Remodeling one’s home is generally a stressful undertaking. Bring it up in any crowd and you will undoubtedly hear horror stories of inscrutable contractors, blown budgets and horrible surprises. For most people, their house is not only their largest purchase, it’s where they live and build their lives. To invite strangers into one’s home with all of the destruction, dust and noise that comes with construction is unnerving, but it’s even worse when the project becomes way more than you can afford and you feel like you’re battling with contractor. As an architectural designer, the one piece of advice that I give to anyone and everyone considering remodeling is: PREPARE. (It’s not what anyone wants to hear and it’s almost always ignored.)
Not very many people enjoy paying for design fees. Trying to budget for the finishes you want or more square footage is tricky enough and so most people don’t pay any more than they have to, which is usually enough to get a drawing set for permits. Then, they proceed on to get bids from contractors based on very basic drawings and a few conversations. This is where the disaster begins. The bid from the contractor becomes the basis for your contract. The more complete information you give your contractor, the more accurate the bid will be. The way to give the contractor what he needs is to spend more time BEFORE asking your contractors to bid on your project, completing as many design decisions as possible. Let me give you two scenarios:
Scenario 1: You are super excited to get your construction process going. You talk to a few different contractors about what you want to do to your house, share a few cut-outs from shelter magazines and collect bids. You choose your contractor based on a combination of your gut feelings and who came in the cheapest. Your new contractor puts you in touch with a drafter who puts together the drawings to get the permit from the city.
Construction begins. Now, in addition to your day job, you need to begin making all of the design decisions on the time frame your contractor sets or else you will delay the schedule (which means more money). But the bid your contractor wrote is based on allowances, which is how much your contractor thinks you will spend on finishes or fixtures (unless your contractor low-balled all of the allowances so his bid would be the most competitive). So you are spending all of your free time rushing to make choices that are all way over what your contractor had allowed for, but you need to get things ordered immediately. Then, something comes up that no one had thought through and you decide you want to change the plans. Now, you are signing a contract for a change order (which means more money). If your contractor is honest and good at his job, the change orders will be minimal and will be a fair price. If your contractor underbid the job (either to be the most competitive in pricing or because he’s not good at bidding), then he knows he can recoup some of his losses through change orders – they will be expensive and numerous.
At this point you will probably be behind schedule (things you chose had to be special ordered; you took a couple of extra days to choose the counter and now you lost the window the installer could come and every subsequent tradesperson who relied on the installation; you changed your mind so things had to be redone) and over budget. Hopefully, no one has threatened to sue and everyone is still problem-solving together but, odds are, your stress is high and you’re having to making compromises towards the end of your project that you really aren’t happy with because you are out of money.
Scenario 2: You begin your project with an architect or architectural designer whom you have vetted and trust, aesthetically. Before you begin talking with contractors, you have detailed plans that you have created with your architect/designer who is designing with your budget is mind. In addition to these plans, you have spreadsheets listing every finish and fixture that you can think to specify. This includes flooring, light fixtures, appliances, windows/doors, hardware, cabinets, etc. You can price these things out on the internet and work on your budget now, at your own pace and with little at stake. You can decide now what you want to compromise on and where you want to spend your money over the entire course of the project.
Now, when you go to get bids from contractors, they will have a much more complete picture of what it is you want. Their bid will be much more exact and their schedule will be that much more accurate. They will be able to order everything in advance and they will be responsible for delays (assuming fate doesn’t toss a wrench in your plans). Change orders will be minimal because you have thought things through beforehand instead of as they come up. The dust will still be present and there will be noise and strangers in your house but everyone will be on the same page. And if you end up with a contractor who tries to extort money out of you, you have a better legal document (your bid/contract) to support your side.
You can assume that an architect or designer will charge $75 and up per hour which adds up quickly, but the more you can plan, document and determine before your house is open to the elements and you are essentially held hostage by your contractor, the more money you will save in the long run.