Going hands-on? Read this first

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These days, it seems everyone’s got a case of the budget blues. From government deficits and corporate downsizing to neighborhood kids packing up the lemonade stand because of slow sales, there’s hardly an enterprise that isn’t reeling from slow cash flow.

Not surprisingly, turbulent economic times also tend to sideline home renovation projects, at least for the short term. But if you have the savings or financing available for your remodeling adventure, the timing for some improvements couldn’t be better. Why? Well, for starters, materials and labor costs are down and many contractors are bidding competitively with discounts they’d never consider when there’s plenty of work to be had. If you want to stretch your home improvement dollars even further, you might want to try a part-time gig as your very own construction manager.

Author Victoria Likes did just that for a major renovation on her Seattle home and lived to tell about it. She recounts the experience, and packages the lessons learned, in her book, Manage Your Remodel (Creative Homeowner Press, $16.95) With the subtitle “… and save money!” the book’s purpose is clear. Likes claims that a savings of 20 to 30 percent is typical for those who take on the role of homeowner/general contractor, or HGC. Her own extensive remodeling project involved re-mapping the main floor layout, adding an upstairs level, converting an unused basement into a self-contained apartment and building a garage. With a budget that easily climbed into six figures, the savings she realized were substantial.

That said, hers was not an adventure for the faint of heart. In an admirably candid gesture, she titles the first chapter “What Are You Getting Into?” suggesting that traveling this road will likely involve its share of potholes and unforeseen detours. This hands-on approach can yield great benefits, financial and otherwise, but she cautions against underestimating the complexity of the work.

Good general contractors certainly earn their fees, but Likes insists that their key role of organizing, directing, scheduling and paying for the services of subcontractors is something that savvy homeowners can manage under the right circumstances. Managing costs begins with purchasing one’s own materials whenever possible and paying mostly for design expertise, occasional consulting and labor charges. And unlike a practicing general contractor, you have to recruit every participant from scratch.

Woven into the book’s format are short segments called “Learning Curves,” terse lessons to take with you through the process of acting as HGC. The first addresses the issue of evaluating subcontractors the folks with specialized skills who will do most of the actual work involved. 

Horror stories about bad ones are plentiful, but aside from the usual advice about how to do background research and check references, Likes offers four key warning signs for sizing up these trades people. There are more useful details later about contract specifics, but just this nugget of wisdom will likely help you weed out the most problematic contractors.

Likes’ first chapter is the gauntlet that will weed out the half-hearted. If you decide you’re still willing to take a bigger leap, the subsequent chapters spell out the process in much greater detail. Here are the key phases:

Defining the project

Think of this as a mission statement for your renovation. Is your home (and neighborhood) a good candidate for more investment? What key issues are you targeting more space, storage, convenience, lifestyle options? Develop wish lists for everything, then prepare to see them scaled back some during planning.

Construction Drawings

Start with some loose sketches to explore options. Then let your architect or designer interpret your priorities and put specifics down on paper. Later you’ll need detailed drawings for your site plan, floor plan, wall elevations and more, but start with the general first. Pay for engineering services when needed.

Assembling your team

Create labor and materials lists for every major aspect of the project, then start evaluating subcontractors. Favor specialists when you can and always do routine checks on their insurance, licensing and references.

Preparing for construction 

Plan for disruptions in living arrangements and sort out logistical issues such as materials storage and debris removal. Get bids, permits and contracts finalized, order materials, then round up your architect and subs for a meeting to clarify everyone’s roles and review the master schedule. If demolition is involved, make sure the house will be protected from the elements until it’s weathertight again.

A building overview 

Yikes, it’s really happening! Keep your wits and focus on managing the process. Note changes in writing on plans and contracts, be on site frequently to deal with questions and surprises and keep the checkbook handy for material deliveries and to cover interim payments to contractors as work progresses.

Managing general construction

Some technical knowledge of construction is essential here and Likes covers the basics from excavation work and rough framing to siding and exterior trim. Code issues are front and center here. There’s a lot to know.

Managing finish work

Once the walls and roof are closed in, the drywall goes up to make way for paint, trim, tile, countertops, cabinetry and other built-ins. Progress seems slower at this stage because the work is detailed and time-consuming. Keep change orders to an absolute minimum now. When things are wrapping up, create a “punch list” of all the small odds and ends that need attention and get them addressed before final payment goes out to your subcontractors.

Once past the introductory chapter, it takes Likes 160 pages to provide a comprehensive look at this process. That’s a good indicator of how much time, effort and detailed knowledge goes into managing an extensive renovation. No sane person should try to balance this gig with a demanding full-time job or other big commitments, but if your circumstances allow it, you might just have a great adventure and pocket some serious savings. 

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