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Tips for hiring a home improvement pro

From architects to organizers, kitchen designers to landscape contractors, here’s what to look for and the pitfalls to avoid.

Christoph Hitz

“What do they do?” and “Who fixes this?” are two of the most common questions people ask when they call consumer review site Angie’s List, according to founder Angie Hicks. “Sometimes people get paralyzed about doing a project because they don’t know who to hire,” she says. “They don’t really understand what a general contractor does, what a handyman does, what a carpenter does, and how to find out which one they need.”

Even if they do know who does what, homeowners in these belt-tightening days often try to save by doing a project themselves or hiring someone who might not specialize in the task at hand. That can be a mistake. “A lot of the time people underestimate what it takes to do a project themselves, or they don’t have the tools, the time, or the skill,” says Hicks. “Sometimes you don’t end up saving because you have to bring in a professional midway through, and the project’s harder to finish because you’ve done something wrong.”

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This guide will help you figure out whom to hire and what you can expect to pay.

ARCHITECT

Consulting expert Hansy Better Barraza, principal, Studio Luz Architects, Boston

What they do Architects may work with you from the beginning to the end of a project, coordinating the mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, construction teams, and other professionals. Or they can simply draw up “schematics,” showing what your different options are for, say, a kitchen remodel. Or they may do as little as a few hours of consulting. “If you have a limited budget, an architect can show you what resources are out there to help you work within that budget,” Barraza says. “They’re extremely good at setting up the scope of the project and showing you the path you might want to take. In the end, you can save money by doing a consultation.”

Architects’ strength is their creativity. Even if you think you want something traditional, for example, an architect can show you how to get that old New England flavor but still have some wow factor. “They can help you open up your eyes a little more,” says Barraza, “and expand your stylistic vocabulary to something that’s beyond what you know.”

Where to find one Boston Society of Architects (architects.org)

Expect to pay $75 to $250 an hour

Pitfalls to avoid “It’s really important to have good communication and clear expectations right from the beginning,” says Barraza. “It avoids having the architect go down a path that is different to what the homeowner is thinking about.”

 

GENERAL CONTRACTOR

Consulting expert Doug Hanna, co-owner, S+H Construction, Cambridge

What they do “The general contractor is sort of like a movie producer,” Hanna says. “They bring in all the different trades and suppliers to get the job done. They’re the one point of responsibility, as far as the owner’s concerned.” Subcontractors — plumbers, electricians, plasterers, masons, perhaps carpenters — are all hired by the general contractor and have to answer to him or her, taking the task of juggling many workers off the homeowner.

While Hanna says he sees the value of having an architect or interior designer for bigger jobs, “for straightforward projects like opening up the living room to the kitchen,” he says, “we’ve worked off the back of napkins before. We’ve been doing this for 35 years, so we know a little bit about it.”

Where to find one Builders Association of Greater Boston (bagb.org), National Association of the Remodeling Industry (nari.org)

Expect to pay $150 a square foot and up (includes the cost of subcontractors)

Pitfalls to avoid Not hiring a contractor early in the process. “Get the designer to do basic schematic drawings,” Hanna says, “then pick a good builder and get a preliminary estimate. If it comes in higher than you’re expecting, go back to the designer and say, ‘We have to scale back somewhere.’ Having a team approach helps inform your design and your budget.” 

HANDYMAN

Consulting expert Michael Campbell, owner, Mr. Handyman of Central MetroWest, Ashland

What they do Sometimes it’s easier to talk about what handymen do not do. Generally, because they’re not licensed specialists, handymen will not touch plumbing, natural gas, or electrical work except the most basic kinds, such as changing a light fixture or faucet. Otherwise, you name it and you can probably find a handyman to do it, from painting a room to framing in a closet to replacing your gutters. The difference between hiring a handyman and a contractor is usually the size of the job, since larger jobs often require a crew rather than one or two workers. “If you want a window or two replaced,” says Campbell, “hire a company like ours. If you want 27 windows replaced, you’d be better off hiring a window company. They’ll be in and out in two days and, bing bang bong, you’re done.”

Many handymen work independently — and they can cost much less than the bonded and insured employees of a company like Mr. Handyman but carry more risk. The best way to find one is through word of mouth; without good references, you can’t predict the quality of the work and level of responsibility.

Where to find oneAngie’s List, Craigslist, houzz.com, ServiceMagic, or through a service like Mr. Handyman

Expect to pay $25 to $100 an hour

Pitfalls to avoid “I don’t like big deposits,” says Campbell. “If a guy asks for a large deposit upfront, really question it.” Also, be aware that some handymen, like contractors, mark up materials they buy for you by 40 percent or more. You may be better off doing the shopping yourself.

