If you are thinking of being the general contractor of your own home, today’s mini lesson will give you an overview of the different subcontractors the you’ll have to hire. Even if you decide to hire a builder, it’s helpful to have a general idea of what each subcontractors does. I’ll briefly describe the role of the major tradesmen in residential construction and give some tips and tricks on hiring and managing those tradespeople. Before we get to that, let’s go over this week’s pro term.
Pro term: Stem wall
Stem walls are supporting structures that join a foundation with the vertical walls. A stem wall is made with cinder blocks that are reinforced with steel rods and concrete. Along with keeping the structure stable, stem walls also aid in minimizing damage to the materials used to create the vertical walls.
While the slab may be at, or slightly below ground level, the stem wall rises above the ground. Along with making it easier to attach vertical walls to the slab, the stem wall provides a raised platform for the home’s walls. This can be important, especially if the materials used in creating walls are subject to deterioration from exposure to ground moisture or to insect damage, like termite damage. By lifting the walls of the structure slightly above ground level, this type of damage is less likely to occur.
So our pro term today is stem wall, a short wall made of cider blocks, concrete and steel that is used to connect the foundation to the home's vertical walls.
Now let’s get into this week’s mini lesson.
Experienced general contractors typically have established relationships with subcontractors, so subs tend to show up when scheduled, charge fair, competitive prices, and perform quality work. One of the biggest challenges for owner builders is finding reliable subs. If you can find reputable subs, you greatly increase your chances of ending up with a well-built home.
Since most owner builders don’t have established relationships with subcontractors, it's important that we over communicate with subs by telling them what we desire, by making sure our requests are written on our house plans and in our contract, and by asking subs to restate our requests to ensure that they understand exactly what we are asking. You should also call subs about a week before they are scheduled to be on the job site, and again the day before they are scheduled. Confirm that workers will be on site at the scheduled time and ask what work they need to be complete before they begin their part of the project. With that information, go to the subs that are already on site and confirm that those tasks will be finished before the next scheduled sub arrives.
Some subcontractors will be able to do double duty, by doing work that it would normally take two different trades to do. Just make sure that you get estimates and references for all the different jobs that you want done by that one subcontractor. For example, if your foundation contractor says that he can also do excavation work, get a few references from clients who can vouch for their excavation work AND their foundation work.
Those were some general tips for working with subcontractors. Next I’ll list some common tradesmen involved in building a home. You may need to hire some or all of the following subs, depending on the type of lot that you’ve chosen and the scope of the work needed for your house design.
First on our list of subcontractors is:
1. Well drillers: Well drillers tap into a supply of groundwater and develop wells for homes requiring well water. The majority of homes today have a municipal water source, but about 15% of homes use well water. Well drillers drill the well and install the pressure tank, pressure switch and the pump. This system is what allows water to flow through your home. Well drillers can also install water treatment systems, upon request.
2. Excavators: They prepare the site for your home, especially for your foundation. Excavators remove trees and prepare the soil by compacting and removing the soil where needed, according to how the surveyor has positioned the house.
3. Septic system installers: They Install the septic tank and other components of the septic system, following the approved design of a sanitation engineer or qualified designer. You obviously won’t need this sub if you going to use the county sewer line.
4. Blasting contractors: You’ll hire blasting contractors if you need to remove ledge rock from your property so your foundation or utilities can be put into position.
5. Concrete contractors, also called foundation contractors: They set the forms for concrete foundations. They also install reinforcing steel and lay the subsurface drainage pipes. They fill the foundation forms with concrete and finish slab surfaces as specified. These subs can build concrete stairs, walkways, patios, and driveways. Pop quiz: Do you remember the name of that type of work? Concrete work done on horizontal surfaces like walkways and patios? Its called Flatwork.
Concrete foundation contractors might also offer other services, such as waterproofing/dampproofing of foundations and masonry work.
6. Masons: Masons build structures of brick, concrete block and stone. That includes outdoor stairs, patios, walkways, retaining walls, and masonry fireplaces built of brick or stone.
7. Waterproofing contractors: If your concrete contractors don’t waterproof or dampproof your foundation walls, you’ll need to hire waterproofing contractors. Some waterproofing systems combine drainage, insulation, and waterproofing in one process.
8. Paving contractors: These guys are needed if driveways, patios and walkways are made of asphalt, gravel, or “pavers”.
9. Framers: Once the foundation is complete, the framers build the home’s “shell” with lumber, trusses, and plywood, or other sheathing material. Although framers can also install the exterior doors and windows, finish carpenters or window specialists typically do a more precise job.
