By David Gardner, Phoenix Journal/May 1992

Much has already been said and written about the process of hiring a contractor. Property owners are told to check the contractor's license and references, look at other completed projects, check with the Better Business Bureau and the state and local consumer affairs offices, and, of course, get a written contract.

Often overlooked, but critical to avoiding problems later, is the need to have a project thoroughly designed and to have complete plans and specifications prepared. You should not even think about starting a building project as small as remodeling a single bathroom without plans. Plans are the focal point for all parties involved in the project, including yourself, the designer, the contractor, building officials, and financial institutions, if any. They are the reference documents by which all claims and disputes will be judged. The plans define the scope of work, and should therefore be as complete as possible, right down to the type of wood to be used, the size of nails and fasteners, and the last door hinge and drawer handle.

The plans should also have all necessary governmental approvals such as planning and/or building department approval, zoning clearance and fire department approval if necessary. This should all be done prior to hiring a contractor. It will avoid expensive delays and changes in the work later, should it turn out that the original design does not meet building code or other state or local requirements. Once a contractor is hired or work has been started it is much more expensive and time consuming to try to change the design, as it will probably also require changes in the building contract and will delay the progress of the work. Extensive changes may even require new governmental approvals and/or building permits.

When hiring a builder, plans should be incorporated as a part of the contract. This is the best way to insure that the contract defines exactly the work that you want and are paying for. A thorough and complete set of plans will enable the contractor to estimate the cost of the work as accurately as possible. The more accurate the estimate, the less likely that the contractor will later have to make claims for extra payment. You will be protected from unjustified claims for work.

Having a complete set of plans ahead of time serves an important psychological function. The more you think about what you want ahead of time, and the more completely you have worked out your design, the less likely you will be to make changes or exceed your budet or indulge in "impulse buying" of unnecessary or luxury items as the work goes along.

Because of the importance of the design and plans for your project, you should give serious consideration to hiring a design professional to prepare them. Some contractors also offer design services, but it is probably better to hire an architect or engineer in all but the smallest projects, because it allows a more objective consideration of any claims for extra work that the contractor might make.

Once you have selected a designer, be prepared to spend time discussing your project in detail. The more time you spend up front making your ideas and desires known, the closer the design will come to meeting them, and the less likelihood there will be of disputes with the contractor down the line.

Attorney David Gardner is associated with the Oakland Law Offices of Ann Rankin.

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