Your Dream House by Being Both Boss and Contractor
Lisa Layne woke up one morning to see blue sludge inching its way down her Edmonds driveway.
As Joy Radford loaded building supplies into her Jeep Cherokee one day, an 8-foot fence section inadvertently fell onto her windshield, smashing it spider-web fashion.
Traumatic to some, all in a day’s work for these Seattle women who have taken on the courageous role of being their own contractors. They are turning their dream homes into reality by hiring themselves instead of relying on architects, designers and contractors to plan, build and oversee homebuilding and remodeling projects.
“Women are perfect general contractors because we know how to multi-task and we like to be in control. It’s like parenting in some ways,” says Layne, mother of a 9-year-old and 4-year-old triplets. In addition to running her busy household, she coordinated the remodeling of her home while working full-time and opening a Curves franchise in Seattle.
Layne discovered that you don’t need to know the intricacies of electrical wiring or plumbing to be your own contractor. You don’t even need to lift a hammer, unless of course you’re an official “Toolbelt Diva,” like Radford, who preferred to do much of the renovation work on her 65-year-old South Seattle home herself.
“You hear all the horror stories of things going wrong,” Layne says, recalling a day when she came home to learn there had been a small fire on the job site. “But if you can pick up the phone and follow a schedule, you can do it.”
In addition to saving money, being your own contractor gives you the flexibility to fine-tune your own designs, choose your own unique building materials and monitor the quality of workmanship. The biggest advantage is having complete control over the project.
Pros and Cons of Being In Charge
Being both boss and client has its pitfalls, however – you don’t get to blame the contractor when things go wrong. There was no one to complain to every time Gangnes’ construction crew set off mini earthquakes throughout her house when they fired up the compressor each morning. And Layne was ultimately responsible for the ooze in her driveway which turned out to be cleaning fluid from a porta potty that had been knocked over (for the second time) by pranksters.
Denise Philby, who designed and managed the construction of her 7,100 square foot Bainbridge Island home, also learned that being your own boss can sometimes backfire. She handled everything from design and securing permits to prepping the property and selecting all 19 interior paint colors, but forgot to include a ceiling light in the main home office area. It has turned out to be one of the most used rooms in the house –where she tutors kids and where her three children, ages 15, 9 and 6 do their homework.
Another faux pas was the 7-foot-long kitchen bar countertop that ended up being about two to three inches too high. “My little girl has to sit on her knees to eat,” says Philby. “I couldn’t blame anyone but myself.”
While their experiences were sometimes frustrating, these self-contractors say they wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s the price they had to pay to have their remodeling projects done their way.
Do You Have What It Takes?
Norma Vally, host of the Seattle-produced Toolbelt Diva home improvement show which recently aired on the Discovery Home Channel, warns women not to undertake the job of general contracting on a whim. She says it is imperative to first do some soul-searching. Ask yourself tough questions – and answer them honestly: “Do I really have the time to do this? And do I really have the know-how to make these (contracting) decisions?”
“This should not be taken lightly at all,” Vally said in a telephone interview from her Los Angeles home. She also recommends doing all the research on the project before getting started and “having the name of a reliable professional handy just in case you get in over your head.”
The key traits necessary to being your own contractor, according to industry experts and dozens of women who have done it, include:
Many women choose to be their own contractors to save money. Most general contractors add a 15 to 50 percent markup over the cost of labor and materials. Radford, for example, says she and her husband saved thousands of dollars by renovating their 1941 Cape Cod “war box” themselves. They purchased the 1,800 square foot fixer-upper on Beacon Hill for $240,000 in 2004 and managed to upgrade all three bedrooms, bath and kitchen for $22,000, including the cost of a new sewer line. Today, the house is worth about $340,000.
“You have more control over the project when you are in charge,” she says. “I’m a perfectionist and I know what I want as opposed to someone telling me how I should do it. Everyone was telling us to tear down the house and start over, but I knew the bones of the house were good.”
While contractors charge a premium for their services, some argue that their profit from the markup is money well spent: It buys you someone with building experience, competence and willingness to assume final responsibility for the whole job, in addition to securing the permits, scheduling the work and handling disputes that arise with subcontractors and/or suppliers.
“This (contractor savvy) is nothing that is taught in a book,” says Leif Jackson, owner of Jackson Remodeling LLC in Seattle. “It comes with experience.” Many of the owner/contractor projects he has worked on have ended up costing the homeowner more because of mistakes or sloppy work. “Remodeling is pretty complex and it requires professionals.”
The most common mistake people make when undertaking their own remodeling projects is not planning everything in advance, says Crane Stavig, national marketing director of Kirkland-based UBuildIt Corp., which charges a flat fee to help homeowners plan and bid their construction/remodeling projects. “You need to have a detailed schedule to plan everything out so you don’t miss any steps,” he says. “One missed detail can delay a project by weeks and cost thousands of dollars.”
Layne of Edmonds says that the $15,000 fee she and her husband paid UBuildIt saved them money in the long run because their consultant helped them avoid paying a “dumb tax” from costly mistakes. She estimates she saved about $30,000 on her eight-month remodeling project, which went smoothly for the most part.
They transformed a tiny, two-bedroom, one-bath rambler into a four-bedroom, two-bath, 2,500 square foot contemporary craftsman at a total cost of $140,000. Since they purchased the home in 1998, it has more than tripled in value. “I wanted to save money but have control over the project,” Layne says.
