What to expect from a home remodeler's proposal

Hi all, this might be a bit long so skip if you don't have a few minutes but I can't believe we're the first to encounter this:
We're gearing up for a major interior remodel, our first in our first home. We have a one story, quasi-ranch where we're joining an accessory apartment back into the main part. In summary this will mean removing a bearing wall that separates the two parts (to be replaced with a beam and posts of as yet undetermined design), removal of one and maybe both kitchens (if only one, the other will be remodelled), changing/removing some of the windows and exterior doors. All work will be inside the envelope (except, of course the openings).
We've met twice over the past two weeks with a remodeler who's won some local design awards for his kitchen/bath work and we mutually feel we've got a good relationship. We were clear up front that we hadn't finalized our overall design and he seemed interested in lending his experience to fine-tune what we were shooting for. This was great because we'd seen his portfolio and his awards are documented on the web (an independent professional organization) so we figure he must have his pick of jobs and ours looked interesting to him. Of course we'd check his references but overall our guts tell us he's a good man.
Today he called with his price and it came to almost twice what we had stated we were willing to spend. Not a big problem because we'd also been clear up front that we didn't know if what we wanted was within our budget. He emailed me a simple text document listing what he felt his responsibilities would be (which also contained some inaccuracies in what we'd discussed) but he had stated verbally that while there may be deviations from the details the price wouldn't change radically. He also added that he'd put some time into the design work so far and would like some assurance ($$$) that he'd not be wasting his time if he was to work with us further on the design. I can't argue with this. There's more refinement to be done to the design but we're pretty close to a final plan and I don't want to string him along.
I'm starting to think we're asking too much of him leading up to a proposal, or that we should have had a clearer idea of what we wanted before we brought him into this and maybe had a 'Plan B' to fall back on. But we had no idea if what we wanted was doable within our budget. And now that we see what he's asking, there doesn't appear to be much room for us to scale back our plans to try to keep him on board and us within our budget.
(I should add at this point that I have four years of architectural schooling altho I dropped out when a more lucrative, and equally loved, professional opportunity came along. I also have several years experience in constructon and know when to Keep My Big Nose Out of the Job and let the work continue. My wife is a Finance person by profession and has no experience with this kind of thing and thinks we can negotiate the price down by reworking the design (I gently disagree). Our prospective remodeler is aware of this and remains interested.)
So, to summarize our situation: we've come up with a plan, he's returned with a quote and a very crude list which has some inaccuracies. I'm thinking we need to cool our jets, finalize our design on our own and just hand him (or whoever we decide on) a drawing (which I can do) and an itemized list and hope for the best.
Where does one go for planning out a project like this? I'd thought a remodeler (or maybe an architect?) would also act as a design consultant but that appears to be asking too much for a porject of this scale. I could do the design but I don't know what the 'latest and greatest' design ideas are, save for what's in the magazines, on the TV and in books. We want to sell this place in four years and need it to be marketable; this is as much an investment as a quality of life endeavor. If we find we can't afford his rates, I want to know what expectations are reasonable going in when we talk to other pros.
If you've gotten this far, bless you (looking for work?). We've got the finances, ideas and desire but are looking for professional help (HAH!) in putting it together.
Any suggestions accepted.
Chuck
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You must have loads of money. I have a suggestion for you. Why do you want to waste all that money on a stupid house that you can already live in. There are people starving all over America, and you could use that money to feed them. Simply send all this money to president Bush and tell him that you want to feed starving people with it. He will distribute it for you and people will eat.
I'm serious, tell that idiot to shove his proposal up his ass and use your money to help people rather than being greedy and wrecking a good house for nothing but personal vanity. Nobody will ever see all this work in your house anyhow, because no one will want to visit you with your greedy attitude.
Think about this..... Lets see if you are man enough to help others in need !!!!

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snipped-for-privacy@help-the-poor.com
Another stupid, rude, insulting post by troll Stormin Mormin
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Friend's who've done similar, yellow pages, trade shows, local suppliers, etc. Find an architecht if that's what you want, find a designer, whatever. Get your plan and have it bid by at least three contractors.

Then stop right now. Unless you're correcting defects in the property, such as adding a third bedroom to your two bedroom house in a neighborhood where every other house is three bedroom, you won't get your investment back.

