Planning for a remodeling project: who do you need to hire and who should you call first?

Welcome to Home Projects 101: A how-to guide for people who are unsure about projects. 

At Realm, we’re committed to helping you get more out of your home. In this series, we’ll cover everything you need to know about who does what — from design-build contractors to fireplace installation specialists to landscapers. We’ll also guide you through how to prepare to source & select three of the most important home pros: general contractors, architects, and lenders. 

Part 1: Who you’ll need to work with to get your construction project done

  • Before the project
  • During the project
  • Ongoing repairs & maintenance

Part 2: How to prepare to source & select a home professional

  • General contractor
  • Architect
  • Lender

Our goal is to make sure you know what to expect and who to call when tackling a home project, whether that’s a cosmetic upgrade to your bathroom, a large scale home addition, or a minor repair. 

This post focuses on who does what in the planning phase of a construction or remodel project, such as a kitchen remodel, backyard homes, or home addition, specifically:

  1. Roles and responsibilities of each local professional
  2. How to assemble your team
  3. What to expect when it comes to the planning process

Roles and responsibilities: who does what

There are up to 6 types of professionals who could be involved with planning your project, which can be confusing. Especially if you’re new to projects, sorting through what are a general contractor’s responsibilities, versus what does an architect’s input add. Figuring out when to get each person involved in the process can seem daunting.

Start by reviewing this guide to the 6 key home professionals — standard general contractor, design-build general contractor,  registered architect, residential designer (also known as a draftsman), architectural engineer, and interior designer — to get acquainted with what each person does and what they don’t do.

  • Coordinate & Supervise every aspect of the build
  • Take on liability for the worksite
  • Quote materials & laor prices
  • Source & hire labor and specialists required for the build
  • Ensure quality
ProfessionalWhat they doWhat they don’t do
General Contractor: Traditional-Coordinate & supervise every aspect of the build
-Take on liability for the worksite
-Quote materials & labor prices
-Source & hire labor and specialists required for the build
-Ensure quality
-Create or design the plans
-Make decisions on layout
-Advise on materials for finishes, e.g. countertops, cabinets
General Contractor: Design-Build -Everything a traditional GC does, plus draws up the technical plans & specs-Advise on materials for finishes, e.g. countertops, cabinets
Registered Architect-Design the specs of the space based on your practical & lifestyle needs
-Advise on which materials to use
-Quote material & labor costs
Residential Designer (aka draftsman)-Draw up technical plans and specs for the space-Provide licensed advice on design (architects are a licensed profession whereas designers are not)
Architectural Engineer-Evaluates the plans developed by an architect or designer
-Ensures plans are up to code
-Makes recommendations on how to make plans more efficient
-Consults on complex structural considerations
-Draw up architectural specs
-Oversee construction
Interior Designer-Design the look, feel & aesthetic of a space
-Advise on finishes and materials to match your vision
-Work directly with architects & builders to inform layout of the space
-Draw up plans & specs
-Advise on structural considerations for materials 
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Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t worry — you won’t ever need all of these professionals working on one project. Who you need depends on what type of project you are undertaking and how much responsibility you feel comfortable taking on yourself.

Assembling a team: how to decide who you need for your project

There are 3 typical configurations for a project planning team. Which one you pick will depend on:

  • How much time (and motivation) you have to DIY or manage the project yourself
  • How much support you need on design, aesthetic and layout
  • How unique the specifications of your house and property are
Option 1 – Team of Specialists 

Use a standard general contractor and bring in specialists for architecture, interior design, and architectural engineering as needed. In this scenario, the general contractor is responsible for figuring out how to execute the plan that is drawn up by a combination of your architect or residential designers, interior designer, and/or engineer. 

Consider this option if you’re tackling a complex project that requires unique expertise. This could include if you live in a historic home or live on a sloped lot or on a parcel that backs up to a lake, hill, or beach. Some specific project examples that would be a good fit for this team are:

  • Open kitchen remodel and addition — You want to move walls around, rebuild your kitchen from the ground up and add a sunroom off the back.
  • 2nd floor addition on a historic home — You live in a 1920s home and want to preserve the character of it but add a new master suite on the 2nd floor.
  • Deck on a lot with a hill — You want to enjoy your outdoor space more but live on a sloping lot that isn’t simple to build on

Some decisions you’ll need to make:

  • Architect vs. draftsman / designer — This individual will be responsible for finalizing the specifications for your project which will be submitted for building permits, where required. A draftsman is a cheaper option and can be a good fit for standard projects. You’ll want to consider an architect if you are looking for a particular speciality.
  • Adding an interior designer —  An interior designer is schooled in color and fabric, room layouts, space planning, furniture styles and typically has an official certification. Although it’s an added expense, it can be very valuable to bring your vision together. Note that an interior designer is different from an interior decorator: a decorator is purely involved with furnishing and finishing a space and gets involved after the structural planning & execution are complete. 
  • Including an engineer — You don’t need to worry about finding or hiring this person as your architect or draftsman will loop in an engineer as needed to approve structural plans. Ask your design professional upfront if this is an expense you’ll need to account for. 
Option 2 – Design-Build Contractor

Hire a Design-Build Contractor who will act as the quarterback of your project handling everything from drawing up the plans to submitting the building permits to hiring the team to complete the construction. This option is simpler since the design & build is happening under one roof, but if your project is in need of design support that is more specialized, option 1 may be a better fit for you.

