How to be your own general contractor (basement renovation story - part 1)

Have you heard of the "iron triangle" with regard to project management? Time, price and quality. As a customer, we want them all. But in reality, its impossible to optimize all three, and adjusting one variable will alter the others.

Over one year ago (Fall 2019), when I was first planning my basement renovation, I figured that I would just be in "the middle" for all three. Makes sense, right? I went on to contact some remodeling companies to come up with a plan, and quickly found out that 1. My timeline was about right. 2. My quality expectations were about right. 3. My budget was way off. Whoops.

After analyzing the proposed budgets, I found that ~17% of the proposed price went straight to the GC. So, even if I couldn't get the actual subcontractor work done for less, by being my own GC I already had a 17% savings. Worth it? It was for me.

I didn't expect it to be easy. I knew I had to do some major research to make it work. After google searches were proving unhelpful, I picked up a few books on the subject. This book was by far the most helpful. I actually felt confident that I could do it after reading it.

Phase 1: Planning the project.

I went into this project with a rough idea of what I wanted. The basement had a huge storage area that was poorly used, and I wanted to take space from it to expand the actual usable space, including opening up the area under the stairs to create a little reading nook. In the laundry area, I wanted to create a little "mudroom" right off of the garage entry, and somehow add storage and functionality to the space, while closing off the boiler/ water heater into a small utility room. You can see on the floor plan above exactly what I mean. The purple wall was the existing wall we removed, and the green walls were the new walls.

Side note: my parents are architects, and helped me put my vision into an actual floor plan. If you're planning on large renovations, it might be worth it to learn a program like Sketchup to play with different ideas (I'm learning it now, lots of free tutorials available!).

Phase 2: Finding the right people for the job.

This was the worst part of the entire project, but its essential that you give 100%. My basement plan went like this:

  1. demo - Handyman

  2. framing (rough in) - Handyman

  3. electric (demo and rough in), plumbing (rough in), HVAC

  4. insulation and drywall - Drywall company vs Handyman

  5. paint walls (me)

  6. electric (final install)

  7. cabinet measure (anticipate 6 weeks turnaround time)

  8. install LVT flooring

  9. trim (me)

  10. decorative moulding/ shiplap (me...)

  11. painting said moulding (me!)

  12. cabinet delivery, cabinet painting and cabinet install (me)

  13. countertop measure

  14. countertop/ sink install

  15. plumbing hook up

  16. lay down tile stickers in the laundry area

I made a huge table for each part of the project with every single detail I could think of, as laid out in the book I mentioned above, and starting the search for the right subcontractor for each part of the project. My experience was that the trades (electric/ plumbing/ HVAC) were professional and their quotes only varied 1-2k. I met with three of each and was good to go. On the contrary, finding a handyman/ drywall company was painful and took months. There were three typical responses:

  1. no reply at all (probably the most common)

  2. no time for the project

  3. sure we can do it, for 2x the cost it should be

I literally got to the point that I wanted to forego the project altogether. But finally, I found the most wonderful handyman, and signed the contract! And then COVID arrived, and everything got put on hold. Figures, right?

Phase 3: The work.

Finally, in the end of July, the work started. It actually went fairly smoothly, but it still took a few months. I totally picked the right handyman, he was so great to work with and I was so thankful! Still, it did look somewhat like this for quite some time. The missing tile where the wall was removed, and that blue tape was the soon to be new wall.

Side note: I put painters tape on the floor where every new wall would go (except for the exterior walls). That way, I was 100% sure everything would be placed correctly.

It was such a relief when all of the walls and ceiling were finally up in the playroom area so the kids could at least be down there part time (the laundry/ mudroom area wasn't finished until weeks later). But that meant it was my turn to get to work! I filled in the crack where the former wall was and put LVT flooring in by myself in two or three days using my miter saw and multitool with the half round attachment to cut, and a rubber mallet and floor pull bar to place (plenty of good tutorials on Youtube). The whole process went smoothly. A few weeks later, when all drywall was finished, I used my paint sprayer to paint (which only took a day, but I decided to change the color!). Next, I started working on the baseboard and added some mdf shiplap for texture. I'm still not done with the moulding because my miter saw broke (ugh)!

The electricians have completed their final install, and I've started working on the cabinets, which I'm doing in phases due to cost. The playroom cabinets were delivered a few months ago, and we used the paint sprayer to spray them in the back yard. We had a months-long holdup on installation due to having to move a duct (ugh so frustrating), but I finally got them installed not too long ago.

We still have quite a ways to go until the basement is complete, but its getting there slowly. Sometimes its hard to stay motivated and I have to take a break, but I can usually get back to it in a week or two. What's left? The list isn't terrible.

  1. trim/ decorative moulding (and painting it)

  2. cabinet delivery, cabinet painting and cabinet install (plus hardware)

  3. countertop measure, fabrication and installation

  4. plumbing hook up

  5. lay down tile stickers in the laundry area

  6. decorate!!

Below are the pics of where we're at as of today. Soon I'll have to make a mood board to figure out how to decorate the basement (2021 plans!!).

What I learned so far:

  1. The LVT flooring looks different on the sample than in the space. I really wanted a pale oak color LVT, and on the sample I got of this tile, it looked the part. I knew once I started installing it that I didn't really like it, but I was too burnt out to figure out a way to return it. Now I'm stuck with flooring color that I'm not really a fan of. Next time, I'll buy a whole box of the flooring I intend to go with before pulling the trigger on the whole order. Good news? This flooring is AWESOME for kids and holds up great, feels nice to walk/ play on, and is so easy to clean! One day I'll replace it.

  2. I used the same white paint color in the basement that I used throughout the house, Sherwin Williams Alabaster. Unfortunately, in the basement, the color just looked dingy. I've been repainting the entire basement Benjamin Moore Classic Gray with Benjamin Moore Chantilly lace for the trim/ cabinets, etc. This really brightened it up. Definitely note that choosing paint colors is hard for the basement, and the crisper the white, the better. I've seen dark paint colors look beautiful in the basement, too, such as this one by Chris Loves Julia. Speaking of painting in general, its obviously a better decision to paint before the flooring! But I had to get the flooring done when I had my sister visiting to watch the kids (more joys of COVID), so flooring came first.

  3. My biggest mistake so far was assuming that a soffit could easily be removed. I designed my playroom cabinets to conceal a soffit that ran perpendicular to the joists. I planned to move the adjacent ductwork that ran parallel to the joists up between the joists to remove that section of soffit. Turns out, there was also radiator lines and electric that had to be moved, so a $$$ bill turned into a $$$$ bill, and a two month hold up. You can see in the picture above that it still hasn't been patched.

The Details:

Color: Benjamin Moore Classic Gray Walls and Chantilly Lace trim

Flooring: Shaw (lighthouse)

Shiplap paneling: Home Depot

Sofa (quite old): Room & Board Outlet

Rug: Overstock (vintage rug is from eBay and used to be in the dining room)