Home Improvements


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t takes flexibility, communication and realistic expectations to work successfully with an architect. Here’s a round-up (by MSN Real Estate) of some tips from architects and homeowners.

Pay attention to personality. Most people hire an architect only once in their lives. Searching for one is akin to finding a financial planner, architects say. Look for an architect who has designed projects that are similar in style and scope to yours. “There’s no substitute for experience,” says Todd Strickland, a partner with Historical Concepts, an Atlanta architectural firm. Because designing a home is such a personal project, it’s important that you feel able to communicate with your architect.

Liza Nugent, 41, and her husband needed an architect to combine their apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with a neighboring unit; they got referrals from friends. The first architect they called made a snippy remark about how “unsophisticated” co-op boards in buildings on side streets such as theirs make renovations difficult. “I thought, with that kind of attitude, we definitely wouldn’t get along,” Nugent says. After calling two more architects and interviewing three others, the Nugents picked a longtime acquaintance who had creative design solutions for their project.

Enlist an architect early. Most architects will do their best to design a structure to work with whatever plot of land you have to build on. But they also can help scout prospective land purchases. With a general vision of your house and a budget in mind, the architect can evaluate the pros and cons of a location that a client might overlook, such as whether a site is big enough to accommodate the dwelling or whether a neighbor’s right to a view will preclude building the 12-foot ceilings you want.

Is the site free of utility constraints? What about topographical features that could increase the cost of building? Paying for four or five hours of evaluation is likely to save money in the long run.

Bring visuals. Pictures help an architect understand your vision, whether it’s a rough sketch you’ve made, magazine photos of homes you like, or a coffee-table book featuring interiors by your favorite designer. Snapshots of specific lighting fixtures or cabinet styles are helpful, but so are pictures that convey intangibles: the sense of place created by sunlight streaming through a skylight, or a library room with a “warm” feeling.

Dallas architect Marc McCollom, who designs modern houses, says clients also should bring pictures of things they don’t like. Architects will regard the client’s visual portfolio as a cue for whether they’ll make a good team. “If they show me pictures with crown molding and decorative wallpaper, I shouldn’t take that job,” McCollom says. “I’m not going to be happy, and we shouldn’t work together.”

Find a listener. A relationship with a designer is like a marriage: Go with someone who listens, cut your losses with someone who doesn’t — or risk getting a house you don’t want to live in. When Jim Jenkins began a $1.5 million renovation of his Alamo, Calif., home, he hired a local who had designed other houses in the neighborhood. But 18 months into the process, the architect still hadn’t produced a design that the Jenkinses liked or that could get past the local homeowners association.

“He wouldn’t design what we were looking for,” Jenkins says. “My wife’s looking for something Caribbean and he kept thinking California Ranch.”

Jenkins pulled the plug on that designer and hired a Berkeley architect, Robert Nebolon. “He read the codes, had some creative ideas and within six months I got what I was looking for,” Jenkins says.

Clients need to listen, too. Telephones, faxes and e-mail aren’t the best ways to communicate about home design. Avoiding in-person meetings will delay construction. A good architect won’t act on any part of a project without clear approval.

Talk money upfront. A flat fee may be appropriate for projects whose scope is very defined. But construction projects often include unforeseen challenges, and for that reason most architects prefer to charge by the hour or by a percentage of building costs. Some architects charge by the hour in the concept stage and then charge fees ranging from 8% to 18% of construction costs after hiring. For projects costing $1.5 million plus, expect fees to range from 12% to 18%, says James P. Cramer, chairman of Greenway Group, a design-industry consulting firm.

Some architects ask clients for a wish list of features, fixtures and qualities along with an estimated budget. “Sometimes people’s expectations aren’t realistic, given what their budgets are,” says Manhattan architect Darby Curtis.

Consider full service. Architects will be as involved as you want them to be. They can simply do design conception and deliver drawings. Or they can visit sites, coordinate contractors and observe construction. Many architects advise clients to retain a designer through construction. “In the long run you’ll save yourself from headaches and extra construction,” Curtis says.

Have a strong marriage. Architects offer this last bit of advice in all seriousness. Money tends to cause stress in a relationship, and building a home involves a lot of money. Building a house together, McCollom says, “is not going to save your marriage.” Full Story

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With reports that foreclosures are up 51% from 2006 and that home ownership took a record plunge in 2007, RISMedia says it’s clear that 2008 will be a year of economic uncertainty, and at worst, a year of continuing downturn. As consumers continue to feel the squeeze, the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) reminds homeowners and those eager to sell to look to ASHI Certified Inspectors when considering options for buying, selling or maintaining their home in a down market.

“ASHI has taken steps to arm its members with the resources and support to provide a diverse range of services for homeowners,” said Brion Grant, 2008 ASHI president. “We know that one-size doesn’t fit all in this market. From energy audits to maintenance inspections, phased-inspections and more, we’re arming members with tools to diversify their services so that they can meet the needs of the public.”

