An HGTV show called “Disaster DIY” showcases the bad ideas, money pits and utter failure of people who thought they were smart enough to do what contractors do professionally.
I really don’t want to be on that show. In fact, I brace myself for what goes through people’s minds and, even worse, is liable to pass through their lips when I tell them I’m my own general contractor.
Homebuilders serve up the most unsettling comebacks. One custom builder — a guy I respect a lot — barely veiled his attempt to change my mind.
“Call me when you need help getting your job finished,” he wrote in an e-mail. “It is the hardest part of contracting and I can guarantee you, while it may seem straightforward and simple, it is a huge undertaking — just speaking from 35 yrs. experience. Good luck.”
Note the “when” I need help, rather than “if.”
Another experienced homebuilder was more straightforward: “Don’t do this Ken. You will regret it every day of your life.”
That kind of advice cranks up a debate in my mind. From one shoulder, the skeptic is whispering into my ear: “These guys are out to scare you. No self-respecting contractor could run a business if he didn’t think he was indispensable.”
On the other shoulder sits self-doubt. “You, sir,” he yells over and over again, “are an idiot.”
OK. So the fact that we first dreamed up this project six years ago, that we put it on hold not just once but – ahem — three times, and that we still don’t have a permit — after reviving our planning for it more than a year ago … all that stuff bolsters the you-are-an idiot school of thought.
This reminds me of a Virginia politician named William Scott. In 1974, New Times magazine declared that he was the “Dumbest U.S. Senator.” Scott responded by calling a press conference to deny it.
I promise you I will not call a press conference to deny my DIY foolishness. But I can’t promise that we won’t end up living for ourselves part of the “Disaster DIY” script.
Here’s how the typical soap-opera-meets-reality-show goes: Homeowner conceives overly ambitious do-it-yourself project. Headstrong Family Member (aka “husband”) leads family deeper and deeper into quagmire despite signs of impending disaster. Suffering Spouse (aka “wife”) is at wit’s end over the inconvenience, financial risk and utter ruination that Headstrong Family Member seems stubbornly intent on pursuing.
Enter The Talent — an unquestionably competent, good-humored and handsome contractor — who digs the family out of the hole Headstrong Family Member created.
Our project’s a lot bigger than most of those featured on the show, so the hole we dig could be a lot deeper. But our plan is to skip the disaster part. So we actually have engaged our own unquestionably competent, good-natured and actually quite handsome builder to keep us out of that hole.
Her name is Lisa Manka. She’s the founder and owner of Hestia Construction in Atlanta. Silvia and I met Lisa in 2008, when Renewal Design-Build’s Peter Michelson was showing off her off as a star project manager. Lisa oversaw several of Renewal’s awarding winning whole-home renovations, including a Discovery Channel showcase house for Decatur residents, K.C. Boyce and Michelle Frost.
We’ve got a bunch of parallels and connections going with K.C. and Michelle. For one thing, like us, they were prepping for a kid while deconstructing, renovating and adding to the old intown bungalow that they already lived in. But we’ve been riding the slow train to K.C. and Michelle’s express.
Back in 2008, we put Peter and Renewal off amid breaking up with our architects and me losing my job. Meanwhile, Lisa struck off on her own by founding Hestia, where she’s generally focused on slightly smaller jobs than ours.
At the same time, there’s a twist in our relationship with Lisa that makes our project more of a do-it-yourself job. She isn’t actually serving as our contractor.
The disadvantage to that arrangement is that we’ll be taking a on a lot of the responsibilities than contractors usually handle. For example, I’m “pulling the permit” — builder parlance for the tearing-your-hair-out experience of trying to get a piece of paper from five or six City of Atlanta departments that often don’t agree with each other about their own processes (more on that later). Lisa also won’t have to handle the money; we’re the ones who’ll contract with the suppliers and subcontractors, and we’re the ones who’ll have to make sure enough money’s in the bank to cover the checks we’re putting out.
Opting to go without a contractor doesn’t increase our risk just because we’re inexperienced. It’s also a liability issue. Contractors take on the responsibility for ensuring that subs do their work correctly, that workers are insured against accidents, that the house doesn’t leak, settle too far, develop mold problems, or fall down once completed. You hire a contractor to take on that risk, and you pay — usually about 20 percent of the overall price — for it.
Are we going to save 20 percent? Probably not. We may be able to cut some deals with subs by offering them advertising on this site, and Lisa will help us find some folks to work with. But contractors with longterm relationships with subs naturally can cut better deals with suppliers and subs.
In addition to that, we’ll be paying Lisa. And we’re bound to make some mistakes that will have to be corrected by spending.
Do I sound like an idiot, yet?