Here are a few hard-learned tips about how to deal with the procedural aspects of working with your general contractor when building a house.
- Let your builder pick his own subs. You might think that it’s a good idea to have that good friend of your good friend pave the driveway, or your aunt’s neighbor build the cabinets, or whatever. This is a bad idea. If you’ve never had any professional interaction with these people, you have no idea if they’re any good. And if the builder agrees to work with them, despite having no experience with them, then neither of you know who you’re getting into business with. We specified that a family friend do our septic work, and he turned out to be wildly unreliable, in ways that were really problematic. You’re working with a builder in part because you’d be in way over your head if you tried to do your own subcontracting. Stick with that instinct.
- There’s no hurry. If you’re doing it right, it doesn’t matter if it takes five months, six months, or seven months to build your house. Otherwise you’ll worry yourself sick about something over which you basically have no control. That might mean negotiating a higher month-to-month rent at your current place or other similar inconveniences, but it’s a worthy tradeoff. Plus, hurrying to finish a house isn’t cheap—it may well cost you more than just being patient.
- Go limp. Learned helplessness is the only way to get through the process with your sanity intact. Find a few aspects of the house that you’re not willing to compromise on—there have to be wood floors downstairs, no hollow doors, whatever—and stick to your guns on those. But try and be all Buddhist about everything else: practice non-attachment. Stuff is going to change for reasons that are nobody’s fault (or everybody’s), and you can’t go getting upset every time that happens.
- Working with good people is important, but working with good businesses is more important. So you found an architect / a carpenter / a foreman who you really like, so you want to contract or subcontract with their employer. But people leave jobs. Life happens. You can’t expect your friend to put his life on hold for months because he was supposed to lay some tile for you next June. If you pick a vendor because there’s somebody there who you really like, you’d best make sure that you still want to work with that vendor in the absence of that guy. Our architect of choice left the design/build firm we were working with, to go back to school. So we went with another firm to build the house—for that reason among others—because I had an old friend working there who would be our job supervisor. We signed the contract, got started, and two months later he left to strike out on his own.