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Subcontractor vs. General Contractor: What's the difference?
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Tim Forestell
September 26, 2023

Subcontractor vs. General Contractor: What's the Difference?

Depending on the size of a construction project, there are often many parties involved with its success, including the general contractor (GCs) and subcontractors. In this blog, we'll break down the difference between GCs and subcontractors including their roles, responsibilities, and the advantages associated with both.

What Does a General Contractor Do?

At the top of a construction project is the general contractor, overseeing every aspect. They serve as the main point of contact with clients, interpreting project requirements, and managing coordination, budgets, and timelines. There are both large and small GCs with some of the biggest construction companies being known across the United States and Canada.

Once a general contractor is hired for a job, they own that job and are responsible for the quality and execution of the project. In this role, the GC plans and coordinates all activity that is needed for the project. This includes all of the business aspects like managing and supervising the job to make sure the time and budget requirements are met. Some key duties of a general contractor include:

  • Renting or purchasing equipment for the project

  • Preparing for project changes by implementing risk mitigation strategies

  • Hiring subcontractors to complete specialized labor

  • Ensuring legal and regulatory standards are met

  • Quality control assurance

  • Ensuring the constant supply of materials while being cost-effective and following safety measures

  • Updating the stakeholders with project updates

What Does a Subcontractor Do?

Subcontractors, who are essential contributors in construction, specialize in specific trades. They bring expertise in their respective fields whether that's concrete, windows, framing, paving, land clearing, excavation, electric work, or more. Unlike general contractors, one of the benefits of being a subcontractor is that they focus solely on their specialized tasks, avoiding the need to oversee the entire project.

While some general contractors may perform heavier tasks like land clearing, excavation, or site preparation themselves, they often have relationships with subcontractors who can perform these tasks too. It often depends on their own schedule, the size of the project, and the agreement they have with the stakeholders.

Common subcontractor roles in the construction industry include:

  • Electrical Contractors: These subcontractors handle all aspects of electrical work, including wiring, lighting, and power distribution.

  • Plumbing Contractors: Plumbing subcontractors are responsible for installing and maintaining plumbing systems, including pipes, fixtures, and drainage systems.

  • HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) Contractors: HVAC subcontractors specialize in the installation and maintenance of heating and cooling systems, ensuring comfortable indoor environments.

  • Carpentry Contractors: Carpentry subcontractors focus on woodworking tasks, including framing, cabinetry, and finishing carpentry work.

  • Concrete Contractors: These specialists work with concrete, pouring and shaping it to create foundations, slabs, and various structural elements.

  • Roofing Contractors: Roofing subcontractors install and repair roofing materials to ensure a watertight and weather-resistant building envelope.

There are several other subcontractors that might be utilized on any given project, but these should give you a good idea of the different types.

Is a Subcontractor Just Another Type of Contractor?

Essentially, yes. Subcontractors are a specific type of contractor with a focused role in the construction process. They are specialists who are hired by general contractors to handle specific tasks within a project.

While both subcontractors and general contractors fall under the broader category of "contractors," they have separate roles with different responsibilities in the construction industry. Understanding this difference is essential for effective project management and collaboration in construction.

How Do General Contractors and Subcontractors Differ?

General Contractors are the conductors of construction projects. They are responsible for overseeing the entire endeavor, from initial planning and client communication to project completion. General contractors coordinate the work of various subcontractors, manage budgets, and ensure that timelines are met.

Subcontractors, on the other hand, are specialists in specific construction trades. They are contracted by general contractors to handle specialized tasks, such as electrical work, plumbing, or roofing. Subcontractors bring a depth of expertise to their niche areas and focus exclusively on their assigned tasks.

Who Earns More: General Contractors or Subcontractors?

When it comes to earnings, the disparity between general contractors and subcontractors can be significant and influenced by several factors.

General contractors often have the potential to earn more due to the comprehensive nature of their responsibilities. They handle the entire project and are typically compensated accordingly. Their earnings can also be influenced by project size and complexity.

