Four years ago, Fred Samuels, a retired New York City designer, and his wife Nanita decided to build a new home in Tennessee. Rather than hire a general contractor, however, Samuels managed the job. He interviewed structural carpenters, drew up contracts with plumbers and drywall companies, and took building inspectors through the property.
"It can get very involved," he says, "but I saved a lot of money."
How much is a lot? Samuels says he was able to save nearly a quarter of the finished product's price tag.
In these days of slim savings accounts, people like Samuels are not alone. According to Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies, 42 percent of all home improvement projects in 2002 had a do-it-yourself component, and as many as half of all major kitchen remodels, bath remodels and room additions include "significant do-it-yourself activity." This is more than simple showerhead and tile installation; numbers from 2001 indicate that, out of 24.6 million Americans aged 35 to 54 who renovated or remodeled their home in 2001, 11.6 served as their own general contractor.
"The average remodel project has 12 to 15 subcontractors," says Bill Asdal, a contractor with Asdal Builders, LLC in Chester, N.J. "It is extremely time-consuming to pull together a team and coordinate timing and clean up on a project. This is not something you would want to take upon yourself, unless you really know the business."
Having walls ripped down and bathrooms upended is stressful enough, he adds, without the responsibility of the project's fate on your shoulders.
Many also argue that the money saved by contracting your own home remodeling project is negligible, especially considering the time required for such an endeavor.
"Projects by do-it-yourself contractors will end up taking longer and cost more in the long run, because you're hiring one guy at a time; there's not that team (of subcontractors) devoted to a particular contractor that they've worked with before," says Mark Brick, president of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI). "That's not to discourage anyone from looking into doing it themselves, but the question is, how much is your time worth?"
Then there's the emotional cost. "The stress of remodeling can hurt the self-contractor's relationship with their family," Brick says.
Asdal puts it more bluntly: "Remodeling is the second most stressful endeavor next to divorce."
Yet there is value in having a hand in the creative process.
For those willing to jump over the remodeling threshold in the name of a better living space but not quite ready to enter the fray headfirst, consider that self-contracting has become enough of a trend to warrant the creation of a new profession: managers for novice do-it-yourself contractors.
For a flat fee, Terry Hamm of Home Improvement by Owners in Falls Church, Va., will help you choose the right subcontractors, draw up contracts and schedule the choreography of electricians, carpenters and inspectors that flow in and out of your home during the remodeling process.
For those considering a move into the realm of do-it-yourself contracting, with or without a manager, NARI has a checklist to help homeowners decide if they can handle the job themselves (see sidebar).
The top things are vision, money and time. The project should be viewed realistically. Renovating, Hamm warns, is an "ugly reality _ mistakes happen, contractors don't always show up. You have to really know the potential pitfalls and problems that you may run into."
Samuels advises a do-it-yourself contractor to go into the project with a clear vision: "You have to ask yourself, 'What is the project's purpose? What do I want to achieve here? What is it that I'm dissatisfied with?'"
Once these parameters are established, outline exactly what you want, from the quality of door handles to the type of windows or floor tiles.
"A window is not a window," warns Samuels. "If you don't know the subcontractor, he may try to cut his materials cost and make his profit margin that much bigger. To get the quality you want, your product choices have to be clearly delineated."
Another thing to watch out for: Details, details, details.
"If you act as your own contractor, you have to be mindful of disruption because a lot of subcontractors believe that the cleanup is the responsibility of the general contractor," says Al Sain, an experienced DIY homebuilder and renovator from Butler, Pa. Always draw up a specific contract, including a timeline, with every subcontractor; never pay for work in advance and don't always go with the lowest bidder.
"When it's over, enjoy it," advises Samuels. "You'll know every nook and cranny of the project, and you should be proud of it."