House Renovations: Who to Ask
Finding the Right Help
If your house or apartment is very dilapidated, very inconvenient, too small or too large, you may well find that you need to employ an architect. He or she should be able to make your life a lot easier by suggesting clever ways of getting around spatial problems, by preparing plans and working drawings, by finding out about any local permissions needed or possible legal snags that might obstruct proposed alterations, by estimating how much the structure will cost to renovate, run and maintain, by finding and supervising an appropriate builder or contractor, and generally by coordinating the whole operation to produce a better-looking and easier-to-run home. It is quite possible that the entire renovation, even including the architect’s fees, will cost less than if you had gone ahead on your own.
Unless your budget is elastic, it is usually best to use young and local architects for a straightforward renovating lob. However, charges may vary in Britain the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) publishes scales of recommended charges (mostly based on a percentage of the cost of the to be done), and most architects should stick to these scales. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) offers a similar service in the United States. Architects generally charge for time and expenses, on top of their normal commission. It is also possible, of course, to persuade an architect to render a partial service which consists of preparing sketch plans (for an agreed set fee) to show how best to realize your homes potential, leaving you to do the rest.
If you do decide to hire an architect, how do you set about getting one? Personal recommendation is probably the best way asking the advice of an architectural acquaintance is another. Alternatively, you could ask the architecture department of the local college or university or get a recommendation from your local architectural organization, or write to the relevant national association for suggestions in your area; in Britain, the RIBA has a directory of architects showing which are likely to be suitable for various types of work. The AIA publishes a comprehensive directory of architects working in the United States.
Once you have got together a list of ‘possibles’, scrutinize some examples of their work. Satisfied clients will rarely mind their houses being looked over, and architects themselves will always be prepared to arrange appointments and provide photographs.
Interior Designers and Decorators
The services of a good designer can often, like those of an architect, save money in the long run and should certainly save you time, confusion and strain. A good interior designer will look at your home with fresh but informed eyes and will suggest ways of making your rooms function more efficiently and schemes that may well cost less, and will definitely look better, than the kind of piecemeal effect which spoils so many homes. A designer will also find fabrics, papers, rugs and carpets that you would be lucky to find in retail stores — or perhaps he or she might even design these things especially. In addition the designer might get curtains and draperies made up, plan beautiful upholstery and bed treatments, find exactly the right pieces of furniture, recommend and supervise good builders, contractors and crafts people, help you choose accessories, and take all the other time and nerve-consuming chores off your hands.
Above all good designers acknowledge that many if not most of their clients have excellent ideas of their own, and need only a good arbitration, editing and translating service — plus the experience and knowledge of resources that a good designer should have — in order to realize those ideas. Finally, a good designer will try very hard to keep to a realistic budget and will always warn you if something is likely to go over budget. In this latter case, the designer should present you with a cheaper option.
There is no cut-and-dried fee structure in the interior-designing profession. Some designers charge an initial consultation fee and if the client wants to proceed, a full design fee plus a percentage calculated on the cost of all goods purchased. Others charge a consultation tee plus a much larger percentage of the costs of purchases and services. Others still charge an hourly fee for their work — this can really mount up. Whatever the fee structure, most designers take the precaution of asking for 50 per cent of the design fee up front, or a retainer fee based on the overall expense, plus a pool for purchases.
If you do decide to employ an interior designer you should first try to ascertain what kind of firm would suit you best. Obviously word-of-mouth recommendation and asking friends whose homes you admire for details of their designer is one way; as with architects, seeing work in a magazine or in a newspapers design pages is another way of getting started. Clearly, if your taste is spare and minimalist you should go to someone who specializes in this sort of look and not to someone renowned for their eclecticism, and vice versa.
Builders and Contractors
As with architects and designers, the best way to choose a contractor is through a reliable recommendation; seek advice from friends who have recently been pleased with work completed on their homes. Helpful architects in your locality may be prepared to suggest contractors they know to be reliable. And managers of localor paint stores or builders’ suppliers, who probably cater for most of the contractors in the area, might be persuaded to give you their opinion on the subject.
When a list of possible contractors has been drawn up and their financial stability checked as far as possible, ask three or four of the firms to inspect your home. Make sure each is given a copy of the general work and decorating schedule so that they can put in a competitive bid or estimate. This might seem a somewhat pedantic way of going about the task, but it could save you a great deal of money, time and worry in the long run since estimates often vary wildly between one contractor and another.
Once you have received all the estimates, study them in detail. First, do any of the bidders guarantee the number of weeks or months they will take? Have any of them given you their time schedule in writing? Do they take into account a similar quantity and quality of paint and the same number of coats? (If you prepared your specification properly all of the bidders certainly should.) And are all the estimates for exactly the same amount of work and materials? Pay attention at this early stage to the uncertain costs in the estimate, such as the materials whose expense the contractors cannot predict exactly because they have yet to be chosen.
Remember to read conditions on the back of the tender and make sure you thoroughly understand them. For example, there might be denials of obligation in the event of the contractor’s employees causing damage or of materials going missing from the site.
If the bids are very similar, you should contract the person or firm who guarantees the earliest completion date (to which you can usually add in your mind at least a month or two, unless you are prepared to bully, cajole, and be on the contractor’s tail throughout the job), the largest contractor (bigger contractors have less need to subcontract); or the contractor whose personality you like the best – if the firm is large, try to meet the overseer assigned to the job (a key figure, and someone whose personality might well affect your final choice).
Getting the Best Service
To ensure that bills are kept to a minimum, specify that all additional costs are quoted for in writing and are attached to the main estimate; otherwise your contractor is given the opportunity to increase the bill in no time at all, giving as an unanswerable excuse the fact that you kept asking for more things.
If the job is of any size (say, the renovation of a house as opposed to that of a few rooms) it is a good idea to fix up a site meeting at least once a week. Remember to take your master checklist (see Home Alterations and Changes to Interior Design) and go over the repair work room by room with the contractor (or foreman), the carpenter, the electrician, the plumber – whoever is relevant and can be mustered. Make a note of anything that is discussed and arranged. Date and file these notes, making sure the contractor has two copies, one of which should be initialled and returned to you.
It is advisable to visit the site as often as possible (unless you are already ‘camping’ in the middle of the mess) just to ensure that the work is, progressing and to sort out any problems or misunderstandings. It is wise not to say in advance when you are coming, unless you specifically want to meet with a particular tradesman, and to vary your times a little. You should not expect contractors to undertake any sort of design decisions for you unless you have complete faith in their taste – or no faith in your own.