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Homeowners Can Learn to Be Their Own Contractors

October 21, 1989|NANCY JO HILL | Nancy Jo Hill is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

After a few years in his two-story, five-bedroom Cypress home, Phil Famolaro realized that his growing family was eventually going to need more elbow room.

He decided to be his own contractor and build an addition before he really needed it. Famolaro did all his own construction, with the exception of the concrete slab, and it took him five years, working over vacations, weekends and in the evenings.

But when he finished the two-story, 1,200-square-foot addition, he had an eight-bedroom home with a new 20-foot by 30-foot family room. Since Famolaro's family eventually grew to include nine children, he's glad he built the addition.

Famolaro today is sharing his do-it-yourself expertise with homeowners who see room additions and other home improvements as good alternatives to moving.

He teaches a series of classes at Cypress College. "Room Additions: Do-It-Yourself" is for homeowners who want to learn how to be their own general contractors instead of hiring a contractor for their construction project.

Homeowners acting as their own general contractors, he explains, might decide to select, hire and supervise subcontractors to do the actual construction and finishing work.

Or they may choose to do some of the construction themselves and hire and supervise subcontractors for some elements of the project.

Or they may decide to tackle the whole job, including drawing up the plans, obtaining permits and doing the construction themselves.

"Just by acting as their own major contractor, they can save 30% right off the top," Famolaro says. "If they do all the work themselves, then their only cost will be materials, and they can save as much as 80% of the cost."

Those who do some of the construction and hire subcontractors for some of the work would save somewhere between 30% and 80%, he says.

Famolaro, an electronic engineer, completed his construction in the mid-1970s, and the total cost of the addition was $5,000. Allowing for inflation, Famolaro estimates it would cost him at least $20,000 to create the same addition today. He estimates that hiring subcontractors to do the work at today's wages might cost as much as an additional $60,000.

Students in Famolaro's classes get to hear guest lecturers from various areas in the construction field and learn about preparing plans, the sequence of events in construction, obtaining building permits, selecting subcontractors, methods of financing, legal concerns and ramifications, inspecting completed work and resolving problems with contractors. Overview classes are offered in the fall and summer, and a demonstration class of skills such as carpentry and plumbing is offered in the spring. The fee for each class is $2.

Irvine Valley College also offers a class on "Contracting Your Home: Building or Remodeling."

"We go through almost every stage of construction, from new home building and remodeling, right on down from hiring an architect," says instructor Gary Wetzel of his seven-week course, which costs $165. Wetzel is a construction manager who frequently arbitrates disputes between homeowners and construction companies.

When is it a good idea to be your own contractor, and when would it be better to hire one? When is it a good idea to do the construction yourself, and when should you hire subcontractors?

Both instructors say that each person has to make that decision based on his or her individual skills and the amount of time available to devote to a construction project. Many students pick and choose their hands-on involvement and hire subs to do the work they don't want to tackle.

Anyone planning on doing the actual construction should be in good physical condition because a lot of construction is hard, back-breaking work. If you are going to do concrete work, for instance, Wetzel says you had "better be willing to go down on your hands and knees and dig in the dirt, put your feet in the middle of concrete, get your hands in the concrete."

"Each person knows what his mechanical aptitude and skills are," Famolaro says. "If a person is afraid to use a screwdriver, he should not do the construction himself. However, he can still be his own major contractor, and he can still save that minimum of 30%."

A person who is comfortable with a hammer and a saw should be able to do his or her own construction, Famolaro says.

"If a person has physical dexterity, like working on his lawn mower or his own automobile, that's all you need," he says. "The skills are very, very simple. The technology is very, very simple."

The real challenge, he says, is to schedule the construction so it does not interfere with your life too much. A job that must be completed in a short period of time can be too stressful. He explains that he did his own addition at his leisure because the main house did not have to be torn up.

"We did not sacrifice any of our recreation time," he says. "I would recommend, if you're gonna do it yourself, plan it that way, so you don't get caught in a bind."

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