Category: Managing Construction

Finding the Right Designer

Here are tips on how to find and hire the right architect or designer for you.

Choosing an Architect or Designer


No other profession leaves such large tracks. The work that architects and designers do is hard to hide: buildings, or parts of buildings, draw the eye from far away as we drive or walk by Regardless of whether or not we like what we see, houses are too big to ignore.

In the same way, when we enter other peoples’ homes, most of us can’t help but notice our surroundings. We are wowed by what we like, we cringe at what we don’t. Mental notes get made about the dos and don’ts.

Often, such everyday means as looking and asking around help us find good designers, architects, and contractors. You see a design you like, and you inquire of the owner of the place whom he or she hired to create the space you admire. You ask for a fair appraisal of the designer’s skill and professionalism. If you like both what you see and you hear, you can call the architect, make an appointment to meet, and get on with it.

A personal reference isn’t always so easy, but if a friend, relative, or neighbor has recently had his or her home built or remodeled, ask for an assessment of the designer they used. Chances are you will get an unprejudiced evaluation—they like the result or they don’t, the architect/designer was helpful and responsive or he wasn’t, and so on. Occasionally you will get an insecure response from someone who isn’t really satisfied with what he or she bought but is unwilling to acknowledge it because to do so would be to admit having made a mistake. But generally you’ll get a pretty candid earful, and you may also be able to get a look at the architect’s work to make up your own mind.

Ask friends, neighbors, or colleagues for the names of designers or architects’ names. Ask your real estate broker and attorney.

The Yellow Pages will surely have some candidates, too, as will the Better Busi­ness Bureau in your area, and you can always check with the American Institute of Architects (1735 New York Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20006) for the licensed architects in your area. If you admire work in one of the shelter maga­zines, seek the architect cited. Ask around at the local lumberyard. Ask a local contractor for a suggestion, although you may have to discount disparaging com­ments he may make. Architects and contractors are often at odds with one another.

Without too much trouble you can get a list. Once you have a few candidates, however, don’t think for a minute you are home free. Now your homework really begins, as not every designer will suit your needs, tastes, and personality.

Yet the decision to hire or not to hire should be made only after you meet the designer.

Make an appointment to see the designer, either at his or her offices or at your home. Keep in mind this is a preliminary meeting The pur­pose of this first session is not to settle upon a design scheme, sign a contract, or make any final decisions. Plan on talking about your needs and concerns, and trying to get a sense of the person personally and professionally. The meeting will probably take an hour or more.

You will need to determine whether you can work with him (or her). If you feel uncomfortable for any reason—perhaps you realize that you’re both high-strung cre­ative individuals and you don’t relish the prospect of hard-fought struggles about every detail—maybe you should continue your search for a designer. You must make a judgment about your needs and the designer’s skills and how your personalities mesh.

This hiring decision is, in a sense, the first major decision in what will be a long string of subjective decisions. Yet it may be the most important, because the designer often sets the tone for the work to come. The experience of redesigning and constructing your living space can be immensely satisfying and exciting, and your designer must be a partner in that process. Are you confident that your designer will listen to what you say and try to accommodate your concerns? You will need to trust his judgment, too, so be sure that you feel in your heart as well as in your head that he is well suited to the job at hand.

Other grounds that may be helpful in making the decision are these:

Previous work
The single most reliable criterion for selecting a designer or architect is his or her previous designs. At the very least, you should review a port­folio of each designer’s work. That will give you the opportunity both to evaluate the designer’s skills and get ideas for your own renovation.

Checking references
If you like what you see in a portfolio, arrange to see one or more of the designer’s projects first hand. Most designers will provide such refer­ences on request and often will gladly take you personally to see a completed proj­ect. If you have the opportunity, talk to the clients themselves. Don’t be bashful about asking questions of the clients. Inquire about the process. How good were the designer’s listening skills? Did he bring good ideas and clever solutions to the process? Was she agreeable to changes along the way? Checking references is sim­ply the best single safeguard you have.

Ask the homeowners how smoothly the job went, how flexible the architect was in dealing with the client’s and the contractor’s questions and problems. Did the job come in close to the estimated budget? The architect is unlikely to send you to see work that either he or the customer is unsatisfied with, but you can still learn a great deal in looking and talking.

The work
Make sure the architect does a good deal of residential work. If there is only one house but twenty commercial spaces in his portfolio, that should tell you something. Residential work can be very satisfying for an architect, but it is likely to be more time consuming than profitable.

Keep in mind that experience is not the only indicator of ability. A young, energetic architect may be willing to do more research and may bring fresher ideas than an old pro with an established, staid practice. But here, again, you must rely on your good judgment. Experience is very valuable but not an absolute prerequisite.

Try to determine whether the architect has adequate staff and a workload that will allow for the right amount of personal attention to the project from start to finish. Who will do the actual design work? Expect that the architect will delegate much of the work on the finished drawings to a draftsman in the office, but who will be doing the actual designing—the designer himself or someone in the office? If it isn’t the person you’re talking to, insist upon meeting him or her. Ask the designer how many meetings will be necessary upfront; how many design hours does he anticipate will be necessary?

Does the location of the architect’s office make it possible for him or her to be available for consultations? If you plan to involve your architect in over­seeing construction, will he have to travel an hour each way to get to the job site? A long trek back and forth may mean fewer inspections, or perhaps larger, portal-to- portal billings.

On the other hand, don’t reject an architect whose work you like simply because of geography. I know of many instances where designers worked from great distances, in some cases never even seeing the work, before, in progress, or after. It’s not ideal, but with a good contractor and a capable designer, it can work.

