Read This Before You Hire an Architect

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Does a new addition to your family have you thinking of a new addition for your house? Has your home business outgrown your kitchen table? Or maybe you need to open your home to an elderly relative who can’t navigate the stairs of your center-hall colonial. The fact is, our lives change—but our houses don’t, at least not on their own. If you want to stay in your home as your life progresses, you’ll probably consider remodeling.

Whether you’re adding a bath, enlarging a kitchen or doubling the size of your house with an addition, remodeling usually involves money, lots of planning, and often more than a little stress. It can also raise many questions beyond design and other choices, such as what tile to use on the new bathroom floor. One of these questions usually is: Should I hire an architect?

In this DIY world, an architect is often seen as a luxury—and can be a costly one at that. You can certainly complete a masterful remodel—even a large one—without an architect’s help. You typically can, that is, if you or your builder have a talent for design, if you have a clear idea what you want, and if you (or your builder, or someone you know) can produce plans that satisfy your local building authorities. In all these situations, you could get by without an architect. But then there is another question you might ask, ‘Do I really want to?’

Levels of Architectural Design Service

What sets architects apart from other people who design homes is that they are licensed by the states in which they practice. To obtain a license, an architect generally must earn a degree from an approved architectural program, complete an internship, and pass an exam. All of this ensures architects possess a high level of expertise about design, materials, and building systems.

Like architects, architectural designers (sometimes just called designers) have studied and practiced architectural design—some for many years—but are not licensed. They may work on their own or in association with a licensed architect.

Many builders also offer home design services, and some offer the services of a dedicated, on-staff designer. Design-build firms offer both architectural design and construction services under one roof; some are led by architects, and some have architects on staff.

A draftsperson puts your plans on paper. They can produce the drawings you will need to build, but usually only after the design is established. Like designers, drafters often work alongside licensed architects or builders.

You might consider any one of the above individuals to help you in designing your remodel. What many people—particularly homeowners planning “just a few tweaks”—don’t realize, however, is how difficult it can be to adapt an existing home to meet new expectations. Architects are trained to see the possibilities in every structure and are experts at translating those possibilities into detailed plans that your builder can execute with precision.

When You May Want an Architect

Photo by Kevin OConnor

Here’s how to tell if you want an architect—or at least, an experienced architectural designer.

How to Find the Right Architect

Once you’ve decided on hiring an architect, you need to find the right one. You want an architect who is not only skilled in designing the type of remodel or addition you want, you also want an architect with whom you communicate well, and whose cost model works for you.

Ensure the cost of the architect is factored into your overall home remodel budget. Many people use and consider fixed-rate personal loans to cover all or a portion of project costs, including the architect. Lenders like Discover, for example, offer personal loans that don’t require collateral, which means you don’t have to put your house on the line to secure the loan. Plus, funds can be sent as soon as the next business day once you are approved and accept the terms of the loan, which is critical when unexpected project costs come up or you go over budget. With Discover Personal Loans, you can apply for just the amount of money you need up to $35,000.

To find the right architect for you, you’ll have to do some homework.

Home design magazines and their websites enable you to view architects’ work and often provide insight into the architects’ general approach to projects as well as their contact information. Sites such as HomeAdvisor.com and houzz.com enable you to search for architects by zip code and can narrow your search with certain qualifiers.

Your local chapter of The American Institute of Architects (AIA) can also help. Many state chapters have membership lists on their websites.

Once you’ve identified a few potential architects, take the time to visit their websites to view their portfolios and learn more about their practice and design philosophy.

A final note: Word of mouth is often said to be the best way to find an excellent professional. But beware: The right architect for your friend’s project may not be the right one for yours. To find out, you’ll need to sit down for an interview.

The Interview: What to Expect

An introductory phone call will enable both you and the architect to determine if the fit is promising and you should proceed to an interview. Architects generally don’t charge for this time, which will be focused on whether the architect wants to take on the project and whether you want to hire them. Plan on interviewing several architects before settling on one.

