Episode #43: How To Be Your Own General Contractor

Hi! This week, Emma’s roof is being worked on, so she is taking the week off. Elsie’s friend, Ting, has joined us in her place. This episode is all about how to be your own general contractor (or project manager) during a renovation, which can save thousands of dollars. If you’re planning to renovate a kitchen or bathroom in the future, you’ll definitely want to give this episode a listen. We talk about so many things, including lessons we learned the hard way!

You can stream the episode here on the blog or on iTunesSpotifyGoogle PlayTuneInPocket Casts, and Stitcher. You can find the podcast posts archive here.

Show Notes:

Here’s a photo of Ting in case you’re like me and you have to Google every single podcast voice to see what they look like. Haha! Also, is it just me, or are pre-COVID photos so CLOSE and awkward looking now … it’s funny to me how quickly I got used to never hugging anyone. Bizarre!

What we cover in this episode:

-We define the difference between a general contractor and a subcontractor or sub.
-The pros and cons of being your own GC.
-Tips for hiring a contractor and what to look for.
-How to create a payment schedule, especially your first time working with someone new.
-How to be a good manager + always keep a paper trail.
-Uh oh … what if you need to fire a subcontractor.
-How to be prepared to get quotes (aka how to be a good client)
-We each share our favorite type of renovations.
-The big wins: focus on finding a good price, creating a good payment schedule and keep all your communications in writing.
-And we end with a little pep talk!

We also answer a reader question about how to keep a house clean and have cute rugs, etc., with PETS. We each have very strong feelings on this subject. Basically, it’s worth it! Just let your pets mess stuff up—you only live once! 🙂 Oops. I think I just found my “hill to die on” haha.

Thanks so much for listening. We love you! Elsie

Episode 43 Transcript

Elsie: You’re listening to A Beautiful Mess podcast. This week, we’re diving into how, why and when to be your own general contractor, how much you can save, and what the tradeoffs are. My BFF and renovation mentor Ting is joining me for this episode. I met Ting when we start remodeling our previous home. He was my very first friend in Nashville when I moved here and he basically held my hand and wiped my tears through a grueling two year remodel. He taught me how to be my own general contractor, which ended up saving us not just thousands, but easily more than a hundred thousand dollars on our entire home remodel. So today I invited him onto the podcast to share some of his wisdom with you. And by the way, Emma is taking a break this week because her house is actually getting a new roof. And apparently that is really loud. So Emma will be back next week. OK. So let’s just jump into it. So basically, you taught me how to renovate when we did our last home and it was like two or three years long of crying and calling you constantly, facetiming.

Ting: I don’t think I taught you how to renovate because you were already doing it. I just saved you from some unpleasant experiences that you were having with a contractor. Right?

Elsie: He taught me. He was my mentor. I will say it forever, even if you don’t approve that my mentor.

Ting: That’s fine with me.

Elsie: And my best friend. OK. So first of all, let’s just start out by explaining even what a general contractor is, because this episode is about how to be your own general contractor. It can save you thousands it can save you hundreds of thousands if you are doing a whole house. Yeah. But let’s explain the difference between if you go to hire a general contractor or if you go to hire individual tradespeople, also called subcontractors.

Ting: That’s right. OK. So a general contractor is one person that’s in charge of your entire job. So if you’re doing it yourself, then you’re the general contractor. Subcontractors are people that work for the general contractor, which could be that person you hired, or the people that work for you, if you’re a general contracting the job yourself. So think of general contractor not as a person, but more as a position. You know, that could be somebody you hire or it could be yourself.

Elsie: So, for example, if you’re doing a kitchen, you can hire a general contractor and you could have one person come to your house, show them your Pinterest board. Show them what you want to do to the different parts of the room, what kind of tile what kind of counter, and they could handle the whole project. Or if you were being your own general contractor, then you would have to hire your own cabinet person, your own countertop person, your own plumber, your own tile person, your own electrician. Probably a lot more.

Ting: That’s right. Yeah. If you’re wanting to do the job yourself, you have to manage all those subcontractors and schedule them and pay them, make sure they’re on time. You may even want to pull your own building permit if you’re putting on an addition, which, you know, we could discuss later, because general contractors can pull permits and subcontractors can’t.

Elsie: Yeah. OK. Can you define for our listeners what is a type of project where you don’t need a permit, you can handle it on your own, and the type of project where you really should have a general contractor and you really should have a permit?

Ting: Okay, so that’s different from state to state and city to city. But in general, if you’re adding square footage, you’re going to need a permit. So let’s say you’re going to close in your deck and make it an air-conditioned room. I’m not talking about screening it in or putting windows in it or whatever, but if you want to take your deck and make it a screened-in room and count it as square footage towards your house, that’s air-conditioned, more than likely you’re going to need some kind of a permit. And it’s important to get that permit not because, you know, if you hire the right contractors they’re going to do a good job anyway. But it’s important to get that permit because when you go sell, and your square footage went up, they’re going to want to know that you added the square footage with a permit. And it wasn’t some under the table job your grandpa did for you with leftover parts or something.

