The marvel, of course, is that anything gets built at all. So much can go wrong–and so often does–that topics of discussion about remodeling or building one’s own home often degenerate into stories of unscrupulous contractors, costly delays, shoddy workmanship, and legal battles. But then, a success stories are not as much fun to tell as horror stories.
There are, however, many more success stories than not. Home contracting, like any other profession, has its small share of people who do more harm than good. But a good contractor can be your partner and advocate, lead you through the red tape and minutiae of sub-contracting, and help you realize your dreams of home building or remodeling.
It’s daunting even to think about building a house. The overwhelming amount of detail that goes with it sometimes drives people to abandon their dream early on or stop halfway through, disillusioned and in debt. Like anything else, however, once the components of home contracting are broken down, it starts to look manageable.
But in order to see your dream-house realized, you need to start with a realistic and complete view of the home contracting business. Like a house itself, each step in building or remodeling leans on steps that go before and after it. The big picture must be filled in with details—details that, in most cases, only a good general contractor can supply. But any contractor worth his salt must also be able to see the big picture. And the big picture is what you supply.
Let’s begin, then, with a quick journey through the contracting process–much like those time lapse videos where a house goes up in a matter of minutes. If you’re thinking of building or remodeling but only have vague ideas about what you want, then—for the moment—keep those ideas vague. You’re still envisioning something that only you, as yet, can see. Details will change. Whole rooms and designs will change. But for now, you’ll want to know enough to feel comfortable talking with a general contractor.
There are three areas you should watch out for to protect yourself from spending too much money or ending up with work that doesn’t match your expectations. Contractors legitimately earn their money by (1) charging a fixed percentage of the total cost of the job, (2) marking up labor costs, including their own, and (3) marking up cost of materials. These, then, are the areas where unscrupulous general contractors can fill their pockets at your expense. Unless you fall for the pitch of a traveling siding salesman, most of the time you’ll have to be aware more of small discrepancies than large scams.
Don’t begrudge the general contractor for making a living, or make his workday a living hell by questioning every expense. Do, however, keep your eye on expenses as each payment date comes due. You have the right to know what you’re spending on labor and materials, and the right to inspect those materials at any time. Also, if you’re paying a percentage of the total cost, remember to keep an eye on that as costs run up, or change orders come about. The general contractor wants to hire workers and buy materials at the cheapest possible price, but he also knows that the workmanship must be good and the materials up to your specifications or he’ll not get paid, or keep you as a client and referral.
To return to the image of the time-lapse video, that empty lot has been transformed into the home that you originally envisioned. You successfully found a general contractor, agreed-upon terms and payment, spelled it out in a written contract that covered all of your concerns, established a working relationship based on communication and trust, took part in the decision-making process along the way, and watched the house of your dreams appear out of sawdust and cement. But whether you’ve hired a general contractor or done the contracting yourself, you have the satisfaction of realizing a dream, and profound respect for the work and detail involved.
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