- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Lillian Mason wasn’t ready for another move. Her two boys liked the neighborhood schools and she felt settled in the close-knit Bethesda community of Alta Vista Gardens. “We didn’t want to leave the neighborhood but we needed

more space,” Mrs. Mason says.

The family’s three-bedroom brick rambler, dating to the 1940s, lacked modern amenities and the floor plan was awkward, with one bedroom located off a dining room.

Ultimately, the Masons hired an architect to design a two-story addition that included a master bedroom suite on the second floor and a family room on the first floor.

“I didn’t want a massive reconfiguration of the house but I wanted it to have curb appeal and blend in,” Mrs. Mason says.

The Masons are typical of remodelers who are driving the industry to new heights, topping $163 billion nationwide last year. Homes are getting makeovers ranging from family room additions to master bedroom suite projects.

Will you need an architect or can a residential designer draft plans for a contractor? How will the addition blend in with other homes on the street? What is a design-build company?

“Most people aren’t aware of what they need. This is how an architect can help to suggest how it fits into the scheme of the house,” says Gopal Ahluwalia, vice president of research for the National Association of Home Builders. “If you’re doing a $100,000 renovation, $5,000 [for the architect] is fairly reasonable.”

Homeowners should start by making a wish list detailing what they want out of the renovation. Typically, renovations involve adding a family room or a master suite combination, common requests in a market filled with housing communities dating to the 1940s and 1950s.

“Older-home floor plans don’t really reflect the way we live today,” says Jeffrey Rubin, the Bethesda architect who worked on the Masons’ home. “[Clients] want new and larger kitchens and more informal living rooms and eating areas. Upstairs, they want a master bedroom. It’s [reworking] the whole house interior.”

Homeowners unsure of what they want can start by looking through home improvement magazines and Web sites. Many architects and designers recommend homeowners walk through area neighborhoods to find additions or renovations that match their ideas.

Neighbors are often the best source of information when it comes to finding an architect or designer to work with on a project. Check at construction or remodeling sites or check with the municipal building inspector’s office.

Professional organizations, such as the American Institute of Architects and the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, also can provide listings of area chapters, linking homeowners with remodeling and design companies.

Finding the right company and designer depends on the size of the project and your budget. Homeowners who plan to dramatically change the “footprint” of a house, involving knocking down exterior walls and adding a significant addition, should hire an experienced designer or architect, the experts suggest.

Once the scope of the project has been determined, it’s time to draft a realistic budget. Many homeowners are often shocked at the cost of adding on to an existing house. Typically, renovation costs are almost double the cost of new construction — about $200 a square foot, compared to $80 to $100 a square foot for new construction, according to area designers.

“Be clear about your objectives and what you’re willing to spend,” says Mike Weiss, national chairman of the remodeler’s council for the NAHB. A realistic budget should include at least 3 percent set aside for design work, a typical fee charged by designers to start the process.

Architects, who hold more advanced degrees than designers, work under a different fee structure. Some architects charge for an interview or on-site visit to the home. Others may bill by the hour or as a percentage of the entire project. Architects usually charge between 5 percent to 15 percent of the cost of a project, depending on the project’s size.

Design-build companies work in the same way, but the design fees are typically rolled into the overall project costs. That helps keep design costs down and ensures they keep clients throughout the renovation process, says Joseph Hines, a residential designer for Richard Lawrence Associates, a design-build company in Rockville.

Mr. Hines says he typically starts a project with an interview and on-site visit, then collects a retainer fee before drawing up a preliminary design.

“I just like clients to tell me what they want to do with the space,” he says. “Basically, I take someone’s ideas and I put them down on paper in a language that the guys that are swinging the hammers can understand.”

Once the architect or design company is on board, homeowners need to be thorough. Ask for and check references. Make sure you understand the process.

The AIA provides a list of 20 questions to pose to an architect that cover everything from supervising budgets to liability issues. Different companies work in different ways. You will want to know who will be supervising your renovation and ask to meet the person handling your project.

“Do your homework,” Mr. Weiss says. “A good question to ask someone who is referring somebody is how did they handle problems that came up and would you use them again? Be specific.”

Besides references, homeowners should ask to see finished projects. Established companies can provide photographs of other finished projects and can even arrange for potential clients to walk through finished homes in their neighborhood.

Mrs. Mason regularly fields calls from prospective clients for Mr. Rubin and has had several people walk through her home and ask questions.

“Now he’s doing some other homes on my street,” Mrs. Mason says. “I thoroughly enjoyed the process.”

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