 

INTERIOR DECORATOR/REDESIGNER/STAGER

Consulting expert Kyle Freeman, owner, Cloud 9 Organize & Redesign, Jamaica Plain

What they do Interior decorators and redesigners can help you enhance a room with paint, furniture, window treatments, rugs, and artwork, often incorporating your existing pieces. Stagers, initially used only by real estate agents to prepare houses for sale, now get up to 40 percent of their business from homeowners who want a little decorating advice. All redesigners will “shop” your house first to find pieces that are not being used or would be better in another room. “It’s the relationship between objects that makes a difference: distance, proximity, color,” says Freeman. “Often someone calls me and says, ‘I think I need a new rug, a new lamp.’ I might say, ‘OK, you might need that, but let’s do this first.’ And 70 percent of the time they are happy with the transformation [using only what they already own]. It’s economical, it’s environmental, it’s fun.”

Where to find oneAngie’s List, houzz.com, ServiceMagic, School of Interior Redesign (schoolofinteriorredesign.com)

Expect to pay $75 to $100 an hour

Pitfalls to avoid “Is this someone who is really interested in what you want,” Freeman asks, “as opposed to railroading their own agenda? If they don’t ask you a lot of questions about your space, that’s not a good sign. They really need to get to know you, and if they don’t, they’re probably not going to do the job you want them to.”

 

INTERIOR DESIGNER

Consulting expert Rachel Reider, principal, Rachel Reider Interiors, South End

What they do Interior designers work on projects both large and small, but, says Reider, they “tend to be more inclusive of the services they offer.” They might handle a renovation or new construction start to finish, from having input into the floor plans to helping select construction finishes — tiles, flooring, countertops — to picking wallpaper and furniture. “There is a little overlap with architects,” Reider says. “I like to be brought in as soon as possible, because designers and architects approach things differently. I’m thinking, ‘It’s great there’s an entire wall of windows, but where am I going to put the bed?’ It can be really helpful to have a designer involved in that initial stage. We have a good sense of how clients use the space and perhaps can think of things ahead of time that might otherwise be overlooked.”

Where to find one Through home design publications and Web directories (houzz.com, doodlehome.com) or the American Society of Interior Designers (asid.org)

Expect to pay $150 to $250 an hour

Pitfalls to avoid Be honest with your designer. “A lot of times I’ll show something to a client that I think is great, but maybe it’s a little bolder than they’re comfortable with or it doesn’t fit their lifestyle,” says Reider. “It’s important to say so. The end result has to really reflect the client.”

 

KITCHEN AND BATH DESIGNER

Consulting expert Amy Britton, owner, Artisan Kitchens, Osterville

What they do Some kitchen and bath designers, like Britton, are a hybrid — they’re licensed contractors, but they also do the work of highly specialized interior designers. “We can assess the whole space as adjacent spaces relate to the space you’re working on,” Britton says, “and realign the rooms to make them work best.” This may mean removing walls or windows or putting the kitchen or bath in another area entirely — and it always includes making sure drawers can open all the way and doors don’t bang into each other. “If you’re hiring a professional,” says Britton, “there shouldn’t be any of those frustrations at all.”

Kitchen and bath design has evolved a great deal over the past few years, and it helps to have a professional explain everything for you. The selection of kitchen appliances, for example, has mushroomed. “It used to be everyone had the same dishwasher,” Britton explains. “Now there’s maybe 20-plus types. For countertops, when I started 27 years ago, laminate was the only thing. Then the big hoopla was Corian. That fell by the wayside when stone came in. A lot of people now are choosing quartz materials and recycled products.”

Where to find one National Kitchen & Bath Association (nkba.org)

Expect to pay $75 to $100 an hour, with an upfront retainer

Pitfalls to avoid Failing to keep perspective. “Someone will fall in love with something they see in a magazine that absolutely isn’t going to work or fit in their space,” says Britton. A kitchen designer can give you alternatives while perhaps keeping part of the look you love. “Sometimes you can’t fit a size 10 foot into a size 6 shoe,” she says.

 

LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT

Consulting expert Ray Dunetz, principal, Ray Dunetz Landscape Architecture, Jamaica Plain

What they do “If you have a blank slate,” Dunetz says, “that’s where we come in.” Homeowners who are just looking for planting suggestions for a raised bed or two can go to a garden center and get that information for free; those with a small-scale project can probably tap a landscape contractor directly. But if you want to know where the best place is to put that in-ground pool, how to incorporate a pergola, patio, and kid’s play area into your backyard, or how to form planting beds for the best drainage, you want a landscape architect. “People always have one or two ideas,” says Dunetz. “ ‘I like bluestone patio,’ or ‘I like these kind of trees,’ or ‘I’d like to screen out my neighbor’s yard.’ We take that information from the initial interview and come up with several schemes showing different layouts of patios, walkways, and plantings that all work with your property so it gives you a range of ideas to start thinking about.” Once you’ve settled on a design, the architect can give you a set of construction drawings and recommend a landscape contractor to carry them through.

