5. Get More Detailed Bids

The conventional contractor bidding process — getting lump-sum estimates based on a plan and (usually) going with the lowest one — doesn't make for great working relationships because the cheapest builder is often the one cutting corners on the architect's specs.

A bidding system called value analysis or value-engineered bidding calls for contractors to break down their estimates into detailed components — everything from the item-by-item cost of a new porch to the relative expense of wood floors versus carpet — then work with the architect to fit the design and materials to the budget. "It makes architects consider the cost of their designs," says Duo Dickinson, an architect in Connecticut and a TOH contributor. "It also makes builders open up the 'black box' of their bid." He cites a recent house he designed where the value analysis showed the homeowners they could save $15,000 by using high-grade vinyl siding instead of cedar. They chose the vinyl.

Because value analysis takes more effort, Dickinson says many contractors can't be bothered, especially in boom times. But that's changing as more homeowners, shocked by the high cost of materials and labor, scrutinize bids more carefully. "It's been the way commercial construction is bid out," he says, "and it's becoming the trend in residential work."

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