[10 on Tuesday] Should You DIY or Hire a Professional?

Posted on: May 28th, 2013 by Emily Potter 1 Comment

Once you've decided whether you need to restore or rehabilitate your historic house, the next step is deciding whether you want to DIY-it or hire a professional.

Taking on a restoration or rehabilitation project can be enjoyable if you like hands-on work, whereas hiring a professional can save you time. Or, you might want to do a little of both, where you work on the projects you’re passionate about and contract experts to finish the rest.

Whatever approach you take, the decision involves knowing how much time and money you want to spend, what your interests are, and what skills you’re looking to hire someone for. This toolkit explains different types of professionals who can help you, plus important things to consider before hiring them.

1. Contracting with a historical researcher. A historical researcher typically provides the homeowner with a written report detailing the history and architecture of the house, along with biographical sketches of former owners or inhabitants. Researchers can also complete nomination forms to list properties in the National or state register or local list of historic buildings.

2. Choosing an architect. Architects can inspect the house to determine existing conditions; develop an architectural program to determine best uses for existing rooms; provide conceptual drawings; assist homeowners with obtaining and reviewing bids from contractors; and develop a construction schedule and oversee work.

Tip: To find an architect qualified for your project, contact your local or state chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). You can also reach out to your state historic preservation office (SHPO). Note: Neither the AIA nor the SHPO guarantees or endorses the work of the architects on the list.

blog_photo_architectural plans
Set of architectural plans.

3. Selecting an interior designer. An interior designer specializes in interior finishes, including wall, floor, and ceiling surfaces, fixtures such as lighting, kitchen, and bathroom, and furnishings.

4. Deciding on a landscape architect or designer. A landscape architect or designer can analyze the existing landscape, design one that is appropriate to your house, and prepare drawings and specifications for its restoration or rehabilitation. They can also help obtain bids from landscape contractors and oversee the work.

Tip: Check your state chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), as well as your SHPO. As with architects, no endorsement is given or implied.

5. Choosing a general contractor. A general contractor provides the construction services required to actually restore or rehabilitate your house. Typically, services include securing and providing materials, labor, and equipment, and managing subcontractors and craftspeople. General contractors also usually obtain building and other permits required by the local government.

Tip: The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) can provide you with a list of general contractors who have listed their expertise in residential remodeling. Like the others, NAHB does not endorse or guarantee the work of the contractors on the list.

6. Considering a design/build firm. When architects and contractors join together, they become a design/build firm, offering a full range of design and contracting services. On one hand, hiring a design/build firm instead of an architect and contractor separately may save you time and possibly money. On the other hand, you will not have the benefit of an independent architect acting on your behalf to oversee construction and make sure the contractor is doing work properly.

7. Understanding your subcontractors. Subcontractors provide specialized building trades or services, such as finished carpentry, plastering, masonry work, and plumbing. The general contractor is usually responsible for selecting the subcontractors, coordinating their work, ensuring that it is done correctly, and paying them.

blog_photo_stained glass craftsman
Stained glass craftsman demonstrating his skill.

8. Hiring appropriate craftspeople. Craftspeople provide specific crafts or services not typically used in new construction, such as repairing or installing stained glass or applying gold leaf to surfaces.

Tip: To find craftspeople in your area, check with your SHPO, or contact professional or trade associations.

9. Finding qualified professionals. We can’t say it enough: Please remember that lists from the SHPO and other professional and trade associations do not constitute an endorsement or guarantee for contractors’ work. Ask family, friends, and neighbors for recommendations as well, then interview those you’re considering hiring -- as well as their former clients -- and visit completed projects. (More on this in the next tip.) Ultimately, select professionals on the basis of the quality of their work, how well you like their work, and how well you think you can work with them.

10. Talk with former clients of potential professionals you are considering hiring. If possible, visit completed projects. Some questions you can ask include:

  • Did the professional listen to the owner’s ideas and explain how they could be incorporated into the design, or why they should not be?
  • Did the professional help define a reasonable project to fit your budget?
  • Was the design sensitive to the historic and architectural character of the house?
  • Was the design produced on schedule and for the agreed-upon fee? If not, were the changes reasonable?

Have you hired professionals to help restore or rehabilitate your historic house? What tips do you have about choosing the right designer or contractor?

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Emily Potter

Emily Potter is a copywriter at the National Trust. She enjoys writing about places of all kinds, the stories that make them special, and the people who love them enough to save them.

10 on Tuesday, Real Estate, Tools

One Response

  1. Garland Pollard

    May 30, 2013

    I would say the FIRST thing to do if you buy an old house is nothing but cleaning and careful thought.

    We bought an old house 20 years ago that was a monster that we restored on a shoestring in Richmond. I definitely made tons of mistakes in renovating it, but the one thing that I learned is to take some time and scrub it and clean it, removing all the normal ugliness yourself. You begin to really see it then.

    A contractor who I hired suggested the first thing i get was a dumpster, and it was a big help in getting rid of 100 years of mess so we could get it back to its old bones.

    Once we saw the features that were so important, we could then get an architect. And remember, you dont need a full architect if you cant afford it; we hired a grad student friend in interior design who worked up good plans. She had nothing to gain with grand ideas, only the cheapest way we could afford to get it done.

    I would definitely not recommend a design build firm to do the plans, but do of course use them when you bid it out. While you can hire them after you get the plans (and they can help you with cost saving) you want plans that are divorced from any vendor.