Handyman or contractor drilling into a wooden floor

Is there anyone out there who hasn't heard of a handyman or a general contractor? These are pretty well-known professions, especially if you're a homeowner. Do you know which occupation is better for one job as opposed to another, though?

There are differences between the two that you should be aware of, and these are what we'll look at here. Keep reading since a better understanding of a handyman vs. a general contractor would help you make more informed decisions about home repair, maintenance, and remodeling.

A Handyman's Job

A handyman is a true jack of all trades---or at least a lot of trades. With no formal training or licensure, this hardworking home helper applies accrued experience and know-how to a broad range of small-to-medium home projects or repairs.

He or she probably knows just enough about carpentry, plumbing, electrical work, or a host of other trades to take care of anything from a leaking sink faucet to a window that's painted shut to a mountain of yard debris needing to be removed from the yard.

Often, a handyman will have one or more specialties, such as interior painting or outdoor pressure-washing. However, because a handyman doesn't have the credentials to take on larger and more complex home projects, that individual's talents are better spread across multiple smaller projects.

A handyman is someone to take care of household tasks you either don't feel able to take on or simply don't have time to complete. A handyman charges less than a general contractor and works alone or with just one helper -- and has little overhead.

General Contractor Jobs

Contractors are different. One reason is that they often work with in-house crews or external sub-contractors. They've also learned their trades formally---through apprenticeships, trade school or community college classes, or a combination of these. Most have licenses or certifications as well.

Contractors can include:

  • General Contractors or Home Contractors
  • Plumbers
  • Electricians
  • Roofers
  • Home Builders
  • HVAC specialists
  • Carpenters
  • Cabinet Makers
  • Several other titles

When you hire a general or home contractor, this person has one specific focus, --- whether that's a home contractor overseeing a kitchen remodel, an electrician installing an electrical panel, or a roofer coordinating a roof tear-off and full replacement.

How to Know Whether to Hire a Handyman or a General Contractor

This is the eternal question, isn't it? To answer it, you need to ask yourself some questions.

How Extensive is the Project?

If the project involves simple home repairs or maintenance tasks, you need a handyman. If it's a complex multi-day project, for which certain licenses and permits are required, then you need a general contractor---at least one, and maybe another with a particular specialization, such as electrical work.

Does the Project Require a Permit?

Check with your city or town hall to find out if a job you have in mind calls for a special permit. If so, you need a contractor. Even putting up a backyard fence requires a permit in many places. If none is needed, you should be able to hire a handyman. Be sure your job is in that person's wheelhouse, though.

How Much Are You Prepared to Pay for the Work?

If you have a big, complicated job, you'll need to budget ahead of time to be sure it's something you can afford. If you already have a contractor in mind, you should work with that person or business to create an appropriate budget. We don't recommend creating your own budget unless you have extensive experience with the type of work to be done.

Is Specialized Work Involved in the Project?

If specialized work is involved in your project, and it's more than merely installing an electrical outlet or faucet (either of which a handyman can do), you or your general contractor will need to hire someone licensed in that specialty.

The Line You Draw Can Be a Fine One

Overall, the handyman vs. general contractor decision comes down to licensing: general contractors need them, but a handyman does not. Furthermore, there's a difference in scope in terms of the work each does. A handyman usually tackles multiple small jobs in a visit while a general contractor focuses on one larger and more specialized job. Another key difference is how many people each professional oversees and what responsibilities that entails.

A handyman mostly works alone or with one helper, while a general contractor supervises an in-house team, but also subcontracts with teams from entirely separate businesses. Whereas handymen enjoy a degree of freedom in their work, a general contractor needs a more comprehensive structure and organization.