At your first meeting, you can expect to talk about ideas you have for the project, your budget, and timetable. You’ll want to walk out with a good “feel” for whether you can work with this person, because you’ll be spending a lot of time together as your project progresses. The architect will be looking for the same thing.

What to Bring to the Interview

Bring to the interview any inspirational photographs or plans you have for your project, as well as any plans or photographs you have of your existing home. It’s unlikely you’ll go deeply into design details at this point, but visuals will help the architect determine if they want to take the job and if your budget is realistic to turn your vision into reality.

What to Ask the Architect

Come to the interview prepared with questions to help you understand fully what you can expect from this partnership. These might include:

FINANCING TIP: If you’re borrowing money for part of your remodel, some people choose a personal loan with no application fees and no collateral required.

Architectural Fees

Photo by Marcin Balcerzak at Shutterstock

Architects’ fees vary widely, depending on the project, the local economy, and the architect’s experience and reputation. Fees typically range from $2,014 to $8,375, with an average of $5,126. But fees can be much higher than that, depending on the size and complexity of the job. Your best gauge is to speak to several architects in your area about the cost of designing your specific project. As with any professional service, the cheapest quote is not necessarily the best one.

Hourly fees

Some architects charge a fixed rate by the hour. The typical range is $60 to $125. Fees in some parts of the country, particularly urban areas, will certainly be higher. If yours is a small project and you already know what you want design-wise and expect little back-and-forth, this may be the way to go. You may want to put a cap on the number of hours, but once you reach that limit, you’ll have to re-negotiate.

If you’re dealing with a firm (as opposed to an individual architect) the hourly rate may differ based on who handles your project. If it’s the firm’s principal, the rate may be more than twice that of young architect or designer with only a few years’ experience.

Percentage of construction cost

Another method is to charge a percentage of the cost of the project, typically between 5% and 15% for new construction and 15% to 20% for remodels, according to data from HomeAdvisor.com. Because they involve dealing with existing problems, remodels are often more complicated than new builds. One challenge of charging by construction cost is that those costs may not be fully known at the time you’re shopping for an architect.

Square-foot billing

Some architects charge by the square foot. Again, this rate varies considerably and again, the price will be hard to pin down in the early stages. If your project is small, say, a kitchen reconfiguration, the square-foot cost will need to be high enough to make it worth the architect’s time.

Combination fees and fixed fees

Some architects combine methods, charging hourly until plans are established, and then charging by the square foot. Others calculate a fixed fee for the project as a whole. A fixed fee gives you the advantage of knowing exactly what you’ll be paying, but make sure you know from the outset exactly what that fee covers. That will be spelled out in the contract.

FINANCING TIP: If you want to know the average cost homeowners pay to hire an architect in your part of the country, see the Pro Cost-Estimator at the top of this page.

Signing the Contract

When you decide to hire an architect, you’ll need to sign a contract. The contract will typically include the scope of the work, what services the architect will provide, the schedule for the project, how much the architect will be paid, and when. AIA has developed standard contracts that many architects use.

Check to see if the fee you’re paying includes the cost of drawing up plans, or whether you’ll have to hire a separate draftsperson. This step can account for up to half your overall design costs ($800 to $2,800). Site surveys, 3-D modeling, and other services might incur additional costs. Make sure also that you understand how design revisions will affect the architect’s fee, or whether a certain number of revisions are included.

The contract also specifies who owns the plans—typically, it’s the architect. That won’t be a concern unless you and the architect part ways before the project is completed. In that case, you’ll want to know if you have the right to modify the existing plans and complete the house on your own, or with another architect.

I’ve Signed with an Architect. What Should I Expect?

Most residential architects follow a similar path when designing or remodeling homes. The following steps are typical.

Help your Architect Help You—and Save Money

Once you’ve signed on with an architect, there are things you can do to make sure your project turns out just as you want it to.

Architects will tell you that the more engaged their client is, the better the results. Successful projects don’t just happen. Finding the right person to help you bring your vision to life is an investment in not only your property but your happiness and satisfaction occupying it.

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