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Making Sense of Subcontracting vs Contracting in Trade Work

If you’re a tradie, you'll no doubt have come across the terms "subcontractor" and "contractor" before. But what exactly do these terms mean? And what are the differences between subcontractors and contractors? Don't worry, we're here to break it down for you in simple terms and help you make sense of each role. So grab your hard hat, and let's dive in!

Defining Subcontractors and Contractors

Let's start with the basics.


Contractors are the main players in a construction project. They are the ones who are directly hired by the client or the owner of the project. Contractors oversee the entire project, manage the team, and are responsible for its successful completion.


Subcontractors are the specialists hired by the contractors to perform specific tasks within the project. They are experts in their respective fields, like plumbers, sparkies, or chippys. Subcontractors work under the supervision of the contractor and are responsible for completing their jobs efficiently. 

Key Differences: Subcontractor vs. Contractor

So, that was the basic definition, but it really doesn’t do justice to how much work and responsibility both parties put in. It’s not your typical boss vs employee relationship. Let’s nut out the key differences between subcontractor and contractor in a real-life example - we’ll make it a home reno. 

Legal Relationship

Contractors have a direct contractual relationship with the client or project owner. In this example, the contractor - let’s call our contractor Casey - would be hired directly by the homeowner - Mrs Hwang. So, Contractor Casey would be responsible for fulfilling the terms and conditions of the contract and managing the overall project for Homeowner Hwang. Casey would also be responsible for hiring subcontractors to complete plumbing, electrical, and other work for the project, and those subcontractors would have a legal relationship with Casey, not Homeowner Hwang.

In short: the subcontractors work under a subcontract agreement with the contractor and are bound by its terms.

Scope Of Work

Contractors have a broad scope of work and are responsible for managing the entire project. Contractor Casey would be responsible for coordinating the various subcontractors to make sure they can all get their job done when they need to, such as making sure the kitchen is plumbed properly before the cabinetmakers build the cabinetry over it. Contractor Casey would ensure the project stays on schedule and oversee the quality of work. Subcontractors, however, have a narrower scope of work. They focus purely on their own trade and work to complete their tasks on schedule so Homeowner Hwang can move in on time.

Project Management

Contractors have the main responsibility for project management. In our example, this means it’s Contractor Casey’s job to handle the paperwork, scheduling, and budgeting, as well as managing Homeowner Hwang’s expectations. Subcontractors manage sub-tasks - like tiling the backsplash and laying the floorboards - and are responsible for meeting their own deadlines.

Pros and Cons: Subcontracting and Contracting

Are there pros and cons to hiring contractors vs subcontractors? That’s a tricky question and is entirely dependent on the job, the contractor, and the scale of the company that the contractor works for.

If Homeowner Hwang had only needed that kitchen renovation and Contractor Casey worked for a multi-trade company, it could very well be that subcontractors would not be required - everybody needed for the job could already be on staff. In such a case, hiring only a contractor would be a pro because there would be no need to juggle subcontractors, and accountability would ultimately be up to Casey. However, if what Homeowner Hwang was after was a full home reno, and she hadn’t contracted a huge home reno company to get the job done, it’s likely subcontractors would be needed as well. This would also be considered a pro, as Contractor Casey would be free to hire subcontractors as needed based on the scope of the project. Each subcontractor would bring in-depth knowledge and skills in their specific trades, ensuring high-quality work. For Casey, this would likely be more cost-effective as subcontractors would not need to be permanently on staff but rather hired on an “as needed” basis.

Impact of Hiring Subcontractors or Contractors on Project Success

Now, let's explore how hiring subcontractors or contractors can impact the success of your project.

Quality and Timeliness

Subcontractors play a crucial role in ensuring top-notch quality for a project. They likely have many years of work refining their skills in their trade which adds to the overall quality of the project. On the other hand, contractors take charge of managing the project timeline and coordinating the activities of subcontractors. Their role is to keep things on track and ensure that everything is completed on time.

By working together, subcontractors and contractors make sure that the project not only meets quality standards but also finishes within the timeframe.

Cost and Budget Management

Subcontracting can save money. If Contractor Casey were to only hire specialised trade experts when needed, the expense of having plumbers, sparkies, bricklayers, and chippys on staff full time could be alleviated. This is entirely dependent on the size of the projects Casey normally takes on. If huge reno projects are full-time business, the expense might be entirely justified. But if Casey only needs a plumber on average four half days a week, it doesn’t make sense to have one on staff full-time.

Legal and Regulatory Compliance

Now, it’s not a topic we’ve covered yet, but this is a great time to bring up the fact that Homeowner Hwang could act as her own contractor. She could, in theory, manage her own renovation; hiring tradies, ordering supplies, scheduling work, and, most importantly, ensuring that the job meets legal and compliance standards. But keeping on top of regulations is a really hard job, which is where Contractor Casey shines.

It's crucial for contractors to make sure that subcontractors follow all the necessary rules to help them steer clear of any penalties or conflicts down the road. Contractors also have an important role in handling legal risks and liabilities. They take on the responsibility of managing the legal side of the project, which includes getting the right permits, licenses, and insurance coverage. It’s Casey’s job to keep things in line and minimise any legal headaches along the way.

Subcontractor vs Contractor Confusion: Sorted!

Alright, let's wrap this up! We hope this has given you a clearer understanding of subcontracting and contracting in the world of trade work, so you can confidently navigate through it all. Contractors and subcontractors both play crucial roles in making projects successful, but their responsibilities differ. Think of contractors as the project captains - they oversee everything and act as the go-to person for clients. On the other hand, subcontractors bring their specialised skills to the table for specific trades, working under the guidance of the contractor.

Are you thinking of hiring a subcontractor?

Now, let's talk about the practical side. Understanding the differences between contractors and subcontractors is essential for optimising your projects in terms of time and money. While larger companies with consistent, big-scale projects may keep various tradespeople on staff, it's not always feasible for smaller businesses whose trade needs vary from project to project.

If you're considering hiring a subcontractor, here are a few things to keep in mind:

●     Make sure they have the necessary certifications and licenses for the work they'll be doing

●     It's important to check that they have current Certificates of Insurance to confirm their insurance coverage.

●     You should have liability insurance to protect yourself against any potential damage to people or property as part of the contract you've undertaken.

●     You should make sure you have the right employee tracking apps before you hire so you're equipped with the tools to manage your job from day one.

Need some advice on how to manage subcontractors? Click here!

Remember, not all contractors are created equal. By understanding the distinction between contractors and subcontractors, you'll be equipped to either build your own business or assemble the right team for the job. And no matter what you're doing, having the right tools at your disposal is always a smart move.

Make sense? 

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