Elsie: Which nothing wrong with that if you don’t need a permit. But if you do…so if you want to add square footage to your house, you have to have a permit or it won’t count as added square footage when you go to sell your house. Is that correct?

Ting: I mean, you might get away with it, but they might catch it. You know, it’s like it’s not guaranteed to count. But if you have a permit and it was done officially, then it has to count. So, you know, sometimes you could fly under the radar and they may not notice. But generally, if you’re gonna be spending a lot of money on adding square footage or investing into your house, it’s probably worth it to just get a permit. In Nashville,and I don’t know about anywhere else, in Nashville, if your total job is under twenty-five thousand dollars, you’re allowed to get that permit yourself. It’s called a self permit.

Elsie: Nice.

Ting: If your job is going to be more than twenty-five thousand dollars, then you’re required to have a licensed general contractor to pull the permit because they have the insurance and they have licenses to, basically, city wants to know they know what they’re doing to be on a job bigger than 25 grand.

Elsie: That makes sense. That sounds like a good cutoff to me for something I would feel comfortable handling on my own versus something where I would want to have a little bit of professional help. So what are some examples of a room or a renovation where you definitely don’t need a permit? You’re totally, you’re probably totally okay to just do it on your own.

Ting: Wallpaper painting, replacing kitchen cabinets, countertops, basically anything that’s surface…

Elsie: A finish.

Ting: Yeah. Anything that’s a finish. Anything that’s not attached to your house that you can just take out. I mean, a few nails is OK, but it’s not like, if you’re going to take out a wall that might be supporting your roof, obviously, you know, you need a structural permit to do that.

Elsie: OK.

Ting: Yeah. So anything that’s just I call them fluffy do’s, you know.

Elsie: Yes!

Ting: If it’s a fluffy do then. You know, you can do it yourself and you don’t need a permit. You want to make sure your plumber’s licensed. You know, if you’re gonna get into your kitchen and if you’re replacing cabinets, you don’t really need a plumber the cabinet people can usually handle the plumbing because it’s already there. But if you’re going to add a sink in an island or you going to add a line for your refrigerator, you’re going to want a licensed plumber to do that, because if it doesn’t work and it floods your house, they have insurance to cover that.

Elsie: Ok. That is a great tip. Yeah. I hate thinking about a house getting flooded.

Ting: Yeah.

Elsie: It makes me almost want to cry. Yeah. So let’s talk about the pros of being your own general contractor and then we’ll talk about the cons next. So I know one of the pros is you save a ton of money. Would you say it could be like double?

Ting: Yeah. So right now I’m just speaking right now, not five years ago. Right now, there’s so much building going on everywhere that general contractors, most of them have like a minimum amount that they need to make per job because they’re going to spend X amount of time doing your kitchen. Or they could spend X amount of time building a whole house because you’re just you know, they’re a project manager. So whether it’s doing your kitchen or building a whole house, it’s about the same amount of time for him. So.

Elsie: Woah.

Ting: Let’s say if his minimum is he needs make $30,000 a job and you have a $10,000 job, you’re gonna pay $40,000 because he’s got to make that money. Right. So if it’s a smaller job, you’re much better off doing it yourself. You save more than double. But if it’s a big job, if you’re doing a whole addition. It’s not cost you 150. It’s worth paying him his thirty thousand dollar fee for him to have the insurance and deal with all the subs and all the risk.

Elsie: Yes, 100 percent. Most people listening, their dream is probably, I want to get new kitchen cabinets, a new counter, a cute sink, you know, a gold faucet.

Ting: Yeah.

Elsie: You know, all of that stuff. And that is the kind of job where you can save a lot of money, right?

Ting: Yes. And that kind of job, you don’t even need a permit. Right.

Elsie: Woo!

Ting: You say you want to do a kitchen and you want to replace your countertop, your cabinets, repaint, rip the floor out and put tile down in place of carpet or whatever. Those are all non-permit required jobs. And I would definitely…

Elsie: My favorite kind of job!

Ting: I would definitely. Yeah, you do those a lot (laughs).

Elsie: Safe to DIY! Yeah. That’s definitely my sweet spot of what I love. And kind of why I am moving, because I want a whole house full of projects or where I don’t need a permit, and I don’t need a general contractor. I can just like, take it away, Elsie and Collin.

Ting: Yeah. Yeah. So yeah. Basically if it’s just surface stuff and just decoration, sink, cabinets, faucets, get a licensed plumber, and hire a company that do cabinets hire company that does granite, sometimes they’re the same company. It’s usually best if you could do cabinets and granite from the same place because then there’s no finger-pointing.

Elsie: That makes sense.

Ting: And you know, you’ll pay maybe five percent more to do that, but it’s worth it.

Elsie: So another thing that is really helpful about being your own general contractor is you can diversify your risk.

Ting: That’s right.

Elsie: So can you explain that?

