Building a cabin is a lifelong dream for many people — one that can easily become an all-consuming passion as that dream starts to become reality. Obsessing over every little detail, from the foundation to the home roofing, can lure prospective cabin owners into thinking they have the spare time, know-how and dedication to head up the building project themselves as general contractors (GCs). And many cabin owners have done so successfully and come out ahead financially in the process.
But the stark reality is that serving as your own GC probably isn’t a job for most people. “For the most part, general contractors earn their money,” says Mark Elliott, vice president of Coventry Log Homes in Woodsville, New Hampshire. “They know the tricks of the trade that help them not make the mistakes other first-time general contractors make. If you have never been involved with building a home before, now may not be the best time to start.”
Here are seven questions you should ask yourself before taking the reins as GC to see if it is a good solution for you:
- Do you have a construction background? Memorizing plans, and discussing every nook and cranny of your cabin with a designer don’t make you an expert on coordinating the paperwork, work crews, machinery and other aspects required to build a cabin. “Most people are not prepared for the organizational requirements of building a modern home,’” states John Ricketson, project manager for Hearthstone in Macon, Georgia. “The plumbing, gas, electrical and other components of a home are all much more complex [than they were 10 years ago]. It requires a flow chart to keep track of it all.”
- Do you understand permits and contracts? Permits are required for various facets of the home’s construction, as well as contracts for each of the subcontractors who will work for you. Make sure the workers on your property have liability insurance to ensure that an accident doesn’t come back to hurt you financially and that you understand the fine print associated with each contract.
- Do you have a good relationship with your banker? The biggest problem related to serving as your own GC is obtaining financing. Lenders are now more stringent to whom they give their money than they were, say, five years ago. “Lenders don’t like taking a risk where the builder is also the one responsible for paying them back due to the higher risk of injuries during the project,” says John Lanner, senior design consultant for Beaver Mountain Log & Cedar Homes in Hancock, New York. “They also have no proof you will be able to successfully complete the project in the allowed time frame.”
- Are you retired, or do you still work full time during the day? It takes considerable time to contract for your own home build. For this reason, Ricketson suggests that the best person to take on this role is a construction professional who has recently retired. “If you still have a day job, then you can expect to be taking most of your breaks and days off to devote to it, and you should expect to be on the phone until 9 or 10 every night to coordinate with your subcontractors,” he notes.
- How well do you know the area — and the people there? In addition to a sound knowledge of the processes surrounding home construction, professional contractors have another advantage: They already know all the subcontractors — namely, who they can count on to get the job done correctly. If you already live in the area and are familiar with the people you want for the project, then you may be set. But if you’re building your cabin in a place you plan to move to, it’s probably best to leave things in the hands of the professionals.
- Can you frequently get to the jobsite? Being a GC requires availability at a moment’s notice to visit the site to address any problems and make sure that everything is progressing smoothly — a feat accomplished more easily if you live close to the site of your future cabin. Elliott estimates at least two to three trips a week while contractors are working.
- Are you willing to tackle the small stuff yourself? Contracting out the big parts of the house (concrete, framing, plumbing, electrical wiring, etc.) and handling some of the interior finish work (drywall, cabinets, fixtures, trim) will allow you to shave costs off the project while still participating in the building process. If you hire subcontractors to handle the whole job, however, the overall cost will likely be comparable to simply hiring a GC in the first place. “Contractors building several homes a year will typically get much better pricing on materials, as well as from subcontractors,” says Lanner.