Once you start getting into making significant home improvements or increasing the living space on your property, your initiation into the world of home contractors is inevitable. And most people are rightfully wary of it. Not only do contractors as a whole have a checkered reputation, but it can be very hard to understand how they work or how to separate the good from the bad unless you’re in the building trades yourself.
Contractors are responsible for constructing built spaces, but it’s very hard for non-tradespeople to follow exactly what they’re doing. And the scope of the remodeling projects and sums of money for which they’re responsible are very, very significant, so it's no wonder homeowners approach the thought of hiring contractors with caution and resignation.
The first thing to understand is that most skilled, licensed, and bonded tradespeople are contractors. You may tend to associate the word contractor with project managers or all-around large companies in the construction industry. But in fact, electricians, painters, roofers, swimming pool designers, and even stone and tile workers are all contractors as well. Any home improvement job you don’t DIY will require a contractor -- and probably more than one -- to get the work done.
The contractors you interact with as the client
The person who you, the client, hire directly to do any job is the direct contractor. They may or may not need to hire subcontractors or laborers.
A general contractor is usually the acting project manager for multi-specialty jobs. The general contractor is responsible for hiring specialized subcontractors, sourcing and buying materials, dealing with permits and inspectors, and communicating with the client. General contractors often oversee large remodeling projects, but the term can also be used with multi-specialty projects like backyard landscaping or roof replacement.
Direct contractors and subcontractors: The relationship
Specialty trades are referred to as subcontractors when they work underneath a general contractor on a project and don’t deal directly with owners. As with any industry, people in the construction business with related or complementary expertise often have professional relationships and bring each other in on jobs. Someone who often is hired as a general contractor will have built up a network of specialty trade contractors who are trustworthy and skilled. Part of what makes a good general contractor is knowing these people and being able to pull in those who are a fit for a certain budget and project.
The relationship between the general contractor or direct contractor and the subcontractors is very important to the property owner, because not only does the direct contractor need to rely on the subcontractors to get good work done in a timely manner, but the direct contractor needs to treat those subcontractors well, which includes paying them as agreed. If not, the client may face the consequences.
A mechanic’s lien from a subcontractor can come as a bad shock to a homeowner, and rightfully so. It doesn’t always have any bearing on whether the bills for the remodeling project were paid -- it’s whether the direct contractor handled paying all his people. Sometimes subcontractors will actually use the lien as a way to force the direct contractor to act.
It’s wise for a property owner to be at least passingly familiar with all the specialty tradespeople who are working on a job -- even if they don’t directly interact with all of them from a project management standpoint. The direct contractor can be in charge, but the client needs to make sure that relationships are good, the project is on track, and the money is going to the right places.
Specialty trade contractors and subcontractors
There are dozens of kinds of specialized contractors, especially when you start getting into complicated high-end remodeling projects in luxury homes, or large projects like multi-family high rises. In the list below, we highlight several specialized contractor groups and their most commonly used subspecialties.
Electrical work, electronic control systems, cable splicing, lighting and fire alarm installation, communications equipment installation
Piping, plumbing repair, refrigeration work, sewer, and sump pump
Heating and air conditioning
Furnace repair and installation, boiler installation, heating equipment installation, gas line hookup, air conditioning and air system work
Drywall construction, drywall finishing, insulation installation, acoustical work, applying plaster (plain or ornamental)
Concrete work, sidewalk construction, curb construction, patio construction, stucco work, blacktop and asphalting
House painting, whitewashing, electrostatic painting, wallpaper hanging
Roofing work, roof repair, roof spraying and coating, gutter installation, downspout installation, duct work, architectural sheet metal, skylight installation, tinsmithing, ceiling installation and repair
Framing, carpentry work, cabinet work, joinery, window and door installation, trim and finish work
Stone setting, retaining wall construction, bricklaying, foundations, masonry, concrete block-laying, general masonry
A complete list of specialty trade contractors is available on the US Department of Labor’s OSHA site.
Hiring a contractor
A lot of people wonder when they might need a general contractor, but the answer isn't that simple, as there are different types of general contractors. Any time a remodeling project requires multiple specialty trade contractors in different categories, as well as material orders from different places, it may require a general to oversee it -- but the specific person in the role of "general contractor" changes.
For example, if you’re getting a new swimming pool installed, the pool contractor could be the general contractor on the project. If you’re doing an entire indoor-outdoor living area renovation with an outdoor kitchen, pool, hardscaping, and firepit, the general contractor for the entire project would bring in a pool contractor as a sub.
How do you evaluate contractors?
- Ask friends and colleagues who've had renovation or construction work done recently whether they have any recommendations.
- Peruse review sites looking for well-reviewed contractors that haven’t paid for preferred status but have multiple verified reviews from real customers.
- Put out a request to multiple contractors for bids, providing as much detail as possible about the project so that they are all working with the same amount of information.
- Try to move as quickly as possible to talk to the contractor directly, not to a salesperson for the company.
- Make sure to get at least three viable bids, and confirm they are from contractors/companies that will be performing the labor, and they won't be bringing in someone else for the job.
- Scratch off any extremely low bids, as they are likely not providing a realistic estimate.
- When you look at the bids, evaluate them in terms of how carefully they were put together. Did they address and account for every deliverable that was provided in your project brief?
- Go out to job sites of the top three candidates and look around so you can evaluate in person whether they keep order, how happy the crew is, and so forth.
- Ask plenty of specific questions during the interview/discussion process.
- Check multiple references for each of the top candidates.
Contractors are skilled workers
Some contractors are good at marketing and advertising, but many are not. Don’t confuse the company that knows how to plaster signs all over town with the contractor who’s truly best at the job. All of the specialty trades listed above require training and practice, and many -- like stonemasonry, metal work, and even drywall -- are practically artistic in their precision. Look for people who embody that and take pride in their work. You’ll probably have to do some digging and maybe wait a while to get the right person, since they may not have a team of salespeople booking jobs. But if you can secure them, your project will be more likely to turn out better than you expected -- and with a budget in line with your projections.