Remodeling Project – Nightmare vs. Dream Part Two – Working with Contractors & Architects

In Part One of this series, we talked about interior design and you (hopefully) learned how we work and what we can do for you.

So perhaps now you’re ready to dive into a remodel… Congratulations! It’s an exciting endeavor, but often the prospect also comes with a lot of anxiety. To make your life easier, here are a few common questions along with some answers to help remove some of the remodel mystery.

Many clients start their project by bringing in a contractor first to determine if they can even afford a remodel. Many contractors come over to review your project and ask you a few general questions but nothing overly detailed. They leave and a few days later you receive an estimate. And maybe you get two or three different bids before making a decision. Sounds reasonable, right? But wait… did your contractor ask you any specifics as to the quality of products and finishes you expect in your home? Just how did they come up with that price and their allowances? Were they making assumptions? Assumptions based on past projects, assumptions based on low or mid-level finishes, assumptions based on how badly they need the work?

Here’s a little “Allowances 101” to help you better understand: an allowance is an amount specified and included in the construction contract for a certain item of work (e.g., appliances, plumbing, lighting, etc.) whose details are not yet determined at the time of contracting. Let’s say your contractor gives you a $1500 allowance for plumbing fixtures. If you select items that are less than $1500 then you get a credit for the difference, if you select items that are more than $1500 you have to add that difference to your final costs.

I also want you to know that there are really good, conscientious contractors our there, they are not all bad! But it requires you to do some homework. Don’t just trust that because your neighbor had a great experience that you will too. We all have different expectations of what is acceptable or not.

So who should you hire first? The general contractor? The architect? The designer?

While many clients want to start by engaging a general contractor in order to get a clear idea of costs, without having your architectural and interior designs figured out, it is impossible to get an accurate bid. I’ve talked with many contractors and the ones who are worth their weight in gold are the ones that won’t give you a bid until you have your finishes selected. Therefore, it’s ideal to hire your interior designer first, let them help you figure out every pesky detail and then engage a contractor who can use your comprehensive plans to develop a bid.

architectural color

When do I need an architect? And what about permits?

Not every remodel needs an architect – so work with your interior designer to determine if it’s necessary. This can result in significant savings! Generally speaking, if you are just removing an existing kitchen or bathroom and not making major structural changes you may not need a permit. However, sometimes electrical or plumbing issues arise in which case the city/county may require a permit in order to pass inspection. If you need permit drawings and your general contractor doesn’t create and submit them – then you will need an architect. Additionally, if you’re planning on making significant changes or a major addition that requires new foundations, etc., you’ll need to hire an architect.

Things to ponder and questions to ask.

Before you get caught in this trap and hire the wrong contractor, here are a few things to consider and some good questions to ask:

  1. Has the contractor worked with an interior designer before and if so how, who, and what was their experience? Are they interested and willing to talk with your designer?
  2. How do they bid on a project? What is their markup on products? Some will bid on a time and materials basis with allowances for items such as plumbing, lighting, flooring, etc. Others will bid on a fixed price based on the scope of the project with a markup on materials. If a contractor is willing to come out and give you a bid on your project before you have made any design or finish selections, this is a red flag! They are bidding on unknowns and will be guaranteed to have change orders that always result in increased fees. This is the last thing you want in the midst of your project! Too many people fall into this trap – finding that the price they agreed to suddenly creeps upward, resulting in a lot of angst and stress when they least need it.
  3. If they are giving you a bid before you have any selections chosen, ask them how are they coming up with their allowances. This is where you have to be cautious because you don’t know how they are estimating their allowances. Was it from a spec house job where they put the cheapest thing in or do they select the same items for every house they work on? Here is where knowing the exact type or style of item you want is key. Your bid will be accurate and you won’t be compromising in the middle of your project and become frustrated.
  4. Will they provide a working calendar and update it regularly? If they say yes, ask them to show you a sample calendar from a previous project. My past experience has been that a contractor says they have a calendar but in reality they don’t. And every day that ticks by you wonder when your project will be complete and you come up with empty promises.
  5. Who are their subcontractors, do they use the same ones, what work do they sub out and what do they do in house? Most contractors use outside subs for electrical and plumbing and sometimes tile work.
  6. Remember you are interviewing the contractor so ask lots of questions.
    • Ask for examples of problems that have arisen on past projects (and trust me, there are always problems that come up) and how have they handled them.
    • How will they stay in communication with you? How often?
    • How will you know if progress was made on your project on any given day? Many times there is a lot of work that you can’t see when you come home and you’re left wondering what they did all day.
    • Can you meet your project manager before the project starts?
    • How often will you meet with the contractor? How often will they visit the job site?
    • What is their process for final payment? You don’t want to be left with an unfinished space and a missing in action contractor.
  7. And last but not least, ask for references from past clients and be sure to follow up with them! Research reviews on Angie’s List,, Yelp, Better Business Bureau, etc.

After reading this you might be thinking to yourself … all of this preparatory work and all these questions before the project even starts? Is it really worth it? The answer is a resounding yes. You need to be thorough. You need to be diligent in vetting your contractors. You need to know what questions to ask and then make sure you get the answers you need. I promise you – you will save not only time and money … but blood, sweat and tears.