Types of Contractors: Subcontractor vs. General Contractor

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Contractor is a commonly used term in the building trades and by homeowners hiring professionals for work on their homes. Most pros who provide their services under contract (or with a similar mutual agreement) technically are contractors, but not all contractors have the same roles with respect to a given project. Here's a quick look at who's who and what the different contractor names typically mean.



In essence, any professional who contracts directly with customers for specific work is a contractor. There are electrical contractors, painting contractors, plumbing contractors, roofing contractors, concrete contractors, etc. Contractors typically specialize in one trade or type of work. You might hire a deck contractor to build a deck or a landscaping contractor to create a pond in your backyard. A contractor typically is the business owner and may or may not be the person doing the work. 

Usually, the person with whom you sign the contract is responsible for delivering the services outlined in the contract; there is no separate managing contractor, such as a general contractor, who makes sure they get the work done. However, a contractor may at times work for a general contractor, in which case the contractor is referred to as a subcontractor. 

General Contractors and Subcontractors

A general contractor is a contractor who manages and oversees a large home construction or remodeling project.

Known on the job as the "GC" or simply the "general," the general contractor may or may not do some of the physical work. The GC typically hires specific trade contractors for various aspects of the project, such as plumbing, electrical, drywall, painting, carpet, and many other specialties. In this context, these contractors work for the GC and are known as subcontractors, or "subs." The GC hires the subcontractors directly, they are paid by the GC, not by the homeowner.

The homeowner typically has a single contract with the GC for completing the entire job. 

What a General Contractor Does

Homeowners usually hire a general contractor for large projects that require the work of multiple trades. But GCs do much more than hiring the various subcontractors. They obtain permits, buy materials and supplies, provide facilities for all workers and create and manage the workflow so the different tasks are completed in a logical, efficient manner. The GC is also the go-to guy for everyone on the project. He (or she) addresses homeowner complaints and concerns, settles disputes among subs and calls the subs when they're needed on the site or don't show up when they're supposed to. Without a GC, the homeowner is responsible for all of those jobs. 

Some GCs are actively involved in the day-to-day work of a project. For example, a GC may be a carpenter or remodeler who handles all of the demolition, construction of new walls and installation of various materials. Other GCs are primarily managers who use subs for all of the work. Many GCs have small crews of laborers who help with miscellaneous jobs around the work site.