The biggest takeaway I have from my experience with using a builder instead of a contractor is that you get what you pay for. As long as you are willing to accept this and put time and effort into project management, then it’s a great option for smaller-scale projects.
“Setting the Scene”
I just bought my first house. When I first saw the listing, I was put off by the amount of stuff the previous occupant had squeezed into it. However, when I viewed it in person, I saw the potential and knew I had found my house.
My first loan application was denied, but a year later, when I was in a better situation, I started looking at properties again and found that this one was still available! I put in an offer, and this time, everything worked out.
The only problem was, once the previous occupant’s things were out of the house, I saw the extent of the work required to make it nice to live in. It was also very important to me that I felt like I was living in my house as opposed to someone else’s.
Why I Decided to Use a Builder and Not a Contractor
Contractor or builder? My decision, very simply, came down to money. It is a lot more affordable to hire a builder than a contractor who then hires builders.
After putting down a deposit on the house, my funds were limited in terms of what I could pour into the renovations and repairs.
The work that needed to be done was also on a small enough scale to make this a viable option.
If you are undertaking a larger project, I would say that having someone else project manage and source materials and experts will be worth the extra cost. Their price will also include enough labor to finish the project in a timely manner.
Why I Did Not Go the DIY Route
I could have done some of the work myself, but at that stage, I didn’t have the time or confidence to tackle DIY projects.
To be honest, I was also adjusting to the massive change of owning a house, moving out of my parent’s home, and living on my own for the first time ever.
To have taken on the project myself would have been too taxing on my emotional and mental health, and I’m really glad that I recognized that from the start.
How I Chose My Builder
Before the house sale was even finalized, I had a builder lined up. This is not because I was super organized, though!
My parents had recently renovated their house (using a contractor), and one of the company’s builders agreed to take on my project.
There were many reasons why my choosing method made sense:
- He had been with the contracting company for a long-time, which was a good reference in terms of reliability and experience.
- We knew him personally from his work on my parent’s house, so we were aware of his professional strengths, professional weaknesses, and attitude.
- I didn’t have to go searching for a builder and comparing quotes, etc.
- He knew people who were good at their trade and were looking for some extra work.
However, there were moments during the process when I questioned if I had made the correct decision. If I had done my research, then I would have known with greater certainty that I had chosen the best builder for my project.
Additionally, the existing connection made the arrangement a little more casual and less professional. This wasn’t a problem on the whole, but there were moments when it was a disadvantage.
What I Needed/Wanted to Do
The house is almost 20 years old, and as far as I could tell, it had very little done to it apart from several repaintings of the interior wall color. So, the general wear and tear were pronounced.
I also suspect that the previous occupant (who was a tenant who didn’t want to move but the owners were selling) had stopped looking after the house when it went on the market. So, after a year, it was not looking so great.
To give you context for my experience, you should know what renovations and repairs I was doing.
- The walls needed to be patched and painted. The previous occupant had put tons of nails and screws and had stuck posters up with double-sided tape. The interior walls were also painted a horrible dark mushroom brown color.
- The ceiling needed to be painted and patched where a previous light fitting left a large hole.
- The doorframes, doors, and window frames needed to be painted. They were yellowed with age and nicotine.
- I wanted to replace the kitchen cabinets. The oven seal had failed, so the laminate wood cabinets around it were frilly and cracked from heat damage.
- The kitchen only had one above-counter outlet with two receptacles. I found this to be impractical and wanted to install a second outlet.
- There was no kitchen backsplash and the bathroom walls were painted. I believe that tiled backsplashes and bathroom walls (at least the lower half) are important for hygiene reasons.
- I wanted to replace the bedroom cupboards. They had broken hinges and were stained and damaged from a previously burst water heater (located in the ceiling). They were also poorly designed.
- The floors needed to be retiled. There were about three different tiles in a small two-bedroom house, some were set on the diagonal, and there were edges where the previous tiler didn’t cut tiles to fit; he just grouted a thick line instead.
- I wanted to redo the shower floor as it was too high. It was also small and dark, so I wanted to replace it with a clear, frameless shower.
- The security gate needed to be replaced. The original one was rusted and bolted onto the outside of the house, which meant that I could not get the sliding door off of its rails to replace the broken wheels.
- The wooden, open riser stairs were in a poor state, especially after the renovations, so they needed to be refinished.
I’m looking around my lovely house as I list off all these things and I’m so happy that I just bit the bullet and made the changes up-front before moving in!
What the Builder Could Not Do
Something that I neglected to take into account at the start was that the amount that I was paying to my builder would not cover certain tasks that he could not do because he lacked the expertise.
Had I used a contractor, not only would this have been considered at the start and included in the total quote, but I also would not have had to source these experts myself.
Removing the old security gate and installing a new one needed to be done by the people who sold the gate. Happily, the installation was free and the gate was on sale!
Technically, they didn’t need to remove the old one as the new one is installed on the inside of the door, but they did so for free, which was great because my builder did not have an angle grinder.
So, this one worked out really well.
I bought a new frameless shower, which needed professional installation because of the high risk of breaking during installation. I didn’t know about this extra expense until my builder saw the shower and said he was not comfortable putting it in.
Still, I’m grateful for his honesty. Rather that than have to buy another new shower!
I had to find a team to do this installation, which took some time, but I was very happy with their work.
