Updated and adapted from the book> "1,001 Things They Won't Tell You: An Insider's Guide to Spending, Saving, and Living Wisely," by Jonathan Dahl and the editors of SmartMoney.>
After slumping for several years, homeowner-improvement spending appears to be at a cyclical bottom and is likely to rise steadily through 2010, according to the Leading Indicator of Remodeling Activity released in March by Harvard s Joint Center for Housing. Spending may not come back to pre-boom levels, but homeowners are once again planning improvement projects. Bringing in the right architect can mean the difference between dream home and disaster area. To ensure the former, first make sure your architect is licensed and not just someone with an education or background in architecture.
And be on the lookout for fakes. Maryland s Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation charged a 48-year-old man with falsely representing himself as an architect and practicing architecture without a license last month. The Hagerstown, Md., man faces up to 12 years in prison. And in October, a Prince George s County grand jury indicted another man of practicing architecture without a license, among other offenses.
Consumers should verify whether someone is licensed to perform a particular service. To locate licensed architects, start with the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. Also look for membership in the American Institute of Architects (AIA), which has its own code of ethics. Check with your state s licensing department to make sure the person you want to hire has the appropriate credentials for the job. Finally, ask for referrals to get a sense of how well an architect works with clients.
2. You may not need me at all.
Hiring an architect can add thousands to the cost of a home-improvement project, which is a lot of money when your project is relatively small converting a garage to a game room, say, or expanding your kitchen.
Architects will argue that they offer expertise that will make any addition, however small, flow better with your house. But many experts say it s often overkill. If the project is entirely interior to the house, as long as you re not moving windows or adding to the footprint of the house, you may not need an architect at all, says Chris Sullivan, founder of C. C. Sullivan Strategic Communications, a communications-consulting firm for the architecture and construction fields.
The ultimate authority, however, is your local municipality s housing department; some may require architect-stamped drawings in order to get a building permit, while others might let you give your drawings directly to a contractor. For small projects, you may be able to use an interior designer or, if you re doing just one specific room, a kitchen-, bath-, or even basement-design specialist. To find a qualified designer near you, check out the web sites of the International Interior Design Association at www.iida.org, the American Society of Interior Designers at www.asid.org, or the National Association of the Remodeling Industry at www.nari.org.
3. If I can t read your mind, I ll just design things my way.
While you can get a good idea about an architect s sensibilities by looking at his past projects, it s up to you to make sure what parts of his style you do and don t want to surface in your home.
To help avoid unpleasant surprises, talk in as much detail as you can early on about what you envision. Before you even select an architect, do your own research. Clip photos from magazines or the Internet so that when you do meet with a prospective architect, you can show the kind of thing you like. You should also understand why you like the images, says Jay Brotman, partner at Svigals + Partners, an architecture firm in New Haven, Conn. If you show your architect a big kitchen, he ll understand you like to live in your kitchen. You may not get the exact detail it s the feeling of the space we feel is more important, he says.
Finally, if you re part of a couple, make sure that you and your partner agree on aesthetics beforehand so you can present a united front.
4. I m not that familiar with your local zoning rules.
All architects must follow the International Building Code, a system of building regulations established by the International Code Council. They also have to comply with state-level codes which are modifications of the ICC s as well as local jurisdictions regulations. Say your remodel includes an extension that would move your house five feet closer to the property line than your local municipality allows before requiring a zoning ordinance. Your architect might not be familiar with the local jurisdiction s property-setback requirements.
Not having knowledge of local zoning ordinance requirements could result in the redesign of a project, which might cause delays, says Thomas FitzSimmons, an architect in Great Neck, N.Y. Every locality has its own rules and your architect should know about them.
Once you decide that you like an architect s basic ideas, you should sign a contract to get the terms in writing. The AIA has a template contract that many architects use, and it covers the size, or scope, of the project, including the homeowner s budget, a time frame for the project, and a payment schedule.
Setting the fee structure, however, is completely up to the architect. The traditional amount is based on a percentage of the cost of the job typically, between 10% and 25% of the estimated total construction costs, including design and consultation through the construction process.
