If you've successfully DIY'd a few home improvements around your house, you might be wondering how to become a contractor. After all, why hire someone to oversee renovations when you can just take on the role yourself? You might even turn it into a profitable side business! If you've ever wondered just what it takes to become a contractor, read on.
What is a contractor?
When it comes to residential construction, the word "contractor" can mean everything from the trim painter to the top banana, aka general contractor, who hires and manages crews of subcontractors who do most of the work. House flippers often become general contractors so they can save money as they overhaul houses for sale.
A general contractor wears many hard hats. Here are a few of the responsibilities:
- Works with clients to clarify their ideas and turn them into a workable plan
- Draws up a budget and timeline for the work
- Obtains building permits
- Buys all materials needed to complete a project, including tools (which can be rented or bought)
- Hires and oversees subcontractors who will perform work on the project
- Meets with building inspectors to iron out any problems.
When you first begin your enterprise, it's smart to start small. For instance, if you have a knack for installing tile, it's fine to focus on kitchen backsplashes and bathrooms. Or, if you know your way around painting or floors, feel free to specialize in that, and build your skill set (and tool arsenal) from there.
Do contractors need to be licensed or certified?
There's no one certification that makes someone a licensed contractor. Some states require contractors to obtain licenses; others don't. And states that require licenses and certificates differ about which government department grants them.
For instance, Virginia requires anyone who does construction work to have a license or certificate from the Virginia Board of Contractors. Colorado, however, has no state licensure for general construction contractors, although some local municipalities do.
Also, some states require contractors to sit for an online, open book exam that tests general knowledge of construction regulations, safety, and construction terms and techniques.
The Contractor's License Reference Site will tell you what your state requires.
Contractor roles and responsibilities
Even if your state doesn't require a contractor's license, general contractors must become an expert in a whole lot more than leveling a window frame.
A general must know code standards for all the tradesmen -- plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and HVAC installers. He or she has to know when it's too cold to pour cement for it to cure correctly (less than 40 degrees for three straight days), how to determine if a foundation is waterproofed correctly, how heavy a fireplace can be before it crashes through a floor, and a million other details that go into building or remodeling a house.
On top of construction knowledge, a general contractor who hires subcontractors must know how to run a small business smoothly, including paying employees, drawing up marketing and advertising plans, and withholding and paying employment taxes.
Then, there's the contractor's personality. Contractors work with people, not just planks of wood. They must know how to inspire people to do their best work, and have the patience to work with clients who change their minds constantly or take forever to pick a paint color. The workday is filled with a dozen problems, and a good general knows there's no profit in drama and is able to find solutions quickly and economically.
How to find mentors and learn the contractor trade
So how to rack up all this experience? According to Wichita, KS, contractor Tim Shigley, 2016 Remodelers chair of the National Association of Home Builders, the best way to learn to be a general contractor is to work for one for at least five years, learning the business from the studs up. Also, it's a good idea to join your local NAHB chapter, where veterans are happy to mentor newcomers.
"You're going to have access to education that teaches you how to become a professional and manage the books," Shigley says. "And you have access to other veteran builders and remodelers who can help guide you."
Because let's face it: TV shelter shows where every Tom, Dick, and hammer can turn a cramped one-bedroom into an open-plan palace give a misleading impression of what it takes to become a general contractor.
"TV contractors are producing a show; we actually live it," says Shigley. Real contractors are less glamorous, he says, but more dedicated to building and remodeling.
"It's a passion," he says. "It's about a tradition of craftsmanship and doing something every day that's different from a 9-to-5 job."