The cost
Talk about fees, too, as it is never too early to broach this subject. Find out before the first meeting whether it’s free or if the meter will be turned on as you walk through the door. You probably won’t be able to settle upon a final design cost on day one, but don’t allow the subject to be shunted aside with assurances like, That’s no problem, I’m sure we can work that out. Make sure you have a sense of the total cost.

Can I talk to more than one designer?
The short answer is, yes, of course. This isn’t exactly comparison shopping—price alone should not determine whom you hire. But keep talking to designers until you find one that seems to suit your job and expectations.

If you begin by talking to several architects, pick one you like, and then let him or her create a preliminary design for you. On the other hand, if you have a particu­lar design problem, you needn’t feel shy about turning two or three architects loose, so long as there is a cap on what each architect’s initial presentation will cost. I know of one instance where the owner of a small apartment hired one architect and two designers to create a new kitchen independently of one another. The result was that the architect and one designer came up with workable solutions (the third solution was of no value, in the homeowner’s judgment). And the finished productincorporated elements of one of the rejected designs. If you choose this approach, however, make sure you are very clear with the architects or designers about fees and expectations.

When your first meeting concludes, agree upon what is to be your next step. Perhaps you will establish a time for a second meeting. If your first session was in the designer’s office, the next one may be at your home. Even if you have prepared careful drawings of the existing rooms, the architect/designer will probably want to see the space in person and may confirm your measurements.

During initial discussions, the designer will attempt to elicit from you what your goals are. What do you expect the remodeling to accomplish? He or she will ask about your needs, budget limitations, and your design inclinations. The purpose is to define in abstract terms the design task—a process architects sometimes term programming, as the result is a program for your design.

With the program in mind, the designer can design a structure that satisfies your objectives, working within established limitations, regulations, and other con­straints. Some architects spend relatively little time in establishing the generalities of the problem; others like to invest more hours in generalized discussion. But once the designer has a clear idea of what you want and a basic familiarity with the struc­ture to be remodeled, the visualization can begin: schematic drawings that illustrate the scale and interrelationship of the various components come next.

Reviewing the Plans

Follow these guidelines when reviewing designers' preliminary sketches and plans.

House Design Plans


Different designers have different working styles. Some take the let’s-go-for-it approach, and their initial sketches are surprisingly detailed and worked out. Many designers, however, take it one step at a time. Their early sketches are abstract, typically rough pencil jottings meant to suggest an approach that is not so much visual as intellectual.

If your architect begins with rough drawings, you will see little sense of style, dimension, or even shape but will be asked to think about the doodles as representing in a thematic way the nature of the space you are building the traffic patterns through it, and the relationships of the spaces within to one another. On the other hand, if the paperwork you gave your designer clearly spells out your desires, he may arrive with drawings that are recognizable as floor plans and even elevation draw­ings and perspectives. Then the discussion can focus in on the details much sooner.

Whatever his or her approach, your designer will probably want to sit down and review the early plans with you. The designer-architect will explain his intent in executing the design as he has, and discuss with you any reactions you have.

If you’ve given him your sketches or notes, what he gives back to you should be familiar. If at first you don’t see in his drawings what you expected to see, focus on what is different. Is the designer’s vision better in some ways but not in others? Ask your architect to explain to you his rationale for what he has done.

In part, the point here is to be open-minded. You must give your designer the opportunity to respond to the task you’ve assigned her. Pay her the courtesy of listening to her as she did you. Your architect will have taken your materials and will have absorbed what you said. She will have applied her own training, experience, and instincts. Even if at first you don’t like what she has done, give it a chance.

It is also very important to inquire about anything you don’t understand.

These should probably look familiar to you. You’ll see elements from your existing house you recognize. Even the new parts should, at least in part, reflect your ideas and wishes. If the first sketches do not look like what you were seeing in your mind’s eye, try to look through whatever details of finish that the designer has contributed. Do you see the same shapes and relationships you dis­cussed earlier? If there has been a major departure, ask why.

Ask yourself if the design answers your needs: If not, say so.

It’s a good idea for you to live with a set of the preliminary sketches for a day or two before giving your designer your formal response. Have others in your house­hold study them, too. The architect or designer will no doubt take notes on your reac­tions as he shows them to you and as you express concerns about the size of this or the absence of that. However, almost invariably your response a day or two later is more reasoned, thoughtful, and complete than at the moment you are first confronted with new shapes and thoughts and visions.

It creates headaches for everybody to have friends or relatives kibitzing (“I wouldn’t do it that way if I were you.”), but if you are not confident of your feelings about how the plan is emerging, you may wish to involve one outsider whose tastes are compatible with your own. Take care not to let that person dominate you. It is, after all, your house that is to be renovated.

When you do discuss things with your designer, have written notes to guide you. An elaborately typed and phrased letter is unnecessary, but having a carefully assembled list is important. That way you won’t forget something, and you will have an idea of the number of issues you are raising. You may even dis­cover before you talk with the architect that there is a pattern to the problems so that one general overall comment can be made that covers a number of smaller issues.

Be candid with your architect. Don’t get personal if you really dislike some­thing, but be frank to say it doesn’t work for you. If it doesn’t work at all, say so, but at the same time be sure your response is a fair one. Just because it isn’t what you expected doesn’t mean it’s bad. It could be better than your original notion—after all, you have hired a professional to do the best job she can, and maybe with her training and experience she can see things you could not. Give the drawings fair consideration.

Be as articulate as you can about why you’re not satisfied. The more specific you can be about your objections, the more likely it is that he will be able to make the changes you want in the next set of plans.

