Question: Do I need the services of an architect before calling a home improvement contractor?
Answer: Not necessarily. Most architects, of course, are not in the business of doing home improvement work, as these fees are relatively small. He/she will not consider this type of work unless you are talking about a major renovation.
Most home improvement contractors employ or have available the services of a building designer or drafter who can usually set up the types of plans and specifications that you need. As I mentioned in previous articles, you should interview from three to five contractors to get their ideas and expand upon your own.
Some contractors are merely mechanics who will implement your ideas and no more. Others have a flair for their work and will make recommendations that will enhance the project.
After you have interviewed some contractors, I would ask the top two or three candidates for a list of projects they are doing or have recently completed, including the names and addresses of the individuals.
I would inspect these projects and interview the homeowners. You will find out the type of work the contractor does, the customer's satisfaction and any delays encountered.
The most important factor in selecting a contractor is hiring someone in whom you have confidence, and one you feel you will be able to work with over an extended period. No matter what the contractor may tell you, it is usually three or four more months before a major project is completed, and this can lead to a great deal of anxiety for all parties concerned.
If you are dealing with a contracting firm that has a salesman, you should insist on meeting the principal or the superintendent who will be in charge of your project because he is the individual with whom you will have to get along.
Prices between bidders on the same set of plans should not vary more than 10%. If you are contacting five individuals you may find that one will seem quite high while another may seem quite low. In this instance you should not choose the lowest bid because this may spell problems. The lowest bidder's work may not be up to par, or the contractor may not be able to complete the work for the agreed price.
Fontaine is president of the Western Regional Master Builders Assn. and a director of the American Building Contractors Assn. He will answer questions concerning home improvements. Phone 213/653-4084 or write him at 6404 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 850, Los Angeles 90048-5510.