When do you need an architect, design/build firm, or contractor?
If you’re building up or out, moving walls, or rerouting plumbing and wiring, you probably need a licensed architect to draw up the construction and engineering documents required for permits and contracts, says Gwen Biasi of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI). Some architects have their own construction crews; others do only design but will recommend contractors. Architects charge by the hour or based on a percentage of the project cost.
“The advantage of using an architect is that they are beholden to you, not the builder, and can protect you by seeing construction mistakes you might not recognize,” says Donna Greenfield Belser, who has used them on seven residential and two office makeovers. “The last one noticed there was something amiss with the foundation that was to support a three-story addition to our house in Bethesda and caught it very early.”
For homeowners seeking the convenience of one-stop shopping, design/build firms do it all—provide drawings by a certified designer or architect, permits, a project manager or general contractor, and subcontractors. One price covers the entire project.
If you’re only redoing a kitchen or bathroom, consider choosing a designer who specializes in those spaces. He or she can often steer you to good plumbers, tile setters, and countertop installers.
How do you find a reputable remodeler?
When it comes to choosing a contractor, the advice is tried-and-true: Seek referrals from colleagues, friends, or neighbors; community Web sites and bulletin boards often list reliable companies. Then get three estimates from those most highly recommended, check references, and ask to see photos of their work or visit finished projects.
Ask how many crews a firm has and how many other jobs they’re juggling; if your crew is too busy, you could get short shrift.
Then cross your fingers and hope for the best.
When Deedee Jacobsohn, a museum-exhibit consultant in Bethesda, wanted to knock out a wall and open up her kitchen and dining room, she went, she says, with “neighborhood favorites who have a reputation for being on time and on budget.” That would be contractor Glen Overstreet, who owns Level Best in Mount Airy, and Rudy Day, co-owner of Watkins Cabinet Co. in Barnesville.
“The workmen were polite,” says Jacobsohn. “They cleaned up. They came back to fix a few little things. It was a very easy experience. I love my kitchen.”
Ringing endorsements are great, but you should also insist on seeing city or state business licenses and check court records for past or pending lawsuits. Inspect the company’s workers’-compensation and liability-insurance documents, and consider increasing your own homeowner’s coverage during renovation, advises Angie Hicks, founder of Angie’s List, a consumer rating service.
Hicks says to check the Better Business Bureau, Google, and, naturally, her list, which has online links to credit-reporting agencies such as Experian. “If a contractor owes everyone in town, he may be on the verge of bankruptcy,” she says.
Make sure you hire a firm that has at least five years’ experience doing the type of work you want done. “You don’t want someone who builds McMansions to remodel your kitchen,” says an electrician in Falls Church. “You want the shoe to fit.”