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Want to Be Your Own General Contractor? Advice for Self-Storage Developers

If you’re planning to build a self-storage facility, you can hire a construction-management company to oversee the project or act as your own general contractor. If you do the latter, there are some people and services you’ll need to bring on board and information you should know to avoid problems along the way. Here’s an overview.

Charlie Kao

January 7, 2023

6 Min Read
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Many first-time self-storage developers will choose to act as their own general contractor (GC). This can be daunting, though, as there are plenty of moving parts in any project, including people and services to hire and coordinate. Plus, it’ll be up to you to keep everyone on task and on budget. But with the right information and approach, the experience can also be incredibly rewarding.

Below, I’ve summarized the support you’ll need if you plan to be your own GC and some important tips to help you avoid trouble along the way. First, a word of caution: Building traditional, drive-up self-storage is relatively simple when compared to other types of projects such as retail and muti-family; however, there’s greater emphasis on each building component, and the timing of each contractor is critical. If you’re building climate-controlled or multi-story storage, I don’t recommend being your own GC on your first project—unless you have extensive experience with other commercial real estate—as it can be complicated to layer in fire suppression, elevators, HVAC, stairwells, etc.

The People You Need

I’ve presented these important team members in the order in which you should reach out to and hire them.

Civil engineer. This person needs a brief drawing from you to show how you want to orient your self-storage buildings, the footprint of each structure and the rough elevations. From here, they’ll work around local ordinances and zoning restrictions for your chosen site. It’s vital to hire this team member first, as it’s a key position to the whole project.

Excavator. While you may clear your site of trees and other vegetation with an arborist before excavation begins, I like to have the excavator walk the property with me first to ensure I haven’t missed anything in my tentative site plan. It’s important that your civil engineer and excavator communicate frequently. If they ever disagree, I lean toward what my excavator says, as I normally favor their practical experience.

Arborist. If you have a large self-storage site with more than 10 acres, you could be paid for dirt and trees. If it’s a smaller site, just have the excavator arrange or clear it for the sake of convenience. I often ask them for a recommendation or check Facebook groups. This should be a relatively quick contractor to choose.

Concrete installer. This person must also have a great working relationship with your excavator, possibly more than anyone, because they work together frequently in the early stages, which impacts whether your project stays on timeline. The self-storage market has faced extremely volatile material prices lately, so it may make sense from a cost/quality perspective to build your driveways with concrete rather than gravel or asphalt. If so, your site must be graded and draining properly, which makes it even more important for your concrete installer and excavator to work closely and well together.

Steel supplier/erector. Steel is a significant portion of your project cost, so it may surprise you that this supplier is fifth on this list. However, your quote is usually only good for seven to 30 days, so you don’t want to contact them too soon. I always ask for a “safe” price per square foot to input as a placeholder in my construction budget. Once I know we’re within 30 days of ordering, I request the “real” quote.

Make sure you find out when the steel will be delivered, too. There are times when I put down a deposit ahead of official municipal approval because I don’t want to wait months for the steel to arrive. That’s a risk some self-storage developers simply can’t or won’t take, though.

Asphalt contractor. Have the site plan from the civil engineer with a diagram highlighting the area to be covered in asphalt. Often, the provider can offer a price based on this information, but you should also meet with them on site after the excavation is complete to ensure they’re prepared. You don’t want problems to come up the day they arrive to lay asphalt.

Electrician. This person will install light poles and fixtures, work with the utility company to get service to the site, and likely lay the underground conduit work for your video-surveillance system. You can also have them install your cameras, as they often charge less for this than your camera provider.

Products and Services You Need

Video surveillance. Your self-storage camera supplier should provide a conduit map for the electrician so you can get their installation specifications for equipment and low-voltage wiring. After that, make sure you’re electrician updates you frequently in the weeks leading up to the video-surveillance installation. Check in with both companies once a week or every other week. If the electrician falls behind schedule, it’ll probably delay your video install.

Internet and utilities. Though this is close to last on our list, you’ll want to contact the utility companies within those first 30 days after securing your civil engineer. You want to make sure they can supply service as quickly as possible. I aim to do this as soon as we have zoning approval. I’ve had municipalities tell me they’re six months out for service requests, and the last thing you want is to have a self-storage facility with steel and concrete waiting for electricity. Make sure your other contractors update you and the utilities regularly.

Gating and fencing. You want to reach out to your supplier early in the process, however, because you can still operate self-storage without these components, you’ll solicit these quotes last. Make sure the underground work for the gate system is in place prior to installing the driveways. Also, the fence line should be staked so it’s clear where to install the fence.

Signage. This company will likely provide the lettering/numbering for your individual self-storage units as well as your banners and primary street signage. I also have my provider design my facility logo, which can actually be the most time-consuming part. You may want to move this up in the timeline if your provider tells you they need more time for delivery or you want signage to help with pre-lease-up. Have your civil engineer put stakes where the signage will go, and make sure the electrician let’s you know when it’s OK to install it.

The information in this article should provide a general reference point for all the self-storage contractors with whom you’ll work, but it’s highly possible you’ll need others based on geography and zoning ordinances, or at the recommendation of your vendors and service providers. In any case, finding the right partners and fostering communication among team members will ensure you have a successful build when serving as your own GC.

Charlie Kao is the principal of Twin Oaks Capital, a Michigan-based commercial real estate company specializing in self-storage and multi-family assets. Services include real estate brokerage, asset management, feasibility studies, consulting and building-construction management. The company and its affiliates have owned, operated or planned more than 1 million square feet of self-storage. Charlie also owns House of Kaos Real Estate School, which provides continuing education credits for licensed realtors. He can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Charlie Kao

Principal, Twin Oaks Capital

Charlie Kao is the principal of Twin Oaks Capital, a Michigan-based commercial real estate company specializing in self-storage and multi-family assets. Services include real estate brokerage, asset management, feasibility studies, consulting and building-construction management. The company and its affiliates have owned, operated or planned more than 1 million square feet of self-storage. Charlie also owns House of Kaos Real Estate School, which provides continuing education credits for licensed realtors. He can be reached at [email protected].  

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