Many larger construction companies employ very few tradespeople and do all or most of their work with subcontractors. As an owner-builder, you are also likely to hire a number of subcontractors to complete phases of the job that you cannot or choose not to handle yourself. On many jobs, the quality of the final project depends heavily on the workmanship of the subcontractors. So it is important to find and hire good subs and to manage them effectively.
Subcontractors in residential construction are typically small companies, sometimes a single individual, that specializes in one trade. The types of subs readily available vary with local building practices. For example, it’s hard to find a stucco subcontractor in New England, but easy to find one in the Southwest.
Subs may be more or less specialized, depending on local building practices . For example, California track builders use several different highly specialized subs to frame a house, while in New England, one framing crew typically completes the entire frame. Some subcontractors combine more than one trade, for example, some plumbers also install heating systems; others leave that to hvac (heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning) subs. Some foundation contractors provide the forms, concrete, drainage system, flatwork, and waterproofing – others specialize in just one phase of the work – e.g., a company that specializes in “decorative” concrete finishes.
Because subs specialize in a single trade, they are generally more efficient and knowledgeable about their work than a jack-of-all-trades. When I started out as a contractor, the skill, speed, and knowledge of expert tradesmen always amazed me. A plasterer makes it look easy to stick barely wet mud to a ceiling, and then smooth it to a perfectly flat finish. I tried it a couple of times and the plaster just fell on my head. An expert electrician can snake wires behind walls as if he had X-ray vision. An expert at ceramic tile or hardwood flooring has the tools and expertise to create a floor that is durable, beautiful, and free of cracks, squeaks, or maintenance problems.
A quality-minded contractor will know and hire good subcontractors – his reputation relies directly on the quality of their workmanship. Because the general contractor has an ongoing relationship with his subs, they will tend to show up when needed, work at competitive prices, and perform good work. If you are acting as your own contractor, you will need to find your own subs. Finding and hiring good subs (and getting them to show up on time) is half the battle for owner-builders. If you are successful at this, the house will more-or-less build itself based on the knowledge and trade skills of the subs. Still a certain amount of direction and communication with subs will be required if you want to avoid problems and end up with the project you envision.
Some of the more common sub-trades involved in building a home, roughly in the order their work is performed, include
- Well drillers: They site, drill, seal, and “develop” the well. They typically complete the well system with a well pump, plumbing to the house and pressure tank. Most also offer water treatment systems, if needed.
- Excavators: Cut, fill, move, and grade the earth for your foundation. They also cut trenches for utilities, and create the final grades around the building. Some also install septic systems, retaining walls, culverts, and other types of site development
- Septic system installers: Install the septic tank, leaching system, and other components of the septic system, following the approved design of a sanitation engineer or qualified designer.
- Blasting contractors: You’ll may need one if you have to remove ledge for your foundation hole or utility trenches
- Concrete contractors: Set the formwork for a concrete foundation or slab, install the steel reinforcing, and lay the subsurface drainage pipe. They make sure the fresh concrete fills the forms without voids and finish slab surfaces as specified. They often build concrete stairs, walkways, patios, retaining walls, and driveways. They may also offer other services such as waterproofing/damproofing of foundations, concrete cutting, concrete repair, and masonry work.
- Concrete companies: More a supplier than a sub, Ready-Mix companies deliver the specified concrete mix to your site. For hard-to-reach places, they have special pumping equipment.
- Masons: Build block foundations and anything else using block or brick and mortar. That may include stairs, patios, walkways, retaining walls, masonry fireplaces and hearths.
- Waterproofing contractors: Apply dampproofing or waterproofing to the foundation walls. Some waterproofing systems combine drainage, insulation, and waterproofing in one process.
- Paving contractors: Specialize in driveways, walkways, and patio made of concrete, asphalt, gravel, or “pavers” made of stone, concrete, or brick.
- Framers: Once the foundation is complete, the framers quickly build the “shell” with lumber, trusses, plywood, and other sheet materials such as OSB. The framers may also install the exterior doors and windows, but I’d rather have this done by a finish carpenter or window specialist.
- Roofers: Prepare the roofing surface with underlayment (asphalt-felt or alternative materials), along with special waterproofing membranes at the eaves and other areas prone to leakage. They install the roofing material: asphalt, metal, concrete, tile, wood, rubber, or composite. Some roofers specialize in one material, such as metal or flat-roof membranes. Roofers are responsible for sealing and flashing around openings and penetrations in the roof. They may also be responsible for installing roof ventilation.
- Siding contractors: Despite their “tin men” reputation, a good siding company can do nice work with vinyl, fiber-cement, or other synthetic and composite materials. They also handle exterior trim, typically with metal, vinyl, or composite materials. Wood siding is typically installed by carpenters, brick by bricklayers.