As you consider the plans, think about the lives and schedules and habits of the people who will be living there. Imagine yourself in each doorway, seated in every corner. What do you see, in the room, out the windows, looking down the hall­ways?

Oh, and one other thing: If you do like what you see, don’t hesitate to say so. Designers like approval just as much as other people.

How many sets of plans will you see? The earliest drawings will be the most generalized and are as much for discussion as anything. It may take one or many sets of rough sketches before you are satisfied with the direction the building is going. But once you are confident with the overall approach, it’s time to go on to preliminary plans.

If you see several sets of preliminary plans, each set should have more detail than the last and should incorporate the changes you discussed in the previous ver­sions. However, before the preliminary plans give way to the final plans and specifi­cations you should get your architect’s best estimates of the total cost. It is never too early to talk about budget (construction budget rather than design fee), as your architect should know from your first session what your financial range is. But at this point it is realistic to get specific about costs.

By this stage, the “working systems”—the electrical, plumbing, heating and air conditioning systems—enter the picture. Specific materials, too, are useful at this point. Doors, windows, wall coverings, and so on factor in here. It is also at this stage (if you are putting on a major addition) for your architect to prepare “outline specs” (preliminary listings of materials and instructions used for purposes of esti­mating).

Some clients or architects will ask a contractor to join in at this stage. A contractor can be useful at this time for estimating purposes. In addition, he may be able to offer some hands-on solutions from personal experience to certain problems, solutions that your architect might not offer.

A last act you should perform before instructing the architect/designer to go off and execute the final plans is to study the last set of preliminary plans one room at a time. Be sure you understand what is being done for you. If you get a sketch from your architect and you aren’t sure what that 8-by-12-foot bedroom he has drawn really is like, measure a similar room or rooms in your house to get a sense of what it would be like enlarged or shrunken to 8-by-12.

Ceiling heights, too, should be seen and not merely imagined. If you are con­sidering a towering 20-foot ceiling, find one and experience it. You may discover that 12 feet is just as dramatic, or that the floor space in the room you are planning is dwarfed and you feel like you’re in an upended shoe box rather than a palace.

Make sure your furniture fits. Check the location of every light fixture and every plug; are there enough of them? Again, imagine yourself living in the space: Does it all seem to be as you want it?

The Final Plans and Specifications


These large pieces of paper are, finally, what you are paying your architect for. The drawings should be fully dimensioned—they’re the map the contractor will follow in executing the work. Review the set of plans carefully before you sign any construc­tion contracts. Make sure it is consistent with the last version you saw, and that the corrections you asked for have been made.

Make sure you understand everything. You will cost yourself money later when you want something changed that you, out of ignorance, let pass at an earlier stage. Even substantial changes are relatively inexpensive before the contracts are signed and the hammers begin to swing. The sample drawings reproduced here will give you some idea of what to expect of the final plans.

Second elements of the plans are the specifications or spec sheets. These are detailed descriptions of the materials to be used. Often these days spec sheets are long, formatted lists that came with the designer’s CAD program with a few added wrinkles peculiar to your job slotted in. Construction methods may also be specified. Taken together, the plans and specifications will enable your contractors first to estimate accu­rately what it all will cost and then to construct what has been so laboriously planned.

The spec sheets also require your close attention. They should specify a lot of details about required materials about which you may have strong opinions. They’ll cite everything from the brand name and model number of kitchen appliances to the thickness and quality of the plywood to be used for subflooring. Spec sheets will often specify decorative items like doorknobs, the maker and kind of paint, and mold­ing sizes and profiles.

In examining spec sheets, look, for example, to see if the new windows in your addition are true divided lights like the old ones are; whether the new bathroom fix­tures are good quality brand-name models or just cheap knockoffs. If you don’t under­stand the shorthand, ask questions. Make it your business to know what the spec sheets say—after all, the numbers and abbreviations describe what you are buying.

Not that you have to simply accept what’s there. In fact, you will find a new use of the words or equal in the specifications. Also called allowances, “or-equal materials” are typically finish materials like carpeting, light fixtures, or tile. The appearance of the term “or equal” means that if you don’t like one of the items listed on the spec sheets, you may substitute something else. The term also implies that you may do so at no cost if your new choice is priced the same as (and thus is equal to) what was specified.

Keep in mind, however, that the allowances specified are usually not top-of- the-line goods. Thus, if you substitute a more expensive set of lighting fixtures in your kitchen for the basic ones specified, your cost will go up from the original estimate. As you review the plans, remember that it’s caveat emptor, let the buyer beware.

You should have a meeting with your contractor before signing a contract to answer your questions and concerns, so go through the specs line by line in advance of the meeting and make a list of your questions. Look, too, for the abbreviation “NIC,” which stands for “not in contract.” That means that if you’re adding a laundry room and the spec for the washer and dryer says NIC, they’re not included in the estimate. They’ll be your cost, not the contractor’s.

Faucets and light fixtures are a perennial source of friction between home­owners and designer-builder teams. The story usually goes this way. The customer explains to the designer what he wants in, say, his new master bath. Sketches and then working drawings are executed, a contractor is hired, and the work begins. The job is nearly done when the homeowner discovers to his chagrin that the faucet, the showerhead, and the sconces are inexpensive and unattractive. He complains to the contractor, and together they refer back to the specifications. Sure enough, the homeowner is getting exactly what the paperwork specifies. “But they’re not good enough,” he complains, “I want something better.” The contractor says, “Fine, you’re the boss. The ‘or-equal’ clause in the contract entitles you to substitute something of equivalent value.” Then the homeowner discovers what he wants will cost two or three or even ten times as much as what was specified and that he has to bear the additional cost himself.