Some architects, on the other hand, may insist on an hourly fee, which can run anywhere from $50 to upwards of $200. This fee structure helps architects protect themselves from impulsive clients who ask for endless revisions throughout a project. But even if you don t plan to be wishy-washy, an hourly rate will almost always cost you more. If you have a set estimate for your construction budget, the architect needs to work within that. But an hourly rate can be more open-ended, says Sullivan.
6. My drawings aren t really builder-ready.
Before you can start shopping for a contractor, you ll need your architect s finished drawings. But finished can be a subjective term. Tony Crasi, owner of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio-based design and building firm Crasi and Co., says that one of the biggest problems in working with other people s architects is that he sees incomplete drawings, inaccurate drawings, drawings that have no chance of being built for the price the owner would like.
Part of the problem can stem from an architect s lack of residential design expertise, but it can also be the result of a homeowner not knowing what kinds of drawings to ask for. Unless you re doing a very small project, be sure to request drawings that contain enough detail to adequately convey your intentions. Ideally, these should also include specifications, which describe finishes and quality of workmanship. And discuss as many details with the architect as you can, down to the type of faucets you want in the bathroom. It may add to your fee, but the right drawings make it easier to estimate costs, preserve your wishes, and even determine liability if something goes wrong. I don t think you can put enough information in a set of plans, Crasi says.
7. I m a visionary, not an accountant.
Once you have some contractors bids in hand, your architect should help you decipher them, spotting possible price inflation or suspicious lowballing. But you shouldn t take an architect s sense of specific prices as gospel. While they can generally make ballpark estimates, rare is the architect who is on top of what costs are right now and certainly not what prices are going to be in six months, when construction begins, says Bill Kreager, an AIA fellow and a principal with Seattle-based Mithun Architects.
Kreager suggests bringing in a contractor, even when you and your architect are just beginning, under what he calls a negotiated contract. You pay the contractor by the hour as a consultant to help estimate price, predict availability of necessary materials and qualified subcontractors, and spot possible building-specific design obstacles with the option of hiring him for the full job later.
To find good contractors, ask your architect, your real estate agent or your local chapter of the National Association of Home Builders. Another resource is HandymanOnline, which can help connect you with licensed and insured contractors in your area.
As a rule, architects are interested in aesthetics whereas contractors and builders are more concerned with logistics. So it s only natural that from time to time tensions can arise between them -- or worse, they may not be interested in dealing with each other at all.
You don t want misplaced closets or the wrong moldings up because the contractor can t translate the architect s plans. To get off to a secure start, have the architect meet any prospective contractor before you sign on. Start the conversation early on and ask each party how often they plan to meet, says Crasi. Encourage the architect and the contractor to meet on a weekly basis so there s no miscommunication, he says.
9. Once the blueprint s done, I m outta here.
The design phase of a home can take a month or more, depending on the complexity of the project and how often the architect and clients can meet to discuss plans. Once construction begins, a good architect should visit periodically to make sure the building is adhering to the design and that corners aren t being cut. Most consumers can assume the architect will supervise, says Sullivan, but it isn t always the case.
To avoid problems, check that your contract spells out how often your architect will visit once construction begins. Standard AIA contracts include such provisions. An architect should especially be there to inspect hard-to-do events, like window installations or concrete pours, Sullivan says.
Another way to keep the architect coming back is to structure the payment plan using time as an incentive: Pay a third of the fee upfront, another third when most of the documents are done, and the last third when construction is at least substantially complete.
10. A package deal can be a package mess.
More and more companies are offering what is known as design-build services, meaning that the architect and builder or contractor work for the same company and you pay one fee for both of them typically, at least 20% of construction costs.
When the designer and builder work in the same firm, they should be talking to each other to ensure they re on the same page. But one potential disadvantage of this setup is you don t have the designer representing you he s representing the builder, says Barry Yatt, an architecture professor at The Catholic University of America and author of Cracking the Codes: An Architect's Guide to Building Regulations. When the architect signs off on the work the builder has done, the homeowner pays up and you hope they did the work they said they did. When you don t have a separate contract with the architect, their obligation isn t necessarily to you and your home. You don t have your own agent keeping an eye on the builder for you, says Yatt.