Then start asking this question of your friends and neighbors, not a bazillion strangers on the internet who have no idea where you live and can't give you any recommendations. Get out the phonebook, look for architects, designers and the like and start calling.
Jeff
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It sounds as though you are off to a good start. You have already found one contractor that you are willing to work with and vice-versa.
As I tell everyone, the more planning that YOU put into the job will give you more power to make informed decisions.
Draw some sketches and/or plans on your own. Determine exactly what you really want as far as design, layout, and materials. Determine what would be nice to have if you had the money for. Determine what you might want to add later after you've finished paying for the initial project. Put together a list of specifications for materials such as brand of windows, type of heating/air conditioning system, lighting, flooring, etc.. Don't overlook small details like choice of faucets, electrical receptacles, location of cable TV jack, telephone jacks, network connections, paint, etc. Keep in mind that not all materials are the same. There are different grades for everything. The building codes only specify minimum standards, not maximum. It is up to you to decide if you want better quality materials.
Find a an architect to draw your plans. Make sure that you get plans drawn for electrical, plumbing, heating/air conditioning in addition to the structural and foundation drawings. Also have a set of specifications made (You can do this) for each trade that tells the contractor exactly what materials you want used such as Decora style electrical receptacles and switches instead of the standard face type. It would be better if you include manufacturers part numbers.
Once all of these plans are drawn, go to a copy place (Not all of them can do this) and have full size photo copies made of all of the drawings and specifications. Photo copies are much cheaper than the architects plans.
Next solicit bids from at least 3 contractors, by giving them each a COMPLETE set of photo copied drawings and specifications. That way each contractor will be bidding on the same type of work and materials. If you don't specify, then the contractor will determine his own specifications which may have higher or lower standards than your own. In that case you have no idea if you are getting a good deal or not because you cannot compare apples to apples.
If the bids come back too high, start to look at ways to save some here and there. Perhaps you could do some work yourself such as insulating and painting. You could also act as your own general contractor and solicit bids from each trade. You could hire a project manager to run it for you and promise him a bonus if the job comes in under budget, but within specifications. You could also cut some things out for now that can be added later. For instance, if you wanted recessed lighting every where, but it adds a significant cost to your electrical price. You could have the electrician install the switches and some wiring to feed the lights, but have the recessed cans installed next year.
Good planning is the key. It should take you more time to plan than it does for the actual construction.
As far as choosing a design I suggest that you take a look at your neighborhood. What have the neighbors done? Will your idea for a design be consistent with the original architecture of the house? When it is finished will it look like an addition from the outside or will it look like it was an original part of the house? There are many books and magazines with pictures of homes in them. Browse through them for ideas. Avoid unproven materials and manufacturers with small track records.
One thing about hiring a well publicized award winning contractor. He may be charging a premium for his status as well as his quality, but I do believe that you get what you pay for.
I assume that you will be submitting your plans to your town for approval and will be applying for permits and will have all work inspected.
I hope that this helps.
John Grabowski http://www.mrelectrician.tv

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Excellent advice.

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Sounds like it is time to have a good heart to heart talk to the guy and explain your position and budget limitations. Be positive in that you like his design so far, etc, but you just cannot afford what he is proposing.
As for the differences between the verbal and written proposal, it could be he was talking "off the cuff" and later realized what it should be. If you do go with him, get it resolved and remember that the written note will carry more weight than a verbal statement. Ed
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You have two choices: - reduce the amount of remodeling by half - increase your budget
The rest of your post is just pussyfooting.