The new kitchen outlet needed to be installed by an electrician as I live in an estate run by an HOA. I knew about this additional expense at the beginning.
I knew an electrician, so that was simple enough. What was not a great experience was managing the electrician and builder interactions.
The electrician used an angle grinder to create room in the brick and plaster for the new wires and the builder had just painted the ceilings. There was an unpleasant flare of temper that needed to be smoothed over.
If I had used a contractor, then the order in which things were done would have been better planned. Additionally, the electrician and builder would have known each other or at least had the project manager to mediate for them instead of me.
Cupboards and Cabinets
Finally, the kitchen and bedroom cupboards needed to be built and installed by a company specializing in these installations.
I also knew that this job was not going to be done by the builder. I had the choice of leaving it until I had saved up some more money, but I actually got a great deal and I don’t regret it at all.
I got to design my kitchen and bedroom cupboards how I wanted them, and it went a long way to making it feel like my house. Furthermore, I could rip out the old kitchen and do the tiling at once instead of trying to retile the kitchen at a later date.
However, because the installers were separate from my builder and his team, there was a lot of coordination involved on my part. When the kitchen was delayed due to bad weather, I had to delay the builder, which wasted his time.
My Biggest Issues With Using a Builder
Hidden Material Costs
I have already spoken about the hidden costs of service providers, but there were also hidden costs with the materials.
When you hire a contractor, they are in charge of assessing and quoting on how much material you need and buying it. They also often have arrangements with suppliers because they buy in bulk and often, which means you get the materials at a lower price.
While the builder could provide advice on how much material was needed, I felt that it was more like educated guesses. The result was some miscalculations, which required more money and time to address.
Something to note is that my renovation project was the biggest one that the builder had tackled. With time, he might get better at estimating the material requirements.
My builder is used to being under a project manager, so there were some breakdowns in communication.
He would tell me at the end of the day that he needed something the next day in order to proceed with the work, so I had to scramble.
I would not say that this is going to be a problem with all builders. Those who have been running their own businesses long-term would probably be better with this.
My builder was not very good with the finishes. I suspect this is more likely to be a common issue with builders, who are used to focusing on the big picture.
Things like not cleaning all the grout off of the tiles properly, missing spots when painting, and leaving some paint drips on the window frames.
When I first moved in, I thought I would not be able to live with these imperfections, but you stop seeing them after some time, and I’m addressing them slowly.
My builder knows some really good tilers from his job with the contracting company. However, he could only hire them for a limited amount of time, so some of the tiling is done really well and some have hollow spots or imperfect grouting.
The difference is not stark, but it’s important to note as this kind of problem is not going to be specific to my builder.
Unless they have a permanently employed team, builders might outsource some of the work and do the rest themselves, even if their skills in that area are limited.
Another factor here is that there was a larger team working on the renovations for the first few days, but then it dwindled to just two or three people, including the main builder. This affects the time that the project takes.
It Was Weekend Work
As my builder worked for a contracting company, his weekdays were occupied. This meant that all my renovations had to be done on the weekend.
The problem with this is that, as I have said, I live in an HOA-run estate. The noise and construction rules for weekends meant that activities like breaking up tiles and cutting new ones had to be done in a short window on a Saturday morning.
Technically, no work was supposed to take place on a Sunday, but I was told that if I did it quietly, it was okay.
Apart from the delay that these rules caused, I also had to deal with one complaining neighbor.
She reported me twice and a member of the HOA came and spoke to my builder. I had to placate him as he was understandably upset.
This was an oversight on my part; I forgot to check the rules.
However, only one neighbor ever complained and she reported me when the builders were cutting one last tile for the day 10 minutes after the “noisy” hours were up. I personally consider this unreasonable.
Anyway, it was not a very nice experience being new to a neighborhood and getting complained about and then stressing that your renovations would not be able to continue.
Am I Happy With The Decision I Made?
Overall, I am happy with the decision that I made. I could have used a contractor, but I would have had to give up my new kitchen in order to afford the fees.
While there were some frustrating situations, I don’t believe that it would have been perfectly smooth sailing if I had gone with a contractor.
That being said, if the project was bigger, I would prefer a contractor.
Before making the decision, consider your mental and emotional state. You have to be involved as project manager, you have to source your own materials and experts, and you have to make a lot of last-minute calls that you are not exactly qualified to make.
Make sure the timing is right. If you’re pregnant or just had a baby or if you are facing a major business deal, then maybe delay the renovations or get a contractor.
Whatever you set as your budget for the renovations and repairs, add a little extra for the unexpected expenses.
Make sure that you talk to potential builders before hiring them. Some questions to ask:
- Are they full-time freelance (i.e., would they be able to work weekdays)
- What are their skills/qualifications (make sure they feel comfortable to tell you about their limitations as well so that you don’t end up with a builder who tries something that they can’t)
- What does their team look like (numbers and skills)
- Ask how many bigger projects the builder has done in the past.
Once you have chosen a builder, go through the house with them and do a full assessment of what is required in each room. Make sure you both know. You tell them what you want and they give you information on what is involved and what is feasible.
Start with the most important things. So, make a priority list. That way, if you have to ax some parts of the project, you still have the ones you most want to get done.
When your builder asks you to buy materials, ask them what brand and type they want.
Be upfront about communication expectations and check in with them at the start and end of each day.