What Does A General Contractor Do?: A Guide For Homeowners

What Does A General Contractor Do?: A Guide For Homeowners


If you are building your dream house, having a general contractor to manage your construction team can relieve a lot of the pressure that comes with taking on such a project — but do you really need one? What do they actually do? And how can you find a good general contractor? We explore everything you need to know below.

What is a general contractor?

A general contractor is responsible for overseeing all daily operations surrounding your house build or renovation. They coordinate and execute the construction of your home project, including maintaining quality control and meeting deadlines. They also manage all subcontractors and vendors and are the primary source of communication between everyone involved in the construction project. When you need engineers, architects, interior designers, and other construction professionals, the general contractor is the person who will meet and work with them.

Your chosen contractor should be licensed by their state, ensuring that their work will meet the code requirements. 

What does a general contractor do?

Woman talking to her general contractor about her home renovation project

The services a general contractor undertakes will vary based on the complexity and size of the project. In some cases, the general contractor will manage the workers, provide utilities on the site, secure the grounds, and perform engineering functions. These professionals are also responsible for disposing of any construction waste. 

The general contractor must also keep your project on budget by keeping accurate records and balancing costs.

How much does it cost to hire a general contractor?

Some contractors will charge a 10 to 20% fee plus the cost of materials and labor for the job , while others will charge a set fee for their services (usually an hourly or daily rate).

Remember that a general contractor is not an employee but will work as an independent contractor. With that, contractors will not have to pay any taxes to benefit their employees.

General contractor vs subcontractor: What’s the difference?

The best way to explain the difference between a general contractor vs a subcontractor is like this: Think of your general contractor as the conductor of an orchestra and the subcontractors as the musicians. The general contractor directs each subcontractor to create a beautiful symphony, while each subcontractor is a specialist in their chosen instrument.

In less poetic terms, a general contractor is the primary person in charge of the project, and the subcontracted plumbers, masons, electricians, and roofers report directly to the general contractor. The general contractor is then responsible for the overall quality of work, behavior, and efficiency of those subcontractors. In many cases, the general contractor will ensure that these subcontractors are licensed and insured. They will also manage payments, create schedules, and keep everyone on a budget. If there is a problem, the general contractor will handle it and keep everyone and everything on schedule.

The subcontractor’s only role, on the other hand, is to do the job they’ve been assigned. A roofer, for example, will work exclusively on the roof. 

General contractor vs construction manager - What’s the difference?

a joiner using a drill, following the orders of the general contractor

At a glance, the general contractor and construction manager might seem like the same job. The construction manager is involved in the early process of the job, usually during the pre-construction and design phases. They lend their expertise to the budgeting and scheduling process. They can help clients save money while maintaining the integrity of the initial design. The construction manager will also manage contractors, checking on the job's progress. In some cases, they will hire subcontractors for the job.

The general contractor is the one responsible for those workers in the field. While they may take on some budgeting tasks, the construction manager handles most of the financial picture.

Do I need to hire a general contractor?

Hiring a general contractor is not always required if you are doing residential work. In some situations, you just need to work with a subcontractor directly. However, you might want to think about working with a general contractor if the project will take a few days to complete, require permits, or involve several subcontractors. These professionals can keep everyone on track for your project. 

How to find a general contractor

Finding a general contractor can seem like a daunting task. You put a lot of trust into this person, so you need someone trustworthy and effective. When searching for one, first ask people you know for recommendations. You’re sure to get very honest reviews. You can also search the internet for local, reputable contractors. Look for ones who’ve undertaken a lot of similar projects to yours and have rave reviews.

Once you’ve found three to five that you think might be a good fit, chat to them about your project and ask a series of follow-up questions like:

  • Have you undertaken similar projects before? How recently? How did the project go?

  • Do you have a timeline in mind for my project? What is your estimated cost?

  • How long have you been in business? Do you have the connections needed to find reputable subcontractors?

  • Do you have case studies and references?

  • Are you insured? And do you have the required permits and licenses?

How to write a contract for a general contractor

Two people defining the terms of a general contractor agreement

When you are ready to hire a general contractor, you will sign a legally binding document known as a general contractor agreement. This formal contract outlines all of the duties and responsibilities of the general contractor. The details in the contract often include the construction specifications, materials, and other labor that will be completed on the land or property.

Make sure that the estimate outlines the price and payment information. If changes are made, then the contract will need to be amended. Along with that, the estimate must have a complete description of the work, including details about warranties, replacement options, and the preparation process. Finally, the estimate needs an approximate completion date for the project.

Do you want everything in writing? Yes, you never want any construction work done on your home without a contract. These legal contracts will protect you if something goes wrong on the job site. If the subcontractors don't complete the work or damage your property, you have legal recourse at your fingertips. Think of the contract to guarantee that subcontractors will complete the work on time and for a specific price. 

Plan your home project today

A general contractor is a vital part of a huge renovation project. While you don't need these professionals for smaller jobs, you should think about hiring a general contractor if you plan a room renovation or new house construction.

Are you looking for a high-quality source to assist with your site plans? At My Site Plan, we can help you get organized for your next renovation or building project! 

General contractor FAQs

Does a general contractor need a license?

It varies between jurisdictions, but as a general rule, general contractors need a license to operate legally. To obtain that license, a contractor will have demonstrated a certain level of experience, passed an exam, and possibly provided proof of insurance and bonding.

Before hiring a general contractor, you should ask them for their license and proof of insurance. 

Can a general contractor do electrical work?

Electrical work often requires specialized knowledge, skills, and training to ensure safety and compliance with building codes. As such, general contractors typically subcontract the work to licensed electricians or electrical contractors to ensure that it is completed in accordance with all applicable regulations.

Can a general contractor do plumbing?

Typically, a general contractor will subcontract all plumping work to a licensed plumber. It’s the easiest way of ensuring that the installations adhere to building codes and safety standards. It also allows homeowners to reuse that plumber for future repairs and maintenance.

How much does a general contractor charge per hour?

According to HomeGuide, a general contractor charges anywhere from $50 to $150 per hour on average. These costs vary based on labor and material costs, project size, and location. It’s usually best to hire a general contractor on a fixed day rate and specify in your contractor agreement how many hours that day rate covers. This is usually a cheaper alternative as day rates range from $300 to $500.

Do you tip general contractors?

There is usually no expectation that a general contractor will get tipped, however many satisfied homeowners offer additional compensation at the end of a project when the contractor has gone above and beyond. We’ll leave that decision up to you! 

Can I be my own general contractor?

There are no rules against being your own general contractor. As long as you have the time, you can work directly with and manage all subcontractors yourself, and put in the required applications for all permits. In fact, doing this is a great way to save money on your project.

However, there are a lot of benefits to using a general contractor too. They have the experience and expertise to streamline all processes for you and will have a network of subcontractors they know and trust. Using one can save you a lot of time and stress. 

This article was originally published on 2022-03-14. This article was updated on 2024-04-24 by Ryan Crownhold with the latest information and pricing.

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  • Ryan Crownholm