- Plumbers: First they “rough in” the pipes that will be hidden. Later they install the water heater and plumbing fixtures. They may also install water-treatment systems and hydronic (water or steam) heating systems.
- Electricians: First, they install the service panel and “rough in” the wires that will be hidden from view. Later they install the electrical switches, fixtures, and devices such as door bells and ceiling fans. They may also run wiring for cable TV and computer networks.
- Hvac: This stands for “heating, ventilation, and air conditioning,” which is what they install. Nowadays, this might include a whole-house ventilation system such as a heat-recovery ventilator (HRV).
- Insulation and Air Sealing: With the current interest in energy efficiency, the role of the insulation subcontractor has evolved. The best insulation/energy contractors today are well-versed in the latest building science and will make sure your building shell keeps the heat inside in winter and out in summer. They may also install sheet materials (air and vapor retarders) that prevent moisture problems in walls and attics.
- Drywallers: Install and finish drywall (aka, Sheetrock).
- Plasterers: Install lath and plaster – either skim-coat or traditional three-coat. Skim-coat is a nice upgrade from drywall if you can afford the modest upcharge.
- Finish carpentry and cabinets: Finish carpenters install the interior trim around doors and windows, as well as baseboards, crown, chair-rail, and other moldings. They may also install and trim out stairs, build shelves and other built-ins, and install kitchen and bathroom cabinets.
- Stair builders: In many cases, you’ll get the best deal and best quality from a company that custom fabricates stairs in its shop and delivers them to the job site. The more complicated the stairs, the greater the need for a specialist.
- Flooring contractors: Some companies sell and install every type of flooring – or use different independent installers for different materials. Ceramic tile, vinyl, wood, and carpeting have little in common, so it’s best to find a specialist for each type of flooring.
- Painters: It’s all in the prep work, they say, and it’s true. Exterior work is especially challenging, especially on today’s lumber, which does not hold paint as well as the wood of yore. Buy good paint and spend the money to properly seal, prime, and paint, or plan to paint again soon.
- Landscaping: The excavator may spread a little top soil when doing the final grading, but don’t expect a landscaped yard. Either you or a landscaping contractor needs to plant grass, trees, and shrubs. The sky’s the limit for more elaborate landscaping with stonework, koi ponds, terraces, pergolas, and exotic plantings.
- Others: The list can go on and on. There are specialists in window treatments, home theater, home security, solar heating and hot water, custom cabinets, fencing, decks and porches, garage doors, and you name it. Avoid sticker shock and cost overruns by getting bids early in the process and deciding what you can live without or complete later, maybe with some sweat equity.
You find subcontractors much the same way that you would find a general contractor or any other professional such as a doctor, dentist, or accountant. Ask around, talk to friends and neighbors, see who is working in your neighborhood.
If you see work being done in your neighborhood, don’t be shy. Introduce yourself, get a business card, take a look at the work if it is visible outside. If it’s indoor work, knock on the door later and ask the owner how the job is going. Ask if you can take a look –usually they are proud to show off their new project.
If the work is a large job handled by a general contractor, you may need to do a little more digging to figure out who the subcontractors are. Often the company name and phone number are painted on the side of the truck. Other times, you’ll have to walk up and ask who is doing the plumbing, electrical, roofing, tile, or whatever work it is you are in need of.
You can also ask at the local lumberyard – especially a contractor-oriented yard. However, I’ve had better luck with specialty suppliers. For example, if you’re looking for a tile installer ask at a tile retailer. For a plumber or electrician, ask at the local supply house that wholesales to the trade.
Once you’ve found a couple of good subs, chances are they can introduce you to others. These folks work together regularly and know who does good work. Try to get at least two or three names for each trade so you can get competitive bids. Also not everyone will be available when you need them.
Hiring a subcontractor is really no different than hiring a general contractor, except that the scope of work is much more limited. However, the principles are the same:
- Start with a clear description of the scope of work, using drawn plans and written specifications, as needed.
- Solicit bids on an apples-to-apples basis.
- Make sure the subcontractor is properly licensed and insured.
- Use an appropriate contract that clearly defines the scope of work, price, and payment schedule. Make sure the contract covers important details such as the schedule, clean up, removal of debris, and a written warranty.
Deposits. Be leery of a contractor or sub who wants a large down payment before starting the job. If materials need to be special-ordered, one option is for you to order the materials under your own name with the required deposit. That way, if the sub never shows up for one reason or another, you own the special-order materials and have not lost your deposit.
If you’ve hired good people, and clearly described the work to be done, they will need minimal supervision on the job. It’s important that you discuss the job ahead of time, work out any potential problems or conflicts with other trades, and communicate what is most important to you.
For example, if a deck builder is bringing a small backhoe into your yard, discuss what impact this will have on the existing landscaping and how best to protect your lawn and plantings. If old roofing is to be removed, discuss the cleanup of nails and debris from the yard. Discuss any concerns about pets, kids, clean up, or other important issues.
