Architects! Who Needs ‘Em?

You do.  If you want superior results and the best return on your investment.

 

Architects are kinda like prostitutes.  They perform a service we could do by ourselves, if absolutely necessary, but the process goes a little more smoothly, and the results are far more satisfying with the aid of a professional.

 

Almost anyone with an ounce of taste and good sense can execute a remodel without an architect.  And for your average run-of-the-mill middle-market or down-market flip or rental property, that may be all you need – a slap of paint, whatever tile you can get on sale, some inexpensive fixtures from Home Depot and voila!  Job done. 

 

For more extensive remodels (moving walls, building additions, etc.) a good contractor can get your ideas drawn-up and signed-off by an engineer.  Some contractors consider themselves amateur designers or (unlicensed) architects – and some of them are pretty adequate at meeting the needs of their clients.  But if you’re dealing in the luxury market, or even want to get top-dollar for an ordinary house, get yourself a pro.

 

Design Integrity

Designer showcase houses where every room is done by a different designer may be fun to look at, but would you really want to live in it?  A good house calms the spirit and lifts the soul.  A poorly designed home creates visual chaos and subliminal stress.  Think about houses you’ve been in that please you versus those that confuse you.  Room flow, sight-lines, massing and proportion are vital – but they’re only the foundation.  The finishes, the hardware, the lighting, the colors and textures – they can make or break an otherwise good house.  It’s what I call “design integrity” and what one of my architects calls the “language” of the house. 

 

Here are some basic rules of design I’ve learned from working with architects:

1.  Be consistent with finishes:  Carrying the same cabinetry finishes and countertops throughout the kitchen and baths makes the house feel larger, calmer, and more “designed”.  Some designers even believe in using the same tile throughout all the bathrooms, but I sometimes like to vary tile color or shape to give a powder room or guest bath a different attitude than a master bath, while staying within the same family (glass, stone, ceramic, etc.)  When done right, this doesn’t result in a bland house, but in a house with a strong visual presence.

 

2.  Be consistent with your hardware and fixtures:  Doorknobs and drawer-pulls are called the “jewelry” of a house.  Like jewelry on a beautiful woman, it should all work together.  A well-dressed woman wouldn’t mix gold and silver jewelry and neither should your house.  Whether it’s polished chrome, satin nickel or oil-rubbed bronze, pick one finish and carry it throughout the house – everywhere – including window and door hardware, cabinetry knobs and drawer-pulls, plumbing fixtures, everything.  Mixing and matching confuses the observer and creates subliminal stress. 

 

3.  Be consistent with flooring:  A different floor in each room adds to the visual chaos and breaks up the spaces into separate smaller spaces.  Whether you’re using hardwood or tile, carry it through everywhere you have a solid floor surface and the house will feel more expansive.  When you do alter the flooring, use it to define different spaces – carpet in the bedroom or tile in an entry foyer, for example.  But try to limit it to no more than two or three flooring materials for your house and carry them throughout.  Using tile, slate or concrete indoors and continuing it out to a patio brings the outdoors in.  And blurring the line between indoors and out is what mid-century modern design is all about.

 

4.  It’s not just visual, it’s tactile.  Think about the things you touch most often in a house – doorknobs, drawer-pulls, faucets, etc.  These things should feel solid and rich and work with precision, this is not the area to go cheap to save money.  Think of the sound you get when you shut the door of a Bentley versus a Yugo.  You want your house to be the Bentley.

 

A good architect is certain to do a better job of this than you could do on your own.  The benefits may seem intangible but I assure you this will add real value by creating a house that stands apart from the rest.  And if done correctly, the added cost of engaging an architect will more than pay for itself in substantially higher returns. 

 

Remember, you are creating a product with lots of competition and it’s your job as the owner/builder (or “flipper”) to create a house with a competitive edge that people will remember – whether it’s in Beverly Hills or Compton. 