It’s happened a million times and will happen again. How do you avoid it? Think about details that are important to you, and make sure your designer and con­tractor are sensitive to your concerns. Explain your expectations for the level of quality. Then examine the specifications extra carefully.

Some people decide to do some of the shopping and provide fixtures or other components themselves, excluding them from the contract. This can work, but you need to be sure you coordinate well in advance with the contractor and the subs. If something you want doesn’t arrive in time, you may find your job delayed or more expensive.

Contractors, Contracts, and Costs

Finding and hiring the right people to help do the job is crucially important when it comes to remodeling work.

Contractors Contracts Costs


Dankmar Adler—architect and partner of the great Louis Sullivan in the firm of Adler and Sullivan—once remarked that he would rather hire a crook who knew how to build than hire an honest man who didn’t. “I can police a crook,” Adler said, “but if a man doesn’t know good work, how am I to get it out of him?”

I’m not sure I agree with Adler’s reasoning. But I do know that hiring well is one of life’s key skills—and a crucially important one when it comes to remodeling work. The right contractor can make the process go smoothly with a minimum of disruption to your life, while the wrong one can cost you money, peace of mind, and leave you with an unsatisfactory result.

While the timing varies, sooner or later you’ll need to shop for a contractor.

Or, perhaps, for several subcontractors. You or your designer may invite the partici­pation of builders during the planning stages or you may decide to wait until the plans are completed. That’s a judgment call best made jointly by you and your designer. If you’re working on a strictly limited budget, earlier consultation with a contractor to get estimates may help keep the focus on cost control. On the other hand, fewer inhibitions during the design stage may lead to more creative solutions to your particular remodeling if budgetary constraints allow.

Supposing that the time has come to find a contractor… who conducts the search?

Many architects will be happy to run interference for you. They can handle the finding, hiring, and estimating. The argument for this approach runs like this: If your architect does it, he or she will save you time (if he’s minding the store, you don’t have to). He knows whom to call to get quotes on a job. He may be able to get services and attention you would not since he can offer contractors consideration for future jobs. Since his business regularly involves soliciting and reviewing bids, he should know what to look for. He’s negotiated building contracts before, and has probably spent many hours resolving disagreements—since they are inevitable, his help may be valuable. He can inspect along the way. He can help decide on the inevitable small changes that occur in the course of construction. He can serve as a valuable buffer between you and the contractor.

If this sounds ideal, talk it over with your architect (or designer, though not all designers have the training and experience to perform all these services). Under­stand, however, that you will have to pay your architect a substantial additional fee. These additional services are not free.

Supposing you decide for financial or other reasons that you won’t be hand­ing over the reins to your architect, an alternative is to leave the supervision to the general contractor, whom we will meet shortly. Or you can be your own general con­tractor. Yet another option is to hire a construction manager. But before you decide which path to take, let’s take a closer look at the other players in the construction process.

All About General Contractors

On a building or remodeling job site, scheduling, budgeting, and more are the responsibilities of the general contractor.

General Contractors


A general contractor or GC is hired to take a set of plans and turn them into a building. He’ll orchestrate the comings and goings of the workers, order mate­rials, inspect the work done, coordinate an ever-changing schedule, and handle a lot of the paperwork, which will include material bills, payroll, and issuing invoices to you, the homeowner.

The GC will also arrange for the subcontractors—the excavation contractors, plumbers, electricians, dry-wallers, tilers, roofers, and foundation crew, whatever and whoever is needed. It is the GC’s responsibility to make sure the subs do their jobs on time and in strict accordance with the plans.

As with an architect, you sign a contract with the general contractor that obligates you to make certain payments at specified points during construction. In return, the GC assumes responsibility for the entire building process. The GC makes a profit by marking up the labor and materials costs by a percentage. That percent­age varies considerably. The typical range is 10 to 30 percent.

Carpenter-Builder vs. Construction Company
Many GCs began their careers in the building business as carpenters but at some point decided they wanted to run their own companies and assumed overall management responsibility. In a large construction firm, the GC is actually a company rather than an individual, and an individual project manager will assume day-to-day responsibility for a given job. The project manager may or may not have hands-on building experience but does have business training. Increasingly, the tools of the GC’s trade consist of a notebook computer and a cell phone rather than a hammer and a circular saw.

The carpenter-builder GC probably has only one or two jobs going at a time, while a construction company will need more and larger jobs to pay its overhead. The carpenter-builder may have a desk at home that functions as an office and a workshop in a converted garage or basement. The construction company will have an office with an accountant, payroll clerk, and other staff; trucks and miscellaneous vehicles; a warehouse or other building that functions as the base of operations with equipment, materials storage, and workshop equipment, and a variety of other accouterments of a good-size business.

The large and small general contractors each have certain advantages. You may be able to shape a more flexible working relationship with the carpenter-builder than with a larger company. On the other hand, the construction company probably has a much greater capacity and can do a broader range of work. If your project is large, you may benefit from the larger crews of a construction company.

Logic might suggest that the smaller contractor will be able to give you the best price, but despite the extra overhead costs at the larger concern, there are also some economies of scale. In general, though, the odds are that as a small, one-time buyer of construction services, you’ll do better with a carpenter-builder for your remodeling. He is accustomed to dealing with individual owners, may have more time and patience for your special concerns, and he may well price the job a little cheaper, too. If you’re in doubt, get both companies and carpenter-builders to bid on your job.

