Many larger construction companies employ very few tradespeople and do all or most of their work with subcontractors. On many jobs, the quality of the final project depends heavily on the workmanship of the subcontractors. Subcontractors in residential construction are typically small companies, sometimes a single individual, that specializes in one trade. Subs may be more or less specialized, depending on local building practices.

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. Because subs specialize in a single trade, they are generally more efficient and knowledgeable about their work than a jack-of-all-trades.

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.

Finding Good Subcontractors

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 may want to as a specialty supplier directly. For example, if you’re looking for a tile installer ask at a tile retailer. For a plumber, 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 two to three competitive bids. (Also not everyone will be available when you need them.)


Hiring Subcontractors

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. You can verify the subcontractor’s status at California Contractor’s State License Board.
  • 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.


Managing Subcontractors

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. 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. Do you want the ceramic tiles to lay out in a certain way?

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.



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.


What to Provide Subcontractors

  • Clear communication: Discuss the job ahead of time, work out any potential problems or conflicts with other trades, and communicate what is most important to you.
  • Provide key subs with their own set of plans with any special requirements clearly marked. The framers should receive a framing plan, the electricians an electrical plan, tile contractors should receive a tile specification and layout, and so on.


Project Management “Do’s”


Give subcontractors 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.

Guaranteeing Quality Meets Expectations Most subs are highly competent and efficient at their trade, however it behooves you to discuss and contractually document expected quality standards and specifications for your project. Hire reputable subs, who may not be the cheapest.

Avoiding Collateral Damage 

Plan ahead. Discuss the job ahead of time on 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.