How to Select an Architect for A Home Renovation

I’ll start this off by telling you the obvious: the oldest and best way to find anyone is word of mouth.

People love to talk about their experiences. They’ll let you know if they heart-eyes-love someone, or if they sued them for everything they’ve got. Unfortunately for us, we were the first people we knew that took on a project of this magnitude. Sure, we know people that had their basements finished, or their cabinets replaced, but we were staring down a 3 month renovation and required all kinds of permits and approvals both before we got started the renovation and along the way.

Sites like Home Advisor and Google reviews are your BEST FRIEND. I mean it. People tell it all from the safety of their internet connection.

I interviewed 2 architects and 3 contractors. My story, will sound similar to Goldilocks and the 3 Bears, no joke. One was too hot, one was too cold, and one was just right.

Where to Find an Architect:

I found two Architects on Home Advisor and one came by referral from a neighbor. I know I said referrals are the best, but you’ve also got to trust your gut and do your research. Did you know that someone can work in building design without being an architect? PRO TIP: Find someone with “AIA” after their name. AIA is the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and it’s the only professional organization for architects in the United States. Why am I telling you this? Because the guy that came by referral, was a building designer and not an architect. The cost of his plans was in the $900 range, a great architect will run you about $5,000. Architects are one of those things where you get exactly what you pay for.

You Get What You Pay For: Architects vs. Building Designers  

Our neighbors were kind enough to let us walk through their home and share some information on their renovation project. Literally the nicest people. They have the same exact layout as our home and we were interested in doing a reno similar to theirs. One thing that I absolutely was dead set on moving was the half bathroom. The whole point of our renovation was to create an open concept downstairs by relocating the laundry room, and opening up the kitchen to the family room. The issue with this (at least for me) is that the ½ bath was located opposite the laundry room. So with the laundry room gone, the ½ bath would open directly into the center of the new kitchen. This creates a pooping where you eat scenario and I’m not about that life. Here’s the proof: the building designer told our neighbors that the bathroom was located under a load bearing wall, and was integral to the roofline. Ultimately, they would not be able to relocate the bathroom. BOO. While I was interviewing the architects, I mentioned what the building designer said. The first question he asked me was “who told you that?” followed by “is this guy an AIA member?” Awesome. You get what you pay for. Long story short, the building designer was in the first round of elimination and our ½ bathroom was in fact relocated during the reno.

Choosing Between the two AIAs:

Both AIAs seemed super knowledgeable and had good online reviews. The reason I went with the architect I chose was because he understood my vision. He was VERY responsive and his contract made the most sense. It’s crucial to review every line in the contract before you sign. Don’t just look at the price tag. You have to know what you’re getting for your money.

The first architect offered us his services with a small retainer and basically the rest was al-la-cart. If we needed plans for permits, -additional cost. If we had a change to the plan/layout, regardless of why (the township disapproved, or the contractor said there was an issue), -additional cost. All to be billed at an hourly rate. During our meeting, it kind of felt like he was pushing his ideas on me, and not really working with me. Remember you’re the boss. It’s your home and your money.

The second architect offered the whole package and came with 3 revisions included in his price. He worked with me on design, he understood my vision for the space and was wholly responsible for the wet bar in the dining room (which ended up being our coffee bar). I never would have thought of that on my own. He did his homework and got a sense of what I wanted, he knew our dogs are important to us and thought about how to include them in his design. There was talk about a doggie spa in the mudroom, but we opted to nix that considering the dollar signs were racking up quickly. This guy was the architect for us!

Here are some of the questions we asked during the interviews:

  • How many projects have you designed for that are similar to ours?
  • Have you ever redesigned a Toll Brother’s house? (Toll Brothers was the builder in our neighborhood in the 80’s. Ask about the builder of your home. If they have experience with similar houses, they might be able to give you good insights into how things are structured behind the walls.)
  • How involved are you during the renovation process after the plans are drawn?
  • If the contractor comes back to us during the renovation and says there’s an issue, are you willing to amend the plans? What will that cost?
  • Is what I’m describing feasible for my budget?

Here are the fun questions:

  • If this were your home, how would you lay out the space?
  • What’s the coolest design you’ve seen in a home renovation?
  • What would you do differently from what I described for our home?

Once you’ve selected your architect, you’ll need to find a contractor.

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