When hiring a smaller general contractor, determine how much experience the head man has. If the candidate you’re thinking of hiring is a carpenter who’s just branching out and trying his hand at being a carpenter-contractor, think carefully before making the hiring decision. He may master his profession quickly, but the truth is it’s actually a new line of work, one that requires fewer building skills and more business sense. If your remodeling job is modest in scope, hiring a rookie GC may work to your advantage, since many people starting out on a new career have a pride in accomplishment that fades over time. Make sure you are confident he has the scheduling, budgeting, and other skills to handle the expanded duties.

Subcontractors get their name from their relationship to the general contractor. When you hire a GC, he will contract with individual subcon­tractors to complete specified tasks for specified prices.

You may need several subcontractors or none, depending upon the nature of your remodeling job. Among the subs that may be needed for a residential project that involves extending an existing foundation are a surveyor, earth-moving sub­contractor for excavation and site preparation, and foundation contractor for the footings and cellar walls (though another sub, a mason, may be hired to build the walls if they are to be of block). Electrical, plumbing, and HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning) subcontractors may be necessary and, depending upon who your GC or carpenter is, roofing, drywall, painting, and clean-up contractors may also work on your job.

Usually any vinyl flooring, tile, and countertop needs can be filled by one contractor, while another will sell and install your carpeting. If there is land­scaping to be done, you may need one or even several additional subs to plant trees, lay walks or patios, build walls, seed the lawn, and so on. Depending on local and state requirements, at least the electrician, plumber, and surveyor will be required to be licensed. Electrical, plumbing, and other inspections should be the responsibility of the appropriate subs.

If you have a general contractor handling your job, he’ll be in charge of hiring, scheduling, paying, and supervising the subs. If you are your own GC, you’ll be hir­ing them yourself.

How To: Hire a General Contractor

Take the time to get estimates and check references before you hire a general contractor.

How to Hire a General Contractor


The routine for hiring a general contractor is not radically different from that of hiring a designer. You want to hire someone with proven skills, somebody you can work with, and someone with a sound business sense for schedules and managing personnel. If your architect is supervising your construction, he handles the hiring of the general contractor for you.

If you are on your own and you don’t know where to begin, ask for recommendations from friends or acquaintances who have had home construction done. Personal references are always best. Personal to you, that is, not to the contractor—sometimes people refer a favorite nephew or the son of a friend out of regard for their relationship rather than a knowledge of the person’s skills or qualifications. You will probably do best hiring a local contractor with an established business and reputation.

If the referrer has had work done by the contractor, ask for an assessment of the work. Did the contractor finish at or near the budgeted price? If not, were the change orders reasonable? Was the work completed on schedule? Did the contrac­tor willingly return to correct problems? Would they use him again? Are they happy with the finished product?

Another source of contractors is your local lumber yard(s). Not houseware stores where nails are sold by the dozen, but real building supply houses where con­tractors do their bulk business. The proprietors of such places know who the reliable contractors are. They know which contractors pay their bills on time, whose orders are always confused, and which ones are always returning merchandise.

Meeting the Contractor
Once you’ve identified candidates, you will need to meet and talk with each of them. The contractor will need to see the plans and will want to examine the structure to be remodeled. Only after looking at the exist­ing home or apartment and reviewing the changes to be made can an estimate be prepared.

Checking References
When you meet them, ask each GC for four or five local references. That’s a perfectly reasonable request, and no reputable contractor should hesitate to provide them. Getting the names and numbers, however, is only the beginning, next, you need to make a few calls.

Telephone the previous clients, identify yourself as a homeowner in the market for building services, and ask the key questions: Did the GC in question finish the job on time? Is the completed job satisfactory? How much did the price change along the way? Were the workers neat or did they leave a hopeless mess behind? If possible, ask if you might be able to take a first-hand look at the work, too. Only by inspecting it yourself can you judge the caliber and acceptability of a contractor’s work. You may get additional insights into the contractor from talking with the clients in person, too. Lessons previous customers learned may be helpful to you.

Call the local Better Business Bureau and ask if there are any complaints on file against the contractor(s) you are thinking of hiring. A call to the local building department inquiring about their professionalism and courtesy may be revealing. Ask each contractor who his primary supplier of materials is, and then call that sup­plier.

A quick call to a local credit bureau is also a good idea. Ask how long the company has been in business. If you uncover any pending suits or liens, walk away. You don’t need the problems that can occur when a contractor is in litigation, like the sheriff arriving to impound the contractor’s tools—or your building supplies. It happens.

Other sources for references are banks and subcontractors. Ask the GC who he has dealt with and call them, too. The banks can tell you about his fiduciary responsibility and the subcontractors about how well organized he is.

Another word of caution: Treat your contractors, subs, and the other people you hire with appropriate respect. They’re not your employees, they are businesspeople from whom you are buying services. A modicum of courtesy and basic con­sideration will be rewarded. That goes for the men and women who work for them, too.

On the other hand, resist the temptation to get too friendly with any of your contractors. Keep your relationships strictly professional. They aren’t your friends: again, these are people with whom you have a business relationship. Invite them to dine with you after the job is done. A friendly but professional distance is appropriate until then.

Being Your Own General Contractor

You may have some sleepless nights, but being your own general contractor can help ensure you get exactly what you want.

Be Your Own General Contractor


There is no mystery to being a general contractor, though some skills with peo­ple, finances, and general good sense are required. For someone who has never done it, a willingness to ask questions, some of which may seem elementary or even silly, is necessary. And a knack for solving problems is certainly helpful. I wouldn’t recommend that a novice act as his or her own contractor if the job is large—say, a new house or a large addition—but an interior remodeling of moderate size can be quite manageable.

Yet that still begs the real question: It isn’t Can I do it? It’s Should I do it?

