Do it yourself, do yourself in
A few weeks ago I had to
make a decision. There was some major remodeling to be done, and I needed
someone to do it.
Do I hire a licensed contractor, like a normal human being
would, or do I play the role of the struggling business owner and try to
save thousands by acting as my own contractor?
I thought back to the first time, many years ago, that I
wrestled with this decision. I was performing my first and only subdivision,
a four-lot split in West Marin. On one of the lots I would build my dream
Before building, however, I needed to pave a quarter-mile of
road. I got three bids from licensed paving contractors, the lowest $24,000.
I sensed a savings. I didnít want it paved in gold, only
blacktop. I called some gravel pits and some rental yards and found an old
retired gentleman who used to work on paving crews to provide expertise. I
added up my estimated labor and materials and made my first decision.
I was going into the paving business. Iím pleased to report
that I did the entire job for $9,000. I even drove the steamroller myself.
Talk about savings.
Of course, I also got a little too close to the ditch at the
edge of the road and rolled the steamroller onto its side, necessitating a
tow truck to drive over freshly laid asphalt to pull it out.
After a few months of driving over the road, I began to ignore
the tow truckís tire marks that had been left. It was much more
interesting to watch the potholes appear.
Buoyed by my savings on the road, I went on to act as my own
general contractor for the building of my dream house.
I wonít bother with details, other than to say that my
intention was to build a state-of-the-art passive solar home, where the
interior climate is always at a comfortable level.
I think I built it a little to passive.
Within a month of moving in, we began to call our dream home,
"The House of a Thousand Temperatures."
Saved a lot of money, though, by making the mistakes myself.
Now that Iím much older and wiser, have I finally learned the
old axiom, "penny wise, pound foolish?" Nah.
Just last year I had a large and difficult construction project
for one of my retail stores that begged for the hiring of a general
contractor. So did I hire one? Nah.
I sensed savings. I hired two brothers, who two weeks into the
job I fondly labeled Darrell and Darrell.
This project almost did me in. I liked Darrell and Darrell, and
they were very able carpenters, but they had a way about them that, well,
For instance, the time they needed to rent a tool and jumped
into their car, both of them, returning three hours later to report that
they had driven to four different rental yards before they found the tool,
only to discover that, doggone it, they needed a credit card to check it
When I politely asked why they didnít call first and why both
of them had to go, they responded with stares that suggested I did not know
the construction business.
My favorite Darrell and Darrell story, though (and there are
dozens), is when they convinced me to rent them a hotel room for the night
so they could meet a permit deadline by working late into the evening. They
didnít want to waste time making the two-hour round trip home to get back
to work the next morning.
And they did work late. Then the next morning they slept in,
had a leisurely breakfast and showed up for work at noon.
But I survived Darrell and Darrell and the job was eventually
finished, two months behind schedule. It was an extremely unpleasant
experience. And this time, unlike the others, I didnít even save any
And now with this new job I was faced with the decision again.
I had a new carpenter in mind (Darrell and Darrell were put to pasture) who
claimed he could save me tons if I acted as my own contractor.
Or I could go with Jim, a general contractor who I had called
in to help Darrell and Darrell complete the last job before the world came
to an end. Darrell and Darrell had taken to calling him "Einstein"
because of his penchant for reading plans.
Incredibly, I went with Einstein and his bid price. Now weíre
in the midst of the project and thereís nothing for me to do except sit
around and wonder how much money I could have saved.
You just canít win.