Tuesday, June 30, 2009

It's not easy...being your own GC...

(Sung in a sad little Kermit the Frog voice.) So I've wanted to blog about this for awhile but kept putting it off...thinking things might get better or that my feelings would change. Maybe it's because I'm tired today or because I'm frustrated that our well still hasn't been dug. Whatever the reason, today is the day that I will spill the beans about how tough it has been to act as our own general contractors. Here is my list of things those annoying "It's Easy Being Your Own GC: Anybody Can Do It! Really!" books won't tell you...

1. Acting as your own GC is like trying to cook a highly complex 10-course meal for 1000 people with ingredients and recipes you have never used before. I remember my mom being a wiz in the kitchen when I was a kid. She knew just when to pop the chicken in the oven and whip the mashed potatoes so that everything was hot and ready at the exact right moment. It was a perfectly choreographed dance, a masterful exhibition of skill and timing. Not only am I completely unable to emulate her abilities in the kitchen, apparently I am equally challenged when it comes to applying similar skills to building a house. Every single step of this process is reliant on a tangled web of related baby steps. And they all have to work in concert in order for things to come together at the right time. Let me just provide one example. When are we breaking ground, you ask? Well, we cannot begin excavation until we have a building permit. The town won't grant us our building permit until we prove to them that our well draws the requisite yield. We cannot dig the well until the land has been staked out by our civil engineer. Furthermore, we cannot put the well in until testing equipment is installed on the neighbors' wells (long story). We can't install the testing equipment at the neighbors until they have signed off on the process. And so on and so forth. Each of the above steps required separate phone calls and emails...and follow-up phone calls and emails. So when someone asks when we are starting construction, perhaps now they will understand why I sink to my knees with my head in my hands. I don't know, I tell them. I don't know.

2. Acting as your own GC is very difficult if you have no building experience whatsoever. The books tell you that you don't have to lift a hammer as a GC. True, perhaps, but it is helpful if you know what a hammer is, what it is typically used for, and who, ideally, will be wielding one. (Okay, I know the answers to those questions but you get my drift.) In order to solicit solid bids from sub-contractors, you need to know some basic information about the job you are asking them to do. How else can you explain the project on which they are bidding? When electrical subs ask me whether we're mounting the meter on the house or a pedestal, it's helpful for me to know what the *&$# they're talking about. While I don't think it's necessary to have a lot of building experience, per se, don't expect that you can get through the process without a lot of reading and researching. You will know more than you ever wanted to about conduits and GFI plugs by the end of it. And, in my experience, the learning curve is pretty steep. (Oh, and if you were wondering, we're putting the meter on the house, thank you very much.)

3. Acting as your own GC is a full-time job. Too bad I already have one. When I leave Montpelier every day, I know I have my hour-long commute to relax. Because as soon as I walk in the door, I settle into my second desk job of the day at my home computer. I prefer to communicate via email rather than phone and, so far, that has worked out reasonably well with most subs. And it means I can sometimes reply to folks during the day from work. But, for the most part, I try to keep my two work lives separate...which means "working from home" in the evenings on the house. I have no idea what it will be like when we're actually in the construction phase. I have a feeling it's not going to get any easier.

*I should add, though, that all of our subs have been wonderful to work with and I am grateful for each and every one of them. This post has nothing to do with them but with the overall experience coordinating the project ourselves.*

Okay, so there's my vent. I already feel better. Ultimately, I am confident that acting as our own GCs has saved us money. What we've saved in costs, though, we've lost in sleepless nights and stress headaches. So be aware of the trade-off. It's not that I wouldn't suggest that people take the route we've taken. But I wish I had a more accurate picture in my head of the reality of the process before we started. I'm pretty much convinced that the folks writing those annoying, aforementioned GC-guide books are either a) independently wealthy without 9-5 jobs, b) former builders/contractors who just didn't feel like doing all the work themselves this time around, c) flaming $%#holes who think it's funny to convince idiots like me that I can build my own house, or d) all of the above.

And who knows--maybe it will get easier and I'll post a glorious tribute to owner-building six months from now reveling in our decision. Don't hold your breath, though.