Subcontractors, while specialists in their respective fields, may have more limited earning potential in terms of project scope. They often are on a project for less time, don't have as many costs to manage, and have less stake in the success of the project. However, their rates can vary depending on the demand for their specialized skills, experience, and the complexity of the tasks they undertake.

Check out our guide on becoming a general contractor.

Whose Job Responsibilities Are More Complex?

General contractors are responsible for everything involved in completing a project. This includes managing multiple facets of a project from client communication and budgeting to coordinating subcontractors and ensuring adherence to timelines. This requires general contractors to have a broad skill set that encompasses project management, negotiation, and problem-solving which each have their own layer of complexity. Relationship building is also another aspect of their role which is crucial for maintaining client-contractor relationships.

Subcontractors, while experts in their niches, typically have a more focused job and fewer overall responsibilities. While their actual specialty may be complex, this lack of additional tasks and obligation does simplify their job.

Are There Other Types of Contractors?

There are other key contractor types that need to be identified that play a role in this process called prime contractors and independent contractors.

What's a Prime Contractor?

A prime contractor is a term often used in government contracting and large-scale construction projects. This contractor is responsible for overseeing the entire project, similar to a general contractor. However, the distinction lies in their role as the primary point of contact with the client or government agency. The prime contractor may also subcontract work to various specialized subcontractors.

How is an Independent Contractor Different?

Independent contractors are distinct entities in the world of construction and business in general. Here are the unique features that set them apart:

  • Independence: Independent contractors are self-employed individuals who work independently. One of the benefits of being a contractor who's independent is that they have the freedom to choose their clients, projects, and work schedules. Unlike subcontractors, who are typically hired by general contractors for specific tasks within a construction project, independent contractors often operate across various industries and offer a broader range of services.

  • Versatility: Independent contractors can offer a wide array of services, ranging from construction and remodeling to consulting, design, and project management. They are not limited to a specific trade or specialty, which makes them versatile professionals sought after in various industries.

  • Autonomy: Independent contractors have more autonomy and control over their work. They are responsible for managing their businesses, securing clients, and handling their finances. Unlike subcontractors, who are part of a larger construction project, independent contractors operate as separate businesses.

Who Handles Insurance in Construction?

Insurance is a vital component of the construction industry, ensuring protection against unforeseen events and liabilities. In this section, we'll explore the various stakeholders involved in managing insurance within construction projects.

Who Needs to Worry About Insurance?

Insurance in construction is a collective effort involving multiple parties:

  • General Contractors: General contractors often shoulder a significant portion of insurance responsibilities and they typically carry comprehensive insurance policies to cover the overall project. This includes general liability insurance, which safeguards against third-party claims, and workers' compensation insurance to provide coverage for their employees.

  • Subcontractors: Subcontractors are also accountable for insurance. They are typically required to maintain their own insurance policies, such as general liability coverage. Additionally, subcontractors may need to provide proof of workers' compensation insurance to cover their employees while working on the project.

  • Property Owners or Clients: Property owners or clients have a vested interest in insurance matters. They often stipulate insurance requirements for general contractors and subcontractors involved in the project. These requirements are designed to protect against potential liabilities and property damage.

  • Insurance Providers: Insurance companies play a pivotal role in crafting and issuing insurance policies tailored to the unique needs of construction projects. They assess risks, set premium rates, and ensure that contractors and subcontractors have adequate coverage in place.

  • Regulatory Authorities: In certain cases, regulatory authorities and government agencies may impose specific insurance requirements, particularly for public or government-funded construction projects. Compliance with these mandates is essential for securing contracts and ensuring legal adherence.

Now that we've identified the key players in the realm of construction insurance, let's look into two crucial types of insurance often encountered in construction projects.

What's Liability Coverage All About?

Liability coverage is a cornerstone of construction insurance. It protects against claims from third parties, such as property damage or bodily injury caused by construction activities. In construction projects, both general contractors and subcontractors frequently carry general liability insurance to safeguard against potential liabilities stemming from their work.

What is Errors and Omissions Insurance?

Errors and Omissions (E&O) insurance, also known as professional liability insurance, is a specialized form of coverage often required for professionals providing services within construction projects. This insurance is not limited to contractors but may also pertain to architects, engineers, and design professionals.