10. Roofers: Roofers prepare the roofing surface with asphalt-felt, or other underlayment materials. They also waterproof areas prone to leakage. They apply whatever roofing material you’ve chosen, whether that’s asphalt shingles, or some other roofing material. Some roofers specialize in installing one specific type of material, such as metal roofing. Roofers are also responsible for sealing and flashing around openings and penetrations in the roof, and they may install roof ventilation.
11. Siding or stucco contractors: If you choose vinyl siding or stucco for the exterior of your home, you’ll need a siding or stucco contractor. They can also handle some of the exterior trim. Note that wood siding is typically installed by carpenters and brick by brick masons.
12. Plumbers: They install pipes, the water heater and plumbing fixtures. They can also install water-treatment systems.
13. Electricians: They install electrical wires hidden behind walls, the electrical outlets and switches, lighting fixtures, door bells, ceiling fans and computer networks and sometimes your cable system
14. HVAC contractors: The HVAC contractors should work closely with your HERS rater or HVAC designer to install the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, including ductwork.
15. Insulation and Air Sealing contractors: Choose a subcontractor that specialized the in type of insulation you want, whether, that’s blown-in cellulose insulation or foam insulation.
16. Drywallers obviously Install and finish drywall.
17. Plaster contractors: If you decide to go with plaster instead of drywall, you’ll need to hire contractors who specialize in plaster work.
18. Finish carpenters: Finish carpenters are one of the most important subcontractors you will hire because their work is prominently on display. They install the interior trim around doors and windows. They add baseboards, crown molding, and other moldings. They may also install and trim out stairs, and build bookcases, shelves and other built-ins. In addition, they put in kitchen, laundry room and bathroom cabinetry.
19. Stair builders: Your carpenter may be able to build stairs, but you’ll often get the best deal and best quality from a company that custom fabricates stairs offsite and delivers them to the job site. The more complicated the design, the greater the need for a specialist.
20. Flooring contractors: Choose a contractor that is experienced in laying down the specific type of flooring that you want installed, whether that’s ceramic tile, vinyl, wood, and carpeting. Different skills are needed for different flooring types, so you may need several different flooring contractors.
21. Painters. Remember not to assume anything. If you want your walls to be primed and to have 2 coats of Sherwin Williams paint, specify it in the contract.
22. Landscaping. If you aren’t planning on doing the landscaping yourself, you’ll need to hire a landscaping contractor. He’ll typically do the design and the labor.
There are also specialty subcontractors that you may, or may not need, including those who can put in a home theater, home security, solar panels, a pool, fencing, decks and porches.
To find reputable tradesmen, ask friends and neighbors who have recently built or remodeled. Ask suppliers such as lumber yards, who they recommend. Or go to safe job sites and get the names and numbers of subs from signs posted on site. You can also chat with subs on site and ask them what subs they would hire if they were building a home for themselves.
Try to get at least three to five names for each trade so you can get several competitive bids and so you will have a couple of back ups in case something goes wrong with the sub your initially hire.
Speaking of things going wrong… NEVER give subs so-called deposits, or any other money before their work has started. Strongly consider buying your own materials so you don’t have to give subs money up front. Another reason to buy your own materials is so YOU will get the builders discount, instead of letting the sub take advantage of it. Finally, if you own the materials, you can more easily hire new tradesmen if the guys you initially hired are not showing up as scheduled, or doing subpar work.
When deciding on what subs to hire, get bids using a clear description of the scope of work, house plans and written specifications. Ask to see proof of the subcontractor’s license and insurance.
Then, have a contract written up that clearly defines the scope of work, the specific installation methods to be used, the payment schedule and any payment deductions and bonuses you have agreed upon if the work is completed behind or ahead of schedule. Make sure the contract also covers important details such as the plans for clean up, removal of debris, and a written warranty.
It’s important that you discuss your project ahead of time and ask each tradesperson to study your plans and give any suggestions they have to improve the price or performance of the house. Listen to your subs’ suggestions for saving time and money and improving the home’s quality and function.
Most of their suggestions are based on their past experience of what works well and what doesn’t. But, if you think they’re making suggestions to try to cut corners or do what’s easiest, instead of what’s best, be firm and insist on what you want.