New Services for Homeowners

Energy audits are among the core services that ASHI is encouraging its members to fine-tune so consumers have the benefit of potential cost savings. In December, members of ASHI’s Blue Ridge Chapter (Virginia) participated in group training with a nationally certified energy auditing company to secure certification to perform energy audits in their region. “With the cost of fuel skyrocketing, energy audits can uncover inefficiencies and point to savings,” added Grant. “ASHI is working in conjunction with a certifying organization to provide opportunities for training and certification so that its members can offer this ancillary service nationally.”

Another service homeowners may not think about is maintenance inspections.

“Maintenance should be at the top of every seller’s list this year, said Grant. “In this market, home buyers have more properties to choose from, and will look closely at how well a home has been kept up.”

Homeowners who are serious about selling their home in 2008 should consider hiring an inspector to conduct a maintenance inspection, which includes checking everything from the foundation, roof and gutters, to a home’s exterior and interior walls, electrical wiring and plumbing. ASHI also offers a maintenance checklist, a list of items in the home that should be maintained annually or by season. Those interested in obtaining a copy of ASHI’s home maintenance checklist should contact a local ASHI Certified Inspector via ASHI’s Website http://www.ASHI.org.

Services for Buying or Building a Home

With a record 2.18 million homes sitting vacant and sellers chomping at the bit to unload their home, buyers are at risk too. Before purchasing a home, ASHI encourages buyers to hire an inspector to conduct a pre-sale inspection to determine its quality, efficiency and safety. “There are a lot of people who are willing to do whatever it takes to sell their homes,” said Grant. “In a market like this, people are quick to jump in because of the rock-bottom price rather than the quality and safety of the home.” And, with many bank-owned properties being sold “as is,” meaning the seller will not be performing any repairs, pre-sale inspections can provide vital information about costly defects.

Phased inspections are also a good way to protect the interests of people who are building a home from scratch. By engaging a home inspector early on, even in the site selection, homeowners can benefit from having an inspector assess the quality of construction at every step. From pouring the foundation, to closing the walls, home inspectors can provide an unbiased assessment of a home that will save homeowners time and money.

“I wish forecasting the future was as easy as picking up a Magic 8-Ball,” said Grant. “‘Outlook good’ would be a welcomed relief from what we’ve seen over the last year. But Americans are resilient, and ASHI is committed to helping homeowners weather this storm.” Full Story

Despite repeated highly publicized reports of a home sales slump and pricing slides, there’s a surprising amount of positive consumer sentiment, says RISMedia — and perhaps a good measure of homeowner denial as well: Even in a negative home pricing environment, 77% of homeowners from around the country believe the value of their home has increased or remained the same in 2007, according to a recent Zillow.com survey conducted by Harris Interactive(R).What’s more, sizable fractions of all homeowners — not just those who believe their homes appreciated in 2007 — say they are planning to do things in 2008 — even before the Fed’s latest interest rate cuts – that you might not expect during the housing, construction and credit slumps:

– 82% will spend the same or more on minor home improvements (install new garbage disposal, repaint or wallpaper a room).
– 67% say they will spend the same or more on major home improvements (replace the roof, remodel the kitchen) this year.

– About a third say they are more likely or equally as likely to:
– Take out a home equity loan (35%)
– Refinance their mortgage or take out a second mortgage (36%)
– Sell their homes (34%)

How Bad It Is in the Reality-based World

The Zillow(R) Q3 Home Value Report says U.S. home values dropped 5.7% nationwide year over year (2007 to 2006). Zillow plans to release its Q4 report Feb. 12 and preliminary results indicate home values in most U.S. markets have continued their descent. In a recent report, Merrill Lynch predicted “housing prices will remain in free fall,” declining 15% in 2008 and 10% in 2009, “with more depreciation likely beyond the forecast period,” even if the Federal Reserve continues to cut interest rates.

How Homeowners Perceive the Situation

About a third of homeowners (36%) in the Zillow.com Home Value Survey said their homes had actually increased in value during 2007. Zillow’s Zindex(R) data proves the contrary, showing median value declines across regions as of October 2007.

What’s Driving Homeowner Perception?

“This survey reveals that despite the data to the contrary, people either aren’t paying attention to their housing market or are in denial about their own home’s value,” said Dr. Stan Humphries, Zillow.com vice president of data & analytics. “This likely reflects the fact that most Americans have not realized home-related losses because they’re staying in their homes. Even in declining markets where a greater percentage of new homeowners are underwater on their mortgage, it’s important to remember most people are not really affected by declining values unless they absolutely must sell or need to immediately refinance or withdraw equity. This has contributed to the healthy investment intent, particularly in home upgrades, despite the downward trending markets.”

How to Stay on Top of a Home’s Value?

Zillow recently increased its database of homes with Zestimate valuations to 67 million, which equates to about three out of four U.S. homes. People can easily check a home’s value by visiting Zillow.com and typing in an address. Full Story