Do you hire a pro for your kitchen remodel or DIY?
A typical kitchen project requires everything from demolition to drywall to electrical to plumbing to flooring, finishes, and cabinet installation. Permits are needed for most projects, and somebody needs to be on site to meet with inspectors and coordinate and oversee all the trades contractors who will be involved with your job. Even the handiest homeowners with a long track record of successful home-improvement projects often turn to the pros when handling a major kitchen remodel.
Who do you hire?
If you want your project to be completed in a timely manner, it’s best to bring in professionals. But who do you hire?
Architect + contractor
Some homeowners considering a redesign of their kitchen start by hiring an architect. Under this scenario, you would work with the architect to come up with a plan set, which you could then shop around to building contractors. In some cases, your architect may be able to provide very rough building cost estimates during the design phase, but it’s not until you get bids from contractors that you will find out what the actual cost to build your design will be. In many cases, your architect will continue to work for you throughout the construction phase. Traditionally, the architect keeps tabs on the contractor to ensure that the project is built to the specifications and that corners are not cut.
A different approach, called design build, has been gaining momentum in recent years. Choosing design build for a home remodel means hiring a single company to design and complete the construction of your project rather than signing multiple contracts with an architect and a general contractor. By its nature, the design-build approach is more collaborative. You trade the potentially adversarial relationship of an architect checking the work of the contractor for one in which the designers and builders on your team work together from the start. People choose to hire a design-build firm for many reasons, including efficiency, convenience, speed, and accountability.
Choosing between the two models
Deciding between the design-build and architect + contractor models represents a major fork in the road of your remodeling planning. For this reason, you should take the time to research the two options and weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each.
Where high design is paramount, hiring an architect to check the work of the contractor can be effective
If working with a renowned architect is a top priority and if construction budget is a secondary consideration, then taking the traditional architect + contractor approach might be the better fit. This adversarial relationship between the architect and contractor can provide some checks and balances so that your project is built to the specifications, but it often requires the homeowner to step in and mediate between the two parties when disputes arise. If, on the other hand, project cost and convenience are paramount, design build might be a better choice.
One of the main benefits of hiring an experienced design-build firm is transparency in pricing
An architect often designs to an ideal vision, and the homeowner doesn’t find out what it will cost to build until the design is complete. Often, building costs come as a shock, and the homeowner can find that the building plans he or she paid for and pored over are a design that is too expensive to build. Experienced design build firms provide construction cost estimates throughout the design process, which leads to a design that is within budget. In short, a main benefit of the design-build process is to help minimize surprises and keep projects on a tight schedule and on budget.
Are the designers on staff?
If you decide to pursue the design-build approach, one question you can ask is whether the designer who would be assigned to your project works in house or is a subcontractor. Some design-build firms have their own designers on staff, while others hire designers on contract when they need them. Both approaches can work well, but designers who are on staff will be more integrated into the design-build team, which can often lead to greater collaboration during construction.
Avoid the unlicensed contractor trap
Because the cost of remodeling can be high, you might be tempted to hire a handyman or unlicensed contractor. Hiring a handyman may carry some risks. If you’re just doing a little cosmetic face lift, a handyman might be a fine choice, although the work might look like it was done by a handyman rather than a professional carpenter and qualified subcontractors. The real risk is when a handyman acts as a general contractor but offers to save you money by doing the work on the sly, without permits. It’s very unlikely (and certainly not desirable) that you could remodel without upgrading at least some of the wiring in your home, for instance. And if a handyman offers to put in new outlets or open up the walls without the proper permits, it’s illegal and potentially dangerous. If you proceed with un-permitted work, you will be opening yourself up to risks.
Fixed bid versus time and materials
As a homeowner wishing to remodel your kitchen, you’ll be presented with two main types of contracts to choose from: fixed bid and time-and-materials (sometimes called a cost-plus contract). A fixed bid is (or should be) exactly as it sounds, a guaranteed all-in price for the complete project. Under a time-and-materials contract, on the other hand, the contractor will usually provide an estimate, but there is no guarantee the final bill will come out to that amount. The contractor will simply bill you for all the materials that go into your job, plus an hourly rate for the labor, and the contractor’s markup.
Each type of contract has its own unique advantages and disadvantages
A time-and-materials arrangement, for instance, shifts the risk of cost over-runs to the homeowner, so, in theory, the contractor could complete the job for less. Cost-plus contractors will point out that they would have to add a certain amount of contingency to their bid to cover potential unforeseen complications. This is true in theory, but the reality is that time-and-materials contracts tend to encourage less precise estimating. Calculating accurate estimates is time consuming and requires experience; there is little incentive for the cost-plus contractor to put in this extra effort. There is also no incentive for efficiency. To the contrary, if your project takes longer and costs more, the time-and-materials contractor will benefit.
It can be hard to find a contractor willing to give you a fixed bid
It can often be more difficult to find a contractor willing to give you a fixed bid. If you have your architect-designed building plans in hand, you can send them out to several general contractors and ask them to calculate a fixed bid to complete the work. In theory, you will receive well-organized bids back that you can compare apples-to-apples. In reality, many general contractors refuse to take part in a competitive bidding process, especially when demand is high. Properly checking prices on materials and getting bids from plumbers, electricians, and other busy subcontractors can take dozens of hours, and this is wasted time for the contractors who do not win the project.
The design-build approach lends itself well to fixed pricing
That is because the building team is involved right from the start of the process, providing accurate estimates, which in turn help guide the design to remain within the homeowners’ budget.
