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Want to save wad of cash? Be own general contractor

You must have discipline, lots of time and the skills to manage your subs. But the rewards are well worth it.

By JANET ZINK
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 16, 2002


Do-it-yourselfers with plenty of time can save a big chunk of change when building or improving their homes by serving as their own general contractor.

"If you're willing to invest the time and you have the time to invest, you can save a lot of money," says Mark Bastille, who is gutting a home in Seminole Heights.

Bastille figures he will save $30,000 by supervising the project himself.

Doug Jay, who completed construction of a house in Palma Ceia in May 2001, estimates he saved nearly $40,000 by cutting out a general contractor.

"You do have to have a certain commitment to it. It was not easy doing that essentially full time and having another full-time job. It helps if you're in the industry," says Jay, who is an architect.

Bastille owns a handful of rental properties in Tampa. He lived in two while improving them, making the Seminole Heights project the third on which he served as his own general contractor.

"I'm getting more experience every day," he says.

"It's a three-fold kind of thing. You have to be a designer, builder and then deal with the financing. When you're the owner, you have to actually pull the permits and manage all your subs. To keep your budget in line, you have to pay attention to the costs of the subs."

When choosing subcontractors, it's important to interview as many as possible and check their references, Bastille says.

Bastille and Jay both say supervision is critical.

"I was out there two to three times a day," Jay says. Bastille advises tackling smaller projects first, such as closing in a garage or doing a small addition.

"It's not rocket science," Bastille says. "You can stand there and be a sidewalk supervisor. Bettina (his wife) can stand there and say those two pieces of wood don't look right. There's a big gap there."

The state of Florida requires construction to be done by licensed contractors. An exemption to the law allows owners to act as their own contractors when building or improving one- or two-family residences.

There are a few restrictions. The owner must provide on-site supervision of the project, and the building must be for the owner's use or occupancy.

To qualify for the exemption, owners must personally appear and sign building permit applications and present a photo ID along with proof of ownership, such as a recorded deed or tax receipt.

Owners are responsible for meeting the requirements of zoning and land development regulations, adhering to building codes and for arranging all the necessary inspections.

Bastille says the "best friends" of the self-contractor are the city inspectors. They helped keep his subcontractors on track when he was called away on active duty with the Army Reserves.

"When I was gone and Bettina was bossing that project by herself, she was lucky enough to have the inspectors on her side. She had them yelling at the contractors," Bastille says. "Those guys helped us out tremendously. They saw that we were trying to do a good job."

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