 

Read about how to find and hire a contractor here.  And look for other postings here about design and how to find, hire, and negotiate a contract with an architect as well as the option of working with a “design-build firm”.

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Clearing a Difficult Permit – How To Survive the City Planning Department

The first thing you have to understand in dealing with the city is that the Planning Department is a vast conspiracy out to make the process as confusing as possible.  Inspectors put in their ten or twenty years toying with our emotions and testing our patience with the sole objective of guaranteeing themselves a second, far more lucrative career in retirement as consultants, helping us navigate the Kafkaesque labyrinth that they, themselves, created.  A trip to the Planning Department makes the DMV look as efficient as the German railroad.

 

Normally you wouldn’t have to put yourself through this agony – it’s your architect’s or contractor’s job.  But if you’re “G.C.ing” the job yourself (serving as your own designer and general contractor), then this is one of the prices you’ll have to pay. 

 

There is another reason you might find yourself going to the Planning Department.  If your job is complicated and your architect and/or contractor  – or even a hired consultant – is hitting a snag, it can be beneficial for the homeowner to try and do it.  The clerks at the planning department can be competitive and cranky with professionals who they know don’t have a personal stake in the endless run-around.  And they all have a shared financial stake in perpetuating the system.  But when confronted with an actual homeowner who, as a taxpayer, is directly paying their salary, they tend to be far more deferential and helpful.

Actual photo of the City Planning Department

Actual photo of the City Planning Department

 
If you find yourself in the unfortunate position of going to the Planning Department yourself to push along a sticky permit (also known as the tenth circle of Hell), here are ten important tips:
 
 

 

1.  Go alone.  Letting them see you getting coached from your architect or contractor waiting in the wings will appear manipulative.  If your architect or contractor does go with you, have them wait out-of-sight in the cafeteria.

 

2.  Play dumb.  Be helpless.  You don’t know anything.  You’re just a know-nothing homeowner, not a professional in the home building or renovation business.  You have no pre-conceived notions as to how the process works, you’re just a citizen bumbling your way through it.  The less you know, the more helpful they’ll be.

 

I know nutink!

I know nutink!

3.  Give as little information as possible.  Do not volunteer any information that is not asked in that specific encounter.  If you know why there’s a problem, do not bring it up.  You know nothing.  See if this clerk catches it himself.  If they don’t, you may glide through without a problem.  And if they do catch it, act surprised – even bewildered – and they may find a work-around right there on the spot.

 

4.  Be nice!  Be nicer than you’ve ever been in your life.  Nice, polite, patronizing and empathetic.  The first time I tried to handle a problem permit myself, I stormed in with my contractor in tow, pounding my fists on the counter, demanding to see someone in charge and refusing to leave until I got my way.  Believe it or not – this didn’t work!  The planning supervisor simply dug his heels in deeper (and threatened to call the police to have me carried out.)  I’ve had much greater success channeling Mr. Rogers and being as sweet as a box of chocolates.  While waiting for your number to be called, watch the clerks at the counter and wait for the nicest one.  Once approaching the desk, compliment him or her on how smart and efficient they seem compared to their colleagues.  Better yet, say that everyone told you to see them, specifically, because they have the reputation as being the best at what they do.  Then listen caringly as they complain to you about their co-workers.  Compliment them on their tie, earrings, hair, whatever.  If you overheard them talking to a colleague about their recent vacation, then tell them how rested and refreshed they look – did they just return from vacation?  If you see pictures of children on their desk, gush about how they are the most beautiful children you’ve ever seen in your life.  I think you get the idea.
 
5.  Listen.  And care.  I’ve sat for nearly an hour listening sympathetically to a clerk talk about her sciatica, her no-good ex fiancé, and her recent vacation before we ever got to the business at hand.  By the time we did, we were not only best friends but kindred souls.  She became my advocate throughout the rest of the process.  I expect we’ll be exchanging Christmas cards this year.
 