E&O insurance shields against claims related to professional errors, omissions, or negligence, ensuring that the responsible party can address potential disputes or issues that arise from their specialized services.

Who Should You Choose for Your Construction Project?

Choosing the right professionals for your construction project is a pivotal decision that can significantly impact the project's success. In this section, we'll explore the scenarios in which you should consider hiring a general contractor or a subcontractor.

When to Hire a General Contractor?

General contractors are the project managers of construction endeavors, responsible for overseeing the project from start to finish. Here are situations where you should hire a general contractor:

  • Complex Projects: General contractors are ideal for complex and large-scale construction projects. They have the experience and expertise to manage everything involved in coordinating various subcontractors, adhering to timelines, and ensuring the project's overall success. These could include anything from building a restaurant to a home to large apartments.

  • Single Point of Contact: When you prefer a single point of contact for your construction project, a general contractor fits the bill. They act as the primary contact with clients, streamlining communication and simplifying decision-making.

  • Project Oversight: They will provide a comprehensive oversight of your project, including budget management, quality control, and adherence to safety regulations. They ensure that all aspects of the project align with the client's vision and expectations.

  • Timely Completion: General contractors are skilled at managing timelines and keeping construction projects on schedule. If completing your project on time is a top priority, a general contractor is a wise choice.

When to Hire a Subcontractor?

Subcontractors are specialists in specific construction trades and are well-suited for focused tasks within a project. Consider hiring subcontractors in the following scenarios:

  • Specialized Expertise: When your project requires specialized skills, such as electrical work, plumbing, roofing, or concrete pouring, subcontractors bring their deep expertise to the table. Essentially, you want to hire a subcontractor when you are looking to complete one specific task.

  • Efficiency in Niche Tasks: Subcontractors excel in efficiency when handling their niche tasks. By concentrating solely on their area of specialization, they can complete their work quickly and accurately, contributing to the project's overall efficiency.

  • Cost-Effective Approach: Subcontractors often offer cost-effective solutions for specific aspects of a project. By hiring them for specialized tasks, you can optimize your project budget.

  • Flexible Hiring: Subcontractors can be contracted on an as-needed basis. This flexibility allows you to bring in specific experts when required, making them a valuable resource for your project.

In essence, your choice between a general contractor and a subcontractor should align with your project's complexity, size, and specific requirements.

Looking to Hire a General Contractor or Subcontractor? What Should You Consider?

Assess the complexity and size of your project. General contractors are well-suited for comprehensive, large-scale endeavors, while subcontractors excel in specialized tasks within the project. Consider the specific skills and expertise required for your project. Subcontractors are specialists in their trades and can provide a higher level of proficiency for niche tasks.

Determine your preferred level of involvement in project management. General contractors take on the role of project managers, overseeing all aspects of construction. Subcontractors focus on their designated tasks, requiring less direct supervision. Evaluate the importance of meeting project deadlines. General contractors are experienced in timeline management and can help ensure your project stays on track. Subcontractors can contribute to efficiency by handling their specialized tasks promptly.

Analyze your project budget. General contractors often provide comprehensive estimates that encompass multiple aspects of the project. Subcontractors can be cost-effective for specialized work within your budget.

Check out our guide on maintaining a healthy profit margin.

In Conclusion: Why Does Knowing the Difference Matter?

Understanding the distinction between general contractors and subcontractors is vital for the success of your construction project. By making an informed decision, you can ensure efficient project management, cost-effectiveness, and high-quality results.

Whether you go for a general contractor or subcontractor, one thing remains constant: the need for the right equipment. Discover a wide range of construction equipment listings tailored to your project and rent the equipment you need to bring your next project to life with DOZR.

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Tim Forestell
Tim Forestell is one of DOZR’s co-founders and CCO. Tim got started in the industry as VP Operations for Forestell Landscaping before founding DOZR with Kevin and Erin. Aside from the amazing team at DOZR, his favourite thing about DOZR are the customers. Working with DOZR renters every day gives him a peek at the evolution of different projects and hearing stories about projects being developed from start to finish.
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