Be a General Contractor for Your Own Renovation Project In Just 8 Steps

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I’m closing on a triplex (two 2bed/1bath units and one 1bed/1bath) on Monday that needs renovation and I’ve decided to GC this project on my own.  I sat down and started getting my thoughts together about a calendar and timeline and I realized that this process would make a great post for anyone doing their first renovation or anyone who wanted to get more organized.  My golden rule for renovations is to make a realistic budget and timeline and stick to them.  Everyone strives for a high quality renovation that is both cheap and fast but as BiggerPockets’ very own J Scott wrote in a post titled “Better, Faster, Cheaper”, you can really only focus on two of the three at any given time, so focus on quality and cost at the expense of speed. 

Here are the 8 steps I follow when renovating a property:

Step 1: Demo

Maybe the most critical step because having a clean working environment will actually save time and money.  Have your demo crew take down walls and get everything out of your way before making any improvements. Also have them remove any trees or bushes that are in the way of progress.  Then have the demo crew remove all of the trash and debris.

(Note: A beginner mistake is to perform these steps room by room or unit by unit but that actually ends up costing more time and money when contractors have to return so whenever possible have the contractors perform their task for the entire project before moving to the next step.)

Step 2: Waterproof Building Envelope

Another critical step because nothing would be worse than renovating a property only to have some or all of the renovations ruined after the first rainy day.  In this step I focus on making the property is completely protected against the elements.  This includes fixing or replacing the roof, the gutters, the windows, the window capping, masonry work, gradation issues, sidewalks, basement, parging, and foundation work.  Make sure that by the end of this step the building is 100% waterproof.

Step 3: Preliminary Framing

Now that the property is a blank pallet and watertight you can be begin any structural or light framing you are doing on the project.  Not every project requires this step but if you are moving or installing walls now is the time to build them.  Also use this opportunity to repair or replace joists and subflooring if necessary.

Step 4: HVAC, Plumbing and Electrical

In the next phase the heating, cooling, electrical, gas and plumbing systems are put in place. Here are some common tasks that occur during this phase of the renovation:

  • The HVAC contractor will run the ductwork so it can properly distribute to each floor
  • Plumbing lines are installed
  • Water lines for kitchens and baths are installed
  • Main electric panel is replaced or cleaned up
  • Electrical wiring is repaired/replaced
  • Switches and outlets are changed/upgraded.

After all of the ducts and lines are installed your framing contractor will return for some secondary framing.  All this entails is dry-walling and boxing in the ducts/lines that were just installed.

Step 5: Insulation and Drywall

The next step requires the installation of insulation and drywall.  Make sure that the drywall contractor hangs, tapes, spackles and sands the drywall and leaves it ready for the painter to begin painting.  Painters can sand and prep the walls but they are usually more expensive than dry-wallers so try to have the dry-wallers do most of the wall prep.

Step 6: Paint, Lighting, HVAC, Plumbing, Kitchens, Baths

This phase of the renovation covers interior paint, lighting installation, HVAC, and finalizing the plumbing.  This is the home stretch and a great deal of work is done in this step.  Common tasks include:

  • Prime and paint interior walls.
  • Install kitchen cabinets
  • Order/install counters
  • Install new interior doors
  • Order/install flooring
  • Install trim/molding
  • Install light fixtures, switches cover plates and outlet cover plates
  • Make sure HVAC system is installed and fully functional
  • Install sinks, vanities, toilets and kitchen/bath fixtures.

Step 7: Interior Punchlist

If you’ve made this far take a deep breath because you are almost done!  The interior punchlist phase is the time when you go around and put the finishing touches on your renovation project.  Common puchlist tasks include installing HVAC trim covers, outlet light switch covers, doorknobs, cabinet handles, touching up paint and all of the small items that really make the project look great.  Make a list and go down item by item and cross them off as they are complete.

Step 8: Exterior

The final step is exterior renovation.  This step includes exterior landscaping, exterior paint touch up, mailbox installation, property address number installation, flower boxes, window shutters, door hardware and any other item dealing with exterior curb appeal.

Congratulations you’re done!  As you can tell overseeing your own renovation project really isn’t that scary if you are super organized and stick to a timeline.  Follow these steps and over time you will streamline your process and become more efficient.  Best of luck and make sure to let me know how it goes!

Photo: M&T Bygg Consulter AB

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About Author

Frank L. DeFazio sells Philadelphia Real Estate and Philadelphia Condos for Prudential Fox & Roach in Center City Philadelphia. Frank is a real estate agent, investor, developer, and founder of the CenterCityTeam. Read more from Frank at his Philadelphia Real Estate Blog

14 Comments

  1. Good read Frank,
    I’ve done a few flips and still pretty new so it’s always good to look at what some else has done that is successful. It never ceases to amaze me that this is not rocket science here, I always tend to over think the process. You have laid out a very simple plan that can be used as a template that I am going to steal, uh, I mean borrow. I know each house is different, but do yo have a time frame on houses that you fix? If a typical house (3/2) needing 25,000K, should it take, rule of thumb here, one month. Or maybe, a week per 5K. Or do you have a basic time line/goal for a house?The trouble that I run into, is just that, I have a tough time evaluating the time frame. So any suggestions would be greatly be helpful.

    • Every project is totally different. The scope of work at each step will dictate the time required. I’m going to renovate and hold this one and I can’t start the cash out refinance for 6 months because of the lender seasoning requirement. Given the time of year and the first floor tenants I have to evict I’m probably going to take my time and take 3-4 months.

  2. In regard to time frames, they can vary widely, depending on what your local building department requires in the way of permits, and the time they take to process, in addition to the amount of work to be done.

    For instance in some areas of California properties are within the jurisdiction of County or City building departments. Oftentimes Counties are less busy and can process permits much quicker, and have far less regulations. Some cities in California it can take weeks to up to a year to process a permit for remodeling. So,get to know your local areas policies, and then add on the time it takes for scheduling the actual work.

  3. Hey Frank – I love practical articles like this. I found that for the first few years – I didn’t fully understand this order! I use to demo room-by-room (like you said – terrible idea) and things ended up taking so much more time and money. This is one of the key reasons I recommend that people either work for a flipping crew first or intern under a successful investor – so they can see first-hand how this process works. Great article!

  4. Great article Frank.
    I just purchased my first Multifamily (Triplex). My question is can you be your own General Contractor for a 203k loan? How would you be your own General Contractor with a 203k?

    • Brandon Turner

      Hey Roy – I could be wrong but I believe you can if the total amount is less than 15k (at least, this was the rule two years ago… but we know how fast things change!)

      Anyone else have any ideas on this?

    • FHA now leaves it up to the banker to decide if a contractor is certified (or qualified in others ways). The burden is on them to make sure it is built right so most would likely want the max. It may require you to get a GC license. I have been looking into this lately as I may be doing the same thing soon. If I am reading it right you can get certified pretty easy. Costs are about 400 dollars for classes to get certified as 203k.
      Let me know how it works out for you as I would like to compare notes.

  5. Good stuff Frank!
    I do it a little differently. I fix the curb appeal first. I can start marketing while the interior is being completed.

  6. This is an old article, and I am just entertaining the possibility of being GC on a reno, but you seem to have missed a huge step in the process: PERMITS. That is also one of the most time-consuming and frustrating parts of the process, too, I am finding. Anyone can rip down a wall but it takes a real pro to get a permit from a slow-moving bureaucracy .

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