How to have a house built with your sanity intact.

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.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

7 replies on “How to have a house built with your sanity intact.”

  1. Congrats on the house Waldo. I don’t know how you find the time! I hope you plan to write a book about this. If I ever build a house it would be my bible.

  2. Those are all great tips… congrats on the house.

    I’m curious — regarding the subs, did you ask your GC for verification that all the workers were legal residents?

  3. I’m curious — regarding the subs, did you ask your GC for verification that all the workers were legal residents?

    I too am curious: why would you? And can it even be done in a way that doesn’t compromise workers’ privacy? Do you ask your waiter for verification that the entire kitchen staff are legal residents when you go to restaurants?

    It just seems odd to have customers try to enforce immigration law, though I’ll admit it’s a subject I haven’t given much thought.

  4. While I’m nowhere near in the position of being able to build a house, generally speaking I’m more than happy to give my business to anyone who can do a good job, legal resident or otherwise.

    In fact, given the choice between two equally competent individuals, I’d be MORE inclined to give the job to someone who’s struggling to make it in a foreign country, because immigrating can be a difficult thing and there’s a lot of small-minded racists out there trying to make it harder than it already is.

    The main problem is that a lot of these folks are being exploited by their employers because such things aren’t monitored the way they should be. I believe the government should be tightly regulating the people who employ “undocumented workers,” but for the purpose of ensuring that they get fair pay and a living wage, NOT to deport them.

    People who were born outside the US deserve a good job and the ability to feed their families, too, and one of the great things about the United States is that it’s historically a place where people can come to do that. “Open Border Policies” are how 90% of my ancestors got here, and I’d assume most of y’alls as well.

    Sorry to threadjack, just my $0.02 on the matter.

  5. Ben; That’s why the homebuyer has a contract with a licensed General Contractor. It is a transfer of responsibility for employment law compliance. Good reason to use a licensed, insured GC, and check the documentation. Publius is just demonstrating stupidity or stinkiness, maybe both.

  6. I don’t know which subs are licensed, bonded, insured, in the country legally, under indictment, out on parole, or sex offenders, because that’s the builder’s job, not mine. And, I imagine, the subs’ job, since they’re the ones who hire the people who do the work. Many of the subs are one-man shops, but some are large enough operations to have employees. Our cabinet maker is Bosnian. Is he here legally? I dunno. Not only do I not know, I don’t even know how to know. I say “show me your papers,” and he shows me…what? Dude could type something up in Word, and I wouldn’t know the difference. Luckily, I don’t have to know the difference, because I’ve got a builder whose job it is to take care of that stuff.

Comments are closed.