Some of the best home improvement experiences I’ve had are when the DIY homeowner works with me. They’re folks who are interested in their houses and love projects but the scale of a particular project (finished basement versus backsplash for example) is just a little out of range. No problem. If you have a nice relationship with a contractor and are willing to work, you can get a great experience and save some money all at the same time. You might even make a new friend.
But let’s be clear, just because what contractors do for a living is fun, that doesn’t mean we do it FOR fun. Our mortgage bill comes every month just like yours. And good contractors take their jobs seriously, dare I say as seriously as you take yours?
So if you’re geared up to get into it, understand that building is a dance, one done for profit, and there are steps that need to be followed so you don’t trounce on each others’ toes. Here are a few rules of the road for a happy dance.
Chain of Command. Yes, you hired the contractor, but once you are working on a project, you work for him and must do the work that needs to be done when you agreed to do it. Agree on an hourly wage (you’re not worth as much as you might think) and do what he tells you to—when he tells you to. Agree ahead of time that you can be “fired” if it’s not working out.
Work. DIY is fun on the weekends, but it can be arduous for a week at a professional pace. You’re going to get blisters, cuts, and tired. Man up, he is counting on you. We don’t go in when it rains.
Talking. There is very little time for please and thank you on a jobsite. Rolling joists or carrying shingles requires concentration and strength. Be ready for abruptness.
Also, ask questions—but not a million of them. Building and talking, while they can happen concurrently, can’t happen constantly. While you are waiting to be told what to do, your contractor is probably (hopefully) thinking. Try to sense what the silence means.
Organize. Do things his way. Even if you think you are the most organized DIYer in the world, it is his system you are in. Put stuff away the way he puts stuff away. When in Rome…
“Mistakes.” Taking a house apart and putting it back together is not an entirely tidy process. Things constantly go wrong and need to be mended. And there are things contractors do that you wouldn’t know are done UNLESS you are working side-by-side with one. Get ready to know where its caulk instead of crown, that the house is out of square, and that compensations have been made to accommodate everything from fatigue to fixing a pre-existing problem. These are not shortcuts, it’s how it’s done.
Also, it’s not just your house: all houses are out of square.
Tweaks and Change Orders. New ideas, solutions, wishes arise all the time on a project—hey I never thought of this till right now but a bench would look great there, for example; or what if we add a new room in that basement remodel? Your contractor will surely throw a few freebies your way, but if you ask for stuff all day long, the changes can usually be made, but not for free.
Remember, just because what a contractor does is fun, doesn’t mean he does it for fun.
Now go grab that shovel, these deck footings aren’t going to dig themselves. Have fun!