The best argument for trying to be your own contractor is the payoff. Con­tractors are, after all, in business to make a profit, so adding 20 or 30 percent to the cost of materials and labor as profit is perfectly reasonable.

If you are your own GC, you don’t have to pay anyone that percentage.

On the other hand, there are arguments against being your own contractor. For example, if you aren’t satisfied with the finished product, you can’t complain to your GC that the job isn’t good enough and refuse to make the last payment. You would be talking to yourself because you are the general contractor.

That may be the biggest single reason not to be your own GC. If you hire someone to do the job for you and then something goes wrong, it probably won’t be your problem because GCs are paid to solve problems and get the job done. When you hire a general contractor, you are paying for his experience, competence, ability to anticipate problems, and, more than anything, for his willingness to assume final responsibility for the whole job. And he’ll get the permits, do the scheduling, and handle disputes between subs and suppliers.

So if you opt to do the GC’s job, you’ll have some sleepless nights. Should major problems arise, you won’t have the same simple recourse to call your lawyer and tell him, “Sue the damn GC, it’s his fault.” Acting as your own contractor does not mean buckling on a tool belt and swinging a hammer all day.

Being your own contractor can mean you increase the odds of getting exactly what you want. GC’s make money by executing each job simply and efficiently so they can get on to the next one. Changes along the way and variations from the usual that make a job last longer can be the cause of irritation and uncooperativeness from a GC. Thus, if you are very detail conscious and plan to be looking over everybody’s shoulder anyway, it may make sense for you to be your own GC.

According to a 1996 survey conducted by the Consumers Union, roughly half of the reader respondents used a GC to oversee their renovations. The degree of sat­isfaction was roughly the same for those who did and those who didn’t. Perhaps the average Consumer Reports reader is more careful and savvy than the average person … but perhaps you are, too.

Now let’s talk about the key elements of the job.

Hiring Subcontractors
This will be your responsibility, and it’s a crucial one, since these are the ladies and gentlemen who will actually remodel your house for you. They’re the carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and other tradespeople who translate the plans into your living spaces. As with any manager, the key skill is find­ing the right personnel.

The most important player will probably be your carpenter. He’s the person who will shape the structure that defines the spaces. He builds the framework that will be the matrix for the electrical wiring, piping, vents, phone lines, and insulation. He’ll return after all that has been roughed in and cover it with finished surfaces. The carpenter is the pivotal player and should be hired first.

The carpenter will be your primary sub, so ask him for help in finding an elec­trician, plumber, or mason. And don’t worry too much about cronyism here. Most carpenters can be counted on to recommend people they like to work with but few will recommend subs who don’t know their jobs. They know which are the guys who mess up the schedule and who do sloppy work and make trouble for everybody else. They don’t want those headaches any more than you do.

To find carpenters or subcontractors, ask friends and neighbors. The Yellow Pages are a good source, too. Another option is to visit job sites in nearby residential areas. Walk right in and ask for the head carpenter, plumbing contractor, or the elec­trician. The chances are excellent that you’ll come away with a business card, a phone number, or possibly an appointment. You may even get an estimate on your job if you have the plans with you and the boss has an hour to kill.

Another good source of subs is supply houses. Ask at plumbing, electrical, or tile shops that deal with the trades. You should get a couple of names. Ask other subs for the names of the tradesmen they respect and with whom they’ve worked.

Check each sub’s references (customers, suppliers, banks, and others). Get several subs to estimate on the big jobs and at least two on the small ones (replumb- ing an existing bathroom durtng a remodeling is a small job, plumbing two new baths, a laundry room, and a hot tub in a large addition is a big one). Do your home­work on the people you are hiring before you hire them.

When it comes to dealing with subs, keep in mind that most of them bid a lot of jobs and some take on virtually every one they are offered. The bad news is that you, as a one-time customer, may get a place toward the bottom of their priority list, well below the GC’s who are going to be building many houses in the future and therefore may be continuing customers for the subs’ services.

You need to steel yourself for the frustrations and scheduling hassles but, on the other hand, you’re not taking on the world all alone. Your subs will also be key allies in getting your job done. They are there not only to get your house built, but to help you do it. You may be surpnsed to find the pride that many individual operators in the construction business take in their work. Try to use that pride and spirit to your advantage. Good planning on your part and constant communication with the vari­ous subs are both essential.

Many states and municipalities require that general contractors be licensed and properly insured before they can legally hang out a shingle identifying them­selves as GCs. However, no such requirements exist for the homeowner acting as his own GC. If after you do it yourself you like it so much you want to do it again for someone else, then you can find out what the requirements are.

When you act as your own GC, you’ll need a builder’s risk or fire policy. In most states, prices tend to vary only slightly from company to company because they are usually closely regulated, but check with the insurance agent who handles your homeowner’s policy to determine the paperwork required and the cost. You will want to arrange for the insurance to be effective the moment the building materials arrive or the first worker sets foot on the site, whichever is earlier. If you have a construction loan, the bank will probably insist you have a valid insurance binder on hand at the time you close on the loan. When the work is finished, you can then amend the policy once again to standard homeowner’s coverage.

Don’t take the decision to be your own general contractor lightly. Don’t let the possibility of saving a substantial amount of money blind you to the potential for complications and conflict. You may find a great deal of satisfaction at having man­aged the whole process yourself, but you should also be confident that you have the time, interpersonal skills, organizational abilities, and just plain desire to stay the course, even when the going gets a bit rough. And it will—no construction project is without its ups and downs, its setbacks and frustrations. For many people, the markup a GC adds to the actual costs of construction is a fair price to pay to man­age the process. There is a potential for savings, but there must also be an invest­ment on your part of time and commitment. You’ll have to coordinate the activities of the subs, establish schedules, pay bills, and perform a number of other functions. But there’s another role you will have to assume as well.