Ting: Yes. If you hire a general contractor, let’s just say he starts your job and then he is going through divorce all of a sudden and he can’t focus on your job anymore, then your whole job is gonna be messed up or delayed. Right?

Elsie: Because nobody’s in charge.

Ting: He’s the one that’s in charge. So if he…

Elsie: And if you don’t know all of his individual contacts, you know, then you wouldn’t be able to continue without him.

Ting: Yeah. You’ll have to go hire another general contractor. And most general contractors require a payment upfront. So, you know, you have a lot of skin in the game. Not to say that your general contractors will go bad, but when you do a job, you have to assume everything is going to go bad and plan for it.

Elsie: Right.

Ting: If you use subcontractors and your plumber goes missing in action or whatever, you just hire a different plumber. And that’s the thing about subcontracting is, I always tried to have three bids and I take the best two. I used the best one and then the second best as my backup. That way I’m not, you know, in trouble if I have to get rid of the first one or he’s not doing his job. I already have a backup ready to go.

Elsie: Yes. Everyone, please, please, please listen to that point. Always have a backup plan on each contractor. And if you’re being your own general contractor, I’ll just say from my own experiences, even with just doing a bathroom, but definitely with a kitchen, you will probably have to switch or replace at least one of the trades people throughout the project. Because it just happens like, more than you would think. So that’s part of the thing about diversifying your risk is like if you have, you know, a backup plumber who you can call, that’s a really good position compared to if you’ve already fully paid someone and they just stop showing up, that’s a really bad position. And you don’t have a backup plan. That would be the worst possible nightmare.

Ting: Yeah or they’ll do a bad job and they refuse to, you know, come back and fix it. Even if they finish the job, it’s still good to have a backup that can polish everything up for you.

Elsie: Just in case. And the last pro of being your own general contractor is that you can control the payment schedule. So this is, it’s kind of boring to talk about. But I will say it’s the number one most important thing that Ting is trained me on and drilled into my brain a thousand times. Having a payment schedule that you might think it’s pretty good, but make it even, you know, twice or maybe five times more specific than you think it should be at the beginning.

Ting: Yes.

Elsie: And you have so much more security.

Ting: Right. Well, I mean, I’ve drilled it into you, but you’re still too nice to say no a lot of the time.

Elsie: I hate saying no, especially if someone seems desperate. I just. I can’t do it. Yeah, but I mean, always. I can’t. Yeah. I’ll admit it. I am too nice. But I’m trying, I’m trying to be a bad-ass but I’m not.

Ting: (laughs) Well it’s not about being a bad-ass really. It’s just about, you know, when you’re working with a subcontractor, let’s say when I say subcontractor, I don’t mean Home Depot where you’re going to get your cabinets installed from or the granite yard that has a you know, that installs granite. I’m talking about people like a plumber or an electrician or some drywall person that you’re going to hire from Thumbtack or Angie’s List.

Elsie: Angie’s List.

Ting: Yeah. So if you find those folks, if they have good reviews, you’re more than likely okay. But I always tried to delay payment and not pay people up front, because once you pay them, you have the stress of worrying if they’re gonna show up. And it’s not that they’re gonna try to take advantage of you, but something could happen. They can have a car accident or, you know, all kinds of things could happen to them where they don’t show up or and you’re already out a bunch of money.

Elsie: Really, all kinds of things can happen. It’s, yeah. Very I mean, yeah. Anything.

Ting: Anything that can happen will. Elsie knows.

Elsie: Yeah. Oh my gosh. Yeah. Some sad stories. Some horrible stories. Yeah. It’s important to keep the majority of the payment for the end of a job so that there’s an incentive to finish…

Ting: That’s right.

Elsie: …and there’s little check-points, like just pretend that you’re a bank. Like my friends who get renovation loans, their bank has these checkpoints and you don’t get paid until you hit each marker of progress.

Ting: Yeah.

Elsie: And if you’re able to pretend to be that bank and make that type of payment schedule, I think that that is a really good place to be.

Ting: Yeah. Be friends with them after the job is done.

Elsie: Right.

Ting: Not before.

Elsie: Yeah. That’s good advice. Yeah. Because I always become best friends with everyone who I work with. OK. So let’s talk about the cons.

Ting: OK.

Elsie: So the biggest one hiring obviously just finding individual tradespeople, especially the first time that Ting helped me renovate our main bathroom in our previous home. I sort of lost my shit because I had to figure out how many different people you have to hire to do a job like that. Like there’s a person just for the shower door. There’s a person just for the tile. Obviously, there’s a plumber and there was a little bit of wood in that room. And, you know, there’s just other things. So it’s not going to be a short process. Getting all these quotes, collecting them, getting people to show up. Following up and getting everyone on a schedule where it works together it is a big commitment. And then managing them along the way, we’ve talked about the payment schedule, but also the quality, checking their work. Sometimes that’s hard to do when it’s something that you don’t know very much about. Like it’s obvious to me to check over tile because I can just look at it and be like, does it look good or does it look crappy?

