If you think of your home renovation as a conquest, a general contractor is your fearless leader, marshaling an army of trade professionals who will march through your house and transform it. As important as it is for a homeowner to find the right contractor, it's also important for contractors like me to find clients who can visualize where we are going and appreciate what we are doing. If client and contractor get along well, it can make all the difference in the world. The building process becomes fulfilling and exciting for everyone. To find the right guy or gal for your renovation, do your homework! Never be sold by a great smile, a firm handshake and an afternoon of good vibes. Make calls and ask as many past clients as possible questions regarding reliability, honesty, quality of workmanship, dependability, cleanliness, ability to deal with changes and general attitude. For all there is to gain, I think this effort is one of your most crucial investments, considering the importance of the outcome. When I first meet with homeowners, I ask questions that help me understand their needs and motivations. Is their family expanding? Are they attempting to increase their equity for a quick turnaround gain? Are they fulfilling a lifelong dream? Homeowners often ask me to evaluate a project well before it's a real possibility. At that point, I try to understand their ideas and bring up other possibilities for their renovation. Strangely enough, one of the most difficult aspects of the design process is saying no. Many people don't understand the process of upgrading or adding to a home. If you don't have a grasp of the hows and whys of general construction, wild ideas can quickly turn into a very large budget. A good contractor will pull no punches telling you the implications of your plans. Ideally, contractors are brought into a project after building plans have been completed and permits are in-hand. In actuality, circumstances vary greatly. Most of my work comes to me through referrals from past clients. Normally prospective clients call me in to evaluate their ideas and look into the feasibility of the their project before architects are involved. After spending time with them, and reviewing their needs and desires, I refer them to either an architect or a draftsperson. Occasionally, if I have time, I'll get more involved in the actual design process and produce an initial floorplan that reflects my interpretation of the project's possibilities. This can be a great jump-start to the overall process. However, I must say that it is always nice to consider a project that is ready to go—even better if a talented architect or designer has already thought it through. Normally, building starts with the approval of blueprints that accurately define the scope of the intended work, including engineering and building code requirements, a schedule of finishes and explanations of specific details. These blueprints usually include a site plan, floorplan, vicinity map, roofing plan and cross-sections that elaborate on details. In a nutshell, blueprints impart both basic and detailed information about the intended project to the owners, the contractor and all of the various subcontractors that will work on the job. Once plan and permits are in-hand, I invite subcontractors to bid on the different aspects of the job. The better the building plan, the more comprehensive the bid. Conversely, a weak building plan will result in subcontract bids that are not well defined, leaving an opening for miscommunication between the owners and the builders. I usually work hand-in-hand with my clients to get the best prices possible. I am always open to using subcontractors who have a history with my clients. It's very important for the contractor and the homeowner to be on the same page regarding bids, possible discounts, method of payment and choice of subcontractors. Aside from the perils of the weather, a potential pitfall in every job is miscommunication. The ability of an owner to visualize what is actually drawn and written on the building plan is invaluable, yet not everyone can "get" blueprints. I always work to make sure my clients understand by verbally walking them through the plans, as problems start when the plan differs from what a homeowner has imagined. I try to make sure our path is correct by asking questions and giving examples. I do this for myself as much as my clients, because I hate building anything twice! On the current project in Santa Barbara, I've had a number of interesting surprises and challenges. While the initial structural plan called for reinforcement of the existing foundation with large support piers, during the demolition I discovered that the perimeter foundation had no rebar and a footing that went a mere six inches into the ground. My crew had to remove portions of the foundation and replace it with a new 16-inch-wide foundation that extends 18 inches into the ground. These seismic considerations are very necessary yet difficult to explain to California homeowners, whose building costs as a result are higher than in other parts of the country. The real goal of renovating an older home is upgrading the structure, adding new features and living space without losing the true essence of the original building. A good understanding of the nature and quality of the original structure will guide your architect and designer and your contractor in developing an overall plan for your renovation—setting the stage for the victories to come. Steve Crawford was the general contractor for the Santa Barbara House.