During the planning phase, take the time to ask about any potential problems or conflicts one trade might have with other regarding your house plan. If possible, get all the main trades together before the job starts to iron out any potential problems.
With mechanical subs (remember those are the plumber, electrician and HVAC 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. Then discuss their plans with the framer. Invite all the major subs to a group meeting to discuss your project. Suggesting a working lunch or dinner, your treat, will improve your chances of them showing up for a group meeting.
Be as specific as you can in your plans, specifications and verbal communication with subs. For example, tell excavators what trees you want preserved. Specify how you want your lighting fixtures centered over your kitchen island. Detail the depth and length of any built-in shelving. Specify the placement of electrical outlets. Be as specific as you can with as many details as you can think of. Use photos from Pinterest, Houzz and from magazines to actually show subcontractors what you want.
Scheduling subs can be challenging, but there are several owner builder construction schedules online and in books that will walk you through when to schedule the different subcontractors.
Paying the subs promptly at the end of each phase of construction greatly incentivizes subs to stay on schedule. If you are able to pay them in cash, they may even give you a discount. It’s generally suggested that you pay subs in thirds, if they will be working on your house for several months. Clearly specify in your contract exactly what work must be complete and what inspections passed before payments are released.
Keep them informed. If you anticipate delays, let them know as soon as possible so they can change their schedule around. When you’re ready for them, give them a heads-up. Again call them a week ahead of time, and again a day before they are to be on site.
Provide major subs with their own set of plans that have been marked for any special requirements. For example, framers need to know about thicker “plumbing walls” to accommodate drains and vents, and they will need to know where grab bars will be located so they can add extra framing.
One of the major problems with subs is that they don’t show up as scheduled. Decrease your chances of having subs show up late, or not at all, by politely, but firmly telling them before they’re rewarded the job, that you expect them to show up ON TIME. Your reminder calls a week and a day ahead of time should help them with this problem.
But be ready to hire another company if your tradesmen either don’t return your calls or don’t show up more than a time or two. I’ve read that instead of coming right out and saying they’re not interested in your job, some subs will simply ignore your phone calls and your appointments. Don’t jeopardize your whole construction schedule by waiting too long for subs to respond. If they continue to ignore you, warn them by voicemail or text, that you'll need to hire someone else if you don’t hear back from them. Then, move on to another subcontractor on your list, if you need to.
When a sub has completed his work, make sure you get a signed lien waiver, or lien release, from each subcontractor. A mechanic’s lien, as it’s called in construction, allows subcontractors to file a claim against your house to recover delinquent payments. So when you give subs their final payment, you should get an unconditional final waiver for final payment. This is the safest waiver for owners. This waiver generally releases all rights of the subcontractor to place a lien on the owners property unconditionally. After final inspections and all work is finished, including punch list items, you should hand the final check to the subcontractor with one hand, and take the lien waiver from him with your other hand.
A final thought... I’ve been advised more than once to oversee subcontractors like you would your children. And I don’t mean that to sound bad, but here’s what I mean. Be kind, but firm. Tell them several times what your expectations are, remind them when to show up and confirm that they know what to do. Show them respect, but check up on them often and nip bad behavior in the bud. Finally, develop a good rapport with them by being personable and polite and if you really want to score brownie points, bring them... brownies, or some other nice treat. This is definitely not necessary, but it is nice. And typically people want to be nice to people who are nice to them.
We’re almost done, but let’s do a couple of quiz questions before we end today’s episode.
1. What subcontractor prepares the home site for your house by removing trees and removing and compacting the soil?
2. True or False: You should hire one flooring contractor to install all your flooring, including tile, carpet and hardwood.
False. Installing different types of flooring requires different skills. Only rarely will you find a subcontractor who is experienced at installing several types of flooring. More commonly, you will need to hire separate flooring contractors for all the different types of flooring you plan for your home.
That’s all I have for your this week. Hopefully, you going away with some good tips on managing subcontractors. If you know someone who’s planing on building their own home, you can share this episode with them by text, email, Facebook or Twitter.
Please remember that the purpose of this podcast is simply to educate and inform. It is not a substitute for professional advice. The information that you hear is based the only on the opinions, research and experiences of my guests and myself. That information might be incomplete, and it’s subject to change, so it may not apply to your project. In addition, building codes and requirements vary from region to region, so always consult a professional about specific recommendations for your home.
Thanks for joining me. I’ll talk to your next week in another episode of BYHYU.