Ting: Well, you go with your gut and you really have to trust in it. You know, if it doesn’t look right. It’s probably not right.

Elsie: But there’s things that are hard to check. Like what if you hire someone to run a gas line for you? Like, how would I know?

Ting: Go sniff all the joints and makes sure doesn’t smell like farts. Right? (laughs)

Elsie: (laughs) So, yeah. Managing and then firing, which I think is probably the hardest part of just any business transaction, is that inevitably there are going to be times when you have to fire someone. And it is sad usually. And also it can you know an angry situation.

Ting: It’s just stressful, right? It’s very stressful, especially when I’ve seen you try to do it and you’re always stressed out for days before, you cry for two days after. So it’s better to not have to fire anybody. But if you have to fire somebody and you’ve paid them too much and they owe you money, then obviously it’s bad for you and you’re going to feel resentful toward it.

Elsie: Yeah.

Ting: If you haven’t paid him enough to go, I want you to pay more. But you can’t because he didn’t finish the job and they’re doing a bad job. So then it’s negative that way, too. So, you know, you want to try to avoid having to fire people. But if you do, you want to make sure they still owe you enough money for you to replace them with a different person with the amount of money that’s left.

Elsie: Exactly. And I know that were being kind of like, this might be kind of scary to listen to, but this is the worst part of the whole thing. And remember, you might save 30 or 50 thousand dollars doing like a kitchen and a bathroom. You can save a lot of money doing these things. So even though it is a lot of responsibility you’re taking on, it’s also something that is going to cause a big, big, big savings in your project.

Ting: Yeah.

Elsie: Continuing on my list of cons, so there’s no one to complain to when things go badly. I think this is one of the bad ones, too, is that if you go in, and the tile’s done wrong or there’s like bad spacing, like I am pretty, I have asked people to redo things a lot and it’s hard to do because you don’t get to just call a nice, friendly general contractor. You have to call maybe…

Elsie: The worker themselves.

Ting: Yeah.

Elsie: A person who’s angry that they’re going have to redo something that’s really, really time consuming. My next point says, “do you like crying?”

Ting: Oh, you do! (laughs)

Elsie: (laughs) Just that, you know — I do! — are your own general contractor and wealth and you’re in my zone of personality, you’ll probably have a few extra tears.

Ting: Right.

Elsie: Just going to happen. The next one is the quality control is on you. So you do have to be comfortable asking someone to redo something specific no matter how many times it takes, which can be awkward. You know, if you’re like, hey, could you adjust that? And they do. And then it still looks the same and you have to say it again and then maybe again, like,

Ting: Well, that comes back to the part where you don’t want to be friends with them until they’re finished with the job. Right.

Elsie: Right.

Ting: And it’s better to catch problems before it gets big, like, you know, if you have issues with a grout line or the spacing, make sure you check it. Don’t let him finish the entire wall before you say something. You know, catch it at the beginning. If a gut feeling tells you the grout lines don’t look good to you and you don’t like it, don’t just sit on it. Go ahead and tell them and say, hey, this doesn’t look really straight, and if you still owe them money, they will straighten it up because they want to be paid the rest of their money.

Elsie: That’s very good advice.

Ting: Again, I don’t pay them too much upfront, or else they’re going to say, you’re too much trouble. I’m just going to walk with your money and then you can find somebody else to finish the job. But if you haven’t paid them yet and they want you to pay them, then they’ll fix whatever you want him to fix and know that if they don’t, you may not pay them at all when they’re finished.

Elsie: Yeah, I agree. I think that as far as conflict resolution, the best thing to do is just to say it, just to say whatever it is the first time you see the problem.

Ting: Yeah.

Elsie: And don’t wait, even though it’s awkward. I agree.

Ting: Yeah. Don’t assume they’re going to do the right thing and fix it, because they may think it’s good enough when it’s not good enough for you.

Elsie: Right. And then the last thing is, just really be honest with yourself. Can you tell people no if they have not finished their checkpoint of work and then they come and ask for a payment and they say, “I really need this.” Can you say no, you do have to finish that checkpoint. Because I think that’s the hardest part. It’s so painful.

Ting: But it’s also about setting expectations. If you set that expectation before you hire them and make sure you write everything down so you can refer back to it and show them, “look, we talked about this in the contract in the beginning where you agreed to do this job for this much money. And these are the payment schedules. I have to stick to that.”

Elsie: I love how you’re so emotionless about it. I want to be more like that.

Ting: You mean I don’t cry? (laughs)

Elsie: Yeah, I think that’s good. It’s definitely better. OK, so let’s talk about hiring a contractor.

Ting: OK.

Elsie: What are some things that you look for when you’re…if you’re getting three or four quotes? Obviously the price is a big factor, but what are the other important things that make you hire someone first?