A word about allowances
There are very few truly bad contractors out there, but there quite a few who aren’t very good at estimating. Some contractors will say they are giving you a fixed bid, but then they will fill it with allowances for major line items, like plumbing and electrical work. If the work ends up costing more than the allowance, the homeowner is on the hook for the overrun. When examining a bid, it’s
okay to have allowances for small items, like light fixtures, but make sure that the price for all the labor is fixed.
Start your search
Once you have chosen between design build and the traditional architect + contractor approach, it’s time to begin your initial search for local companies. If you’re still on the fence between the two approaches, that’s okay. You can start noting names of architects and design-build firms.
Cast a wide net and start noting names of companies that catch your eye.
- Google is a great place to start.
- Houzz makes it easy to read reviews and check out the portfolios of local building and design professionals.
- Review websites like Angie’s List, Yelp, and other online review portals can be useful.
- Ask friends and family who have recently remodeled.
- Ask for recommendations from your network on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites.
- If you belong to any online bulletin boards through your work, neighborhood, or other social or community groups, consider posting a call for recommendations.
- Contact your local trade association for home builders, architects, or interior designers.
Review each contractor's website
Do the remodelers on your list have an established online presence? Is the company’s website up to date? Is their company profile completed on Houzz, Google, and on online review sites? Well-established companies will have complete listings and plenty of reviews.
Pay special attention to the portfolio of work
While style is often influenced by each client’s tastes, you can start to get a feel for a designer’s style and level of finish. Look for projects in each remodeler’s portfolio that share some elements with the project you have in mind. If you live in a historic home, has the remodeler done work on similar homes?
Check online reviews
- A few places you can look are on the remodeler’s website, on Houzz, and, to a lesser extent, on Facebook and other social media.
- Check with your local Better Business Bureau and consumer protection agency.
Reach out to your shortlist of remodelers
Once you have narrowed down your list, you’re ready to start contacting remodeling professionals via phone or online.
- Ask friends and family who have recently remodeled.
- Start by contacting at least three companies from your shortlist.
- Pay close attention to how long it takes for each remodeler to get back to you.
- Do they have the staff to respond quickly to inquiries?
- If any of the remodelers you reach out to don’t get back to you promptly, consider going down your list and contacting others.
- Most remodelers will schedule an initial appointment with you, either a phone or in-person meeting. They will likely want to learn about you and your project, including the scope of your project, your schedule, and your budget.
It's time to get organized
- At this point, create a document on your computer or a section in a notebook to keep notes on each
remodeler you talk to. If you speak with more than two or three, it will become difficult to remember who said and did what, and good notes will help you tremendously as you make your final choice.
- After your initial rounds of meetings, you will start to get a sense of your comfort level with each company. Make notes about how well the professionals you speak with communicate, if you have a good rapport, and what your level of confidence is in their technical expertise.
- If you start with a phone conversation and have a positive experience, be sure to schedule an in-person meeting. Face-to-face conversations can tell you a lot.
- Be sure to download our Guide to Hiring a Remodeler, which includes helpful worksheets with questions to ask and a remodeler scorecard.
What to ask
In most cases, remodelers and architects you meet with will be able to tell you about their
approach and guide you through the questions that will help them understand your project. However, these meetings are also your chance to learn about the companies you are interviewing. Don’t hesitate to ask pointed questions, and try your best to ask the same questions of all the professionals you speak with.
After meeting with a few remodeling professionals, taking careful notes, and checking reviews, you are almost ready to decide. By this stage, you should have a good sense of the strengths and weaknesses of each remodeler on your shortlist. If you are lucky, a clear winner will have emerged. Before you jump in and sign a contract, it’s a good idea to make sure you have verified a few things.
Is the company licensed, bonded, and insured?
Check with your local licensing authority. In Washington State, the Department of Labor & Industries has a free “Verify a Contractor” tool. You will be able to search by company name or license number.
Verify an architect’s license by checking your local licensing department
For non-architect designers, licensing requirements vary by region, but in most cases they will not need a license.
Washington State Department of Licensing
Ask to see a contractor’s insurance certificate
You can call the insurance provider to make sure it is still active. Make sure it covers the type of work you are hiring the contractor to perform. In rare cases, you may want to ask to be named as an insured on the contractor’s policy.
Ask for references
Contact these past clients to find out what their experience was with the remodeler. Ask how the remodeler handled problems that arose, how courteous the team was, and how accurate the remodeler’s estimates were. Ask if the past client refers others to the remodeler.
Request a tour
Ask to tour a project similar to yours that is under construction.
You’ve taken the time to do your due diligence, and you’ve chosen the right team to
complete your remodel.
It's time to sign
You’ve asked lots of questions, checked references, and kept your information organized. You can be confident in your choice and schedule a meeting to sign a contract and begin the process of working with your architect or design-build firm to create your dream kitchen.
If you have chosen an architect
You will likely first sign a letter of engagement to get started and then a more comprehensive owner-architect contract later.
If you choose a design-build firm
You will likely start by signing a design agreement, followed by a construction agreement when you approve the design.
Write a retainer check
In both cases, you will likely be asked to put down a small retainer or deposit before work begins, and then you will make regular payments when certain milestones are reached, according to the terms of your contract.
You may need to sign a second contract
If you go the architect + contractor route, you will need to sign a separate contract with the general contractor you choose, and this will have its own terms and payment schedule. Make sure you read these contracts over carefully and ask questions about any sections that are not clear.