As GC, you’re the person with the “buck-stops-here” sign on his desk. The decisions, large and small, are yours to make. There’ll be professionals around to help answer questions and advise but, finally, yours is the voice of authority.

So ask yourself whether you have:

The time.
No, it isn’t a full-time job. You probably won’t need to spend more than two hours a day during construction. Yet you must be on call for surprises and emergencies. Is your workplace close enough to your home and is your schedule flexible enough that you can make the trek to the job site during working hours? How about at lunch hours? Are you accessible by phone most of the time?

The commitment.
Don’t take on the job of general contractor on a whim. You probably won’t be able to hand it off to someone else partway through without costing yourself most of the money (or more) you were hoping to save.

The personality.
All right, now let’s really talk. You will have to be a manager. That means you will need to be tough at times with your subs. Yet you can’t interfere with their work. It’s a fine line. Do you have enough patience, critical distance, and savvy that you can both let the pros do the work they know how to do better than you yet know instinctively when to step in?

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Hiring a Construction Manager

Here's how to decide if hiring a Construction Manager is necessary.

Construction Managers


A construction manager is another alternative to hiring a general contractor. It may be a good way for the homeowner who has no building experience to get some of the benefits of being his or her own contractor yet, at the same time, to have a pro at hand to lend confidence and guidance.

One key difference between hiring a GC and a construction manager is financial. In a traditional homeowner-GC arrangement, the contractor calculates his costs, gets estimates from subcontractors, and then marks them all up a percentage to give you a single price. In contrast, the construction manager won’t give you one price; your checks won’t all be payable to just one payee. Instead, you will hire all the contractors and there will be no middle man to mark up costs. You will pay the construction manager a fee, but that will be less than the GC’s markup would have been. You should end up ahead.

With a construction manager, you sign an agreement specifying that his (or her) fee is a percentage of the total time and materials costs. A typical fee of 10 to 15 percent would translate, on a job with a time and materials cost of $50,000, to a construction management fee of $5,000 to $7,500 for the manager’s services.

Another advantage of the construction manager is that you will retain a high degree of control and involvement in the process. The construction manager is essentially a consultant who lends a professional hand. The construction manager will help solicit bids, review estimates, coordinate schedules, and oversee construction. But you will be closely involved with every step along the way.

The basic service provided by architects usually includes some routine construction supervision, but for an added fee, many architects will assume the construction manager role. Some carpenters and small general contractors will also work on a manager/fee basis. But whoever does it, the estimating, negotiations, scheduling, and supervision are the manager’s responsibility.

What’s the downside? A general contractor assumes responsibility for a job; a construction manager does not. Disputes, poor workmanship, and other difficulties become your problem. It’s only fair, really: you save some money and assume some of the risk. But if you find an experienced construction manager with good references and negotiate a thorough and fair contract, the chances are good you won’t have major problems.

Whatever arrangement you decide upon, remember you’re the boss. Insist that the work be up to your standards.

Getting Professional Help

Your attorney, accountant, and insurance agent can be important players in your construction project.

Hiring a Real Estate Lawyer


In order to be assured that you’re not embarking on a trip straight to debtors’ prison, it’s a good idea to consult a lawyer and probably to seek other guidance as well. These counselors won’t be wearing flannel shirts and work boots, and they may never even visit your home, but your attorney, accountant, and insurance agent can be important players.

The real estate attorney. You may resent it, but the fact is we live in a world where good legal counsel is essential to conducting business. While you might like to think of the home renovation process in warm, emotional terms, it is also true that buying construction services is to sign a series of contracts. By definition, you’re entering into a string of business deals.

The bigger the job, the more you need a lawyer to look out for your interests. Your banker, the contractor, the architect, and each of the other players will have different concerns. Their counselors—and they’ll probably have them, even if you don’t have contact with them directly—cannot be counted on to protect you.

Even if you hire a GC or use an architect to supervise the whole process and never visit the site, you will need legal guidance for reviewing contracts and checking out zoning restrictions and numerous other matters. You may find that an experienced real estate attorney can help in ways you have never considered. He’s seen his clients through most of the hassles you’ve never faced before, so his experience and advice can be invaluable, whether it is in negotiating the right contract at the start, resolving a misunderstanding in the middle, or resolving a dispute long after the job is completed.

If you have an established relationship with an attorney, be sure he is well versed in real estate law. Does he do a reasonable volume of real estate law? Even if he was your college roommate, check it out because real estate law has its own complexities and can get just as arcane as any other area of the law. And mistakes can be very expensive. If you don’t have a suitable lawyer awaiting your call, try calling a couple of nearby real estate agencies or mortgage departments at local banks and ask them for references. The local bar association is another potential source; ask for the chairman of the real estate committee.

Other professionals. If you have an accountant who prepares your taxes, get his or her opinions and guidance early. Sit down with the accountant and discuss your budget, loan arrangements, the cash flow of the project (you expect which bills in which month, which are this year, which next), and your income. There may be tax credits (some credits are available for rehabilitation of older buildings), certain tax advantages, and other issues that could save you money. Even though your contractors should provide you with Certificates of Insurance describing their insurance coverage, you should also consult with your insurance broker. As you improve your house, you may wish to up your coverage for the added property value. You might also wish to check your liability coverage to be sure it is adequate. Should someone fall and break a leg, you—as well as the contractor- might get sued and you’ll want adequate insurance protection. Construction sites have many potential dangers and you should minimize your risks, both physical and financial.