 

 

6.  Be patient.  Even if you’ve followed my advice so far, this could still be a lengthy endeavor.  You can either be miserable or you can make a game of it and have fun.  Clear your calendar for a couple weeks ahead.  Pretend you’re on a scavenger hunt.  Clap your hands with glee and say “oh goodie!” with every new hurdle they put in your way.  I’ve spent weeks, six-seven hours a day filing a case.  With a case file as thick as a stack of New York City phone books, every day my clerk would find one more thing that was needed.  Then every time she reviewed it with her supervisor, he’d find reasons to have me re-write everything again.  But you are there to do whatever it takes for your case to sail through smoothly without getting kicked-back with comments or modifications – so welcome every new wrinkle.

 

7.  Be respectful.  Try to pretend you’re NOT dealing with Patty and Selma from the Simpsons and that you are dealing with a smart, capable person who will become your newest most cherished best friend.  These clerks do not get any respect from anyone else, so showing them the littlest amount will go a long way.

 

8.  Know that there’s no single solution to your problem.  You will get a different answer from everyone you ask – be they permit consultants or even Planning Department staff members.  I once had a case that turned from a simple over-the-counter permit to an 8-month variance to a 6-week “zoning adjustment”.  Go figure.

 

9.  Go early!  Get there in the morning – between 8 and 10AM is best while they day is fresh and planners are in a good mood.  By 11 they’re thinking about lunch so they don’t want to deal with any difficult cases that might take too long, and by afternoon, they’ve had their fill of angry applicants and difficult cases so they’re tired and cranky.

 

10.  Did I mention be nice?  If you’re like me, it will take every ounce of will-power you have not to have a complete meltdown.  I can’t say I’ve always succeeded in avoiding that.  Run out of the building and find a private place to scream at the top of your lungs, if you need to.  Just don’t unleash on the dimwits behind the counter.  (Oops!  Did I say that out loud?)

 

Read all about working with a permit expediter here.

 

What you want to build

What you want to build

 
What the city will approve

What the city will approve

Bad Design is Bad Economics

  

You’ll see me harp a lot about design issues in a blog about real estate flipping, but design is what makes or breaks a house when you’re selling it.

 

This may strike you as obvious, as it does me, but it’s not obvious to everyone.  The wide proliferation of ugly spec houses throughout L.A. attests to that.

 

I know a team of developers who once showed me a high-end multi-million dollar house they were flipping in the Hollywood Hills.  They bragged to me about the deals they got on materials and how they bought overstocked flooring, doors, hardware, vanities and fixtures at huge discounts off Craigslist and eBay.  There was hardwood flooring of one color in the sunken living room, another kind of wood on the stairs to the dining area which had cheap-looking engineered flooring of another color.  There were at least six different kinds of doors in the house – solid flush wood stained, solid flush wood painted, doors with clear glass panels, doors with frosted glass panels, louvered closet doors and mirrored closet doors.  There was different door hardware in every room – some knobs, some levers, some chrome, some brass.  There were even windows of aluminum, black anodized, and white vinyl clad.  Outside they had aluminum railings, white light fixtures and a faux gold-leaf door.  And some of their ideas were just plain asking for trouble – a faux-concrete finish over drywall in a shower?  A large wood-framed window in another shower?  Both disasters waiting to happen.  The place was a mess.  It looked like the showroom at a bad Expo Design Center.  Think I’m exaggerating?  I’m not.  And these guys were both real estate agents who thought they knew their market.  What they didn’t know was anything about design or the value of working with an architect. 

 

The end result?  Their house sat on the market for almost a year with repeated price reductions and eventually sold at a loss for about $450 per square foot.  My smaller house directly across the street sold in 60 days with multiple offers at $1,200 per square foot.  Those guys ended up hiring my architect for their next project.

 

See other postings here about why you should work with an architecthow to find, hire and negotiate with a contractor and the option of working with a design-build firm.