Photo: Russell Kaye
Homeowners Eric Luden, left, and Sybylla Smith with Bruce Irving in front of the couple's 1890 Queen Anne.
Just about anyone who's ever renovated a house will tell you that the undertaking was among the most stressful in their lives. Fortunately for the thousands of Americans starting a project this year, there's a new breed of therapist who can help navigate the rocky terrain. One such renovation consultant we'd heartily recommend is Bruce Irving, former executive producer of This Old House.

"The thing about home renovation is that very few people have been able to practice for it," says Irving, who honed his skills working on 33 whole-house projects in his 17 years with the show. "They get wound up and nervous, facing this potential money pit, and it doesn't have to be that way." Irving and like professionals cover it all, giving ballpark estimates, screening contractors, doling out product advice, and steering through permit hell.

Jesse Morado, president of Renovation Coach in Atlanta, describes himself as a liaison between homeowners and building professionals, helping with negotiations and managing his clients' expectations. "They're getting a reality check up front before they ever deal with the contractor."

Renovation consultants begin by asking clients their goals. For Nancy Koehn, who hired Irving to help refine her vision for a kitchen renovation and a second-story addition to her 2,000-square-foot ranch in suburban Boston, that meant discussing aesthetics, costs, and a construction timetable."I wasn't lying on any couches and he wasn't asking about my past, but it was therapy," says Koehn. After the session, she suspended negotiations with her contractor and hired an architect to draw up plans. "He helped me decide to slow the whole process down."

You can also seek a consultant's advice before you plunk down the cash for a fixer-upper. "They'll ask me for a second opinion on a house that they're starting to fall in love with but they're not fully qualified to assess with a jaundiced eye," says Irving, who offers his unbiased opinion. "I'm not carrying anyone's agenda but the homeowner's," he says.

Unlike an architect or contractor, who typically gets paid a set sum to oversee a project from start to finish, a consulĀ­tant's expertise can be leased for as much time as you like. Just don't expect a bargain. Erin Zagar, a Toronto-based consultant and president of EZDimensions, charges $95 an hour, and for Irving, it's $300, with a different fee schedule if you hire him for a longer job. But that $300 could save you much more in the long run. After sitting with a client for an hour, he helped trim her materials costs by suggesting simpler exterior finishes that were more appropriate for a modern addition on her old house. "That wiped a hundred grand off her bill," he says.
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