How to find good subcontractors

Really, unless you have a main contractor working on your build then you cannot have subcontractors. Legally it is a main contractor who hires and manages subcontractors, so if these subcontractors are working directly for you (and not a main contractor) then they are not really subcontractors but simply ordinary workers.

The difference is not just in the words, and while everyone will still refer to workers on your build as subcontractors (or subbies) you will not have to deal with the extra administration that a main contractor will have when they hire and manage subcontractors. For example their tax issues. When you hire these workers they are simply tradesmen with a particular expertise, such as a bricklayer or a plumber. However, for the purposes of this article we will still refer to these tradesmen as subcontractors since this term is widely used.

Essential subcontractors for a self-builder

If you are building a house you may or may not have some skills yourself, but in general at some point throughout your build you will need to hire subcontractors (or tradesmen). The following list highlights the workers you will need.

  • Groundworkers – General labourers and someone who can work a JCB and lorry.
  • Brickworkers – they will also have to lay drains.
  • Roofers.
  • Carpenters.
  • Plasters.
  • Plumbers.
  • Electricians.
  • Decorators.

Along with this standard list you may also need specialists such as kitchen fitters, glaziers, drive layers, scaffolders, and landscapers depending on your build specifications.

Finding a good subcontractor

Unfortunately this is no easy way to get a good subcontractor. The vast majority of subbies are hired over the phone or a cup of coffee (or tea). Rarely are references taken or checked, and this is because a subbie will likely only be working on your build for a few days and the time and effort in extracting and then following up on references is not worth the hassle. Since no real contracts are written up a subcontractor can simply be let go if their work is not up to scratch. Of course you can put the effort in and do your best to find the best worker possible, but if this person is in such high demand their cost will increase significantly, so there is often a trade-off between security (in terms of good work) and cost. Also, ideally your subbie would be a member of a trade organisation, but if they are then their price will go up.

The process of hiring a subbie

In an ideal world you would never hire anyone who has not personally been recommended to you, but really how many people do you know that can recommend someone. Unless you are in this trade the answer is probably not many. As touched on, you would ideally check all references before you hire someone, but again for someone you will work with for only a day or two will you really go through the hassle of chasing up old references?

If you are looking for the best deal you may want to get a few quotes for each person you will hire, but most subbies will not bother giving out quotes, or if they do you will need to chase them up regularly before they eventually give you one. It is probably worth knowing how much a general subcontractor will cost and then see if your subbie works for this amount (or close to it). In this subject it is always better to get a fixed price for a job rather than working off an hourly rate, but unless you have very detailed plans and specifications this is not always practical.

The rules for hiring a subcontractor are the same for hiring anyone to work for you, but quite often these standard rules are not practical. For example issues such as getting guarantees for work to be carried out, never paying anything upfront, imposing penalties for late or poor work, and agreeing prices of ‘extras’. While these are all reasonable assumptions for most jobs the nature of the work subbies carry out, and short timescales, and the attitudes of people mean you may have to be flexible on your criteria or be willing to pay more or take more time finding the perfect people for your build.


If you decide to project manage your own build and dispense of a main contractor then you will have to hire subbies yourself. Since most of these workers will only be on site for a short amount of time you can probably take a few more risks in terms of solid contracts and extensive research into their past work. Be sure to speak to your subcontractors and seek recommendations where possible, and get a good feel for the type of person they are and what skills they have. However, you probably won’t have the time or energy to get quotes, follow up on references, and the other standard activities you do before hiring someone to do work for you.

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