How to organize seismic retrofit and various renovations
June 23, 2014 9:26 AM   Subscribe

We bought a 1920 bungalow in Berkeley and need to get various things done. We're hiring an engineer to look at the foundation + retrofit and make plans. After that, should we hire a general contractor, or should we go with organizing everything by ourselves?

Aside from seismic retrofitting, there's a (hopefully, small) issue with the foundation,2 brick chimneys need to be removed for earthquake safety, roof is on its last legs, electric needs some upgrading, we need to install central forced air heating...and two or three dozen little issues that need to be taken care of at some point or another.

Husband thinks we might get a raw deal if we hire somebody to organize everything and it will be much much more expensive without leading to better quality work. Why not hire the subcontractors ourselves?, is his thinking, because then we could also pick craftsmen with a good reputation!

I tend to think we will have a very hard time organizing everything - beginning with whom to ask first, scheduling the work so people don't get in each others' way, getting permits (difficult around here). I'm a stay at home mom and we live 5 minutes from the new place so that is definitely a plus - no problem letting people in a few times a week, checking in on them etc. On the other hand, I have a toddler in tow and it's unlikely that I will be able to spend hours at a time at the permit office without losing my mind...or hang out on site while daughter plays with the nail gun...

Have you done this? What is your advice?

(Btw since the term seems to be used differently by different people - by "general contractor", we mean somebody who manages specialized subcontractors who are licensed etc. Not a "guy with a drill" type scenario who does stuff alone and without permit/without being qualified to do, e.g., electrical/plumbing work. We prefer not to cut corners.)
posted by The Toad to Home & Garden (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The pro's of hiring a GC is that s/he can promise more work to subs, therefore, they will tend to show up as scheduled, also, a GC can negotiate better rates, AND will insure that proper insurance and bonding is in place.

The GC will also coordinate, pull permits and make sure that everything passes inspection, also, they've seen and done everything, so things that may stymie that awesome roofer, are old hat to GC Smith. GC Smith will also suggest things to fix that are synergistic, and thus cheaper now rather than later, "Ms. Toad, as long as we've got the roof off, let's upgrade your insulation..."

In most cases, I'd say, DIY, but not in Berkeley. Berkeley is a republic unto itself.

Just find a GREAT contractor. A first rate contractor hires first rate subs, a second rate contractor hires third rate subs.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:34 AM on June 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

I have to agree with Ruthless Bunny! Berkeley is terminally unique, and so is it's permitting/inspection process. Save yourselves, get a good contractor who is familiar with Berkeley and it's special ways.
posted by k8oglyph at 9:45 AM on June 23, 2014

I have tried this both ways, in Oakland, and it works much better if you get a good GC. Ruthless Bunny's summary hits the key reasons:

- they know what it takes to get the city permits
- they know what to tell the subs to do
- they can negotiate better rates from the subs
- they know the reliable subs who do good work
- if something goes wrong with the subs or the cost estimation, it's most likely on the GC to cover the added cost
- if it takes two tries to pass the city inspection because the city changed its stairway railing rules recently, that kind of stress and added cost is on them

by "general contractor", we mean somebody who manages specialized subcontractors who are licensed etc. Not a "guy with a drill" type scenario

You should specify that all subs need to have their own license if this is what you want (as it should be IMO).
posted by slidell at 10:06 AM on June 23, 2014

I've been working on renovating a house of more or less the same age as yours (but probably significantly different construction) where I live. Recently I've been making great progress working with a contractor that I get along well with and trust, but..

It took me years, literally, to find him. In the meantime, a common pattern was:
  1. call subcontractor, ask to arrange a meeting to discuss job.
  2. wait until subcontractor is available to meet
  3. meet with sub at site, discuss project needs, give that person a write-up summarizing what I wanted from the project, ask for an estimate.
  4. "I'll get back to you on that.."
  5. two weeks later, call the subcontractor, leave voice mail asking for status.
  6. three to six weeks after site meeting, having heard nothing, give up, scratch that subcontractor off list, go to next in list.
Now.. there's a case to be made that I'm uniquely bad at this, but depending on how much demand there is for competent contractors in your area you might run into the same thing. For me, at least, it has never been as simple as "find someone recommended, call them, job gets done, write a check.." That's where you would strongly benefit from having a (good) general contractor -- he (or she) has a working relationship with subcontractors that gives him a big edge in getting them to call back, schedule jobs, deal with snags.

A mediocre (or worse) general contractor is truly a waste of money but a good one really can add value.
posted by Nerd of the North at 10:11 AM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ruthless Bunny pretty much nails it. You've got at least 5 trades going on in your list (foundations, masonry or demolition for the chimney, electrical, roofing, waterproofing, HVAC, whatever else is included in your other items). If you handle this yourselves, you're likely starting from scratch - you don't know anyone who works in these trades, you don't know anything about getting building permits, and you don't know anything about coordinating work schedules of the subs so that they're not in each other's way or having to rip out other guy's work to do their own stuff. All that stuff is quite literally the GC's main job, and he'll carry a lot more weight than you guys with getting guys to work on your job site. If you have some guys that you know of already, you can stipulate to the GC that they work on your project, although the GC may try to convince you to work with one of his guys instead.
posted by LionIndex at 10:50 AM on June 23, 2014

One other thing to keep in mind.. As Ruthless Bunny wrote above:
Just find a GREAT contractor. A first rate contractor hires first rate subs, a second rate contractor hires third rate subs.
Even after years of renovation projects on an older house, it still never ceases to amaze me that (in my experience, at least) the amount of money you spend on the labor portion of a project has little, if any, apparent relationship to the quality of the outcome. I've hired people who were expensive (on a per hour basis) and slow, and I've had others who were cheaper, quicker, and infinitely nicer to work with. Which is another area in which having a really good, knowledgable GC can benefit you -- he (or she) will know the workmen who are a good value and, if they're good at organization and management, those workers will be more willing to work with them because a really good GC makes things run more smoothly not just for you but for the subcontractors as well.
posted by Nerd of the North at 11:03 AM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Alderson Construction and Canyon Construction are 2 fine GCs in the Berkeley area that I have had excellent experience with.
posted by TDIpod at 11:08 AM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

You really need a GC for this sort of project. Get a personal recommendation if you can. If you are new town, then get a list of references from the GC's that you are vetting, and spend the time to politely invite yourself over their place and look at the work in person. This idea might seem a bit pushy, but it's worth it.
posted by ovvl at 5:39 PM on June 25, 2014

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