Buying Materials for Your Contractor: How Much Do You Save?

It’s called BIY: buy it yourself. And if you’re remodeling on a budget, you can save up to 20%.

Man installing tile in a bathroom
Image: Liz Foreman for HouseLogic

Key Takeaways

  • Collaborate with your contractor: Order the right quantities of materials and have them delivered on time.
    Scroll to: Understanding Your Contractor's POV
  • Buy items that’ll be visible (cabinets, countertops, flooring), but leave behind-the-scenes materials like pipes and wiring to the expert.
    Scroll to: What to BIY and What Not to

If you've got a limited remodeling budget, but you lack the skills, desire, or the time to DIY, how do you save?

BIY, that's how.

BIY — buy-it-yourself — is a smart middle ground for those who want to remodel their house on a budget. A BIYer can save up to 20% on home improvements by buying the materials for contractors. They can shop for bargains and eliminate contractor markups on materials and finishes.

It’s a growing trend that industry experts and big-box home improvement centers are watching closely, defining BIY as its own genre. Fred Miller, managing director of the Home Improvement Research Institute (HIRI), identifies BIY as a distinct subset of DIY.

"We've found that about 17% of homeowners have completed BIY projects," Miller says.

Marketing expert Matt Carmichael, author of the book "Buyographics," suggests demographics play a role.

"Many millennials don't have the DIY mindset their parents had," says Carmichael, "but they still want to be hands on when it comes to fixing up and improving their homes, and they know how to buy stuff."

Mining online information is second nature for millennial BIYers, who eagerly search for price comparisons, peer product reviews, and instructional videos.

Buying Materials for Contractors: How BIY Works

Buy-it-yourselfers research the materials, finishes, and appliances their project requires, then shop for the best deals possible on the items, purchase them, and have them delivered to the work site.

That way, they avoid markups that a contractor or subcontractor routinely applies to the materials they buy. A BIYer also:

  • Avoids any hourly charges a contractor adds for picking up and delivering the BIY materials
  • Negotiates directly with suppliers for the best price on items
  • Is able to find bargains a contractor may overlook

Good BIYers work closely with their contractor or builder to decide which products and materials make sense for the BIYer to tackle, and which are best left to the contractor.

The BIY Skill Set

You might not know which end of a hammer to use, but you'll still need a good set of skills that include:

  • A thorough understanding of the scope of your project
  • A shop-til-you-drop mind-set
  • An obsession with due dates and delivery schedules
  • A willingness to communicate tirelessly with your contractor or handyman

Understand Your Contractor's POV

Although it may sound like shopping and buying are your primary BIY duties, your No. 1 priority is to have good communication with your builder or subcontractor. Tell prospective contractors upfront about wanting to BIY.

Traditionally, contractors have purchased materials and scheduled delivery. They often have established relationships with suppliers that offer steep discounts to them. The contractor, in turn, marks up 50% or more on those discounted practices. It’s a standard practice in an industry where margins are narrow.

Still, depending on business, many contractors may be willing to forgo traditional pricing to secure steady work -- good news for BIY homeowners. Home improvement centers help by hooking up contractors with homeowners -- a practice HIRI notes is on the rise over the past several years.

A contractor's main concern is that BIYers hold up their end of the bargain by ensuring everything is delivered to the job site on time so that work proceeds smoothly.

For you, this means ordering exactly the right types and quantities of materials, and pinning down delivery dates and times. Let your contractor know of any changes (a delivery truck got stuck in Reno) right away.

The Remodeling Contract

Your remodeling contract should clearly state what materials, appliances, and finishes you will supply, and approximate delivery dates. Your contractor needs this information before he can prepare an accurate bid for the work.

Any changes to your responsibilities should be stated in writing and signed by both the contractor and you. You'll want to make sure that any casual suggestions for changes to the scope of your project (and what you'll provide) don't result in a contractor dispute.

Related: 5 Essential Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Contractor

What to BIY and What Not to

Stick to buying items that will be visible when the project's done and leave everything else for your contractor to get. Not only will you be in charge of high-profile finishes, materials, and appliances, but you'll be assured of getting the look that makes you happy.

