Differences Between a Handyman and a General Contractor

Interior Design Trends

How important is it to have your general contractor have licenses and certifications?

Having both gives an extra layer of protection to the homeowner. It gives them the guarantee that we were vetted by Cook County. And by that, I mean we submit applications, we have the proper insurance, and business is reviewed to make sure we’re financially stable. We are also regulated on the job cost we bid on, our knowledge of trade labor, and our insurance limits. Because of these regulations, a lot of buildings in Chicago require homeowners to only hire general contractors.

What are the differences between hiring a handyman and hiring a general contractor?

The biggest difference comes down to what we just discussed – licensing and certification. A general contractor needs them, and a handyman doesn’t. A handyman can get a business license. However, there is no regulation or certification that handyman has the skills they’re claiming to have.

Also, if a handyman is working by himself and has no employees, that handyman can be workers’ comp exempt, which Chicago buildings do not like. The concern for a handyman that doesn’t have workers’ compensation coverage, is – if they are working in a Chicago high rise and they get hurt in a common area – the hallway or lobby, they could seek compensation from the building’s insurance.

Why is it important that a general contractor has a specific focus, rather than knowledge in a lot of areas, as a handyman would?

A general contractor generally will have more knowledge of construction elements – like how a building is built and what’s located behind your walls, which is very important in order to educate the client on what’s possible and what issues they can expect when undergoing a remodel. On the other hand, a handyman’s knowledge is more surface-level and cosmetic. They know the difference between drywall and plaster, can undertake painting projects, repair hinges, and hang photos. But they may not know the required clearance between countertop and island or how to reroute HVAC and electrical when removing a non-load-bearing wall in a high rise. 

How can you help a client understand if their home improvement project requires a handyman or if a general contractor is needed?

We ask screening questions, which help us understand if we’re the right fit for your remodel. Those questions can include: Do you have in-depth plumbing or electrical work? Are you doing small updates, like painting cabinets or switching out a countertop? And most important is: What’s your budget?

We’re always open and honest with clients. If we’re not a good fit, we’ll tell a client we are out of their budget, or maybe their project is too small for us. If a client doesn’t have plumbing work or electrical work, or if they just want cosmetic updates, like swapping out a mirror, painting cabinets, changing hardware, we suggest a client goes with a handyman.

For condo owners, we’ll warn them to double-check that their building doesn’t require them to use a general contractor – even for the smaller work. If they are in single-family homes, they are usually free to use any contractor or handyman they choose. In the last year or so, Chicago buildings are getting very strict. We’ve discovered that most of the high rises along Lakeshore Drive are starting to require architectural drawings, or permitted drawings, for simple remodels. And they’re asking homeowners to hire general contractors versus a handyman unless your handyman has the insurance requirements and the licensing they want.

It’s smart for the condo buildings because they are regulating who’s coming and going from their buildings and ensuring that you’re maintaining property value and not having issues with a handyman performing work on common or shared plumbing or electrical, which could really be problematic for the rest of your building.

Chicago home office remodel

What are examples of work a handyman would do?

I always refer clients to a handyman if they’re looking to have bedrooms painted or need some light fixtures installed. Depending on budget, I’ll also suggest a handyman if a client is looking for a smaller update where they want to upgrade the bathroom but just replace the mirror, lighting, and tile.

For larger scale, full remodels of a kitchen, bathroom, or anything structural where you are going to move walls, use a general contractor. The same goes for home additions and exterior work like installing siding or doing tuckpointing – use a general contractor.

What are a building’s governing documents?

They are a printed book of regulations that govern all the rules of your multi-unit building and how it is to be managed and maintained. The governing documents detail leasing policies, pet allowances, how many occupants are permitted per unit, and what steps you need to follow for any architectural changes or interior unit changes. They are in place to respect your neighbors and preserve property values because you’re all living communally.

Each building will also have some sort of architectural or construction committee or board of directors that will review your remodel plans and approve or deny them. So even though you’re doing it on the inside of your home and it’s for your personal use – the board or committee still has a right to approve or deny the work you want to do.

Where does a homeowner find their building’s governing documents?

Most homeowners don’t know they already signed something like this upon purchasing the condo. When you buy a condo, the association is responsible for providing a copy ahead of the sale. You sign them, acknowledging you received a copy of the documents and have reviewed them. They’re usually 200+ pages and the majority of homeowners don’t read them until they have an issue. Every homeowner is given a copy and they also have full access to those documents through the building manager as well. These documents are specific for each building. A lot of it is general verbiage and follows the statute on requirements because they’re regulated by the state of Illinois.

Chicago living room remodel

What is the construction approval process?

Before I schedule an initial walkthrough with our estimator, I ask the client to get a copy of either their governing documents or any specific paperwork for construction approval. That way, we can review the requirements ahead of time, and then discuss any building requirements for remodeling during the walkthrough. Unfortunately, there’s no workaround for these building requirements. We want to be as proactive as possible. We don’t want to get into a situation where we’re underway on a remodel and we discover a client needs to provide architectural drawings for building approval. That can be a $2000+ oversight. 

The next step is for us to submit the building approval paperwork, along with licensing and insurance, and meet with their manager. The labor and material proposals detail the full scope of work, including the material selections they want to go with. Buildings usually set requirements on floor underlayment to make sure there’s a noise barrier for neighboring units. They will usually also regulate plumbing to make sure the correct material is being used (PVC, cast iron, copper, etc) and shutoff valves are installed. The building will always ask to be named as an additional insured on the general contractor’s policy, they will be strict about insurance limits, and some buildings will even ask for a bond.

The next step is waiting. Every building’s approval process is different. Some of them must run every application through the board of directors, others have the building manager review and approve. This process can take anywhere from a day to weeks. There are even some buildings that require the homeowner to submit paperwork and won’t speak to a general contractor, which complicates things because the homeowner doesn’t always know what they need to do, and they need help.

What happens during the remodeling process?

Once the project is underway, there are some project milestones where the building will send their engineer or maintenance person to inspect the work. Usually, the inspections revolve around plumbing, electrical, or sprinkler system work to make sure the work matches the building’s requirements before walls are closed.

Arete’ Renovators has been a licensed General Contractor in the Chicago area since 2001 and has worked on numerous projects large and small throughout Chicagoland. Call us at 773-610-4551 to discuss your project.