How to Choose a Remodeler

Deciding it's time to remodel is easy. Picking a professional to handle the task is more complicated.

Maybe you already have a vision for the space you've chosen for re-modeling, and you want to work with someone who can make that a reality. Or you might only know that you want something different, and you need a person who can craft a great plan for you.

How do you find that one professional who can make it happen? How can you be sure the job will be done properly, on time and within your specified budget? And what should you expect once work has begun?

Who you gonna call?

The first question is: How big of a remodeling project will this be? Your answer will determine the type of professional you'll need.

On its Web site (, the National Association of the Remodeling Industry offers a downloadable guide for selecting a remodeling expert.

• A general contractor can handle home-improvement jobs that don't re-quire professional design services.

• A design/build contractor can both devise a plan and make it happen.

• Finally, an architect, who is trained to understand elevations and other specifications necessary for permits, creates a plan for the design and then recommends a contractor for the construction phase.

Some builders and remodelers specialize in certain areas of the house, such as kitchens and baths. Others may narrow it down further and work solely with kitchen and bath cabinetry, for instance. Architects can design in a range of styles, although some prefer to work with traditional or historic properties. Understanding the scope of your project and the capabilities and limitations of the companies you contact will help you match your needs to a professional's expertise.

The search begins

Many remodeling professionals say they get the majority of their business from referrals. A satisfied client tells a friend, who then contacts the professional about his or her own upcoming project.

Professional organizations are another great source for names. Professional Remodelers of Ohio, formerly Greater Cleveland NARI, has a list on its Web site ( that contains every company belonging to the organization, along with its field of expertise, contact information and links to a Web site if the company has one.

Your search for a remodeler can also begin as simply as opening the Yellow Pages or looking at ads in local publications.

How do you know if the companies you contact are reliable and capable? "We recommend you ask for references," says Joe Tripi Jr., director of legislative and community affairs for PRO.

A professional should be willing to give you the names and phone numbers of two or three past customers. "I feel better when they ask for references, because I know they're probably going to be calling me back," says Frank Makoski of Makoski Construction and Remodeling in Chesterland.

Also, the remodeler should belong to one or more professional organizations. These include PRO, the National Association of Home Builders, the National Kitchen and Bath Association and, for architects, the American Institute of Architects. Such organizations require professionals to meet certain eligibility requirements. "I try to belong to as many associations as possible," says Makoski, who is vice chairman of NAHB's Remodelers' Council. "I've got to answer to these associations in my work."

Tripi recommends contacting the Better Business Bureau or the state attorney general's office to make sure there are no serious complaints or legal actions against a remodeler. "Take into consideration how old and how big the company is," he advises. "Seven complaints in 55 years is pretty good." Seven complaints against a company that has only been in business for three or four years, however, would be cause for concern.

Questions, questions

Once you have the names of two or three candidates for the job and you've armed yourself with a list of their credentials, it's time to meet them in person, usually at your home. While this will probably be a friendly get-together, you should be ready to interview each candidate extensively.

Can the person or firm get a feel for the overall scope and style of the project? Will the company provide CAD drawings of the project or perhaps mockups so you can clearly understand the placement of walls, cabinets, appliances and furniture? What would be the general timeframe from design phase to completion?

Be certain that the professional is sensitive to your budget, and don't be afraid to use a calculator. If you're working with an architect, what is his or her hourly rate for services? For any professional company, find out what's included in the package. Are drawings and mockups extra, for example? What is the estimated cost for materials and labor? Always get a written estimate. If changes are suggested once the project has begun, find out exactly how much they will cost before the work is started.

You should also have a sense that your need for comfort will be respected during the construction phase. "I ask the customer, •Do you want us starting at 7:30 in the morning? What time do you want us out?' " says Makoski. "We put up plastic barriers around the area while we're working and we take them down at the end of the day so the customer can walk through the house."

Getting the right answers to your questions is important. But you should also feel comfortable sharing your ideas with a remodeling professional. "You're going to kind of be living with these people for the next two or three months, so personality has a lot to do with it," notes Makoski.

A winning relationship

Suzanne and Chris Smythe of Shaker Heights interviewed two architects to redo their kitchen and add a family room onto their Georgian-style home. "We knew we wanted to work with an architect who could blend the new areas with the old," says Suzanne. "We told both architects our thoughts for what we wanted and we told them what was important to us. We needed advice because we had never done this before."

The couple ultimately chose Bill Childs of William H. Childs Jr. & Associates, a Chagrin Falls firm specializing in traditional design and remodeling. "Our personalities clicked," says Suzanne. "The other architect [we interviewed] basically said, •Whatever you want is fine,' but Bill had lots of ideas."

The Smythes relied on Childs' guidance throughout the project. "I felt like he was always just a phone call away if I needed advice," Suzanne reports. "Bill came with me when I was buying cabinets. He made a couple of suggestions and let me choose. And I felt that if I hadn't agreed with him on some things, it would have been OK."

Moldings, columns and other architectural details in the remodeled kitchen and the added family room reflect Georgian style, while such features as an island and a bar area offer modern conveniences.

"Outside, we matched the dentils and the chimney [on the addition] with the existing structure," says Childs. "We sent the brick and mortar out to be analyzed so we could match it exactly. The look is timeless and seamless."

As with every project he designs, Childs asked the Smythes how they wanted the space to function. "We always talk about traffic patterns. We measure existing furniture and, if there's going to be new furniture, we create furniture pod settings," he explains. "We do a preliminary plan and we do a sketch with elevations. It's a very detailed process."

Childs' firm was recognized by the city of Shaker Heights for its thoughtful remodeling of the house. The Smythes love the new spaces and the way they blend harmoniously with the old ones. Equally important, says Suzanne, is the fact that they got what they wanted at the price they determined. "There was the potential to spend," she notes. "It could have been bigger and fancier. But Bill listened to us and stuck within our budget. And he made it look just right."

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