What’s the difference between a handyman, a contractor, an architect, and an engineer? Identify the right pro for your project.

Can a handyman rewire my house? Will a contractor draw up plans for an addition? Do I need an architect to manage a building project? Do I need a mechanical engineer, or a structural engineer… or do I need an engineer at all?

It can be hard to know who does what when you are planning a building or home improvement project. Let’s look at the role each type of professional plays in planning your job.

Handyman

“Handyman” is a catch-all term for a class of tradesperson that performs a wide variety of home improvement services. They may also be referred to as a handyperson or handyworker. A handyman may be a self-employed individual, or work for a maintenance company. What handymen do can vary greatly, from yard work to small remodeling projects.

Handymen may do odd-jobs, like repairing a leaky faucet or replacing damaged siding, but in some cases a handyman may carry licensing to do more extensive plumbing or wiring. Handymen generally have specialties, but are usually prepared to take care of a wide range of small projects.

Note: Insurance requirements and licensure of handyman services vary from state to state, so make sure and check local laws before hiring a handyman.

General Contractor

The term “general contractor” can refer to a remodeler who does projects just a bit bigger than a handyman (like building decks or remodeling kitchens and bathrooms) or it can refer to a company that builds high-rise apartment buildings, or anything in between. The role of a general contractor is to manage the project, including the work of subcontractors like plumbers or electricians.

In the case of smaller projects, like remodeling a home or building an addition, a general contractor may have their own crew of carpenters and the contractor may do some of the work themselves. On larger projects, like commercial jobs or multi-family homes, they may solely act as project manager. Make sure that when you shop for a general contractor that you look for one with experience in the area you need. For instance, if you are remodeling a historic home, don’t hire a new home builder; look for someone who specializes in historic projects.

Note: Licensure of general contractors differs from state to state. In many cases, a homeowner may act as their own general contractor, but this should only be undertaken by someone with considerable experience in the field (or by someone who is a total masochist!).

Plumbing, Electrical, and Mechanical Contractor

There is always a lot of confusion about the difference between, say, a plumber and a “plumbing contractor,” or an electrician and an “electrical contractor.” In most cases, the word “contractor” indicates that there is a business entity, often employing several tradespeople. A plumber or electrician is the person who actually does the work. On a bigger job, there will be apprentices doing basic tasks, journeymen doing skilled work, and masters supervising the work. Mechanical contractors cover a little of everything: they usually do heating and cooling systems, which includes some plumbing and some wiring, and they also handle all HVAC issues (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning).

Engineer

Engineers are involved in nearly every aspect of a construction project, but chances are, they will never come to your house. Engineers design the trusses that support your roof and the windows that keep out the weather. Engineers determine the size and type of heating and cooling system you need for your house. In most cases though, you will never need to hire an engineer directly. One exception could be in the case of a home with structural issues, like a sinking foundation or a sagging roof. A structural engineer may need to come on site to make recommendations for correcting these types of issues.

Architect

Architects may be the most misunderstood of all the building professionals. For a lot of people, it’s a case of “love ‘em or hate ‘em.” There is no doubt that architects are responsible for the aesthetics of our surroundings. From visionary architects who design entire cities, to landscape architects who design garden spaces down to the smallest plantings, no other discipline affects the way a project looks more than an architect. No matter how good the craftsmen, a terrible architect’s design will still look terrible.

However, this does not mean that you need to hire an architect to design your bathroom remodeling project. They are simply too expensive for most folks. However, as the scale of a remodeling project gets larger, it may be necessary to have plans “stamped” by a licensed professional architect to get a building permit. This may involve having the architect actually draw the plans, or simply review and approve the plans designed by someone else.

Designer

In a lot of cases, a designer will be able to do much of what an architect can do, at a lower price. Sometimes a designer will work independently with clients, helping them choose a floorplan, pick out cabinets, flooring, paint colors, etc. In some cases, designers may be on staff with a building company or general contractor, or even at a lumber yard or home center. These people can help clients layout kitchens and bathrooms, manage materials budgets, and other design-related tasks.

Still not sure who to call? Take a look at these common scenarios:

Your garbage disposal stopped working.

Call a plumber or a handyman with plumbing experience.

FIND A PLUMBER

You are thinking about building an addition.

Contact a general contractor or start with a designer. If you need an architect, they will know who to call.

FIND A GENERAL CONTRACTOR

You want to have central AC added to an older home.

Call a mechanical contractor.

 

You need to upgrade your electrical service.

You need an electrical contractor.

FIND AN ELECTRICIAN

You want to remodel your kitchen.

Start with a designer.

 

You are planning a new subdivision.

You DEFINITELY need an architect!

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