After taking the brunt of every slump in the homebuilding industry for the last 15 years while watching his employers get rich, Charlie Cockey decided he'd had enough.
Last year the construction manager started his own business, Pioneer Inc. of Columbia, which offers people wanting custom-built homes a chance to be their own general contractors, even if they don't know the first thing about homebuilding.
While many options are available to homeowners who want to participate in building their home, Cockey's approach is unique, said Bill Young, director of consumer affairs for National Association of Home Builders in Washington.
"I'm sure it's done, but I'm not aware of anybody who markets it as the only option," Young said.
A general contractor solicits bids and hires sub-contractors for framing, plumbing, roofing and other key jobs, and he makes sure the work gets done. Typically he gets paid for the whole job, including all labor and materials, and then pays everyone else. For this service, the contractor usually charges a fee that amounts to 10 to 15 percent of the project's cost.
But Cockey acts strictly as a consultant and construction manager, leaving his clients to choose and pay sub-contractors and suppliers.
They also save themselves costly markups that help pay a builder's high overhead, he said.
Although Cockey charges about the same fee as a general contractor, his customers can save by notpaying on such markups. The markups usually amount to about 5 percent of the building cost, according to the National Home Builders Association.
The instability of the conventional building trade convinced Cockey to step out on his own. Although he liked what he was doingas a construction manager for several builders, each time the marketwent into a slump or business owners simply decided to take a hiatus, he and his co-workers were laid off.
Early last year, after he was laid off from Koch Associates in Anne Arundel County, Cockey decided that with two daughters in college he needed something more stableand he started Pioneer Inc. as a home-improvement and renovation business.
But after a fellow construction worker called to see if Cockey would be interested in building his home, the Columbia resident decided to focus on his dream of helping people build their own homes.
"It's a good feeling, especially when you have happy people moving into it, because they're happy with what you've done," he said.
Cockey expects to complete work Friday on his first house, a spacious brick Tudor on five wooded acres in western Ellicott City. Cockey has won the praise of his first clients, Dan and Pat Turner of Woodstock.
"I think it's worked very well. He's great to work with and it's really gone smoothly," said Pat Turner. "I don't have anything remotely negative to say about it."
Before calling Cockey, the Turners had contacted two builders, who gave the couple estimates of $215,000 and $230,000 to build the house.
But they decided to turn to Cockey and they figure the house will cost close to $200,000.
"I'd do it the same way if I had to do it over again," said Dan Turner, who does brick, block and stone work for Baltimore-based Leonard Masonry.
Turner said that without Cockey as his consultant, his own attention to the project would have been a full-time job. As it turned out, the project required about the same amount of time as a traditional builder would have needed, said Turner.
Most of the time was spent selecting the types and colors of materials going into the house, Turner said. Although the Turners had to sign off on the subcontractors chosen and on payment for the work, they said Cockey did most of the leg work for them.
The Turners say they enjoyed benefits from being their own general contractor, but they also took the same risks.Those include the possibility of construction site theft and the expense of buying more materials than they might use.
"The average homeowner, it would bury him. Just talk to a few that have done it," said Joseph Firetti, president of the county Association of Homebuilders and a custom homebuilder himself.
While Firetti said he thought Cockey's home-building idea had some merit, he also noted some negatives.
State law, for example, requires traditional homebuilders to guarantee their work for a year. But several real estate attorneys said it is unclear whether the law would protect homeowners who build using Cockey's approach.
Cockey said that in the event there is a problem with a house, "I suppose they could sue me for not fulfilling my obligation." But Cockey said he has a record of building good houses, and the sub-contractors he recommends have a reputation for standing by their work.
Turner said one disadvantage in being his own general contractor is the responsibility for correcting any building errors.
"The only thing I would have to rely on is the sub-contractors backing up their work," Turner said.