should you GC your own renovation?
Updated: Nov 15
Today we’re a question we are asked by our clients all the time when a renovation is afoot – should I be my own General Contractor? A General Contractor, or GC, is the guy or gal in charge of the entire renovation. They are the project managers, the schedulers, the point person, managing all of the various subcontractors (a.k.a. trades) needed to take the project from start to finish.
They do a lot. Which is why they come with a hefty price tag.
Typically using a GC will add anywhere from 15-30% to the cost of the project. And while that may make you clutch your pearls, there is good reason for it. Their time managing your project and their expertise in the industry can be worth their weight in gold. But how do you know if you need one? If that’s a nice-to-have or a necessity!?
In my 16 years as a designer, I’ve seen projects run by homeowners, run by me, and by GCs. Here are some insights to help you make that determination.
PROS TO BEING YOUR OWN GC
Cost savings. The biggest, of course, is that it can save you a lot of money. Hundreds or thousands, depending on the size of your project. I should really put this in 72-point font because this is the main reason that folks will go this route. DOLLA DOLLA BILLS, Y’ALL.
Control. Another important aspect is control. If you’re your own GC, you get to set the schedule and the pace. You get to see the costs of most every item that goes into your project. You get to interview and choose the subcontractors. You get to choose whether people will be working in your house on the weekends or not.
CONS TO BEING YOUR OWN GC
Spoiler alert: this list is going to be muuuuuch longer than the Pros!
Control. Hey, wasn’t that in the Pros list? Yes it was, but it’s a double edged sword. If you’re the GC, you are the one in charge of everything. The scheduling, the rescheduling, the invoicing, the ordering, the sequencing of events. It’s all on you. Can it be done? Absolutely. Will it take a ton of time and brain power? You betcha.
Headache and hassle. This feeds into the previous point, but it's worth talking about again. Nothing in a renovation ever goes 100% to plan. Let’s say your electrician is scheduled to come on Monday, but he gets tied up and can’t come until Thursday. But your drywall guy was scheduled to come in on TUESDAY as soon as the electrical was done. Now you have to reschedule him, but he’s not available Friday. He’s available in 2 weeks. And on and on. And the person lining all of those folks up and rescheduling them? That’s you, bud. And unless you’re comfortable with the tradesmen being in your house without you there, you have to adjust your schedule to be home.
Sequencing. When our clients want to GC their own projects, this is the biggest learning curve to overcome. In what order should everything be done? How much time will each task take? Should we have buffer days between each trade? Can some of the trades do work on the same days at the same time? And there are no simple answers to these questions, because every job is unique. When you are GCing on your own, it nearly always will take longer than if a GC was running the job for you, because you won’t get all of those questions answered just right.
Doing things twice. This one gets frustrating. When we remodeled our kitchen 3 years ago, I acted as my own GC because we only needed a couple of trades. I hired a countertop installer (one that I’d worked with before) to measure, fabricate, and install our quartz countertops. On the day of install, they had some trouble getting the counters set in place and we wound up with a pretty substantial hole in our drywall. I’m fairly handy with drywall patching, but this area was going to be really visible and I knew that I’d never be able to match the texture and it would always drive me crazy. So I had to hire out my painter to patch and retexture the wall (AKA money I hadn’t planned on spending). And this will always be the case. Your flooring guy might scratch an appliance. Or your tile guy gouge your countertops. In these situations, General Contractors who often have YEARS of relationships with their trades can get these things repaired at no additional cost to you. When you are the GC and these guys know you aren’t bringing them years of work down the line, they aren’t as motivated to help you out and make it right.
It will take longer. This is mostly due to the two previous items. Because you aren’t going to be perfect in your sequencing and you’ll likely have to have some trades out twice, things will typically take longer than when you hire a GC. The GC has the pull to get trades on their jobs faster because of the relationship they’ve built over years.
Finding good trades. One of the biggest challenges overall is finding great people to do the work. Recommendations from neighbors and friends helps, but ultimately, you’re just picking someone with good references and good pricing and hoping for the best. GCs have been vetting their subcontractors for years.
Permitting. This is super important to investigate with your city before you begin. In many municipalities you can pull permits on your own under a certain price point, but over that dollar amount and a licensed GC may be required. If you’re running the job on your own, you will be responsible for calling for inspections at various points throughout the project and for making sure the corrections are made to satisfy the city inspectors. Some cities also require that any addition to your home or any structural changes may require a licensed GC.
WHEN TO BE YOUR OWN GC
If you’ve made it this far and I haven’t totally frightened you off the idea, congratulations! There are several reasons that being your own GC is a great way to go:
If you just have a couple of trades or the project is small, then you might consider it. If you just need a tile installer and wallpaper installer, for example, that’s very likely something that you can handle on your own.
If you are handy, looking to DIY many of the pieces on your own, and understand construction pretty well (or are willing to learn) then this may be totally within your wheelhouse. This project was handled by our clients. They hired out plumbers and cabinet makers and did the majority of the rest of the work on their own.
If you’re strapped for cash. I say this with more than a little hesitation because it is VERY easy to bite off more than you can chew in this situation, but if forgoing a GC is the only way you can afford to take on your project, you might be motivated to boot strap it and figure it out as you go! Goodness knows I’ve been there! Be sure to account for a healthy contingency in your budget to handle unexpected expenses (roughly 15%, which might be equal to what you would pay a GC). But think of it this way – if you don’t have to touch your contingency, that’s money saved to keep in the bank or to upgrade something at the end of the project!
I’d love to hear from you! Have you ever GC’d your own renovation and have an experience to share? Any tips for our readers out there? Please drop us a comment with your questions or experiences!