Footing the Bills

Consider this advice on where to obtain money in order to pay for your remodeling project.


Photo: Flickr

If you have the cash on hand to pay for your remodeling project, you needn’t read this section. Most people, however, need to borrow money to underwrite their job.

The best option is usually a mortgage loan. That’s because the interest on a home mortgage is tax deductible. There are several varieties of mortgages that can provide the funds for a home renovation project, but each depends upon how much equity you have. Equity is the net value of your property after all indebtedness held against it has been deducted from its gross value. Allow me to translate.

Suppose you want to borrow $25,000 to improve your $100,000 home. If your original down payment was, say, 25 per­cent of the purchase price, and your pay-down on the principal since then equals another 25 percent, you own the remaining 50 percent, or half your house. That would mean you are an excellent candidate for that loan, since most banks will loan up to 75 percent of the value of an existing house.

There are a number of ways you can draw upon that equity. The two princi­pal ones are first mortgages and second mortgages.

For the home renovator, negotiating a new first mortgage is one way of underwriting the remodeling job. In practical terms, this means you will apply to the bank for an all-new mortgage. If the bank approves the loan, some of the proceeds will be used to pay off the existing mortgage. After deducting closing expenses and fees, whatever is left over will be paid to you. Typically, a new mortgage makes especially good sense when the interest rate you are paying is at least one percentage point higher than the rate you would be paying on a new mortgage.

A second mortgage is exactly what its name suggests: it’s an additional mortgage to the first mortgage you are carrying. Typically the holder of the second mortgage will have a claim on the property in the event you fail to make your payments. At the time a house was initially purchased, the seller may have agreed to hold a second mortgage, but for the homeowner planning a renovation, the most likely source of a second mortgage is a lending institution.

Costs vary from one state to another and from bank to bank, but the costs may include lawyer’s fees (possibly yours and the bank’s); recording fees; mortgage, transfer, or other taxes; points on the loan (fees calculated as percentage points of the sum being borrowed, meaning two points on a $100,000 loan would rep­resent a fee of $2,000); title insurance; filing fees; application fees; appraisal expenses; the cost of a credit report; and so on.

With a traditional mortgage, all of these expenses are usually borne by the borrower; with an equity loan, the bank pays for many of them. When you apply for a loan, most banks routinely provide an estimate of the total closing costs. Ask for a breakdown if one isn’t offered.

In addition to mortgages, there are other loan options that might suit your particular financial circumstances.

Credit card advances
If your renovation will be modest in cost, you may want to avoid the paperwork and expense of loan applications and simply draw a cash advance from one or more of your credit cards. Keep in mind, however, that the inter­est rates are generally rather high (often more than twice that of mortgages).

Personal loan
A personal loan is a relatively simple transaction. You file an application with a lender, he checks your credit and indebtedness, and he approves or disapproves the application. The loan is not secured by your home, and the decision to approve (or disapprove) the loan is made on the basis of your credit rating, income, and an overall assessment of your financial health. The rate will typically be a good deal higher than for a mortgage; the term shorter; and the interest is not tax deductible. Given these disadvantages, a personal loan should be well down your list of options.

Balloon mortgage
A balloon mortgage is one in which a large or “balloon” payment of the remaining principal is due at a specific date. Payments are made along the way, often of Interest alone though In some cases token principal payments are made as well. Balloon mortgages are more common in real estate transactions for commercial or multifamily dwellings. 

However, if your home renovation involves more than simply enlarging or remodeling your home for your family—if, say, your improvement includes the addition of an apartment or a commercial office space you expect will produce income and you’re planning to sell the whole complex within a few years—a balloon mortgage may make sense.

Construction loan
In order to construct an all-new house, few banks will issue a standard mortgage. Instead, the bank will grant a construction loan that, after the house is completed and the certificate of occupancy granted, will be converted to a more traditional first mortgage.
A construction loan works like this. When a bank approves a loan, there will be a specific disbursement schedule that specifies that a certain percentage of the loan proceeds are due upon completion of the new foundation, more upon the roof being finished, more at the time the windows are put in place, and so on. You construct your addition, and the bank pays you according to the schedule when they see that its strictures have been met.

In most cases, a construction loan isn’t the best route for a home renovator. However, if you are radically remodeling the house and the cost of the construction is substantially greater than the equity you have in the house, a combination construction loan and mortgage may be your best strategy.

Credit unions
If you’re a member of, or are eligible for membership in, a credit union, it may be another source of funds. Most credit unions are not-for-profit institutions that exist to serve their members, both helping to save and to borrow money. Inquire of the loan officer or manager at the credit union about the rates, terms, and other details. Often credit unions loan money to members at very favorable terms and with less paperwork than the same transaction would require at a traditional bank. The interest, however, will not be tax deductible.

The right loan is the one that best suits your particular financial circumstances. In most cases, the key determinations are these: Does this provide enough money to do the job? and Can we afford the monthly payment?

If you have little experience in these financial matters, seek the counsel of such professionals as your attorney, accountant, or the real estate broker who handled the purchase of your house. Your banker can also help.

When the time comes to apply for a loan, do it in person. If possible, talk to the person who approves the loans or who screens them, and try to get a sense of how helpful he or she is inclined to be. Make sure you get all the attachments and instructions and a clear understanding of the processes of approval and payment.

Another suggestion? After you’ve talked with your banker and identified what you think is the best strategy, sleep on it. Have a couple of additional conversations, perhaps with your lawyer or a close friend whose business acumen you trust. To borrow money is to assume large and often long-term responsibilities and shouldn’t be done casually