Ting: First, is the price for me, because, that’s why I’m shopping for subcontractors. If price wasn’t an option, I would just use a general contractor. So if I’m subcontracting, price is a big part, but I’m also not hiring the cheapest person. Let’s say if you get a quote for the kitchen cabinets, no kitchen cabinets is bad because you buy that from Home Depot or a store. Right. Let’s say a plumber and a plumber estimates your job at a thousand dollars. Another one at three thousand dollars. Another one at five. The 5000 is too high and the 1000 is probably too low. You likely would go with the one in the middle. Right?

Elsie: I think that’s very solid advice.

Ting: Because if somebody can’t make enough money to live, they’re not going to do your job correctly.

Elsie: Yeah.

Ting: So if something is too cheap, it’s probably not any good.

Elsie: I agree. I have a story. I still don’t feel ready in life to tell it. But at my last home, I had a contractor whose, his price was too good to be true. And then it was too good to be true. And it was just a sad ending where we had to fire him. And it was ahhh I can’t even talk about it, OK.

Ting: You haven’t talked about that yet? No. Oh, wow. I figured you I figured you talked about it many times since.

Elsie: I’m so…I’m still ashamed of it because it was so bad that we should have never hired him. I should have known. I feel like now that I look at it, it was obvious that the price was too good to be true.

Ting: That was like when we first met, too.

Elsie: Right. Yeah. So I’ve I’ve learned a lot mostly from Ting, and actually Ting helped me fire that man. And that was an awkward moment of my life.

Ting: You mean I fired that man for you? But you were outside, though.

Elsie: Yeah. (laughs)

Ting: You were there. (laughs)

Elsie: I was standing by you when you said all the words.

Ting: Oh, yeah. (laughs)

Elsie: Yeah, I agree with that. Like someone who has a reasonable price. Not maybe not like the lowest possible price you can imagine.

Ting: Right.

Elsie: I think that that that’s probably a good thing, because the other thing is you want someone who’s sort of worked their way up a little bit where they’re confident enough to give a realistic, reasonable price.

Ting: Yeah.

Elsie: You don’t want someone who’s so new to it or so desperate for a first payment that they’re going to give you a price that’s not realistic.

Ting: And if you’re going to Thumbtack or Angie’s List, always look at reviews, too, because that really matters.

Elsie: That’s a good point. And also do a small project first if you have a chance.

Ting: That’s right.

Elsie: Like I found the greatest plumber who I love. We love him. And he came from Thumbtack. Yeah. But we use it for a tiny job and we just kept calling him back. And now he’s been over here like four times. Okay, so you’re gonna pick not the highest price. Not the lowest price. What next?

Ting: I think their availability and not necessarily they can get to your job tomorrow. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking like when you text them or call them that, they will actually answer the phone or call you back within a couple hours.

Elsie: Ok. This is a solid point. This is solid advice.

Ting: Because if they’re in the bidding process of trying to get you as a customer, if you can’t get a hold of them then, after you become their customer and you paid them a little bit of money, you’re not going to be able to get a hold of them then even more. So you’re going to be, you know, chasing your contractor. The bad thing about that is when you’re managing your own project, if one person is late, it messes up everybody’s schedule that’s after them and then it creates a lot of issues. So availability is really I wouldn’t say availability. Accessibility is really important.

Elsie: Communication.

Ting: Yes. That’s right.

Elsie: Yeah. I completely, completely agree with that point. Is there anything else? I think if I didn’t know when I first started hiring contractors that it’s kind of normal if you make an appointment like a week before it’s kind of normal that they won’t show up unless you send a follow up. So I will say you do kind of have to send a follow up that day, even though I think that professionally you shouldn’t have to do that. But you do.

Ting: Yeah. And the reason for that is because they want to filter out people that aren’t serious because their time is what makes them money and they spend all their time answering people that aren’t serious than they you know…

Elsie: If you take a minute to imagine how much it would suck to go to ten different homes and give elaborate quotes and not get any of those jobs. It is kind of understandable why they will choose the clients who seem like they have their shit together the best.

Ting: Yeah, you have to be a client they can satisfy.

Elsie: Yeah. Yeah. Something really helpful that I learned in our last home renovation is that it’s good to have everything picked out, a sketch and sort of like a timeline, a budget, like have everything in your mind or written down before you have these meetings, because they…if they ask you all those questions and you don’t know any of the answers, they probably won’t call you back. Is there anything else that you want to say about advice for hiring? Because I feel like that’s a big part of it. People get really intimidated.

Ting: Yeah. And a payment schedule is really important. If somebody wants to be paid 50 percent upfront before they even start. That’s a really bad sign. Right? Some of them will do that just to give it a flakes that will never do a job, just want a bunch of quotes and never really pull the trigger. So just because they say they want 50 percent upfront, doesn’t mean you can’t use them. But you’ll have to say I’m not comfortable paying 50 percent upfront before work started because we’ve never worked together before.

Elsie: Right.

Ting: But they have to be willing to negotiate, like you can say, how about if I buy the materials upfront and then I’ll pay you for labor when — 50 percent of your labor — when you’re 50 percent finished.

Elsie: Yes. I think that’s great advice.

