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Should You Hire a Contractor for That House Project?

Why hire a contractor when you’ve got a master’s degree in HGTV? Overconfidence is all too common among homeowners who’d be better off leaving the big projects to the pros. Before you make that costly Lowe’s run and start any demo, review the benefits of having a trusted contractor on your side, compared to when you can get away with a harmless DIY project.

One of the most important skills for any do-it-yourselfer is to know when not to. If you have a really big project in mind, like adding a room or a project that involves skills (and tools) outside of your knowledge, turning to professionals is a good choice. Now you enter the realm of contractors and subcontractors. What's the difference? Think of it like this. If you hire an event planner for a wedding, golden anniversary or other celebration, you don't expect him or her to bake the cake, cook the meal, grow the flowers or play the music. You pay the planner to use his or her knowledge of the industry and organizational skills to bring together the best baker, caterer, florist and string quartet in a coordinated effort to make your event successful. The event planner is the contractor, and the people in his or her rolodex are trusted subcontractors. General contractors are the "big picture" thinkers. They work with you through the entire project, from the idea phase to the finished product. By contrast, subcontractors come and go. They specialize in certain areas of the construction process, like large equipment operation, concrete formulation, plumbing, electricity and carpentry. They enter a project to do a particular task and leave when that task is finished.

Shouldn't Contractors Have Their Own Staff? ­If you decide to hire a general contractor, he or she may have a permanent staff of employees. In this case, you might have few, if any, subcontractors involved in your project. Hiring employees versus subcontractors is an economic decision. The employer -- in this case, the general contractor -- must pay salaries and purchase worker's compensation insurance for employees. Since subcontractors are independent business people, general contractors don't have to pay to insure them or pay employment taxes on them. Hiring subcontractors for overflow work or to perform tasks that call for expertise that isn't needed on a regular basis saves expenses for the general contractor and ultimately, for you. Should you hire a general contractor for your remodeling or renovation project? Or would you be better off to hire subcontractors directly? We'll look at what general contractors bring to your project in the following pages.

Good contractors can bring piece of mind, knowledge of industry standards and project management expertise. But they also bring tangible, necessary things to the job: a license, insurance and worker's compensation. If you act as the general contractor yourself, you assume liability for injuries and property damage. Perhaps the most stress relief comes from the fact that the general contractor is responsible for the quality of all the work he or she oversees as part of the contract. If something goes wrong during the construction, it's up to the general contractor to get it fixed. The cost of those repairs comes o­ut of the contract budget, not your pocket. Knowledge of building codes, appropriate materials, proper construction methods and safety -- both during and after construction -- also is a key resource that a general contractor brings to your project. This knowledge saves you the time and trouble of having to learn when it's too cold to pour concrete, how long caulk should cure before it's painted and why it's absolutely necessary for the plumber to install a P-trap under your new sink. This knowledge also lets a contractor know which subcontractors are reputable and reliable, and which ones no one should ever hire.

Contractors also have one big advantage you don't: They've done it before. From initial planning to final cleanup, contractors manage workflow like conductors manage orchestras. They understand the structure of the composition, they cue different players when it's their turn to take the lead, and they probably have experience with at least a few tools of the trade. If you've done your homework and hired well, your general contractor will keep the work flowing and the crews busy throughout the entire course of the project. In the end, it's up to you to decide if your job warrants a general contractor or if you can handle to project yourself. But a general contractor could take some of the worry and stress out of the job for you, so when it's done, you can sit back and enjoy the work.

What are the benefits of hiring a general contractor?

A contractor is different from a handyman or similar professional in skillset, licensing, and expertise.

While general contractors coordinate and execute larger home renovation projects, other types of contractors (subcontractors) specialize in a particular trade, such as roofing, plumbing, carpentry, or electrical work.

Contractors typically must be licensed by the state and carry an installation or workmanship warranty to guarantee they’ve done the job correctly.

Because they’re licensed, these professionals also must ensure that their work meets code requirements. (A skilled handyman is unlicensed but is an economical option for smaller jobs).