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snip
Everything, every point in writing. absolutely no verbal agreements. Your wife works in finance have her follow their rules.
Moving structural walls. I fail to understand how your going to do this with out a permit. Which begs to ask where are the engineered plans. Which asks who is the structural engineer.
Kitchens are not that big of a deal I hired a maroon that came in 1k less than my midpoint budget. I checked him out and he seemed good enough for my small challenge. He bailed on the job 1/2 way through, saving grace was I had refused to pay him more than 4k. I finished the job out for less than 2k. You should be able to go to a home center and figure the cost of the kitchen materials and appliances pretty close.
I would suggest that you start over with an Architect, and get the plans finalized. Then get a wave from the building inspection department. Then and only then get a contractor. Unless you have more money and patience than god, then continue the way you are.
Not intending to be harsh, I have done construction for more than 30 years. I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. Believe me ugly is really bad. Your project sounds a lot like the This Old House in Phoenix. It only ran o ver budget, some $300k. The owners kept the home 1 year after completion then sold it. He is still working 2 jobs to get out of debt. They did not have a plan before they started. I had an electrical contracting company at the time. I refused the job because I could not stomach the screwing they were getting.
I wish you well with your project.
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A few comments:
The contractor didn't ask for any pay for his design work, so he is not entitled to any; however he will likely tell you drop dead if you come back with a request for something entirely different.
I had an architech prepare detailed plans. My contractor considered them general guidelines and did what he wanted, even though the contract specified following the plans. The Judge agreed with the contractor?!?! Unless you are having the contractor design it, make doubly damn sure the plans are understood to be binding.
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It seems to me that you've selected someone who specializes in DESIGN to come do the grunt-work in hopes you can tap his/her design expertise for free in the process.. And discovered both that (A) what you actually want to do is more expensive than you'd hoped, and possibly (B) an award-winning designer/remodeller isn't perhaps the most cost-effective general contracter in the world.
Since you bumped into a conflict between your wallet and your ambition, you now have to make up your mind: Do you or do you not want/need the help of this design speciallist to help arrive at a compromise/resolution of this conflict. If you DO want his help, expect to pay for it. If you don't, you've probably hired the wrong guy.
--Goedjn
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On Fri, 23 Jan 2004 14:14:24 -0500, " snipped-for-privacy@uri.edu"

(Replying to this and to all the other responses as well) I'm not sure I got ALL the info I was looking for (what does a proper bid/proposal look like?), but:
I suppose for some this isn't such a big deal, but it's our first time and for us it's a Real Big Deal. This reply, SQLit's and John G.'s hit home the most and about sums up the conclusion I've come to. When you're planning a remodel that exceeds a one-room upgrade, affecting multiple spaces/systems within your house, it's probably best to consult an architect or plan on drawing/documenting the whole project yourself packaging it and putting it out there as is. This is what we were asking a professional remodeler to do and, no slight to his other abilities, he's not equipped to properly perform that function.
It seems like an easy conclusion to come to but when you're facing all the different choices in accessories, materials, etc. especially in the context of an investment (which many are), the task becomes daunting. Believe me, if this were the house I was planning on retiring to, it'd be far simpler.
A couple direct responses:
To jstp: You're absolutely right, my friend. Pussyfooting around is what I'd call it as well. Turned out to be productive pussyfooting, but pf'ing none-the-less. Thanks. ; )
To Jeff C.: Well, we don't have any friends around here who've done this kind of thing and I've been around the 'net enough to know what to expect for responses AND I'm old enough to recognize BS when I see it. I'll take that advice over cold calling any day. Your other points are well taken but location has nothing to do with this issue except to say that broken dreams due to corrupt contractors are a dime a dozen around here.
To the Anonymous Coward (at the risk of feeding a Troll): You don't know me, bro, not a thing about me.
If anyone else has anything to add I'd love to hear it. Thanks all.
C.
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A proper bid would specify work to be done, materials to be used, cost of the work, timeframe of the work and a schedule of payments. It might be on fancy paper or the back of a napkin. It may or may not have a materials cost breakdown, locally you'd be unlikely to get one.

Apparently you know of nobody, but happen to know a bunch of stories about bad work.
You're not cold calling, doing your research. You're looking for a contractor/designer/architect. You don't know any and have no references for one, so you're going to have to start calling to find what you're looking for. Location has everything to do with that, unless you're willing to hire someone from outside your area to do the work. I'd be happy to recomend some wonderful designers, architects and contractors, but unless you're in my town it wouldn't help you.
At some point you need to do three things:
1) Define the scope of the work to be done. You need to get pretty specific in order to get a proper bid, and you may need to pay an architect to get you to this point. 2) Define the budget, and include 20% for cost overruns at a minimum. Your wife's in finance, so figure what you can spend or are willing to spend, and make your maximum 80% of that. 3) Find someone to do the design and construction. Maybe the same person, maybe not. Part of this process is getting the bids and comparing them, so you need to have at least three and preferably more bid the work.
You still said you wanted to sell in four years and that this is partly an investment. In four years, you will not recoup the cost of remodeling in any location, unless you're correcting defects that would lower the value of the property. Understand that from the outset so you don't feel as bad when you get around to selling.
Jeff
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