Where to find one Boston Society of Landscape Architects (bslaweb.org)

Expect to pay $75 to $150 an hour

Pitfalls to avoid “If you hire someone who is good and have their references,” says Dunetz, “generally it’s smart to listen to their advice. You may want to override their decision, but you could wind up installing a material that doesn’t last or isn’t durable.”

 

LANDSCAPE CONTRACTOR

Consulting expert Jon Levine, principal, Levine and Lyons Landscaping, West Roxbury

What they do While landscape contractors can do earth moving, patio building, and planting on a scale large or small, what may come as a surprise is that some landscape contractors have design experience as well. They generally design on a smaller scale than landscape architects, in terms of both space and budget, but their input might range from simple lawn cleanup to designing and maintaining flower beds to creating masonry features like walkways and retaining walls.

Their chief benefit to the homeowner who might be a little lost in the garden shop is in guidance. “You can either work with somebody or say: ‘I really don’t know what I want. Please tell me what to do,’ ” Levine says. A landscape contractor can show you which plants will be best in your space and for your level of interest. “What’s it going to look like in two or three years?” he asks. “That’s where maintenance comes in.” You can do the upkeep yourself, of course, or call in the contractor two or three times a year to keep your plantings looking fresh.

Where to find oneAngie’s List, ServiceMagic, houzz.com, through your landscape architect, if you have one

Expect to pay $1.75 per square foot and up, depending on the job

Pitfalls to avoid Don’t try to do too much at once. “People get a large plan and then say, ‘Wow, I can’t afford all that this year,’ ” says Levine. “Talk to someone like us and say, ‘What can I do for $10,000?’ It’s better to focus your efforts in one area than do a little here and a little there.” 

 

LIGHTING DESIGNER

Consulting expert Bonnie Forbes, showroom manager, Wolfers Lighting, Allston

What they do Lighting designers, working both indoors and out, can give homeowners an overview of the lighting options available for their project, whether it’s a single room or space or a whole house. They take into account room size, ceiling height, maintenance, materials, colors, budget, visual-acuity issues in the household, energy efficiency, the best placement for switches and outlets, and how a room is going to be used. “The last time most people bought a light was never,” says Forbes. In the dining room, you might be thinking of a chandelier, but Forbes will help you explore alternatives, perhaps illuminating the buffet, accenting artwork, or “grazing” a fireplace with light. Some showrooms, including Wolfers, have “light labs,” which show consumers warm vs. cool lighting, LED vs. halogen, voltage and wattage options, and more. “Theoretically, the contractor should know some of it,” Forbes says. “But it’s a good idea to have a lighting professional as part of the team from the beginning.”

Where to find one American Lighting Association (americanlightingassoc.com)

Expect to pay $100 to $250 an hour for a home visit or no charge if using the services while shopping at a store like Wolfers

Pitfalls to avoid Not getting a lighting designer involved early enough in the process. “If you’re doing your kitchen,” says Forbes, “you probably walk into a kitchen place early on to get an overview: ‘What is the difference in these cabinets?’ ‘Should I get granite or quartz?’ If you don’t think about lighting at the start of the process, then later you’ll be saying, ‘My electrician never told me that.’ ‘Why didn’t the architect mention this?’ ”

 

ORGANIZER

Consulting expert Dawn Link, owner, Resolutions, Stoneham

What they do “Sometimes people think they need to build an addition when, in essence, they just have too much stuff,” Link says. Professional organizers help you straighten out that stuff. They’re particularly useful if you’re going through a life transition or are simply feeling overwhelmed by clutter. “Oftentimes people will come to me with one area in mind,” Link says. “If the office is — quote unquote — their problem area, I often find other areas that need organizing. It’s like a domino effect.” Link and other professional organizers work closely with clients not only to learn what they need, but also to educate them. “It’s more than just putting things away,” she says. “Organizing is a skill people can learn.”

Where to find oneAngie’s List, Craigslist, houzz.com, ServiceMagic, National Association of Professional Organizers (napo-newengland.com)

Expect to pay $40 to $200 an hour

Pitfalls to avoid Not understanding there’s hard work involved. “It’s not like waving a magic wand over the situation,” says Link. “Decisions have to be made, and you have to be ready to make the change. I have worked with people who think they’re ready until we actually sit down to do the work.”

Elizabeth Gehrman is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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