Doing Your Homework
Before embarking on the remodel of her Bainbridge Island home, Gangnes researched dozens of interior design and home improvement magazines for ideas and remodeling tips. She also had inspiration from her father, Sig Johnson, who was a well-known Seattle builder who helped design the wooden beams and vaulted ceiling in her master suite.
“You have to understand the process. Most people have trouble visualizing their project so you need to do your homework and know what your taste is,” she says. “There are so many choices, most people get overwhelmed.”
When they first purchased the home in 1988, Gangnes says it was basically a rectangular box house “that sounded like a submarine. I thought I was in Jonah’s belly.” The seven-year renovation, which is still ongoing, has transformed it into what she describes as a “soft, modern home with an Asian, Scandinavian beach house feel.”
The project has been a humbling experience for the family. Her husband, two boys now 16 and 19, and their 9-year-old daughter, all had to live in their daylight basement for more than a year while work on the upstairs was being done. “We cooked outside for five months,” Gangnes recalls. “And we washed dishes in the boys’ bathroom.”
Women Are A Force in Home Improvement Industry Growth
Part of the reason so many women are debunking the long-held belief that general contracting is a man’s job is the vast supply of information available through the Internet, home improvement shows, and “how-to” magazines. “More and more women are wanting to take control of what’s happening in their homes,” says Vally.
National studies show that single women make up the fastest growing segment of homebuyers today and are twice as likely to buy their first home than single men. By 2010, the number of households headed by unmarried women is expected to rise to nearly 31 million, representing about 28 percent of all households in the country, according to a 2003 Fannie Mae study.
Vally, who motivates women to take on home improvement projects all over the country, says women have always had the ability to take on such projects – just not the opportunity. “I’ve never understood why growing up there were such differences between boys and girls,” she says. “Why does my brother know how to take apart a freakin’ radio and I don’t. We grew up in the same house! A hammer doesn’t know whether you’re a girl or a boy so why do we have to count on our brother or husband to put in the shelves?”
Home improvement industry statistics show that women influence up to 85 percent of home improvement purchase decisions. A 2003 survey of 8,200 U.S. households by Forrester Research found that 45 percent of customers at both Home Depot and Lowe’s stores were women. And there’s no letup in sight. The U.S. Commerce Department estimates that home improvement and remodeling industry sales in 2004 reached $360 billion, up from $320 billion in 2003.
The annual increase isn’t surprising considering that the average U.S. home is 30 years old, with more than a quarter of homes built before 1950. Industry experts say there usually is a need for minor improvements every eight years, and for major improvements every 15. And that work just maintains the status quo. Some construction industry forecasts show that home-improvement spending will rival money spent on new-home construction.
Builder, educator and consumer advocate Tom Landis, who gives homebuilding seminars throughout Washington state, says he also has noticed a growing trend of women taking on the role of being their own contractors. “At least 50 percent of my classes are women,” he says.
One reason demand for home-remodeling projects has increased is that homeowners are spending more time in their homes, according to the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. With summer quickly approaching, the association recommends the following steps to help kick-start the home improvement process:
Creating Your Dream House
While most people opt to be their own contractors for cost savings, Philby’s passion for design is what drove her to make her contemporary/Asian-themed dream home a reality. “I’ve always been a doodler,” she says, adding that she briefly studied architecture in college before switching gears to international marketing. “I always wanted to design my own home.”
Shortly after moving to Bainbridge Island from California with her husband eight years ago, the couple decided they loved the “idyllic” community and wanted to plant roots there. Philby started scouring through several dozen “house plan” magazines for ideas, and then began “doodling” home designs. After purchasing a two-acre parcel in a rural yet still central-to-town setting for $106,000, Philby became a fixture at City Hall, learning the design, building and permiting process. She consulted with a local designer “to make sure I wasn’t breaking any code violations” and hired a builder for areas of needed assistance.
Despite being well educated in her international marketing career, Philby says she was a complete novice in the homeowner/contractor arena. “I had no experience in this. But I had a dream,” she says. “I truly went in there (the city planning department) ignorant with my little plans.”
Philby’s vision was to have large rooms filled with light and color to offset even gloomy Northwest days. Her home is painted in rich “spice” colors – 19 different shades in all. A deep blue fireplace backing that reaches more than 20 feet high offsets the mustard yellow walls in the living room.
Although she’s extremely active in community sports and cultural activities, she says she didn’t mind taking the extra time to manage the construction of her five-bedroom, three bath home from the ground up. The advantage is seeing her own design and special features take shape, such as the Japanese soaking tub and see-through fireplace in the master bath, the 22-foot tall ceilings in the living room, his and her closets (hers is much bigger) in the master bedroom, and Brazilian slate floors in the oversized laundry room. The prized see-through glass “martini wall” that separates the entryway from the dining room is being finalized and eventually will hold Philby’s vast collection of hand-blown martini glasses.
By watching building expenses and overruns, she was able to keep the cost under control. Her biggest advice to other homeowners is to hire builders on a “fixed price contract” as opposed to paying on a “time and materials basis,” and get at least four bids from different builders before committing.
While she became good friends with some of the subcontractors, others viewed her as a hovering nuisance. One day she rode her bicycle out to the site and one of the workers started humming Miss Gulch’s theme from the Wizard of Oz.
Other days, “they’d see me drive up and all of a sudden they would scatter and grab their hammers.”
“You have to be on the property all the time,” she says, noting that she came out to supervise construction about four times a week in addition to taking more than 1,000 photographs of the work being done.
Despite the frustrations, delays and many hours of venting to her husband over the course of the four-year project, Philby says she’s proud of her design and her “fortitude to see the creation through.”
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