What have I learned… Hoo, boy. I’ll just list some random lessons.
Employees: This is just like any other business, sadly. It’s just fuckin’ management. Employees run from negative contributor to rock star, with whistle stops at prima donna, whiner, moron, unlicensed and scary looking and EXCPTIONAL, consummate professional, ass-slow perfectionist, thief, ex-con, “you’re doing it wrong”, anger issues, works hard when they show up, fast & error prone, and substance abuse. In fact, pick any two. For everyone. I’ve had all of the above except for thief. Through it all runs a steady drumbeat of intricate rhyming obscenity.
A house takes hours. I guess that’s obvious, but the lesson for me is that no matter how skilled I am (or anyone I hire is), it takes a few thousand hours to make a house. The more people I hire, the faster it’ll go. Since the lovely city of Oakland is doing everything they can to crunch down my schedule, this means that I have to hire big crews. That means money, and there’s just no way around it. On a slow day, it’s me and two carpenters. On a big day, it’s two carpenters, a labourer, an electrician, two plumbers, and me. No matter what, I spend most of the day tear-assing around and getting nothing done with my hands. Basically, it’s a combination of management and ineptitude on my part. Thankfully, I have great people working with me, and they keep things on track. I’ll list ‘em later.
Plumbing the walls for wire: Yeah, nice fantasy. Works great if you have thick walls (ie: 2×6) but if they look anything like mine - forget it. Drill holes that big and you won’t have enough structure left to hold up your house.
Trades: Tradesmen have three rates, essentially: Independent contractor rate, employee rate, and “friends” rate. The former is the highest, and it’s what you’ll pay if you’re doing your own general contracting like I am. If you do this, you’ll lose your shirt, because a GC is running a crew at “employee rate” (significantly less, but he’s also covering insurance and other overhead), billing high enough to take a profit, and STILL undercutting “contractor rate”. “Friends rate” - well, how close are your friends? And how skilled? Will you know if they’re doing a crappy job? If you’re confident and you have friends in low places, and you know what the billing rates are (Plumbers, for instance, can run $100/hr contractor, $40/hr employee (that’s low) and anything goes for friends), then go for it. The learning process can be expensive.
Toilets: They’re delicate. We’ve killed TWO so far. The most recent casualty was the victim of a pair of linesman’s pliers dropped from a moderate height.
Inspectors: They run the gamut from bitchy to wonderful. We had the head plumbing inspector gig us for minor crap the day before Christmas break. He was sore because he had to take unpaid leave (Oakland strikes again) and wanted to generate the maximum number of complaints to the city. We had an open muddy trench to the curb for two weeks. On the other hand, my regular inspector is a fount of wisdom and a genuinely nice guy. It probably helps that we’re doing a good job.