General contractors may charge for pre-construction services and offer fixed-price or cost-plus construction contracts.
What Do General Contractors Do?
- Provide realistic cost estimates. One of the most important services a contractor can provide is nailing down a realistic cost to build or remodel a home — before construction starts. There are two ways to get this all-important cost estimate from a contractor.
Traditionally, clients either purchased house plans or worked with an architect to develop them. Then the homeowner sent the plans to multiple contractors for competitive bidding. The contractors bid — estimated the cost of building — the project without charging the client for their time. Many contractors still work this way today.
However, plenty of excellent general contractors don’t participate in competitive bidding or offer free estimates. “Over the years we have discovered it’s really not worth our time to throw bids out there all the time,” says Bill Kalin, owner of Kalin Construction in Denver.
That’s because creating an accurate bid takes time, more time than many contractors are willing to give up for free. “When you are looking for free estimates, you get pretty spotty service from contractors,” says Dave Brogan, general contractor at Bellingham Bay Builders in Bellingham, Washington.
Some (though not all) of the general contractors who do participate in competitive bidding may be less precise than homeowners might like. “If you don’t pay somebody, you’re typically going to get a really quick bid that isn’t so accurate,” says Jenny Sneller, owner of Sneller Custom Homes and Remodeling in Spring, Texas.
The alternative to competitive bidding is to bring a contractor on to a project before the home is fully designed and pay him or her to provide ongoing feedback on cost and feasibility as the plan develops. When homeowners go this route, they generally hire a contractor for pre-construction services.
- Provide pre-construction planning services. When you hire a contractor early, he or she can help shape the project and its budget. For instance, a general contractor might walk the property and suggest the best siting for a new home. Or she might draft plans for an interior remodel. Most important, pre-construction services include a detailed and accurate cost estimate to build (or remodel) the house.
These planning services are often not free, though sometimes they can be. Either way, by the end of the pre-construction phase, the client should have a finalized building plan as well as an excellent sense of how much it will cost and how long it will take. “When we’re done with the detailed estimate, it’s a road map on how to build the house,” Kalin says.
- Offer help with design and materials. Many general contractors provide some level of design services, even though they’re not design-build firms. These might range from helping clients with materials selections to creating plans. Of course, plenty of general contractors leave the designing to other pros, and many can suggest designers the client may find to be a good fit. “We have a list of architects that we recommend,” says Machi Medrzycki, owner of MLM in New Orleans.