Ting: You have to give something because they also don’t want to buy a bunch of materials and have you change your mind either. So you got to give and take. Right. But you shouldn’t give them a bunch of labor money when they haven’t spent any labor on the project. So their willingness to accept delayed payment until they have some work to show for is very important. I would pay more for a contractor that’s willing to be paid later than right now upfront before any work is finished. Again, that doesn’t apply to Home Depot or any place you’re buying materials from like, you know, a granite yard, or you know…

Elsie: Yeah, we’re talking about individual tradespeople.

Ting: Yeah. Like plumbers. Electricians.

Elsie: Yeah. So to summarize. OK. So I’m going to work with a new person doing tile. That’s our example.

Ting: OK.

Elsie: And I will say to this tile person, I’m fine to take the call from the store or to order the tile for you. I’ll pay for all the supplies and then I will pay you 50 percent when 50 percent of the job is done. And you do have to define what that would look like for this project. And then the final payment when the finishing last final detail is done and approved.

Ting: Yes. And it doesn’t have to be 50 percent. I personally only pay 30 percent when it’s halfway done because I want to owe them money. I don’t want them to owe me money. And I always have to have enough money left that I owe them for somebody else to come and finish their work. So 50 percent is the maximum. But you can say I could give you a one third draw when you’re halfway finished and just define those terms. And another really important thing I want to squeeze in there before I forget is you want to do all your communication through text. Don’t do it over the phone.

Elsie: The paper trail. Yeah. This is so important.

Ting: Don’t do it over the phone. Email’s OK. But make sure your contractor is capable of texting with you. That’s another thing. If they can’t text, you probably don’t need to use them. I mean, it’s 2020, right? So they have to be able to tax an e-mail and you want to establish most of your communications through text. If it’s too complicated to text, you have to talk to them on the phone, then follow up with a text summarizing the call. That way you have everything in writing so you can refer back to it.

Elsie: Ok. Definitely, definitely agree with this point. So in our last, in our most recent renovation, I shared our wood floor horror story where we had to do the wood floors twice.

Ting: Yes.

Elsie: And with that particular situation, our text messages were how we resolved the conflict in the end, because we had two different, two very different perspectives on how the project went and how we got to this point where we were unhappy. And he thought that the job was done well. So the text messages were definitely like the proof we needed to sort of resolve our conflict. Right. You got to have those texts. All right. So let’s talk a little bit about prep. So what should you have done? Let’s pretend we’re remodeling a kitchen. My favorite. What should you have done before you make your first appointment for your first quote?

Ting: Figure out how much money you have. All right. Budget. If you’re going to be your own general contractor, find all the fixed costs, like how much are the cabinets going to cost? How much is a countertop going to cost? I would figure out all those costs first before you involve individual trades.

Elsie: Smart. So you need to know how much all of your supplies are going to cost.

Ting: That’s right.

Elsie: Before you start hiring someone to do tile or plumbing.

Ting: Yeah. Because whatever money you have left is how much you have to hire these people. And if you don’t you either save up more, you cut back on your supply costs. So figuring out your budget and how much you could allocate to each segment is the most important thing.

Elsie: Beautiful. OK. I want to say my favorite kind of renovation. And then you can say yours because we’re very different.

Ting: Okay.

Elsie: My favorite kind of renovation is a hybrid of DIY and a little bit of subcontracting. So I do think it’s worth it absolutely, to work with trades, especially when it’s something like plumbing, like I would never try to learn that or try to coerce Collin into learning how to do plumbing.

Ting: Yeah.

Elsie: But he has learned to do tiling and, you know, we build shelves all the time, like all Collin ever does is build shelves.

Ting: Yeah.

Elsie: And so I feel like we save a ton of money and we get this really fulfilling DIY experience because we have sort of a low number of contractors needed for our projects, which feels really good because it can be very exhausting to have people in your house especially if it’s for months at a time.

Ting: And if it’s a dirty job like drywall or sanding floors…

Elsie: Drywall is so messy it’s messier than I thought it would be.

Ting: Oh yeah, it’s the worst…Yeah. My favorite type of project is I get a design, either I design it or an architect designs it, and then I hire the general contractor and then I don’t look at it again till it’s finished.

Elsie: So a building project?

Ting: Yeah, I used to like renovations, but, you know, I’m kind of, I don’t know, I guess I’ve outgrown it. It’s not that much fun to me anymore. I’ve just don too many of them now.

Elsie: How many times you think you’ve renovated a kitchen?

Ting: Total kitchens, probably a hundred. I didn’t I wasn’t personally involved in all of them.

Elsie: That’s so many.

Ting: Yeah, I mean some of them maybe I’ll design one kitchen and they put it in 20 different properties. That’s different.

Elsie: That’s true.

Ting: Your your renovation projects are much, much, much more involved than mine because you put your heart and soul into it. I’m just like…

Elsie: I do.

Ting: Cabinet company, what’s the cheapest cabinet, and how can you fill this room with as many cabinets as possible. Right? And then do it 20 times. So my projects are different. It’s more of the more of a job for me. That’s why I’m not emotional about it. I think for you it’s personal because it’s your artwork.