Consider this option if you’re upgrading your existing spaces, but not facing too many structural or design complexities. For example:

  • Standard kitchen remodel — You want to remove one wall to open it up and upgrade appliances, countertops, and cabinets.
  • Standard bathroom remodel — You plan to gut your bathroom and update all the finishes but not changing the size or layout
  • Backyard office  — You are thinking about building a new structure in your backyard to serve as a work-from-home office.

A possible helpful analogy is to think of these different design professional options like a visit to a doctor. If you’re going for a routine checkup, you’ll see a Nurse Practitioner or Physician’s Assistant — that’s similar to a Design-Build contractor who will have designed & executed a lot of standard projects. If you have a slightly more complex need, you’ll talk to a primary care doctor — that’s similar to a draftsman who will have more expertise but still best suited towards a standard project type. Lastly, if you need an acute diagnosis, you’d see a specialist doctor — that’s similar to an architect who often specializes in a specific style of home or type of project and can bring that unique perspective to your project.

Option 3 – DIY

Forgo a general contractor and do the planning, hiring & coordination yourself, only bringing in specialists as needed. We’re warning you, this isn’t for the faint of heart, but it is possible if you’re willing to invest your own time and source your labor & materials yourself.

Examples of projects where you might consider this option:

  • Landscaping your backyard – If you have a clear vision in mind, you can draw the plans and source the plantings yourself with the option to hire help to install. 
  • Cosmetic update to your kitchen – For example, if you want to replace the countertops & cabinets but keep the layout the same, you could pick & source the finishes yourself and hire an installation specialist or install the finishes on your own.

It’s important to keep in mind that if you are tackling a project that requires building permits to be filed, you will need to submit plans for your project that are up to the standard of your city permitting office. Sometimes you can get away with plans you’ve created (step-by-step guide for creating your own plans), but we do not recommend this unless you have experience with other projects — since you’re reading this guide we’re guessing that’s not the case.

Planning process: how to get started

Hopefully you’re feeling more clear on who does what and have a sense of what type of team you might need to make your Pinterest board a reality. So, what’s next?

You’ll always want to start with a high-level budget. Look up your property on Realm to see what we estimate the project will cost and how much it will increase your home value. 

Use the home value increase as a starting point for your budgeting process. Not all projects will have over 100% ROI, but you can use the ROI framework to help determine how much money you are comfortable spending on the renovation. For example:

  • Say you live at 452 W Avenue 46 in Los Angeles
  • Realm shows you a large kitchen renovation will cost $48-59k
  • It will return an increase in home value of $42k based on our assessment of how in demand renovated kitchens are in the Mount Washington neighborhood
  • That means at the high end of the cost range you’ll recoup all but $17k of the cost
  • If you’re planning to live in this home for another 5 years, you can think about that cost on an annual basis of a $3.4k investment in enjoying your space more

If you’re considering adding space, you can also consider how much it would cost you to buy more space versus building it using our Buy vs Build index.

Once you have your starting numbers in mind, then it’s time to dive into the planning process. Use our flowchart above to determine which team of professionals is right for you. If you live in Southern California, we can help you source and hire your professionals and guide you through this whole process.

Otherwise, you’ll want to:

  1. Check your zoning — Each city has different rules on what you’re allowed to build and where. Before moving forward with your project, you’ll want to start with this info. Realm’s $19 zoning report will provide you with all this info.
  2. Start envisioning your space — define what elements of the project are must haves, what you’re still on the fence about and list out your open questions. This will prepare you for a discussion with your designer or if you’re DIYing to start sketching out the plans yourself.
  3. Bring your vision to life — You will work with your selected design professional — either a design-build contractor, architect or draftsman — to translate your vision into a set of plans. If you’re using an interior designer, they may also be involved in this stage to ensure the plans fit with the aesthetic you are going for.

    At this stage, your design professional will often pull together a design to help you visualize the space. This is a precursor to the official plans which will be completed in the next step. Here’s an example of a home addition design we recently helped a customer with in San Diego:

  1. Finalize your plans — At this stage, you’ll detail out the specifications and official plans for your project. There are two types of plans you will need, depending on the project. These plans ensure that your plan is structurally sound and able to be built:

    Architectural plans: Required for all construction projects to translate what you want into a plan for the contractor to build. These include a cover sheet, site plan, floor plans, elevations and mechanical, electrical and plumbing plans.

    Structural plans: Required for making changes to your doors and windows, chimney renovations, home extensions, installing solar panels, taking out or modifying an inside wall. These include foundation plans, framing plans, structural calculations stamped by a professional engineer.

    These two sets of plans are the blueprint the contractor will use to execute the construction project. Here’s an example of what official plans (also known as specs) look like from a recent backyard home project we worked on with a customer in LA:
  1. Submit your permits —  Permit requirements for each specific project vary from city to city. Your design professional will submit your plans to the city to be approved and your contractor will pull the permit before kicking off construction.

To summarize, let’s take a look how each of option for your team would work throughout the stages of planning:

Check back soon for the next installment in Home Projects 101: A how-to guide for people who are unsure about projects and start building your free property plan

Part 1: Who you’ll need to work with to get your construction project done

  • Before the project
  • During the project
  • Ongoing repairs & maintenance

Part 2: How to prepare to source & select a home professional

  • General contractor
  • Architect
  • Lender

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Published by Realm

Get more out of your biggest asset: your home. Realm shows you what your home could be worth & how to access more of its potential value.

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