A Residential Designer:
There is a large group of home designers who fall between the skills and labels of Draftsman and Architect. They are the designers who have a passion for design, the experience to understand the need for great design and the ambition to venture out on their own to establish their own design firms, yet are not registered architects. They call themselves by several names; residential designer, home planner, home designer, etc. Their skills will vary greatly depending on the number of years of experience, personal desire to learn whatever they can about design and their ability to put together a complete and accurate set of drawings. This group of designers usually have many more years of experience than a lumber yard draftsman, are willing to think out side the box to solve design challenges but are usually pretty conservative when it comes to design innovation. Their costs are somewhere between a "free" lumber yard plan and a 10% architects fee.
The process of finding a good residential designer is the same as it would be to find a good builder-ask around. Ask lumber yards, they see a lot of plans, they know who does a good job, who has accurate plans and who is affordable. Builders also know who's plans they would prefer to work from, who makes the least mistakes, who fills in the blanks. Ask friends who have built recently, drive through new neighborhoods and note which homes appeal to you, find out who built them, they would know the designer. Call your city or county inspections office and see if they will give out names of designers who produce a well done plan. Just calling someone from the phone book or an on-line listing can be risky, some of that information isn't even correct. If you have a local Builders Association, call them, they usually have a few members who design homes and as members they have gone through a screening process before being accepted as a member.
Interview the design professional over the phone first and if you like how the conversation is going, make arraignments to meet and talk further. I always encourage phone callers to give me some information about themselves too; the type of project they are think of, the size, location and any special construction they would like to use. Many callers just want to know how much I charge and when I start asking questions, they get pretty evasive. That's like calling up your local car dealer and asking them how much is a new car? I can't give you accurate information if I don't get accurate information. Remember, I am interviewing you as much as you are interviewing me. I have said no to projects that just sound too fishy over the phone and I have walked away from jobs when one spouse is more invested than the other. We need to be honest with each other, or the whole process will fall apart and honesty starts with the very first phone call.
Costs for residential designers very widely, some will price projects based on the square footage of the project, some base it on an hourly rate and some will have vast menus of options with specific prices for each choice. Builders like the square foot price thing because when they bring in a 2400 square foot house the final plans will be 2400 time the current rate, no ifs ands or buts. This doesn't work on so many levels, I'm not sure I can cover them all. What if the owner changes their minds? (like this never happens) What if you have a great idea to make the great room more warm and welcoming? (no time to explore that idea) What if the builder changes the lot from a flat lot to one that slopes off to one side (that should require some plan changes-but that's not in the price). Square foot pricing will not give you good design options, will not allow you to make changes and will give you an incomplete plan if any problems or issues arise.
This is where the menu pricing ideas comes into play. Maybe it is so much per square foot for the plan, then so much per hour for changes and so much plus extra for more than two changes or three times the base price if the lot changes, etc. Do you ever really know where you are price wise?
I think the most fair compensation for good work is to pay by the hour. That is how I charge. Once we have a chance to sit down and get to know each other, a chance to go over your ideas and wishes and a chance to see the lot, I can give you a pretty good guess at what my fees will be. Now they are still dependant on you a little bit, because some people require a lot of hand holding, some like to explore every idea they see, hear or is suggested to them by friends and relatives, and others only feel comfortable hashing and re-hashing the same concerns without resolution. I'm not saying that only the customer can control those cost, I have a big role in that too. It is my job to get to know you well enough that I can readily identify the things that will stall the project or delay any progress. It is my job to weed out the good ideas from the faddish or fluffy stuff and it's my job to keep things on track and on budget. That's where honesty really comes into play. I don't like wasting time and I don't like wasting your money, so I will tell where you are progress wise and dollar wise whenever you want me to.
Occasionally, I will charge a percentage of the estimated cost of construction. I do this when the project is expected to go over one million dollars, the client's wish list is extensive or very complicated and I expect to bring in other professionals like structural, mechanical, electrical and civil engineers. These projects don't come along very often, but when they do, I need to cover the expenses of all the consultants hired to do their part.
Other things to consider when hiring a design professional include reviewing their portfolio, or photo albums, references from past clients or builders, organizations they might belong to and any other credentials they might have. I maintain a building inspectors license which is very helpful in staying on top of code changes and interpretations and belong to the local Builders Association where I maintain contact with sub contractors and suppliers. I participate in local home shows, promote local businesses and have donated many hours to clients with special needs in difficult situations. Years of experience, educational background and number of years in business are all good questions to ask when hiring a professional, so ask and verify. Hire the best professional that you can afford.