August 21, 2023

How to Find Contractors and Architects for Your Historic Home Renovation

Renovating your historic home can be a significant undertaking depending on the scope of the project and the condition of the property—and choosing the proper contractor and architect is crucial to your project’s overall success. For those interested in renovating their historic home, here’s a guide for selecting and working with professional contractors and architects.

Compile a list of possible firms.

First, build a list of possible architects and contractors that might be suitable for your job. If you have seen projects in your area that you like, find out who designed them. Resources include your State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO), statewide preservation organizations, local historical societies, other historic homeowners, and house museums in the area, most of which should also be able to tell you which architects or contractors have been used for past renovation projects.

If there is a local preservation review board in your area, they might also have suggestions of architects that will work respectfully with historic properties. In addition, your local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) will have various resources relating to preservation matters, and should be able to recommend a number of firms that specialize in historic projects.

If you already have an architect in mind that you would like to hire, they may be able to recommend a contractor that they’ve worked with in the past, and vice versa.

Conduct background research on your list.

Once the list is compiled, head to the internet for preliminary research on the firms. They should have websites where you will be able to view the types of projects they have worked on previously.

Look at the scale and scope of work they typically do and see if it is consistent with what you want to have done. For example, if the firm handles mostly commercial projects, they may not be the most suitable for a residential project.

The historic Blaine Mansion in Washington, D.C., undergoing renovation in 2009.

Speak directly with the selected firms.

Call the firms on your list that seem to have the most potential. Describe your project and timeline, and see if they are interested. If your project is not within the scale of work they do, ask if they can recommend another firm.

If your project is something they have the capacity to take on, ask if you can stop by their offices. This will allow you to get a feel for the professional environment and see if you are comfortable with the people who may potentially work on your project. Also, request to see an example of a completed project.

Talk to the firm about how they bill and what they can provide in terms of services. Ask if they have an hourly rate sheet and can provide references from past clients.

For a more in-depth assessment, ask about who will be handling your job and whether you can arrange for them to visit your home. (Heads up: Most firms charge a fee for site visits, so check beforehand if this will be the case.)

Inquire if the firm can provide you with an Architect’s Qualifications Statement (B305) or Contractor’s Qualifications Statement (A305). These statements provide greater detail for you to judge the qualifications of the prospective architect or contractor. For most preservation projects, the homeowner should request something like "five years' experience on similar scope and budget projects."

A kitchen renovation underway in British Columbia.

Position your renovation for success.

Once the contractor or architect is on board, follow these steps to ensure a smooth project:

  • Always make sure to have a written contract. Even if you know the contractor personally, having a signed contract ensures that all parties are aware of the work that is expected and the timeline.
  • Make sure they have insurance coverage. Also look into supplementing your homeowner’s insurance during construction.
  • Include a retainage clause in the contract. This will allow the homeowner to ensure the project is complete and fully functional before making the final payment.
  • Regardless of how small the job is, make sure any required permits are secured.
  • Once a contractor has been paid in full, check that they have signed a lien waiver. This ensures that both parties have signed off and stated that the terms of the have been met, and all necessary payments to materials suppliers, subcontractors or vendors have been made.

With the right amount of research and due diligence upfront, you can find a great partner for your historic home renovation.

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

Donate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll help preserve places that tell our stories, reflect our culture, and shape our shared American experience.

Do you own—or want to own—a historic property? Check out our Historic Home Buyer’s Guide and Historic Home Starter Kit series for more guidance.

An earlier version of this story was published on October 10, 2014.

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