What is it?
A general contractor is a person, or even perhaps a group, who for compensation, arranges or undertakes a bid to construct, alter, repair, add to, subtract from, improve, inspect, move, wreck, or demolish any number of different things for a paying customer. Primarily, contractors work on buildings (be it a house or a shopping mall), highways, roads, railroads, and developments attached to real estate. Therefore, you can imagine the massive amount of different specialized general contractors within a given area: electrical, plumbing, mechanical, highway, environmental remediation, roofing, waterproofing, and so on.
When you hire a general contractor, you’re more or less hiring a construction quarterback (I could continue this metaphor by comparing subcontractors to running backs, but that’ll probably just get confusing). Basically, a general contractor is responsible for the means and methods to be used in the construction execution of any given project. Therefore, a general contractor is responsible for supplying all materials, labor (which, if the project is large enough, may mean hiring other specialized laborers known as subcontractors), equipment, and all services that the job necessitates.
Smaller contracting jobs, such as pipe insulation in the basement of a house, would fall under the category of residential contracting as they are primarily limited to house calls and may only require one contractor or, at the most, a small crew. Commercial contracting, on the other hand, refers to larger contracting jobs (which may require architects and subcontractors), generally reserved for things like retail outlets, manufacturing facilities, office buildings, and warehouses. However, there can be some confusion between residential and commercial contracting. For instance, roofing can be complicated, as a residential apartment building may in fact, fall under the category of commercial roofing depending on how large the roof is and if there are multiple protrusions such as ventilation systems, pipes, or skylights.
Who needs it?
Anyone who doesn’t fancy themselves as some amateur Bob Villa type will find general contractors highly convenient. Literally, the only work you have to do is find a contractor. Once that is out of the way and you’ve settled on a price, the contractor takes control, making your leaky faucet, his leaky faucet.
Besides the obvious benefit of bypassing physical labor, general contracting is great because there are so many different kinds. If something in your home or office (or home office) is broken, there’s not only a general contractor who can fix it, but there’s more than likely a general contractor who solely specializes in fixing whatever specific thing that is broken. You want a bigger closet, hire a closet contractor. Your doorbell doesn’t ring, hire a doorbell contractor. Your electric garage door opener is malfunctioning, hire an electric garage door opener contractor. You get the idea.
Also, because of the surplus of contractors in many areas, you have the ability to pick and choose. You’ll be surprised by how much you can find out about any one specific general contracting company, mainly based on customer reports. It’s also possible to match prices from company to company by doing some research on the internet. Also, because contracting can be a competitive market, many times you can find good deals, such as free inspections and free quotes.
When you hire a general contractor, you always run the potential risk of getting ripped off, as some contractors take advantage of their client’s ignorance on the project at hand. Therefore, it may be wise to try and find out the average cost of the service being provided before you make a deal with the contractor.
Otherwise, almost all contractors are required to be licensed in their respective state, which usually means taking an oral and written exam. So you should be aware of that, and if you are curious as to the license requirements, you can always contact the National Association of State Contractor Licensing Agencies (NASCLA).
The Bottom Line
If you have a home repair or construction problem, general contractors are the most readily available solution. There’s no guarantee that it will be cheap, but in many cases, you don’t really have a choice anyway. You can either pay a contractor or continue to sleep with a giant hole in your bedroom ceiling.