New faces on home-improvement jobs

The Associated Press
Saturday October 27, 2001

So you finally found the ideal general contractor for your major home-improvement or repair job. The interviews went well. The background checks checked out. You really trust this person. 

But what’s with these new faces on the job? 

They’re probably subcontractors — specialists hired by the general contractor to perform specific jobs. According to an expert who shepherds home-improvement tasks for a living, homeowners should understand their relationship and responsibilities to subcontractors. 

“Subcontractors work indirectly for the homeowner because their contract is with the general contractor,” says Michael Christy, director of market development for the Home Service Store. “Some homeowners assume the general contractor performs all the work and are surprised when other workers show up at the front door.” 

The role of the general contractor is to coordinate the project. Dozens of tasks, such as drywall, plumbing, wiring and roofing are farmed (subcontracted) out to independent contractors, who specialize in a particular trade. Homeowners usually have no role in the selection of subcontractors. However, homeowners who have heard from friends and neighbors about the good work of a subcontractor can suggest names to the general contractor. 

Christy says general contractors “should be very clear with homeowners about the jobs and work schedules of subcontractors. Homeowners need to insist upon a work calendar that shows approximate time frames when subcontractors will be on the job. That’s the only way everyone stays on the same page and the job stays on track.” 

Subcontractors, or subs, are paid by the general contractor. The payments are often drawn against an amount of money the homeowner provides to the general contractor to pay for project costs.  

“Homeowners would do well not to make the advance payment one large, lump sum,” says Christy. “Instead, they should add money to the fund only when certain jobs involving subcontractors are performed.” 

Although subcontractors are not paid directly by the homeowner, it is the homeowner’s responsibility to make certain the general contractor makes payments on time. Christy says payments are due when the subcontractor is at a point when critical materials are needed or when the job is done. 

If the general contractor does not make payments, subcontractors can take action against the homeowner.  

These actions, often filed as liens, place the financial burden squarely on the homeowner’s shoulders. If liens aren’t taken care of quickly, work on the project can grind to a halt. “Worse still,” says Christy, “liens may show up years later when the home goes up for sale. No sale can be completed until past liens are resolved.” 

The working relationship with subcontractors is the general contractor’s job. He or she makes sure the quality of workmanship and materials by subcontractors is in line with project plans or homeowner expectations. 

The general contractor makes certain subcontractors have the necessary licenses and insurance. 

The homeowner can exercise some clout on subcontractor performance.  

Christy says “a cost of delay clause should be inserted into the contract with the general contractor. If the subcontractor doesn’t show for work, the general contractor can be held financially responsible.” 

If the homeowner believes subcontractor work is shoddy, Christy advises the homeowner to first bring the problem to the attention of the general contractor.  

If that does not yield results, the homeowner can seek arbitration between the parties. The last resort is litigation. 

In extreme cases, subcontractors can be removed from the job for failure to perform, argumentativeness or drug and alcohol abuse.