Also discuss aspects of the work that are especially important to you. Since this varies from customer to customer, it’s difficult for the sub to know exactly what you are looking for. Are there trees you want the excavator to preserve? Do you want the skylight centered perfectly over the stairwell? Do you want the ceramic tiles to lay out in a certain way? Is it important to you that built-in shelving match a photo you tore out of a magazine? Does a closet or niche have a minimum dimension you need for a piece of furniture or equipment.
Just because it is drawn correctly on paper doesn’t mean it will be built exactly as drawn or described in the specs. Life on a job site is messy and noisy, and things happen quickly. If something is important to you, communicate it clearly to the people doing the work.
Scheduling subs. This is one of the trickiest aspects of any large project. If you are hiring multiple subs to build an addition, for example, their work must be done in the right sequence. The drywall can’t go up before the insulation is installed. The insulation can’t be installed before the rough wiring and plumbing, and so on. Sometimes one sub wants to run the ductwork exactly where another sub plans to run the plumbing drain, leading to potential conflicts.
Getting subs to show up on schedule can be challenging. A contractor who regularly gives work to a subcontractor will have more clout than you when a sub is super busy and behind schedule. A few recommendations:
- Build a little slack into your schedule to play catch up when needed. Expect delays due to bad weather, changes to the plan, late deliveries, and no shows, as well as Murphy’s Law, which operates at full force on construction sites.
- Listen to your subs’ suggestions for saving time and money and doing a better job. If you think they are just trying to cut corners, hold your ground. But often their suggestions are based on past experience of what works well and what doesn’t.
- Promise to pay promptly and do so when the work is complete. Subs will appreciate this and respond in kind. Cash flow is always an issue for small companies.
- Keep them informed. If you anticipate delays, let them know asap so they can shuffle their schedule around. When you’re ready to move, give them a heads-up a week ahead of time so they can pencil you in.
Prep work for subtrades. Provide key subs with their own set of plans with any special requirements clearly marked. The framers should get a framing plan, the electricians and electrical plan, and so on.
For example, framers need to know where you will need a thicker “plumbing wall” to accommodate drains and vents, or where you will need blocking in the wall to secure a grab bar, wall-hung sink, or other equipment. If you are working with a designer or architect, have them clearly mark any special framing requirements.
Also have your plumber, hvac contractor, and other subs review the plans to tell you what they need to do their job correctly. For example, plasterers need plaster “grounds” to guide their trowels, ceramic tile installers may need heavier floor framing and underlayment, plumbers need chases to run their pipes, and so on. If these things are not well planned in new construction or remodeling, bad things can happen on the job site. Plumbers and hvac contractors are notorious for pulling out their reciprocating saws and large drills and cutting away at the those pesky pieces of framing that are in the way of their ducts or pipes. Unfortunately those pesky pieces of framing may be critical to properly support the structure.
For the most part, I have had good luck with subs over the years with a few notable exceptions. A few examples of problems I’ve and others I know have experienced are listed below:
- Problem: Not showing up on time. Not all subs are the greatest schedulers and when there is a conflict, you’re probably not at the top of their list. Also, they may be out of town or out of business by the time you need them.
- Solution: Give them a heads up a few days to a week before you will need them. Let them know right away if there are any schedule changes. Pay them promptly (and they’re much more likely to show up promptly next time).
- Problem: Speed vs. quality. Most subs are highly competent and efficient at their trade. However, in some cases, they user cheaper material than specified or work faster than they should and cut corners, producing substandard work.
- Solution: Hire reputable subs, who may not be the cheapest. Discuss quality standards with them and write specifications and quality standards into your contract with them.
- Problem: Collateral damage. In my experience, many subs have a kind of tunnel vision. They focus on their work and don’t necessarily see what else is around them. Examples from my work as a contractor include a plumber who put his greasy toolbox down on a $30,000 Persian carpet, and another plumber who cut large notches in the floor joists across the middle of a room, nearly collapsing the floor. In that case, I had to call in a structural engineer to undo the damage. I’ve seen similar structural problems with cuts made for ductwork. Also, I’ve seen mechanical subs run pipes or ducts through a living space when they were supposed to be buried in the wall or ceiling.
- Solution: Plan ahead. Discuss the job ahead of time – at a meeting on the jobsite if possible. On a remodeling job, communicate any special requirements regarding access to the work-site, protection of surfaces, and cleanup. With mechanical subs, ask where they plan to run their pipes, wires, or ductwork. Ask if they anticipate any problems or will need to cut, drill, or notch any framing. If the amount of notching seems excessive, get an expert opinion from an experienced framer, or if necessary, a structural engineer. See rules-of-thumb for the safe notching and drilling of framing.