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Architect, Designer, or Contractor: Who Should You Hire for Your Project?

Measure the scope of your remodel before hiring a pro.

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I'd like to add a bathroom to my home, but my budget will be limited. One thing I've been wondering: What professionals will I need to hire to do the job? Should I spend money on a designer or architect to plan the space out? Or should I just hire a contractor and tell them where I want the toilet, sink, and shower?

See Also on Kiplinger: Home Remodeling Done Right

Researching this question, I learned that it's important to understand the difference between these professionals and what they do.

The architect

An architect comes to your home and listens to your hopes and dreams for the remodeling project, talks about your budget, then draws up a plan to make it happen. An architect's involvement could stop there, or you could hire them to manage the project, selecting and checking up on the contractor.

An architect's qualifications

Architects are state-licensed, a process that requires a degree in architecture, an apprenticeship, and an exam to prove their mastery of building technologies, structural safety, and regulations.

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What an architect costs

The standard cost is $50 to $200 per hour, or a 5 percent to 20 percent project fee if overseeing the whole thing.

The designer

A designer will use their expertise to come up with appealing ideas for carrying out your desires, give budget estimates, and draw plans. A basic design would include the floor plan and built-in features such as cupboards, while a full-service designer might include color and material ideas, and even shopping for fixtures. Designers are less likely to manage the whole project than architects are, but some do.

A designer's qualifications

Some states license designers, while others don't. They don't generally need to have a degree, but you can find out if they've done good work by asking for customer references.

What a designer costs

Their rates are typically $50 to $200 per hour — yes, a similar range as an architect — although architects tend to charge more than designers. Some designers have a minimum project fee of, say, $5,000. One design firm recommends that you budget 8 percent to 12 percent of your project for design.

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The contractor

Generally, the contractor will oversee the entire project and make sure everything is done according to your expectations. They will determine the cost and give you a contract, design it, provide the carpenter, plumber, and other workers, and supervise the work. The contractor may have a designer or architect in-house that they partner with, or they may be open to working with a professional of your choice. Many contractors are quite willing to do the design themselves, if given the opportunity.

A contractor's qualifications

Contractors must pass exams to become licensed, and without that license, they won't be able to pull permits with local authorities to get your job done on the up and up.

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What a contractor costs

Instead of charging you an hourly rate, contractors generally pay themselves on a "cost plus" basis — that is, they take the amount they expect the project to cost to complete, then add a markup, often 50 percent. So, if they estimate that the labor and materials for your job will cost $20,000, they'll charge $30,000. That extra $10,000 isn't pure profit, though, since they'll have to pay overhead out of it.

So, which one should you hire?

Experts say it depends on the scope of the job.

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"Many experienced contractors are as well equipped to deal with a simple remodel as an architect," writes Bob Vila. Because of minimum per-project fees, designer Carla Aston recommends doing the design yourself, with your contractor, if the project is under $10,000. If you want some design advice for small projects, you could hire a designer for a consultation, or work with someone who does online-only plans without physically visiting your space.

Another way to look at the size of the project is to compare it to the value of your home. A project costing more than 5 percent of a home's value calls for an architect, Stamford, Connecticut, construction manager William Harke told Houselogic. So, if your home is worth $500,000, and you have a $25,000 budget for a kitchen update, get an architect.

Personally, I let the contractor do the design for a $15,000 bathroom remodel, and while it worked out fine, I wished I'd had a little more input on ideas for, say, improving storage.

With projects that cost more, who you hire depends on how much structural change you're looking at. While both a designer and an architect may have plans checked by an engineer to avoid safety problems, you're better off with an architect if your project involves expanding the footprint of your home, moving walls, or adding a level. Designers should be able to create a room's floor plans and suggest finishes. An architect's strength tends to lean toward the structural, a designer's skews toward the aesthetic — although both will certainly consider both aspects of a plan.

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Where I live, adding a bathroom will probably cost at least $25,000. Because that's more than $10,000, but less than 5 percent of my home value, because I won't need to change the structure of my home, and because I need ideas about how to fold as much storage as possible into a tight space, I plan to hire a designer — not an architect — for a consultation, and possibly to draw up the plan. I'll budget $2,500 of my $25,000 budget to pay this professional.

This article is from Carrie Kirby of Wise Bread, an award-winning personal finance and credit card comparison website.

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This article is from Wise Bread, not the Kiplinger editorial staff.