Pick your project flowchart infographic
Image: MXM for HouseLogic

Here are items that make sense for the BIYer to get:

In the kitchen:

  • Kitchen cabinets
  • Cabinet hardware (pulls and knobs)
  • Countertops
  • Flooring
  • Appliances
  • Sinks
  • Faucets
  • Light fixtures

In the bathroom:

  • Tubs and modular shower enclosures
  • Wall tile
  • Flooring
  • Faucets, shower heads, and tub fillers
  • Vanities and cabinets
  • Toilets and bidets
  • Sinks
  • Light fixtures
  • Exhaust fans
  • Countertops

Around the house:

  • Flooring
  • Permanent light fixtures
  • Siding
  • Entry doors
  • Interior doors
  • Garage doors
  • Exterior light fixtures
  • Paint
  • Landscaping block and stone

Almost everything else is best left to your contractor, including lumber, fasteners, sheathing, concrete, plumbing pipes, electrical wiring, HVAC components, and insulation.

Other items are a matter of coordinating with your contractor or designer. Roofing, for example, requires specialized knowledge of how to measure roofs and estimate materials. Once estimated, however, you can choose the style and shop for the right price. Just be sure that you and your contractor are on the same page about your involvement.

Other items that require specialized knowledge include:

  • Windows. Between rough openings, replacement options, and window sizes themselves (Did you know that 3/0 means 36 inches?), leave the ordering to your pro.
  • Gutters and downspouts. Some runs of gutter may be too long to handle repeated expansion and contraction caused by temperature fluctuations. Have a pro advise.
  • Paving materials. Brick, stone, asphalt, and concrete require a good knowledge of thickness requirements for the base as well as the paving material itself. Let a pro help.
  • Insulation. This item doesn't really benefit from BIY; your contractor will know local codes and installation techniques.
  • Masonry. For siding veneers and landscaping, you pick the type of stone or brick and let an experienced hand do the ordering and return unused materials.

How to Buy It Right

Ah! The fun part! If you're working with a designer/builder or hiring an architect, you'll have plans for the finished project. Those plans should include a materials take-off -- a list of everything needed for the project.

Armed with that list, you'll be able to shop for exactly the right amount of materials and calculate the price. Confer with your contractor so you'll both agree on the items you'll be shopping for.

Beware of making changes. For example, if plans call for a 36-inch gas range, but while shopping you find an amazing deal on a 36-inch electric range, you might gum up the works if you buy it. The size is right but your contractor may have already run a gas line -- not an electrical circuit -- to your range location.

Could you still make the switch? Sure, but you'll pay for any extra work. In addition, the change takes time and may throw other subcontractors off their schedules.

What If There's No Contractor?

If your job is fairly small and you're planning on using a carpenter or handyman for the work, then you'll have to do all the measuring and purchasing yourself.

Here's helpful advice to get it right:

Measure twice and cut once is the old saying, and it's a good one. Always double check measurements, and write everything down in a project notebook or in a notebook app that you'll always have with you on your mobile phone or pad.

Your job is made easier by the many materials calculators available online, as well as home improvement apps you can download to your mobile device. Big-box stores offer them at their websites, and you can search according to your needs.

Lowe's, for example, has helpful calculators for flooring, paint, mulch, wallpaper, and other materials.

Add 10% to measurements of walls, floors, ceilings, and other large surfaces. That ensures you'll have enough materials to cover broken pieces and slip-ups.

Enlist help when measuring cabinets and countertops. Home improvement stores have design centers that will help you fit cabinets correctly. They'll send out subcontractors -- free of charge -- to measure your space to ensure accuracy.

Ditto for countertop fabricators. Most insist on taking their own measurements and checking walls for squareness to ensure a good fit.

Watch out for oddballs. Not your handyman -- your choices. If you're picking one-of-a-kind items from overseas or the salvage yard, make sure your handyman is up for the challenge. And make sure you're ready to cough up a few extra bucks for the extra work and creative solutions required.

Managing Deliveries

Keep the job running smoothly by managing delivery dates and times. Make sure you or someone you trust will be there to oversee arrival and storage.

Pinpoint delivery times. When ordering, try to establish exact times for delivery of materials and appliances. Record the vendor's customer service number and give them a ring two or three days prior to delivery to make sure it'll be on time.

Make sure your contractor or handyman knows those critical delivery dates and times.

Clear a space in your garage or spare room, or somewhere on site to stash materials and other goods. There's nothing wrong with stockpiling materials ahead of installation dates if you have a place to put them.

One More Thing

It bears repeating -- the BIY path is one of collaboration and communication. You've signed on to be part of a team, however small it may be. Be a good team player, make sure everything runs smoothly, and you'll end up saving money on your remodel.

Related: 5 Secrets Your Contractor Doesn’t Want You to Know

John Riha
John Riha

John Riha has written seven books on home improvement and hundreds of articles on home-related topics. He’s been a residential builder, the editorial director of the Black & Decker Home Improvement Library, and the executive editor of Better Homes and Gardens magazine.