Inept about construction matters. Help!

14 Replies

Long time lurker, first-time poster here.

While growing up, my dad was an office man, not a handyman. As a result, I am now grown up and know almost nothing about construction. I am a bilking contractor's dream come true. But I don’t want to learn about construction this so that I can do the work to save money. I just want to know enough to not be “taken for a ride” with any contractors I do business with. As it stands now, if doing a walk-through with a GC in a property and he is telling me what work needs to be done, I would just be nodding my head to what he says in ignorance. Oh, it makes me cringe, because I have been that situation before.

So, how would you educate yourself on construction?

Habitat for Humanity?

Take a shop class or some other hands-on at a community college?

Take the same classes as a home inspector, or even get certified as one?

Pay a respected general contractor a high enough fee to show you the ropes or beg him to be his apprentice?

What book suggestions do you have?

Thanks in advance for your suggestions.

Paul W. , I'm in the same boat...I'm a finance/accounting guy by trade and have never been handy!

I'm in no way an expert in construction but I think reading books like "The Book on Estimating Rehab Costs" by J Scott is a good baseline on typical renovations needed. J does a good job on giving you some background on the what is done and why.

Also, I've been asking a lot of questions when I walk through a property with a GC and things are starting to click. Also, when I have a few GCs coming out to bid on a project, I would ask a ton of questions to the 1st GC (as I always do) and then by the time the 2nd guy comes, my questioning is even more focused.

I've heard of people getting technical training at places like Orleans Institute (in Philadelphia, not sure if that is a national school) and have had some success but I think learning through being on the site and asking questions is how I'm going at it. I try and keep a journal of my daily activities including things I learn. Most of the time, the things I learn re: renovation and construction.

Lastly, you could find an experienced investor/mentor and work out some bartering system. Have him/her involved when evaluating a property with a GC and in exchange give your time for something. Since my background is finance and accounting, I've worked out a system where what I can provide is finance and accounting advice in exchange for advice/help on building a real estate rehabbing business.

I've heard of people offering to drive around appraisers to their inspections in exchange for getting educated on the appraisal process. Things like that.

Good luck my man.

All good suggestions from @Account Closed  . Another thing I do frequently, even with a construction background, is watch Youtube videos on specific things I have questions on. Wire a 3-way switch? I've done a couple but do you think I can recall how to do it at this moment? Not a chance. I'd still have to look up a diagram or watch a video.

If a contractor is telling you something specific is wrong, research it. Also, reading a couple forum posts on construction related sites about what you're trying to learn can be helpful. The only caveat is, don't read/watch one thing then go at it, research several methods or opinions to ensure you're getting the best information. I've seen some real hacks that aren't afraid to post wrong and even dangerous information. 

Another idea I've heard to gain a bit more knowledge is the 1-2-3 books from Home Depot. I've thumbed through them before while standing in line and they seem like excellent resources. 

Lastly, if the first GC is saying the wiring in the house is all inadequate and needs to be changed, see what the next one says. If he doesn't mention it, only then do you ask. Don't lead with it but if it doesn't get pointed out by the second GC, don't be afraid to ask about it. Multiple bids are your friend in this situation. Like you said, you don't need to be an expert, you just need to know enough to not be taken advantage of. If the first GC says "these floor joists are undersized and all need to be sistered", ask why. Ask what the code says about them. Ask, ask, ask. Then, don't tell the second one what the first one said, just be vague and say "What do you think of these joists, are they adequate?" or say "what's the code for the span on these joists". You can then see if one and two match or if one is BS'ing you.

In other words, don't tell them what you don't know, let them tell you what they know. The less you say in specific terms, the less they'll know you're inexperienced and the less likely they'll be able to take advantage of you. 

I  second the suggestion of the 123 Home Depot book. 

Google and youtube are great for specific questions. 

If someone tells you something needs to be done,  just ask why. Maybe sparingly so you don't annoy the contractor,  but hey maybe thats a good way to weed out the bad ones. 

Don't let a lack of knowledge hold you back,  it's  just as easy to be held back by alot of construction background. 

Thanks for the replies. I suppose there is no substitute for just getting my feet wet and talking to contractors during walk-throughs while keeping my cards close to my chest and just using the Internet (i.e. YouTube) to learn.

Maybe down the road, I would learn in a more formal setting. So where do most construction managers and general contractors learn what they know? That knowledge can't all be gleaned from on-the-job learning. Maybe ITT or some other trade school?

Paul W. 

I learned a lot by reading.  There are tons of books, magazines and websites. Magazines like Fine Homebuilding are particularly good. That will give you a general understanding of how the systems of a house work and are put together. 

In addition to that, it probably would be helpful to spend some time on an actual job site. Habitat for Humanity is ok but helping an experienced contractor for a day would be even  better. 

I'm a suit too but like others stated reading and YouTube videos are really helpful! Join your local volunteer fire dept (if you have one) you'll learn a ton from those guys...and many are in the trades professionally.

Paul W.  most contractor's learn from another contractor or the school of hard knocks. Trade schools are for certifications to get union jobs. Once you get on the job that's where you really learn what to do. 

Contracting attracts hands on people. They learn by doing. There are a few book learning places but they are usually for trade specific items that are somewhat technical in nature. 

