It sounds so simple, doesn't it? You just hire all the subs yourself, and save the general contractor's fee. Although some homeowners do this successfully, many more run into serious problems. I know this because as general contractors, we have all been called in to take over owner-built jobs that have gone terribly wrong.
Building a house is a complicated and time-consuming project. Even experienced builders with the professional knowledge needed to keep a project going fail each year. That's how complicated it can be to run a project smoothly and efficiently.
Let me just give you a short list of what you're paying for when you hire a general contractor:
Building Process Knowledge - You've got to know what needs to be done, and when. It's very easy to have costs go out of control because you miss things that require completed work to be removed for access to something that should have been done earlier.
Building Trade Knowledge - Good contractors will supervise all of the subs, and are constantly checking the quality of every sub's work.
Knowledge of Building Codes - Will you be able to look at a sub's work and know if it will pass inspection? A good GC will, and you won't have to pay a re-inspection fee or put up with the resulting delays. GC's will also know the specific ins and outs of local variations in codes and construction requirements.
Knowledge of Construction Scheduling - Your GC is the one who stays on top of the schedule and makes sure everything gets done when it needs to be done. GC's spend a lot of time on the phone making sure that they are still included on each sub's schedule. Remember that you can easily have 30 to 40 different subs involved in the construction of even a basic house, every one of whom must show up on time to keep the others happy. If one sub misses his appointed schedule, a cascade effect can negatively impact the whole project.
Builder's Relationships - If you think that suppliers and subs are more responsive to GC's they have worked with previously and with whom they hope to work in the future, you're exactly right. Many of the best subs are very selective about which jobs they will consider. Subs take into account the level of construction knowledge of the person they'll be working with, the chances that they'll be able to complete their work without interruption, and the client's (or the contractor's) payment history.
Capital - Any good general contractor will have enough cash on hand to keep your project moving even when subs threaten to pull off of your job unless they get paid, often up front for shop-produced items.
Contracting Knowledge - What constitutes a valid change order? Will you know how to distinguish a bogus surcharge from a reasonable change in scope? GC's work with contracts and contractors every day, and can usually tell you down to the finest detail exactly what is included in each sub's contract.
I hope this lays out for you some of the things that a good general contractor will do for you. Most of us have spent years learning our trades, and as general contractors, our trade is coordinating the work of the various sub-trades, scheduling their efforts, and making sure that the buildings get built to spec.
Here is what J.R. of Rockville, MD, a regular visitor to ImproveNet, added to Brad's views:
I'm just the average homeowner who does tons of research before selecting products and who, thank goodness (!!!) has a fabulous general contractor doing work around the house whenever we start a project, major or minor. Over the last ten years, we have renovated the house inside and out and remodeled the kitchen, and we are presently remodeling a bathroom. We make the design, product, and placement decisions; the GC makes it happen.
There are SOOOOO many decisions and so much to know about what product will fit with what, and when, and where--and every time a wall is opened or an item is removed for replacement, the GC notices previously undetectable repair work that needs to be done. Last month we replaced suspicious copper plumbing that looked to be near having pinhole leaks--we never would have noticed that because we didn't know what to look for during the remodeling. For the roof replacement, it was fittings that would help protect against ice dams that had never been installed (ouch!). For the attic, it was knowing that the joists were farther apart than proper and had to be reinforced to hold the new flooring.
Those are just samples of a few big things--and there were innumerable little things. No one can possibly know all things necessary just doing one project once--even little projects. As recently as last week I made yet another unexpected decision based on our contractor's discoveries and blessed him once again. I often swear that anyone who serves as their own general contractor is certifiably crazy and I would be happy to testify against them! I'm more educated than average as to how to plan a project, but there is no way I have the years of experience to oversee the actual schedule, quality, or implementation of our plans--and to know when subcontractors are doing proper work at the right price and then to get all the city inspections completed. We bless our GC every time we work on the house. Do NOT serve as your own general contractor--you'll be barely keeping afloat as is just making the design and decorating decisions. Not using a reliable, experienced general contractor for any building and construction work is the epitome of "penny wise and pound foolish."
Author Profile: Brad Heinzen is a project manager for Fulwiler/James, Inc., a residential general contracting firm in the San Francisco Bay Area that specializes in the renovation and construction of high-end homes and estate properties. With more than 20 years experience in the trades, he is an expert contributor to the ImproveNet.com message boards. Brad works on projects that range from cutting-edge contemporary homes to full-blown restorations of period estates.