The first step to remodeling

by Rik Goodell:

Before calling contractors for a remodel project or an addition, do your homework so you’re ready when they get there. Talk it over with your partner (husband, wife, lover, live-in, significant other…these things were easier to write when I still thought “PC” meant personal computer). Make a list of what each of you wants the outcome of the project to be and look like (“look-like” is important!). Make a list of the “must haves” and another of the “would_be_nice_if_we_can_afford_it” items. Make copies of these lists so you can give them to the various contractors when they arrive to discuss your project (Yes, you will be calling several contractors). The better you do your job of documenting your wants and your vision, the better the contractor will be able to understand your dream. Also, with this list, all bidding contractors will be working off the same set of ideas so, when you get their proposals back, you will be getting bids on apples, instead of apples, oranges and eggplant.

For projects exceeding a thousand dollars, get at least three bids. I know it’s a lot of work, but it is not nearly as much trouble as the potential problems you can avoid by doing so. This will ensure you can see that at least two of the bids fall within a close price range. Be very wary of a bid that is significantly less than the other two (more than 20%).

Lastly, get everything in writing. This means written detailed plans, specifications, start date, completion date, cost, change order rules, who will haul away debris, who will clean up the site, who is paying for what, what is included, how are payments to be made and when, who is the insurance carrier for the contractor??!! Get it all in writing. Discuss, depending on the size of the project, how often the two of you should meet to talk about progress and workmanship. It will protect the both of you and help you to remain friends… and help you get the desired outcome.

Next: How to select the right contractor.

7 thoughts on “The first step to remodeling

  1. Just out of curiousity … if you are planning an edition, do you need an architect to draft the plans or can the contract do that for you? I have a fairly detailed design of what I’d like (including 3D mockups), but am unsure who to call next for help!


  2. It depends on the scope of the project. Larger projects, certainly anything including structural modifications, will require an architect and probably an engineer. Simpler tasks, like window upgrades, will not require any architectural plans at all — though you may wish to have the sizes of some windows changed and, if framing modifications result, plans could be required.

    So, in your case (planning an addition) an architect will probably be required for the plans. I haven’t done this for some time (you know how we consultants get paid to talk and not to DO anymore) so I’m unsure. It used to be that anyone could draw the plans for single family home construction, and this is still the case in more rural or some suburban areas, but hearsay is that this is no longer allowed in SF. If your plans are as complete as you describe, I’d call some contractors to get bids and see what they say about needing an architect. Remember, engineers are always required if structural modifications deviate from conventional construction practices or exceed span charts.

  3. As a licensed architect in San Francisco, I have to say that Rik’s comments were a good start to the process. However!

    Why would you call a contractor first off? First thing you should do is think of hiring an architect. Interview at least 3 qualified architects who have a track record of residential design in SF. ( like I do).

    The architect becomes the “team leader” to handle the entire project; from the initial program, to project budgeting, to conceptual design, to zoning and building code issues, to contract documents and specifications, to permit submittals, to assist the client in selecting 3 qualified contractors for bidding.

    The architect should also be experienced in Construction Observation, where he or she meets at the job site on a regular basis to observe that the construction is in accordance with the plans and specs.

    Remodeling a house, or building a new one in San Francisco is not simple, nor quick, nor inexpensive.

    Hire an architect first, and you have just made the first right decision.

  4. Duggo

    I appreciate your perspective – we all have them and ain’t it great to have this blog as a venue to put ours out there. But how about giving us a source of finding competent architects in SF? Sadly, my underwhelming experience is that the majority (with a few delightful exceptions) of architects I have encountered during my decades in the construction field, at the residential construction level, are great at concept and cutting edge aesthetics but lack the connection to real-world experience in terms of execution and the impact of their design on the myriad of related systems and the durability of the result. You know it’s true for all professions: Some often taint all. In other words, buyers and sellers in San Francisco have the American Society of Home Inspectors ( as a source to separate the moonlighting contractor from the certified and experienced Home Inspectors. I know you are salivating right now and saying, “I’m so glad you asked”. But when I go to and type in 94123, I get over 500 architects! Okay, it narrows to 114 if I specify “residential” but (and call me pea-brained if you want) that doesn’t strike me as a very exclusive, rising-cream club. I know there are excellent architects out there but I want one who has been in the trenches and really groks that placing such and such a member in ‘this’ way will conflict with the main waste stack or will prevent the proper fitment of the intended siding or whatever. So tell us, what is the best source of architects here in our great city who have a tangible grasp of reality and what confidently distinguishes these architects from the rest of the apples in the barrel?

  5. Rik:

    Those are excellent points you make. and yes! isn’t this a great blog to talk about this stuff?

    I think, in almost any professional relationship, the best contacts come from word of mouth, and reputation. Most of my new work comes from great past clients who tell others about the success of their project.

    And, yes, even with architects,(god forbid) there are bad apples. I like to think I’m a good apple. I love a good macintosh… the apple, not the pc.. well, you know what I mean.

    I’m one of those architects who doesn’t wear a suit and tie. Jeans and a cool shirt for me work just fine. I am heavily involved in every project during the construction phase. Not to be there to “control” the contractor, but in fact, to help him solve on site problems that are always part of construction. My detailed (autocad) construction documents and specs can never cover every beam to column adjustment, or mechanical connection, or sill to deck detail…etc.

    I like getting dirt on my hands. I grew up in the Midwest on a farm. that’s where I started, as a young boy of 8, to create fantasy houses and forts in the back 40. I knew then that I wanted to be an architect.

    During college, I worked every summer for local contractors, or the lumber yard.. and had so much fun, and learned so much. That early experience in actual building is tightly connected today to my skills as an architect.

    My projects, mostly here in SF get built, are safe, don’t leak, and can, forever enhance or change the lives of that family who is my client.

    Collaboration between the architect, client, and contractor is my mantra for success.

    It makes for a great apple pie!

  6. I have a brother who is a mechanical engineer for PG&E. Before he went to Chico State and got his PE, he worked for several years, post high school, in machine shops and sheet metal shops. Then he went to school to learn how to design the stuff he was making off of someone else’s plans. Forts in the back forty? Lumber yard and contractor’s grunt on summer breaks? I like the fantasy of a corn-cob house versus an ivory tower. You are my kind of architect. But, surely you will admit, the weakness in the practice of the majority of the architects and engineers out there is their conspicuous abundance of theoretical knowledge — applied with exuberance even! — paired with their equally distinct limitations in practical-application and experience. I prefer your balance. I’ll have mine à la mode!

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