To Use a Contractor or Go It On Your Own

Now, first of all, I have to make a couple of disclaimers:

  1. I have nothing against using contractors. 
  2. Don't take on any project that is beyond your skill and knowledge level. Always get professional advise.

A few years ago I decided to renovate my basement. It was old and had not been updated in 30 years or more, long before I purchased it. I decided to get some quotes from contractors to see what my potential costs might be. Then I decided to compare the contractors’ quotes to quotes from individual tradespeople. After all, I wanted to know how much money I could potentially save if I was to be my own contractor. Well the quotes came in and I could potential save more than $25,000. I mulled it over for a few weeks and decided I was going to do it. But would I regret it? That was the question. I would find out in about a year.

The original estimated time frame was 3-6 months. Some other reasons I decided to take on the job myself were: it was a project I thought I could handle; my basement is not large; I was not looking for any high end finishes; and my job gave me the flexibility to work from home so I could keep an eye on the progress.

My first step was to do some planning and mapping of my project so I could stay on track. I designed the layout of my basement on a 3D design program you can download for free online. I searched online and in stores for all my fixtures. My list included items like a walk-in shower, sink, toilet, flooring, faucets, lighting, doors, paint, trim, backsplash, exhaust fan, light switches and outlets and much more. The Internet is a great resource to search these items online first and then check out your favourites in person. Some people may purchase some of these items online first before seeing them, but I never did that. I saw every item in person first before purchasing them.

My next step was to find and hire the tradespeople. After all, that is one of the most important jobs of any contractor. Luckily, I asked the right people and they gave me names of some great tradespeople. I hired an electrician who, interestingly enough, has a PHD in science. (He decided to get his electrical certification and then change careers.) I found a father and son carpentry team. They did all the framing, drywall and drop ceiling. They also worked with another tradesman who did the taping, mudding and sanding. Next, I needed a plumber and found a two hardworking Italian brothers who were a lot of fun to work with.

After all the tradespeople were hired, we discussed the job together. They needed to know the job in detail and I needed to know what they required from me. As your own contractor, you should know the tradespeople and be able to communicate effectively with them.

The electrician needed me to purchase all the materials, so he made a list of items that would complete all the electrical work. The list would grow a bit over the duration of the renovation, but that is a fairly normal part of the process. The carpenters purchased all their own materials. Because of the amount of material needed, they preferred to purchase and pick up all of it themselves. That was fine by me. The plumbers had all their own materials too. I only had to pick up and deliver the fixtures. So now I had a lot of tradesman, fixtures and materials to keep organized.

I kept the fixtures and materials in my garage and made sure all the tradespeople worked in order of construction:

  1. framing, electrical and rough-in plumbing
  2. insulation, drywall, mudding, tapping and sanding
  3. finishing the electrical, ceiling and painting
  4. bathroom fixtures, flooring, interior doors, baseboards and trim

Along the way the proper permits were taken out and passed by the city inspector. (This is another important part of the job that any diligent contractor would do.)

I did a lot of the finishing work myself, including the painting, flooring (except the heated tile in my bathroom), installing interior doors, baseboards and trim, and a few other small details that helped put the final touches on my project.

The renovation ended up working out very well. The basement looked great, the experience was educational, sometimes fun and sometimes frustrating. I met a lot of great people who I'd hire again and who I would pass on as a good referral.

The savings ended up being $22,000, a little less than what I wanted, but since the basement looked great it was worth it in the end.

So would I do it again? YES! My next big renovations is my kitchen, and yes, I will be the contractor. Stay tuned for a follow up story on that. 


Jim Born