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Being my own GC -- part 1

When we bought our needs-everything "downsizer" condo, I didn't set out to manage the renovations. While I've done it in the past with small projects that only required one or two different trades, the more complex work we've undertaken has all been done with the help of a professional general contractor. However, after a series of unfortunate events with the GC we hired to do our bathroom reno, the only course of action to keep things moving along was for me to step in and take over. (My husband tells people that "GC," in our case, stands for "Gordon Control," and I can't really argue with that, as it is my propensity...)

Anyway, here's a what the bathroom looked like when I took over the project:

Rather than bore you with the details of how we got to this point, I've decided to provide a little insight on what it's like to manage your own renovation, in case any of you are considering it.

It's worth stating right up front that we ARE working with a licensed GC -- an amazing contractor who has done many carpentry projects for us over the years. He is handling all the permits for us, and was instrumental in restoring the structural integrity of our floors, which had been severely compromised by the former-GC's plumber. If it weren't for him coming up with that plan and getting it approved by the building inspector, we would right now be trying to figure out how to extend our short-term rental. Thank you, Donnadh!

However, when the proverbial s**t hit the fan, Donnadh was on vacation in Europe, so while we were in communication via text, I became the de facto GC. I was feet-on-the-ground, lining up the plumbers, electricians, tilers and paint/plasterers. Fortunately, I had previous relationships with great tradespeople in all these areas, with the exception of the tilers (because strangely, none of my past projects have involved tile). And since we had purchased our tiles from a great local business which also provides installation services, we were able to loop them in on that piece.

To step back for a moment, for those of you who have not undertaken a home renovation, I should explain the many responsibilities of a general contractor:

  • Hiring, scheduling, managing and paying the various subcontractors who will work on the project, and being the liaison between the subs and the homeowner

  • Pulling permits, scheduling and attending inspections, of which there are many (rough plumbing and electrical, rough building, insulation, finish plumbing and electrical, final building)

  • Overseeing the work from a big picture perspective -- this is a vital role and entails at least a surface-level understanding of all the building systems and how they work together, anticipating problems/issues that may arise and figuring out solutions, hopefully preemptively

  • Purchasing building materials, and in many cases fixtures and finishes as well

  • Budgeting out the line items and pricing the project

  • Quality control along the way

Basically, general contractors are project managers who specialize in home building/renovation. In addition, many GCs also do much of the work themselves, having started their careers as carpenters, electricians, etc. In the two other homes where we've used GCs in the past, both were carpenters as well. (In contrast, the original GC we worked with on this bathroom had no background in the trades.)

So if you're considering being your own GC, the first question you should ask yourself is, "Am I a good project manager?" As in, are you a good multi-tasker, hyper-detail oriented, yet able to see the big picture? Do you enjoy figuring out solutions to the inevitable challenges that will arise? Are you able to handle stress? Are you a good communicator and manager? If your answer to more than one of these questions is no, you might not want to take on the GC role. (You can probably get away with ONE "no" answer -- in my case, while I can manage stress from all outward appearances, it takes a big toll on my sleep.)

On the other hand, if most of your answers to these questions was "yes," now consider your specific understanding of construction, architecture, design, building science, materials, etc. This is all learnable stuff -- hello Google & YouTube -- but it can take a while to acquire the baseline knowledge you'll need to successfully navigate a renovation. For me, that has come from hundreds of home inspections, a handful of courses in architecture, design and building, years of regular reading and listening to podcasts on these subjects, and a general fascination with all things house-related.

The net is, that as far as a lay-person goes, I am a pretty good candidate to GC my own home renovation. Do things all go as smoothly as they would if I had dozens or hundreds of renovations under my belt? Absolutely not :)

Stay tuned for more on this subject in Part 2 -- coming soon!

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