Being your own contractor has several risks and rewards

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What about being your own general contractor? You know, you really aren't required to hire a contractor to make improvements to your own property. The law allows you to do it yourself.

Each community has its own set of rules regarding owner-builders. We know of one community that doesn't allow owner-builders to do their own electrical work.

In this community, a licensed electrical contractor must do the work.

As an owner-builder you may not need to have a contractor's license, but you are expected to get a building permit and to comply with all applicable building codes and ordinances.

Note: A project can be dismantled later if it is found that a permit was not issued for the work. The discovery of this condition often occurs when a pre-sale home inspection is performed.

Actually, being your own remodeling contractor can be a truly exciting and satisfying experience. As an owner-builder, you are guaranteed complete control over every aspect of your project and exactly how it will be built -- right down to the very last detail.

As the contractor you decide on construction methods, materials, assembly techniques, project scheduling, budget management, hiring and firing, payroll, pickups and deliveries, safety meetings and equipment.

By the same token, as the contractor, you have no one else to blame when things go sour. When you become your own contractor, you must instantly assume several important responsibilities -- even ones that you may not know existed. For example, when it comes to injury claims you may well be treated as an employer. When someone is injured while working on your property, you ultimately may be held responsible.

Have you looked into the worker's compensation laws in your state lately? A worker's crippling injury can end up costing you millions -- literally everything you own.

In California for example, a contractor is not issued a building permit without proof that a valid worker's compensation policy is in effect. Owner-builders are not required to exhibit such proof of insurance. Check your homeowner's insurance policy. Make sure that you have the proper coverage and plenty of it.

No, we aren't trying to scare you.

Owner-builders have successfully performed millions of home improvements. We of all people truly know about the especially satisfying feeling associated with "doing it yourself."

We simply want to make sure that you are aware of the responsibilities that accompany the task.

Then, as an informed consumer, you can weigh your potential for risk against your potential for return.

Successful owner-builders generally have an abnormally strong desire to save money. They thrive on what others consider difficult challenges. And they are known to revel in the recognition that follows. One couple even admitted to us that they felt that as owner-builders they had become one with their home.

Possible financial rewards coupled with the pleasure of personal involvement are achievements that should not cloud an owner-builder's normally good judgment.

You must consider some factors before calculating how much money you will actually save by doing it yourself.

Time off work means lost wages. Not knowing which subcontractor is responsible for what portion of which task can put the project on a collision course with failure. And what if one of the subcontractors you hire accidentally causes a fire?

The experts say that an owner-builder can expect to save about 10 percent of the construction cost. This considers the cost to repair mistakes that are normally made and lost wages (figured at $10 per hour). The greater your earning power the less potential for profit.

Most importantly, when you become an owner-builder you, in essence, become an employer. As such, you expose yourself to risks associated with worker injuries and damage to your home by people you have hired.

You must not overlook this aspect of your tenure as a remodeler. Unforeseen costs can really sneak up on you here.

Before taking on the task of owner-builder, have a meeting with your insurance agent.

Find out who pays if an individual in your employ burns down part of your home.

Find out what kind of insurance binder you need from each subcontractor that you hire.

In our construction company, we issue many subcontracts every week.

When we discover that a subcontractor's insurance has expired, we require verification of a renewed policy before writing the subcontract.

How to hire a contractor

What's the most common mistake most homeowners make when they hire a contractor? They play the lowest bid game.

Believe us when we tell you the low bid can be an invitation to disaster.

Getting bids and finding the right contractor are two entirely different things.

Often, the lowest bid means the cheapest materials and shoddy workmanship; the bid amount has nothing to do with whether a contractor is a person of integrity.

Instead, find a few good and reputable contractors in your area by first carefully checking them out long before studying the details and pricing of your project.

You need to check each potential contractor's character and reputation. Check out everything from bank references and past customers to the Better Business Bureau.

In Pennsylvania, contractors must be licensed.

Call the local chapter of the contractors association to see if the contractors you are considering are members.

Oh, and find out if they're insured.

Check out a contractor just as thoroughly as the bank checks you out when you want a loan. Remember: doing a little homework first means better work on your home later.

New garage door

Q. I want to replace my garage door. I am not sure what to look for. Can you help?

A. The style choices are limitless. Having said that, we are big advocates of both steel sectional doors and fiberglass sectional doors. We also feel that only fully insulated doors should be used on a garage. They are sturdier, longer-lasting and quieter; and the insulation in the door makes the garage more comfortable. The opener can only be determined after a door has been chosen. This is because the size of the opener is based on the weight of the door. We always purchase an opener that exceeds the minimum size required.


James and Morris Carey are Associated Press columnists who owned and operated a home remodeling and construction business in the San Francisco Bay area for many years. go to their web site,, call the listener hot line at 1-800-737-2474, ext 59.


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