Elsie: Yeah. And I think for most of our listeners, it’s going to be their own home that they’re renovating.

Ting: Yeah.

Elsie: And it matters, like if you get a bad tile job in your bathroom or your kitchen, you might think about it every day for five years. If you’re like me and that’s not good.

Ting: I’ve definitely felt like that when I’ve been renovated my own house. You know, so it’s different when you’re renovating your own house because you have to live without not straight grout line. So if you see a not straight grout line, that’s gonna bother you for the next 10 years. Say something about it. Don’t be scared to say something.

Elsie: Yeah, absolutely. And yeah, if you’re not a grout line person, just start…next time, I know we’re not really going to restaurants right now or I guess next time you’re out and about after COVID is over, just start looking at tile and you’ll see there’s such a big difference between perfect tile and then really bad tile and everything in between. But it’s a thing that once you see it in life, you can’t unsee it everywhere you go for the rest of your life.

Ting: But something else to be said is you have to have realistic expectations because you’re…

Elsie: That’s a good point.

Ting: …because you’re doing the job, you’re subcontracting the job out yourself. You don’t have a general contractor. This is your personal art project. So you’re going to want it to be perfect so that not so straight grout line may just be what it all grout lines…none of them are going to be perfectly straight. So you kind of have to accept that nothing’s gonna be 100 percent perfect or you’ll just drive yourself crazy and your contractor.

Elsie: I do agree with that. Yeah. In summary, if you do a budget renovation, leave a little bit of room that it doesn’t have to be perfect. There were things, there are things in all my renovations that aren’t perfect. No house is perfect. I mean, I don’t think?

Ting: They’re not. But the thing is, you don’t notice it if you didn’t build it yourself. You’re walking in, you’re seeing everything. But if you’re renovating just your kitchen, then your focus is on that one grout line.

Elsie: When you become involved with where every single light switch plate is placed and every single vent, they do become a lot bigger than they really should be.

Ting: Right.

Elsie: Other people won’t even see those things. So, yeah, kind of go easy on yourself and focus on the big picture, remember, and remind yourself why you’re doing it. Because if you’re doing it, if you’re being a general contractor, it should be to save money and you should save money. And you should be so proud of that money you save because it is a lot of work and then focus on I think the big wins are the payment schedule.

Ting: Yeah.

Elsie: And wait what was the other one (laughs).

Ting: You’ve got to focus on the big items. Right? The pricing: you don’t want the cheapest. You don’t want the most expensive, you want something in-between. And if they’re too far apart, just get more, more quotes.

Elsie: Yes. You can’t have too many quotes.

Ting: Yes. And you want to make sure they’re they’re not necessarily highly available because if they’re good, they’re going to be busy. So you want to make sure they’re accessible. Meaning if you text them or call them, they’re going to respond to you within a short amount of time, because if they’re not accessible now, they won’t be later after you pay them either.

Elsie: Agree.

Ting: Right? And then you want to make sure that you control the payment schedule. You don’t want to pay them too much in advance. They have to have skin in the game just like you do.

Elsie: I think that yeah, that’s those are the things you can do to keep your project…

Ting: We’re missing on though, there’s something else.

Elsie: I mean, I think they kind of get it…

Ting: Oh, yeah, keep everything in writing. Oh, yeah. The last one is keep everything in writing. Yeah. So have a contract at the beginning. Have a payment schedule at the beginning and have check points that you’re agreeing on to other as you go through the project. I think that if you do that, you can it can save you from a lot of other problems.

Ting: It’ll save you from having to fire them because everybody’s expectation is the same.

Elsie: Yeah. The last thing I just want to say is even though this episode maybe is like a little bit overwhelming, a little bit scary feeling to do it for the first time, just do a smaller project for your first time if you’re interested in it. But I am a person, I cry a lot. I take things hard. I get stressed out. I’m not good at being harsh, but I still think that this is totally worth it to do and I can totally handle it and I will 100 percent do it again. So it’s worth it. And you can do it.

Ting: Yes.

Elsie: We have a reader question.

Ting: Ok.

Elsie: That is pet related. It is from Maggie. It says, I would love to hear about keeping your house clean even though pets cause a big mess. I never buy rugs because of my pets, but I really want some rugs. OK. So I have very strong feelings about this. Do you?

Ting: Yeah, definitely.

Elsie: OK.

Ting: My strong feelings about pets making a mess in the house is that it’s worth it. And you know…

Elsie: I agree.

Ting: Like I have a white dog that sheds. I don’t know where all the hair comes from. It’s like he has an unlimited source of shedding. You think he’d be bald, but he’s not right? So I just don’t wear dark clothes because, I mean, I’d have dog hair all over me.

Elsie: So in other words, you revolve your life around your pet, not the other way around.

Ting: Yeah. I mean, once you have it, then you kind of get used to the mess. And the most important thing is you have to have a Roomba.

