Everything You Need to Know About General Contractors

April 03, 2020

Everything You Need to Know About General Contractors

What is a general contractor?

A general contractor is responsible for managing a construction project from start to finish. They handle budgeting, vendor management, materials, subcontractor hiring, and communication with the client. Think of them as a construction manager or project manager for your construction project.

For homeowners completing a renovation project, the general contractor is often your only point of contact. They’re responsible for completing the entire project on time and within budget, and are responsible for communicating any issues that arise along the way that may require budget or timeline changes. They are responsible for managing subcontractors like plumbers or electricians that help complete your renovation project.

General contractors are also responsible for working with your architect to make sure the entire project matches your vision. They’re the link between you and what’s happening at the job site.

What is the role of a general contractor?

A general contractor manages the construction project on behalf of the owner. This includes procuring whatever materials are needed for the project, hiring subcontractors to complete work in their specialty areas (like electricians or plumbers), and communicating with the project owner on the progress of construction.

In some cases, a custom home builder would also be considered your general contractor.

Virtually all commercial construction projects also have a general contractor, but those requirements are different and won’t be covered here.

How do I become a general contractor?

General contracting can be a rewarding and lucrative career. The requirements to become a contractor vary depending on your state. In almost all cases, you’ll need a license. Applying for a license requires previous work experience. You’ll likely start your career working as an apprentice to an already licensed contractor to gain experience.

In California, for example, you need to submit a general contractor license application, with work experience in the construction industry, pay the application fee, and pay a bond to the state that they’ll use to refund a customer if you refuse to do so. If you are building a team with multiple employees, you may also be required to show proof of workers’ compensation and liability insurance.

There are also lots of trade schools -- both online and in-person -- that help train you on the skills necessary to be a great contractor. This is particularly important if you’re planning on becoming one of the specialty contractors, such as those focused on complex engineering projects like bridges.

For general contractors focused on home construction, there are generally fewer requirements, though they do vary by state.

Do I need a general contractor?

Whether or not you need a general contractor for your construction project generally depends on the scope of construction. For specialized projects, like a roof replacement or foundation repair, you don’t need to worry about the title -- just find a contractor that focuses on those types of projects.

That’s true for most home remodel projects as well. Just focus on looking for people who are experienced in the type of project you’re working on -- like kitchen or bathroom remodeling -- and don’t worry about the titles. Starting by looking for a general contractor might lead you to a person or company that focuses on some other type of construction work. That said, do make sure that anyone you work with is licensed with your state. That way, you can be sure they’ve met some minimum requirements, and if something goes wrong, you’ll have an external avenue for recourse.

A general contractor also is familiar with local building codes, and will file building permits on your behalf.

Are general contractors licensed?

Yes, generally speaking. Some states license general contractors on the state level, like California. Other states, like Texas do not administer a contractor license at the state level, but many cities and counties in Texas require licenses.

Before you hire anyone to complete a home renovation project, you should familiarize yourself with your local licensing laws for contractors. A quick Internet search should do. That way, you can also familiarize yourself with the consumer protection laws available in your city or state.

Many contractors will include their license number on their business card and on their work vehicle.

How do I find a good general contractor?

Hiring a general contractor can be tricky for many homeowners, because most people don’t start home remodeling projects often. But with the Internet, finding a good contractor is easier than ever.

Ideally, you can get a referral from a friend or neighbor that has direct experience working with a particular contractor. If someone in your neighborhood has had a similar renovation recently, ask them how the project went, and whether or not they’d recommend the contractor they used for the project. A word-of-mouth recommendation is the most trustworthy option. If you don’t know any neighbors personally, consider posting a request for recommendations on a neighborhood site like Next Door.

As a backup (or in addition to a word-of-mouth recommendation), check reviews on the Internet. Use your favorite review sites, like Yelp, Thumbtack, Angie’s List, or BuildZoom. Be sure to read the full reviews, though -- both positive and negative -- because sometimes the star ratings don’t match people’s full experiences. Some people will write a zero-star review for an issue that isn’t relevant to your situation.

Many of those sites will also allow you to request a quote directly from the contractor’s profile page, which makes it easy to get multiple quotes at once (though keep in mind that for larger projects, contractors generally can’t give an accurate estimate without a lot more information, often gathered in person).

In all cases, be sure you describe your construction job as accurately as possible, as well as your budget and timeline constraints. By being upfront with your expectations, you’ll end up with better results.

Once you’ve narrowed down your list of potential contractors, before you make your final choice, ask for references -- especially if it’s a big project, like a bathroom or kitchen remodel.

How much does a general contractor cost?

The cost of a general contractor varies depending on the scope of your project. In many cases, a general contractor charges a fee of some percentage of the total project cost. In other cases, they may charge a flat fee, though that’s less common.

How long does it take to become a general contractor?

How long it takes to become a general contractor varies by state and by city, depending on local licensing requirements. Often, prospective general contractors need some prior experience in construction. A high school degree is also required in some states. For more technical licenses, like those working on infrastructure construction projects, you may need some more advanced course credits.

What are the requirements for a general contractor?

For people considering being a general contractor, you generally need: A state or local license Prior construction experience Payment of a licensing fee A high school diploma or equivalent

Requirements vary by city and state.

For a homeowner looking to hire a general contractor, you should look for a general contractor that provides: Regular communication with the homeowner on project status, materials, budget, and timeline Hiring and vetting of all subcontractors Construction materials