Building 101: How to Work With a Contractor to Create Your Dream Home

Here's what you need to know before undergoing a building project with a contractor but no architect.
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Previously, we covered the best practices for working in tandem with a contractor and architect. If you choose not to employ an architect, here are the steps to take to make sure the process goes as smoothly as possible.

1. Know What You Want

The best thing you can do when undertaking a building project without an architect is to become one yourself. Go into the project with very specific ideas about what you want. Research everything you will need. Pick the tile. Pick the door knobs. Pick everything! Try to do this before you start interviewing contractors. Have pictures ready to reference and share. Most contractors will be happy to have a clear target to hit. Problems or delays will come up when there are ambiguities in the design intent or indecision on your part. In the end, you will probably get the cheapest (or the most expensive) thing on the shelf if you do not specify otherwise. Luckily, you can find plenty of reference material right here on Dwell.

2. Research Your Local Codes

Before you start a project, do some research on what your local jurisdiction requires for your type of project. Some jurisdictions will require a stamped set of construction drawings from an architect; some will not. It is worth a quick phone call to your local building department to see if you will need an architect.In general, if you are not making any structural changes or moving any plumbing fixtures, your project may not need an architect. Again, do some research to know what is allowed, and avoid contractors that are willing to do the work without going through the proper applications. The last thing you want is an annoyed neighbor calling a building inspector over in the middle of your project!

A patio protected by a steel-and-cedar-slat trellis accommodates a meeting between (left to right) contractor Mark Farha, building owners and developers Brock Oaks and David Farha, and owner and contractor Ted Farha.

3. Keep Proper Documentation

Unfortunately, some building projects can go sideways, and it is important for you to protect yourself against any potential liability or damages. If you find yourself in a situation where either the work you paid for was not done correctly, or the contractor says you owe them more money, you will be happy you signed a contract. Make sure you establish a fee structure and make sure any project-specific decisions are done in writing. Both will be invaluable in court as evidence. If you find yourself as the plaintiff, the burden of proof will be on you. Make sure there is a paper trail.

4. Remember That Building Is Personal

You may have heard this before, but building really is personal. Find a contractor that you have a rapport with, and respects what you have to say. Make sure they are really listening! You want a contractor that gets what you’re trying to achieve and is committed to making that happen. Since you won’t have an architect protecting your interests, make sure you set expectations clearly and request that any major decisions are not made without you. Ask for receipts and purchase orders with your invoices, and keep the communication lines open. Over the duration of the project, try to foster a relationship of mutual respect with your contractor and hold them accountable if things are not done the way you expected. It’s much easier to get a contractor to fix something they did wrong if they respect and like you.

Related Reading:

Building 101: How to Work With a Contractor When You Have an Architect

Top 10 Questions to Ask a Contractor During an Interview