Elsie: Oh, that’s a good tip. I’ve never had a Roomba because I’m really into shaggy rugs. Like see this? And that’s like incompatible.

Ting: Yeah. A Roomba is a reason I haven’t gone crazy from the hair, because it, I just scheduled to run every day and it picks up most of the dog hair. You know, eventually I’ll get to…

Elsie: Have you seen a Roomba looking lawn mower.

Ting: Yes. I want one.

Elsie: We saw one. Oh my gosh. Yeah I really want one of those. I think I do want a Roomba too. But I think I’ll just have to train it or something. But I do think it would be nice.

Ting: You can’t use a Roomba on this rug. But if it’s flat…You can still have rugs. Just don’t get rugs that are, you know, super, super tall.

Elsie: This is my kind of rug, though. This is my category of love and joy.

Ting: Well pick it up when you run your Roomba.

Elsie: Oh, no, no, no.

Ting: (laughs)

Elsie: OK. So here’s my feelings, Maggie, about pet ownership. This is. This also goes for children, because I get a lot of comments. They’re like, why would you buy that? Why do you have so much white stuff? How is your house so perfect? Do you not let your kids, like people actually ask if we don’t let our dogs and our kids on furniture and the bed and stuff and like, no no no no no. OK, everything in our house is not sacred, even if I. OK. So I believe this very strongly. Like when we got the Jonathan Adler sofa, I let go of it in my heart. Yes. I love the sofa. Yes. You know, it’s like the most important sofa in the world to me. But, you know, I let go of it. And the day that my dog pees on it, which will happen or barfs or my kid spills food on it or whatever, it will be, OK. And I’ll clean it up the best I can, and then I’ll continue living my life and loving my pink sofa. And I think that if you have that attitude, you can have whatever you want in your house. It doesn’t have to be, you know, dark colors only.

Ting: Yeah.

Elsie: You just have to be able to accept that, you know, if you have like, I love an all white house and yeah, there’s like little marks on everything everywhere and like who cares./?

Ting: Yeah. I mean, really the only person that notices it is you. Right?

Elsie: It’s true because that’s the other thing that’s funny is like on our bedding, in our bedroom, I posted a picture of like our you know, our bedroom it iss like mostly white. Then I get a lot of comments about that. And I was like, why do you assume that it’s perfect? It’s not perfect. It has lots of little imperfections all over it from all kinds of life things. And that’s fine.

Ting: Yeah.

Elsie: It doesn’t matter. And it’s washable so. Yeah. Learn how to clean things and turn your brain off to caring. I don’t believe in “this is why we can’t have nice things.”

Ting: I agree.

Elsie: Ok. So thank you so much for listening. If you are loving the podcast, it would be so awesome if you could share it on Instagram. That would mean a lot to us. Emma will be back next week. Thank you so much to Ting for joining us.

Ting: Oh, anytime.

 

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  • So much useful advice (IF you are looking to save money on a renovation). I’ll have to be absent from the podcast more often. Good to know I’m so easily replaced. 🙂

    • While I enjoyed Ting, you are not easily replaced, Emma. I missed you!

  • This was a really interesting take on how to manage a project. Would love to hear an interview with a GC to give their perspective on the value that they add to a project.

      • Very factual and useful podcast on GC. We learned a lot in a recent renovation and echo the red flags: if you can’t get a call or text back, if your GC will not look at or listen to your ideas; if the subs are late, dirty, do poor work, etc. and GC demands payments anyway, run….Whether you work with a GC or do it yourself, the more organized you are upfront, the better it will be. And know that it appears this industry is not a law firm or semiconductor company – people are working off their phones, from their trucks, while driving, etc. Know what is possible, what it might cost and be prepared to research and spec materials yourself. We found that a professional plumbing wholesale supply place was very generous with info and helping us ID all the stuff we needed behind the walls, for ex.

  • Love your podcast! As a government worker in Zoning & Planning, I got so nervous about the permit discussion! My advice (which Ting does mention) – call your local government and let them know what you’re planning on doing ahead of time, every time (and confirm you actually know your jurisdiction, you’d be surprised)! Don’t just assume if your neighbor did it, it’s okay on your property. I know some people are comfortable breaking these rules, but like Ting mentions, this will REALLY come back to haunt you during resale/redevelopment of any type. ALSO! Never underestimate noisy neighbors… they will do their homework and see if you have permits when they start seeing development… usually ending up in fines/court hearings for the violator.

  • This actually couldn’t have come at a better time. We received a referral for a contractor who gave us a bid within our budget. We noticed on his Insta that he’d done work for friends of ours, so we followed up for a reference and they strongly suggested we pass. It’s a simple detached single car garage build, so we thought we might just risk it, but after listening to this, I spoke to my husband, and we told the contractor that we were going to seek other bids. It all feels a bit overwhelming still, but I feel like we have more knowledge in our tool belt to get the build we want. Thank you!

  • I really need a friend like Ting in my life to hold my hand through buying and renovating a house!

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