ALTERED ESTATES : Beginning Is Half of the Battle

Home remodeling is something mother never taught you.

And like so many things in life, just getting started is half the battle. What follows is a series of steps in the remodeling process recommended by San Fernando Valley experts.

STEP 1: Hire an architect. Although it's not required by law, an architect will draw up the plans, which then allows you to collect independent quotes from contractors. The architect should note everything--from where electrical outlets will go to the type of floor molding that will be used.

"The more detailed your plans, the more accurate will be your bids," Northridge contractor Thomas Auten said. And the fewer surprises you're likely to face later on. Auten estimated that the architect's fee for remodeling a home ranges from $750 to $25,000, depending on the architect and the work involved.

Expect the plans to go through about three drafts, each better-defining your addition. "Proper planning can be one of the best cost-saving measures you can take," Reseda contractor Robert E. Lee said.

Auten said most architects will take the client-approved plan to the Department of Building and Safety for a plan check, and will then purchase the necessary building permits.

STEP 2: Be methodical in determining what you want. Before asking for contractors' bids, remodelers should determine details such as types of interior doors (including model number and make), sinks, toilets, tubs, faucets, door hardware, tile and moldings. (An architect can recommend showrooms.) All should be part of a contractor's bid.

STEP 3: Hire a contractor. After your architect finishes blueprints and picks up the permits, you can take the plans to two or three contractors for bids.

Lee encourages remodelers to get three bids from licensed contractors. Auten said he believes that "if one bid is real high, talk with the contractor. And if one is real low, make sure everything you want was included in the bid."

If you want to check the license of a potential contractor, call the State Contractors' License Board.

Chris and Patty McManus, recent survivors of a remodeling project in Van Nuys, suggested building a completion date into the contract with a penalty for missing the date.

They also recommended that homeowners be sure the contract allows them to hold out 15% of the contractor's fee for 30 days after final inspection and final walk-through with the contractor.

Auten suggested that before the workers arrive, the homeowners take a realistic view of the chaos and disruption of routine that will ensue.

He recommended they pack away any priceless belongings--or items that will need to be dusted.

He also suggested that remodelers be sure to ask questions whenever they come up and to be careful to maintain a good relationship with the workers and the contractor.

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