General Contractor vs. Construction Manager: How They Differ

by Alexander Fraser

As someone who has worked for a general contractor, I have only worked with construction managers. I can tell you that they can be your best friend or worst nightmare.

If you do your job well, the construction will be on your side and willing to help you through the project. Do poorly, and they can make your job hell.

When we look at a general contractor vs. construction manager, these roles can share some similarities but have fundamental differences, which we will cover in this article. We will also explore general contractors and construction managers responsibilities for projects.

The last job I worked on that had a construction manager went well. They helped me to escalate problems to the owner and engineer to prevent project delays.

Then came a change order. Since the construction manager is looking out for the owner, they decided to nitpick every detail of the change costs.

My subcontractors and I had a hard time negotiating the price of the change order. After months of back and forth, they finally settled on a price.

It took over three months to get a single change order approved. Not a good time.

I can’t be upset, though, as they were the owner’s representative. They have their best interest in mind and will ensure the project is completed on time and within budget.

Here are the topics so you can skip ahead as needed:

Similarities Between a General Contractor vs. Construction Manager

Both general contractors play vital roles in the construction industry. Here are some of the core responsibilities that they share:

Both are responsible for the overall construction of a project. But the primary objective is to ensure it is completed on time and within budget.

  • Require an in-depth understanding of construction principles and practices to manage projects.
  • Have the ability to manage budgets, schedules, and resources.
  • Capable of managing various subcontractors and vendors to complete the project.

While the construction manager is looking out for the owner, they must have a high-level understanding of the items above.

As a construction manager, you must understand the sequencing of work. You’ll review the general contractors’ construction schedule and monthly billings.

You’re there to ensure the contractor does their job correctly and well. Remember that the construction manager is involved throughout the project, ensuring everyone is doing their job.

Think of them as a moderator but for the entire construction team.

Differences Between a General Contractor vs. Construction Manager

When we look at the two parties, they have some distinct differences in their roles and responsibilities.

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When it comes to general contractors, they are:

  1. Typically hired through a bidding process sent out by the project owner. The general contractor is required to oversee the entire project.
  2. Responsible for hiring and coordinating field staff and subcontractors to complete the work.
  3. Paid a fixed amount based on their proposal to complete the work.
  4. Serve as a single point of contact for managing all subcontractors.
  5. Able to take on all construction duties for the project owner should they request it. The project owner still makes financial decisions.

For construction managers, their differences include the following:

  1. The owner hires them to manage the entire construction process from start to finish.
  2. Managing project planning in addition to overseeing construction.
  3. Paid a percentage of the total project amount. The percentage can vary between 5-15% based on the company.
  4. Provide more control and transparency for project owners.
  5. Advocate for the owner but also requires greater involvement from them.

When looking at the differences between the construction manager and general contractor, just know this:

The owner hires the construction manager (CM) to manage and oversee the project. The owner can also hire the general contractor (GC) to carry out the construction work. The CM will oversee the GC, ensuring they’re performing their job with their understanding of construction.

Next, we will look at the individual roles and responsibilities so you can better distinguish the positions.

Roles and Responsibilities of a General Contractor

The GC oversees the day-to-day operations on a job site. They are responsible for the following:

  1. Bidding on new projects will be in the form of a lump sum bid price.
  2. Estimating project costs and developing the project budget.
  3. Hiring and managing subcontractors, coordinating their work, and ensuring quality.
  4. Maintaining safety at the construction site as set by their state and OSHA.
  5. Serving as the project owner’s primary point of contact (POC), updating them on the construction schedule and any potential issues.
  6. Note that if there’s a construction manager involved, they will be the primary POC for the owner.
  7. May sometimes get involved during the design phase to provide cost and feasibility input. Note: You can also hire some general contractors to oversee the design otherwise called a design-build project. 

You can also think of the general contractor as the entity that manages the people performing the construction work. They can get involved in every aspect of the project, like the construction manager.

Roles and Responsibilities of a Construction Manager

The construction manager will focus on managing the project overall. They are responsible for the following:

  1. Participating in pre-construction phase activities, including the design, permitting, selecting a GC, and scheduling.
  2. Works closely with the architect or engineer during the design process.
  3. Coordinates various aspects of the project with the owner, architect/engineer, and general contractor.
  4. Tracks and controls project costs, addressing cost overruns and identifying cost-saving opportunities.
  5. Reviews and manages construction documents such as submittals and RFIs.
  6. Acts as the owner’s representative throughout the construction process, ensuring the owner’s satisfaction with the project.

As you might see, the construction manager provides oversight for a job. If an owner cannot manage a contractor themself, they hire a construction manager.

The CM can provide project management services and coordinate all project participants. They should have the experience and expertise in developing and managing project plans. With this knowledge, they ensure the project is completed on time and on budget.

Now, let’s look at some pros and cons of having a construction manager or general contractor on your project.

Pros and Cons of Hiring a General Contractor or Construction Manager

We know that both general contractors and construction managers have their place in construction. It’s good to know the pros and cons of hiring these construction professionals, whether new construction or renovation projects.

Pros of Hiring a General Contractor:

  • Single Point of Contact: The general contractor will be your project’s single point of contact. They are simplifying communication and managing the work of the subcontractors throughout the project.
  • Cost Control: General contractors work on a fixed cost based on their proposal. The proposal is their best estimate for a defined scope of work from the property owner.
  • Subcontractor Management: Experienced general contractors may have relationships with skilled trades. They can provide a quality build and ensure the project’s timely completion.

Cons of Hiring a General Contractor:

  • Less Control Over Subcontractors: As the project owner, you will have limited input on the subcontractors selected. Unless you make a specific subcontractor requirement, the general contractor will select who they see fit.
  • Less Transparency: General contractors may not be as transparent about project costs and markups on materials and subcontractor work. It can lead to higher project costs for the owner.

Pros of Hiring a Construction Manager:

  • More Control and Transparency: The construction manager acts as the owner’s advocate, providing increased control and transparency over project costs, schedules, and quality.
  • Expertise in Project Management: Construction managers typically have extensive experience managing complex construction projects. They can help navigate the challenges and identify cost-saving opportunities.
  • Better Coordination: With a construction manager on board, there is better coordination between the owner, architect/engineer, and general contractor. It can lead to more efficient project execution and improved overall project performance.

Cons of Hiring a Construction Manager:

  • Higher Costs: You pay construction managers a percentage of the total project cost, which can make them more expensive than a general contractor. However, this may be offset by the potential cost savings they can bring to the project through their expertise.
  • Owner Involvement: Having a construction manager requires greater involvement from the owner. The owner must decide on any factors that change the course of the project. The construction manager will push these decisions onto the owner with some guidance.  


Choosing to hire a general contractor and a construction manager depends on the specific needs of your construction project and your level of involvement as a property owner. Both professionals have their merits and can provide valuable services to ensure the completion of your project is on time, on budget, and to your satisfaction.

When deciding, consider factors such as project complexity, your experience managing construction projects, your desired level of control and transparency, and your budget. By carefully weighing the pros and cons of each option, you’ll understand which is suitable for your construction project.

Ultimately, selecting a construction professional who aligns with your goals, has a proven track record of success. They can help to deliver a quality project that meets or exceeds your expectations essentially.

Before you go, please consider reading my article about the difference between a general contractor and subcontractor. You’ll gain more insight on how their roles impact a project and what their responsibilities are as well. 

Thank you for reading. 

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