One of the most important skills for any do-it-yourselfer is to know when not to. If you have a really big project in mind, like adding a room or a project that involves skills (and tools) outside of your knowledge, turning to professionals is a good choice.
Now you enter the realm of contractors and subcontractors. What's the difference? Think of it like this. If you hire an event planner for a wedding, golden anniversary or other celebration, you don't expect him or her to bake the cake, cook the meal, grow the flowers or play the music. You pay the planner to use his or her knowledge of the industry and organizational skills to bring together the best baker, caterer, florist and string quartet in a coordinated effort to make your event successful. The event planner is the contractor, and the people in his or her rolodex are trusted subcontractors.
General contractors are the "big picture" thinkers. They work with you through the entire project, from the idea phase to the finished product. By contrast, subcontractors come and go. They specialize in certain areas of the construction process, like large equipment operation, concrete formulation, plumbing, electricity and carpentry. They enter a project to do a particular task and leave when that task is finished.
Shouldn't Contractors Have Their Own Staff?
If you decide to hire a general contractor, he or she may have a permanent staff of employees. In this case, you might have few, if any, subcontractors involved in your project. Hiring employees versus subcontractors is an economic decision. The employer -- in this case, the general contractor -- must pay salaries and purchase worker's compensation insurance for employees.
"It's not cost effective to increase the size of my staff because the workload is inconsistent," said Raymond Vigneau, owner of Metal Building Contractors, Inc., in Allen Park, Mich. "I hire subcontractors to do anything beyond what my employees can do."
Since subcontractors are independent business people, general contractors don't have to pay to insure them or pay employment taxes on them. Hiring subcontractors for overflow work or to perform tasks that call for expertise that isn't needed on a regular basis saves expenses for the general contractor and ultimately, for you.
Should you hire a general contractor for your remodeling or renovation project? Or would you be better off to hire subcontractors directly? We'll look at what general contractors bring to your project in the following pages.
What Are the Contractor's Responsibilities?
Good contractors can bring piece of mind, knowledge of industry standards and project management expertise. But they also bring tangible, necessary things to the job: a license, insurance and worker's compensation. If you act as the general contractor yourself, you assume liability for injuries and property damage.
Perhaps the most stress relief comes from the fact that the general contractor is responsible for the quality of all the work he or she oversees as part of the contract. If something goes wrong during the construction, it's up to the general contractor to get it fixed. The cost of those repairs comes out of the contract budget, not your pocket.
Knowledge of building codes, appropriate materials, proper construction methods and safety -- both during and after construction -- also is a key resource that a general contractor brings to your project. This knowledge saves you the time and trouble of having to learn when it's too cold to pour concrete, how long caulk should cure before it's painted and why it's absolutely necessary for the plumber to install a P-trap under your new sink. This knowledge also lets a contractor know which subcontractors are reputable and reliable, and which ones no one should ever hire.
Contractors also have one big advantage you don't: They've done it before. From initial planning to final cleanup, contractors manage workflow like conductors manage orchestras. They understand the structure of the composition, they cue different players when it's their turn to take the lead, and they probably have experience with at least a few tools of the trade. If you've done your homework and hired well, your general contractor will keep the work flowing and the crews busy throughout the entire course of the project.
In the end, it's up to you to decide if your job warrants a general contractor or if you can handle to project yourself. But a general contractor could take some of the worry and stress out of the job for you, so when it's done, you can sit back and enjoy the work.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Business Insurance Now. "Business Liability Insurance Coverage." Coverages Explained. November 2008. (Accessed 03/02/2009). http://www.businessinsurancenow.com/business-insurance.aspx
- Contractor's License Reference Site. "Find a State's Licensing Information." (Accessed 03/02/2009). http://www.contractors-license.org
- Georgia Board of General and Residential Contractors. "State Licensing Board for Residential and General Contractors." Updated July 2008. (Accessed 03/02/2009). http://sos.georgia.gov/plb/contractors/default.htm
- Georgia State Licensing Board for Residential and General Contractors. 553-4-.01 Licensure Requirements for an Individual to Practice as a General Contractor in the Individual's Own Name or Doing Business as an Individual in a Trade Name or as a Sole Proprietorship." Effective November 23, 2005. (Accessed 03/02/2009). http://rules.sos.state.ga.us/docs/553/4/01.pdf
- Johnston, Amy. What the "Experts" may Not Tell You About™. . .Building or Renovating Your Home. New York: Warner Books, 2004.
- Philbin, Tom. How to Hire a Home Improvement Contractor Without Getting Chiseled. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1997.
- This Old House. "On the Couch with This Old House." This Old House Special Issue, June 2008: pp 94-97.
- Vigneau, Raymond, General Contractor and owner of Metal Building Contractors, Inc., Allen Park, Michigan, established 1968. Interview 02/27/2009.
- Vila, Bob and Hugh Howard. Bob Vila's Complete Guide to Remodeling Your Home. New York: Avon Books, 1999.