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What is a Contractor? What Does a Contractor Do?

In the most general terms, a contractor is a person or company who enters into a contract to provide services. In relation to home building and remodeling, it usually refers to a general contractor or a builder. Contractors are typically hired to oversee a project. They may do all of the work themselves or they may hire subcontractors. A subcontractor is usually someone who specializes in one particular field such as plumbing, electrical or masonry.

In most states a contractor, or subcontractor, must be licensed to perform any work. There may be a threshold, under which no license is required, such as $500 in California. Some particular tradespeople may not require licensing, depending upon where you live. If your state or local government require contractors to be licensed, be sure that your contractor is licensed and that their license is in-force.

Contractors typically are required to be bonded and/or insured. It is very important that all of your contractors and subcontractors are properly insured and that their policies are in-force. Don't assume that because they provided you with a policy number that the policy is in-force. Check with the insurer to verify that the policy is in-force. The reason insurance is important is that the building trade is hazardous work. If someone is injured while working on your home, and they have no insurance, you are responsible for their medical bills, lost income and all other damages.

  • General Contractors manage all aspects of your project, including hiring and supervising subcontractors, getting building permits, and scheduling inspections. They also work with architects and designers.

  • Subcontractors are specialty contractors, they specialize in a particular trade, such as electricians, plumbers, drywall hangers and painters.

  • Architects design homes, additions, and major renovations. If your project includes structural changes, you may want to hire an architect who specializes in home remodeling.

  • Engineers become involved when a project involves structural calculations. They deal with issues of loads and spans and how large a beam has to be to support the floor above it. An architect or builder may call upon an engineer to certify a plan, even if it the architect or builder knows what is called for. The engineer certifies the safe design and bears the responsibility if there is a problem later.

  • Designers come in more than one variety. There are designers who will assist you with your home's design, much like an architect. They also assist with the look, the function and the comfort of your home. Finally, they can assist with color, fabrics, surfaces and lighting. They are not the same thing as an interior decorator, whose expertise is limited to decor issues. Another designer is the specialty designer whose expertise is narrowly focused such as kitchen designer and lighting designers.

  • Interior Designers may handle projects listed above under designers or they may be more focused on the interior decor.

  • Interior Decorators generally do not require any license and their role is to assist you with the decor. They can help you to select colors, fabrics, furniture and so on. They are not qualified to plan structural changes.

  • Design/Build Contractors provide one-stop service. They see your project through from start to finish. Some firms have architects on staff; others use certified designers.

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