimating, just my 0.02

  2. It never hurts to hire an architect either! They can help out with those pesky little things like permits too. Some Building departments will accept that chicken scratch plan on the back of your KFC napkin (in fact some still include a piece of graph paper with the permit app to draw your site plan on!) but a lot more are requiring at least hard-lined drawings, if not actual stamped drawings. Many architects, for the right fee (or hourly as you need them), can help with reviewing bids and ongoing construction administration (aka, questions and issues that arise during the build out).


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