Community colleges are a good location to learn a trade like masonry or welding or framing but big picture wise not so much.

One thing to learn about contractors is that they are not all the same. Some contractors specialize in working on pretty homes for people have cushy desk jobs and have no clue how to add an outlet other than to sign the check. Some contractors turn junk into treasure. Some contractors only know how to hack things together to get by. 

Unless a building was just issued a certificate of occupancy, it will likely have code issues. This is due to the fact that codes are evolving so what worked 100 years ago has been cast aside for a variety of reasons. A building wired 50 years ago will always have wiring that doesn't meet code. Floor joists installed 50 years ago will be spaced too far apart for today's standards or will not be large enough or both.

Judgement comes in determining what items need to be address and what will last another 60 years. Different contractors will have different thoughts on those items. Many times those thoughts come from what kind of contractor they are.

An example of this is a 4 unit property I purchased. Due to a vindictive tenant, the power company had cut the power at the pole so all four units were without power. The building was in shambles from 20 years of derelict management. I had 12 electrical contractors look at it. Their solutions ranged from all new wiring, and outlets placed according to current code ($20K plus) to 4 new electrical services connected to existing wiring ($4k). Some would not even give me a price. I went with the $4k option with capacity for future improvements. When I go through one of the units I will address the wiring on a unit by unit basis.

You can locate a good home inspector and pay the few hundred dollars for the property to be inspected; that will get you a list of defects that you should be addressing. Any contractor doing a walk-through should find most of the items identified by that inspection. If somebody doesn't, you can ask them what they think about the condition of any item that went unmentioned. In general, you want the contractor to not miss anything obvious, and the inspector would have found the obvious things in most cases. The contractor might identify additional things too, and those might be places where you might feel he will be trying to take advantage, but get an explanation for anything additional also so you can ask others who go through the place. 

Another thing is you can offer to be an assistant to a good home inspector. They do a number of inspections in a short time so you can look at a variety of houses and defects in doing that. Inspectors should be happy to have somebody to help set up and hold ladders, turn on and turn off faucets and light fixtures, watch drains to see if anything backs up - basically anything requiring legwork or a bit of extra strength and effort. This will help you to identify defects on your own as you move forward. 

HI Paul W. 

I am in the construction field and at times I have to use the resources of the internet to solve new problems. Modern technology is a great thing. All the suggestions mentioned are all great so I would use resources that match your personality. Some people are hands on and some are great test takers. Sounds like you are on the right track.

Lots of great responses above...

I started in this business with probably less knowledge and experience than pretty much anyone.  I've used most of the strategies mentioned here and over time, you'll figure out which work best for you and you'll learn to optimize your learning curve with whatever techniques you prefer.

Even after hundreds of rehabs, I still run into issues that I have no idea what the fix might be.  Sometimes I'll use the techniques above, and these days, I have some trusted contractors (and other investors) who I can ask questions of, without looking like an idiot (though sometimes I still feel like one :).

Paul W. You're not going to be able to learn enough to know if a contractor is padding a bid or not by reading a few books. It would be a total waste of your time to work for a contractor, home inspector or anyone else to learn the trade, unless you intend on getting into that profession. 

Honestly, do you really think there's some big plot by licensed contractors to go lie cheat and steal from every person they come into contact with? Stop believing all the stories and hype about contractors, as most are hard working, honest people, that do their best to get the job done, give good customer service and set themselves up for repeat business. 

Try this: 

  • Get bids from 3-4 LICENSED contractors
  • Verify their licenses (Most states have this info online, as well as showing bond)
  • Call references
  • Look at work they've done in the past (many have it online) 
  • Control the flow of money. (You don't have to nickle and dime it, but no big draws)
  • Be involved in your job, make sure things are done when it's supposed to be
  • HAVE A CONTRACT WITH ALL DETAILS IN WRITING, and have someone that understands the business look it over.

NOTE: MOST of the problems with contractors are caused by people being too lazy to do the things I've listed. This will not totally eliminate risk, but it will mitigate it. 

Of course, nobody was ever hurt by taking some basic classes in repairs, remodeling, accounting, etc. But, hire professionals, and let them do their job. 

Even though we are licensed GC and have the ability to do anything on a job, we would rather hire someone that specializes in certain things; and can do them better than we can or it's more cost effective to do it, on our jobs. (finish carpentry, etc.) 

I ditto what has been said by other posters. In addition, one of my favorite resources is HGTV.  "This Old House", "Holmes on Homes", "Fixer Upper", "Rehab Addict", "Property Brothers", and "Love It or List It", being some of my favorite shows. 

The key is: know what you want (begin with the end in mind), know what to ask (learn some of the lingo of the trade to be clear in your communication), know who to ask (get referrals, check references), set a reasonable budget, set a reasonable time frame, and be honest & fair in your business dealings. Let the professionals do what they know best; don't be a back seat driver. And, of course, do what you know best to earn the money to be able to pay for it!

What @Karen Margrave said. 100%. Dont waste your time learning construction. You'd be better off developing a relationship w someone you can trust for years to come. Find that person. 

I was about to write something, but noticed that @Karen Margrave  wrote them all so well.  Hehehe!

Well said Karen.

All other suggestions here are very solid too!!!  Good read for newbies. 

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