How To - General Contractor

Dear James: My husband and I talked to contractors about building our dream home, but the prices are too high. We would like to act as our own general contractors to cut the costs. What do you think of this idea? — Jennifer F.

Dear Jennifer: Acting as your own general contractor can certainly save some money, but it can also lead to many headaches. You and your husband may end up spending more on Excedrin than you actually save on construction costs.

Typically, the contractor or builder will mark up the cost of building a house by about 15 percent. If your budget limit is only about 10 percent under the cost that the contractors are quoting, then it might be worth considering being your own general contractor.

A reputable general contractor usually has a good long-standing work relationship with the subcontractors, the ones who actually do the work. The general takes care of them, and the subcontractors make an extra effort to do a good job on schedule.

If you are your own general contractor, the subcontractors will not have the same allegiance, so you can plan on running behind schedule a little. This can eat up at least 5 percent of the savings, thus the 10 percent savings mentioned above.

You or your husband should plan on visiting the building site every day for at least a couple of hours. This is important for you to inspect the construction as well as to keep the subcontractors working diligently.

The first item on your agenda is to learn as much as possible about the construction basics of a house. Once you have your preliminary house plans developed, you will know what specific materials, designs and subcontractor types you will need.

Armed with this knowledge, contact the national trade associations that relate to the materials and building procedures that you will require. These associations typically have many consumer and professional literature pieces that will be very helpful in quickly bringing you up to speed.

It would be wise for you to have a lawyer write up a contract with the builder and subcontractors that you are using. The lawyer’s fees may be over $300, depending on the complexity of your house plans, but, in the long run, it will be money well spent.

If the lawyer has experience in this area, he or she will also check to make sure that your plans include adequate blueprints with detailed written specifications for EVERY material and any unique construction methods.

Your building contract should probably include a phrase to the effect that “There will be no deviations or modifications to the plans, materials or procedures unless authorized in writing by you and your husband.”

There are some basic design and construction items that you should consider no matter what house plan you have. The foundation of a house is its base, and the corners must be square or you will have nothing but problems.

It is wise to have the top edge of the foundation about 20 inches above the ground level. When the house is completed, this will allow vertical height to slope the ground down away from the foundation. Build up the ground at the foundation so that it can be sloped out about a distance of 10 feet. Specify tin or copper roof flashings to minimize future leaks.