Q: All the books I read say that you should be able to save 25 to 30 percent of the cost of a house by acting as your own general contractor, even if you don't do any of the actual work. Is this really true?

— Donald, Crete, IL

A: Tom Silva replies: Sure, being a GC is a piece of cake. As long as you don't mind 1) getting up at 5:30 in the morning and going all day long; 2) making a bunch of phone calls to subcontractors and material suppliers; 3) visiting the job site to check that your subs did the job you hired them to do, and that they did it right (you know what right looks like, right?); 4) making snap decisions that have a huge impact on the cost, quality, and schedule of the job; 5) spending more time on the phone when you get home; and 6) working on paperwork until 10 p.m. or so. Well, that about does it for Monday.

Being a GC is all about preparation — making sure all the materials and parts needed for the day are on-site, that the subcontractors will be there to do their jobs, and that everyone will work smoothly together. And it's about knowing what to do when things don't go according to plan.

You get the picture: A general contractor does a lot of work, from dawn to dusk and beyond, and has to have some special skills. I suppose you can save some money — if you don't charge for your time, if nothing goes wrong, and if all the work is up to par — but there's no guarantee. Part of my job is to get the best prices from the subs that work for me, and they're willing to offer those prices because they know the job will be organized and I'll tell them exactly what I expect them to do, which saves them time. And they know that if they do a great job, I'll have other work for them in the future. A one-time GC doesn't have that kind of leverage.
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