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What Is a General Contractor?
A general contractor is a professional in the construction industry who oversees a construction project. A good general contractor is the point person who communicates with the architect and structural engineer, the workers on the job site, and the government entity that issues the necessary permits and inspects for code violations. Some general contractors work for large construction companies; others work independently and hire subcontractors to handle tasks like carpentry, plumbing, electrical work, roofing, and on-site project management.
What Does a General Contractor Do?
The best general contractors oversee every part of a construction project. Among other things, a general contractor does the following:
- Drafts a budget and schedule: The general contractor consults with the homeowners about setting a realistic budget and time frame.
- Works closely with the architect: A good general contractor regularly checks in with the building architect, who may even be provided by the contractor's firm.
- Works closely with the interior designer: If applicable, the general contractor will keep tabs on the interior designer, who may even work for the contractor’s firm.
- Ensures that the building complies with standards: The general contractor applies for building permits and is onsite during inspections from the city, county, or other supervising entity.
- Hires subcontractors for construction: Subcontractors hired by the general contractor may include carpenters, electricians, plumbers, roofers, painters, tile and floor specialists, ironworkers, and HVAC specialists.
- Potentially hires an onsite project manager: The project manager supervises the actual construction work and ensures building codes are always met.
- Keeps the project on time and on budget: The general contractor won’t move on to the next job until yours is completed.
10 Tips for Working With a General Contractor
Before breaking ground on any major projects, make sure you’ve found the best contractor to oversee the process.
- Use referrals. Don't select a contractor based on advertising alone. Ask for referrals and look for honest opinions about a local contractor's work. If you know people in the real estate or construction industry, solicit their thoughts as well.
- Seek licensed contractors. Most municipalities do not require you to use a licensed contractor—your average everyday handyman may not have a contractor's license—but larger projects almost always need the expertise of a licensed professional with years of experience. Licensed contractors carry liability insurance and worker's compensation for their crews, which can protect you if an injury occurs on the job site.
- Ask to see pictures of similar projects. If you're hiring a contractor for a big kitchen remodel or bathroom remodel, it's important to confirm that you'll be happy with the end result. When reviewing photos of past work, check the seams of surfaces—places where walls come together or where the wall meets the ceiling. If you see evidence of shoddy work, look for a different contractor; you want someone who pays attention to detail.
- Get multiple quotes. For first-time homeowners, it may be hard to know how much to pay for a construction project or home remodeling project. If you get at least three quotes from different contractors, you should have a good idea of the going rate.
- Settle on a price and a time frame, and get it in writing. Work should not begin until you have a written agreement with your contractor or home builder, stating the total cost of the project, the start date, and the completion date. Be aware that if you change order—such as moving a wall or redesigning shelving after the project has begun—your contractor will likely bump up the price to cover the additional work.
- Select finishes with the contractor. Finishes include faucets, sinks, countertops, lighting fixtures, doors, doorknobs—the kinds of aesthetic touches you’ll likely want to decide on yourself. You do not have to get into the weeds about foundational materials like concrete, steel bars, and structural wood; a good contractor knows what to use, and a building inspector will ensure they are building to code.
- Expect to make a down payment. Most contractors require an upfront payment before they do any work. This down payment confirms you are serious, and it gives the contractor funds to purchase initial building materials. Plan to pay at least 10 percent and up to 25 percent of the total cost upfront. Any pre-payment above 25 percent is a red flag.
- Set up a payment schedule. Beyond the down payment, you'll need to make additional payments throughout the construction process. Never make the final payment until the entire project is completed and approved by local inspectors.
- Treat as a partner on the project. The best general contractors work as partners with their clients. They do not try to bully their clients into materials or services they do not need, and they always respect the schedule and the budget. In return, treat your general contractor like the master tradesperson they are, and always be polite to workers at the job site. Providing access to an indoor bathroom and plenty of water and snacks can make for a respectful relationship.
- Set boundaries. Don’t let your contractor dive into their next job if your building project isn't close to completion. If there are cost overruns, ask to see receipts and thorough accounting. If you're always polite but firm, you'll set yourself up for a respectful, satisfying experience from start to finish.
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