Trade Contractor vs Subcontractor vs General Contractor: What’s The Difference?

General Contractor vs Subcontractor (Trade Contractor): What’s The Difference?

Knowing the differences between general contractors, subcontractors, and trade contractors in the construction industry matters. While some may think they’re similar, a general contractor refers to the business or person overseeing the entire project and is responsible for its completion. They are the project owner’s primary point of contact and, ultimately, are the individuals accountable for delivering. On the other hand, subcontractors (also called trade contractors) are companies or individuals hired by general contractors to perform specific tasks within the project, such as wiring, HVAC, or plumbing. 

What is a General Contractor

A general contractor coordinates all activities and operations daily. However, the role requires more than just supervising; it requires being the central orchestrator among multiple teams to ensure timely and efficient progress for the project. On top of that, they must also source and manage vendors, materials, and permits, making them indispensable to keep the trains running.

General contractors also play a critical role in assembling the best project team possible. They can hire subcontractors and trade contractors with specialized skills required for the project, such as electrical or carpentry, ultimately vouching for them and trusting them to deliver the project’s required quality and standards. To do this, general contractors must understand the project’s scope and unique requirements for each construction stage. They must also have a strong network of trustworthy and professional subcontractors ready to join the project, ultimately transforming a concept into reality. 

What is a Subcontractor and a Trade Contractor?

Subcontractors, like contractors, work contractually and specifically for any given project. Usually, firms in construction get these contracts by competing with each other. The subcontractor or trade contractor who wins the contract generally executes that particular project section for a general contractor.

There are multiple types of subcontractors, such as:

Construction Subcontractors: These subcontractors are responsible for handling the core aspects of construction. They put together a building, from laying the foundation to framing and installing the roof. They also tend to be the most common type of subcontractor.

Demolition Subcontractors: Demolition subcontractors specialize in tearing down existing buildings to build new ones. They generally use tools ranging from wrecking balls to explosives, facilitating development for the rest of the crew members.

Mechanical Subcontractors: Mechanical subcontractors are usually in charge of installing plumbing, electrical wiring, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. They make sure the building comes to life, is comfortable, and functional. 

Finish Subcontractors: These subcontractors are often considered to be the more artistic ones in the construction world. Also known as carpenters, these subcontractors add the final touches that define the aesthetic qualities of the project. They specialize in drywall, flooring, painting, and other specialties that give a building their unique personality.

Like subcontractors, a trade contractor is a type of subcontractor who is a specialist on a specific task for the project. These individuals can specialize in electrical installations, plumbing, painting, site preparation, and more. The term “trade” refers to a skilled job that requires training, manual skills, and lots of experience. Trade contractors usually know project details to keep the project on schedule and are cost-conscious, prioritizing affordability as much as function. 

Some of the most common trade contractors include electrical, plumbing, HVAC, roofing, carpentry, masonry, flooring, painting, landscaping, demolition, glazing and fencing.

To summarize, subcontractors and trade contractors are specialized contractors that execute a specific section or stage of the project. While subcontractors and trade contractors are often used interchangeably, trade contractors sometimes tend to have a more specialized focus area of expertise than subcontractors. 

Differences Between General Contractor, Subcontractor and Trade Contractor

Understanding the distinctions between a general contractor, subcontractor, and trade contractor is essential to understanding the construction industry fully. As mentioned above, a general contractor is the project owner’s primary point of contact. They are responsible for timely delivery within budget and meeting all required standards. In contrast, the general contractor generally hires subcontractors and trade contractors to execute specific tasks or stages of any given project. Subcontractors and trade contractors work independently with various general contractors providing specialized services. 

In a nutshell, it’s helpful to see the “contractor” as the person who signs the contract with the project owner or developer and is responsible for providing the services or work. Subcontractors and trade contractors may not have signed an agreement directly with the developer but usually have a legal contract with the general contractor specifying their responsibilities.

Who is responsible for subcontractors’ work? In the end, it is the general contractor who bears this obligation. It is up to the general contractor to ensure subcontractors and trade contractors do their work in alignment with the project’s standards and schedules. This hierarchical structure allows specialists to focus on what they do best with a single point of accountability to the project owner, simplifying communication, management, and overall interactions.