Home Improvement Projects: Working With Professionals

Home | Fire Safety | Skyscrapers

Home Emergencies | Glossary

If you have a large-scale home improvement project, an experienced professional designer can provide specialized information and advice that can save you money in the long run.


Architects have a college degree in architecture, have passed a rigorous state examination, and have apprenticed with an established firm before being licensed to practice. They can plan every element of a complex project, provide detailed working drawings, obtain building permits, and even serve as general contractors. An architect is legally responsible for the quality of work done under his or her supervision. An architect’s fee is usually a %age of the total cost of the work.

House designers or architectural designers are less rigorously trained than architects. Many have backgrounds as home builders or architectural draftsmen and can provide many of the same planning and supervision services as an architect, at less cost. But because they are not licensed, they may have little legal responsibility for the quality of work done.

Kitchen designers specialize in kitchen and bathroom remodelings. Interior de signers typically select color schemes, cabinets, furniture, and other furnishings. Landscape designers can develop a plan for your entire site and suggest appropriate plants for the soil and climate as well as for appearance. Designers can simply develop a plan, or can also secure materials and /or labor for the job. Some charge an hourly rate or flat fee; others receive a commission for work done by their company or for materials and furnishings purchased through them.


Various projects can require the ser vices of one or more contractors. In some cases, you may lack the time or skills for a particular kind of work. In other cases, building codes require that certain work—notably electrical and plumbing installations and alterations to the load-bearing structure—be done by or under the supervision of a licensed specialist. You may choose to hire individual subcontractors for the parts of a job you decide not to do your self. However, for a large or complex project you may do better to hire a general contractor.

A general contractor takes responsibility for the entire job, from ordering materials and securing building permits to final inspections and cleanup. He or she hires and coordinates the efforts of all subcontractors, oversees the budget, and inspects the work to ensure that it's done carefully and correctly.


Whether you hire a general contractor or act as your own, begin by getting bids. Select possible contractors by asking for recommendations from friends, co-workers, neighbors, and —if you are financing the project—your lending institution. Go over your plan with four or five candidates and ask for rough estimates of the money and time involved. Also request references and proof that each contractor is bonded, insured against property damage, and covered by workers’ compensation.

Ask for written final bids from at least three contractors. Be sure that everyone is bidding on exactly the same specifications, so comparisons are valid. Analyze each bid with the contractor who submitted it. Be wary of a bid that is substantially lower than the others. The bidder may be overlooking some thing, planning to cut corners, or expecting to ask for more money later.

Once you have decided on a person for the job, insist on a written contract. Read it carefully before you sign, or have an attorney look it over for you. In discussing the contract with the bidder, remember that you are not adversaries, but are attempting to arrive at a cooperative agreement. Be sure the following points are covered.

• The starting and completion dates.

• The payment schedule—commonly one-third at the beginning, one-third when the work is well along, and the balance when all work has been inspected and approved.

• Who is responsible for obtaining permits, inspections, and approvals.

• Change orders: What kind or number of new or different specifications not included in the plan can be made without additional charge, and what charges will be made for others.

• Penalty fees: The reduction in cost if work is not completed on time except for reasons beyond the contractor’s control, such as weather. The increase in cost if you cause the work to be delayed.

• Completion details: Removal of debris. Completing the job “in a work manlike manner” (a standard phrase) to a specified state. Restoring surroundings disturbed or altered by the work to their original condition.


Various community laws govern what you can do to your home and how the work must be done. Zoning ordinances regulate improvements that affect your home’s relation ship with its neighbors. Building codes man date construction safety standards and specify what work must be done by licensed professionals. A building permit, based on plans submitted to community authorities, ensures that major improvements will con form to zoning and code provisions.

Most zoning ordinances regulate setbacks, the distances from a structure to the street and adjacent property lines. They may also regulate the height and size of structures, how many people may reside at an address, the types of business that may be conducted there, and even matters of appearance such as landscaping and architectural style.

Building codes typically fall into three categories: general construction, plumbing, and electrical. You may need to secure permits for each kind of work and have the work inspected one or more times to ensure that it has been completed according to the approved plan and code requirements.

Do not ignore zoning ordinances and building codes. If you violate them, you will be fined and required to tear out or modify nonconforming work. If a project you have in mind would be at odds with a zoning or code provision, an architect or structural engineer may be able to help you gain a variance that sets aside the conflicting regulation.


top of page | Home