The benefits of hiring a contractor depend on the scope of the job. In general, they protect you as a home seller from higher material costs in doing the work yourself and any legal liability should the work be done incorrectly.

Renovation Planners, a certified construction management firm, estimates that 30% percent of contractors’ work comes from repairing do-it-yourself projects gone wrong.

If you need more convincing to hire a pro, these are the main advantages:

1. Major projects have a steep learning curve, even if you think you’re handy

It’s understandable that homeowners want to save time and money where they can when selling a house, but depending on the repair, not hiring a contractor can get you in over your head.

“It can be kind of a nightmare where contractors know the people and know the jargon for getting the work done correctly, and homeowners may not have that experience,” Urban said. “I think sometimes a project suffers just because of communication and lack of knowledge.”

2. Pull the right building codes and permits

Although you don’t need a permit on every home repair, a contractor will know when you do need one.

Although code requirements vary by municipality, the state could force you to remove the project without compensation or issue a fine.

Curious about the rules around permits in your area? Review this resource list with links to all 50 states’ building codes.

3. Follow proper construction methods, take the right safety precautions, and buck legal liability

A licensed contractor must undergo strict regulation that certifies general contractors, building contractors, residential contractors, mechanical contractors, and subcontractors handling specialties such as swimming pools, spas, sheet metal, roofing, air-conditioning, plumbing, solar energy, underground utilities, and pollutant storage.

The licensing board also requires that contractors carry workers’ compensation coverage. Not only do you want to save the time and headache of redoing work that isn’t done properly, you don’t want to be held liable for any workers injured on the job.

4. Get better prices on materials and labor

Contractors not only have specialized knowledge but contacts with subcontractors they can hire and discounts on materials. On materials alone, contractors can save big at retailers whereas consumers will pay full price for materials. Home Depot, for example, offers reduced pricing on orders over $1,500, plus bulk pricing on more than 4,000 products such as roofing, pavers, drywall, and paint supplies.

5. Keep crews busy and the work flowing

A reasonable time frame is generally important because if you’re trying to meet deadlines in terms of closing, then you want somebody you can count on that’ll come within a day or two. And who wants to have their house torn apart for months with no work being completed?

Is there anything to gain from a DIY job?

Again, this depends on the type and size of project you’re undertaking, as well as your own expertise. You might not see the need to hire a maintenance or remodeling contractor to change out a light fixture if you’ve done that previously—plus…

Hire a contractor for these bigger projects

A general rule of thumb is that you’ll want to hire a contractor or specialist for any issue that might crop up during a home inspection. This includes:

  • Plumbing fixes, such as leaky drains or slow faucets, as well as any pipe replacement.

  • Electrical upgrades, such as installing a new electrical breaker panel—the current minimum requirement is 100 amps.

  • Roof repairs, including replacing shingles, flashes, or decking.

  • Servicing the HVAC (or heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) by cleaning filters, flushing drain lines, and measuring amp draw and electrical current.

  • Scoping out the sewer system, showing the condition of the pipes and any leaks.

  • Pest control, such as eradicating termites and blocking cracks or holes that allow egress.

  • Landscaping such as trimming overgrown trees and regrading a lawn, especially if your lawn has drainage issues.

As for any kind of major remodeling project such as a kitchen renovation or bathroom overhaul? Best to hire a general contractor who can oversee a team of plumbers, electricians, painters, window hangers, and other specialty tradesmen.

Got a handyman or DIY know-how? Take on these cosmetic repairs with ease

Most of the time, a skilled homeowner or handyman is able to:

  • Patch holes from picture hardware in drywall

  • Paint baseboards and interior trim

  • Paint interior walls

  • Touch up paint on the inside or outside (single-story house)

  • Clean out the gunk in the garbage disposal

  • Fertilize and seed the lawn

  • Rake and weed the yard

Before you hire a contractor or subcontractor, think hard about what you can handle yourself. Then be sure to check references and referrals for professionals with friends, neighbors, coworkers, online databases and state regulatory agencies.

More important over the long haul is getting the job done right the first time.


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