R emodeling projects tend to bring out the weekend warrior in all of us. Let loose in a hardware superstore, we begin to believe we can tear down any wall and rebuild it ourselves in three days without breaking a sweat, let alone our backs.

However, while most of us would like to think we're the next Bob Vila, the truth is that we're probably closer to "Home Improvement's" Tim Taylor. Building or remodeling on your own is likely to cost you more time and money than you imagined, and more aggravation than if you had hired a professional general contractor.

The benefits of using a reputable general contractor usually outweigh the costs. Here are some questions to consider as you plan your next major construction project and to ask prospective contractors should you decide the do-it-yourself route is not for you.

      Useful resources

What is the role of a general contractor?
A general contractor oversees the entire construction project. He or she hires the individual subcontractors (plumbers, painters, electricians, and so forth) and sequences their work. He researches any zoning requirements and obtains the necessary permits and inspections. Overall, he is responsible for keeping the project on time and on target.

"A general contractor orchestrates his client's wants, desires, and budget with his team of subcontractors, suppliers, and employees," says Rosie Romero, host of a weekly home-improvement radio show and owner of Legacy Custom Builders in Scottsdale, Ariz. "He says, 'Here is the client, the budget, and our target,' and puts together a road map of how to get there."

What traits do I need to be a successful do-it-yourself (DIY) general contractor?
According to the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI), in Des Plaines, Ill., successful DIYers are patient, persistent people who have the time, knowledge, and determination to see a project through to completion. They enjoy the physical work and mental challenge, and can thoroughly plan their project from "A" (architect) to "Z" (zoning permits). They've prepared for the stress that accompanies such projects and have made contingency plans should something go awry.

"Many people don't realize they don't have the tools, expertise, or time to see a project through," says Steve Gonzalez, a general contractor in south Florida and author of "Before You Hire A Contractor: A Construction Guide For Consumers" (ISBN 1891264656).
    For help financing
    your project, talk
    to our loan officers
    at PCCU.

What are the advantages of being my own general contractor?
Aside from the satisfaction, most homeowners who opt for the do-it-yourself route do so because they think they'll save money. Like a plumber or electrician, a general contractor is paid for his services, usually at a rate between 10% and 25% of the project's total cost. By cutting out the general contractor, people think they'll cut their costs.

"I thought it would be a lot more affordable for me to do a lot of the work myself," says Deborah Knuckey, an author in Washington, D.C., who served as her own general contractor while renovating her four-unit building. "I did save money, but it was in the difference between hiring specialists and hiring the most affordable people. I soon discovered the quality differential."

What are the disadvantages of being my own general contractor?
Doing it yourself usually costs more than you anticipate. Granted, the competitive pricing at hardware superstores might save you as much money on building supplies as a general contractor can. But you're likely to lose some of that profit margin on the labor end.

First, there's the damage factor. As Knuckey discovered, she got what she paid for when she hired the cheapest contractors. Because of poor workmanship, she had to hire another contractor and pay twice to get the job done right.

In contrast, general contractors usually keep a short list of reliable subcontractors on whom they call often. "People need to take into consideration the quality of work they want done," says Lee Zajic, co-owner of NW Renovations and Design Co. in Portland, Ore., and a trustee on the National Association of Home Builders' (Washington, D.C.) National Remodelors Council. "When you hire a general contractor, you're also hiring his team of subcontractors whom he does work with on a regular basis."

Second, realize you're investing your time as well as your money. As general contractor, you're the one calling to get bids from and to line up the 15 to 30 subcontractors needed for the typical project. Given the booming construction and remodeling market, many subcontractors give low priority to smaller jobs and DIY jobs. "Private homeowners get put on the bottom of the list," Zajic says.

Once you successfully hire your crew, you must be available to let in the workers, answer questions, and keep an eye on their progress. Those runs between work and home may cut into your day as well as your productivity. "It's easy to forget that time is money," Knuckey says. "People shouldn't underestimate how much time it can involve. If you're busy working full time, being your own general contractor is feasible, but it's really difficult."

    The benefits
    of using a
    general contractor
    usually outweigh
    the costs.

If I decide to hire a general contractor, what credentials should I look for?
Since just about anyone can put on a tool belt and call himself or herself a contractor, it's no wonder that remodeling is one of the Better Business Bureau's top industries for complaints. With some diligence, you can find a reputable contractor who meets not only industry standards but your own.

First, ask a prospective contractor for his business license and the name of his insurance provider. Then call to verify both are authentic. Reputable contractors not only will be licensed by the state but will carry workers' compensation and property damage/liability insurance.

In the 25 states that don't regulate residential contracting work, ask for a driver's license, suggests Gonzalez. "That way you know who they are and where they live so you can get a hold of them," he says. "Reputable contractors will give it to you."

Second, check out a contractor's sources. Ask for referrals to current and past clients whose projects were of comparable scope to yours. Visit his past projects to inspect his work. Call his suppliers and subcontractors to check if he pays his bills on time. Also, call the local building inspection department. "Ask what they think about his work, if he gets a lot of red flags, or fails inspections," Gonzalez says. "They're the best consumer advocate and reference you can find."

Third, ask how long the contractor has been in business overall as well as under his current name. Be suspicious of contractors who've changed letterhead often; they may be dodging their past. Lastly, look for contractors who belong to industry associations such as NARI (National Association of the Remodeling Industry) and NAHB (National Association of Home Builders). Membership indicates a dedication to their work and an interest in keeping up on the industry.

After her do-it-yourself debacle, Knuckey interviewed general contractors for her next project. She since has found a reliable, reputable general contractor whom she has used often and freely recommends to others. "You're screening for competence and hiring for chemistry," she says. "It has to be someone you trust."

    A general contractor
    is responsible for
    keeping the project
    on time and
    on target.

Useful resources:
Remodeling information and finding a reputable contractor:

© 2000 Credit Union National Association Inc.