I have a confession to make: I am most certainly not a planner. My tendency is to jump right in and figure it out as we go along.
In school, I always wrote papers stream of consciousness style and went back to edit them to a state cohesive enough to get a decent grade. Come to think of it, I guess I do the same thing here...
This tendency extends to my real estate investing and renovation projects - I just want to get in there and see progress as quickly as possible. However, it oftentimes pays (literally) to take some time to carefully plan what you are going to do and how you are going to approach it.
Often, remodeling projects will require a permit, so you will at least need to put some kind of work plan together to take to the permit office. That may sound daunting, but the bar for what qualifies as "plans" in the eye of the local permitting authority is surprisingly low - hand sketches, generic descriptions, etc.
That said, do you really want your friendly local government employees to be the sole judge of the adequacy of your plans? Probably not...
On a renovation project that can easily reach the six figure threshold, it is definitely prudent to continuously look for ways to save cost. While it is certainly tempting to cut the cost of a set of plans out of the budget (because, "hey, I can just throw something together and take it to the permit office myself"), cheaping out on the plans will most likely cost you time, money or both throughout the duration of your project.
As I hope becomes apparent here, I am all about saving money wherever possible. I truly believe that maintaining an eye on the bottom line and being willing to (gracefully) push back and negotiate is one of the keys to obtaining long-term wealth. That said, even my penny pinching self cannot emphasize enough the importance of investing in a quality set of plans drafted by a qualified designer who you trust. I say this for multiple reasons.
First, quality plans make permitting go smoothly. If you are pulling your own permit, this means less questions and recycle time with the permit office. If you are using a general contractor, the same applies but add in cost savings since the contractor is the one spending less time and therefore billing you for fewer hours.
Second, quality plans remove uncertainty and ambiguity when contractors are bidding on the work. With plans spelling everything out in black and white, there can be no "we'll figure it out and bill you as we go" situations. The contractor sees exactly what needs to be done before work begins.
Later in the project, quality plans help settle any potential disagreements that may arrise. For example, the electrician installs a switch on the right side of the door but you wanted it on the left, if the plans call for the switch to be on the left, the electrician has to make the change on his nickel. Of course, the sword cuts both ways, so be prepared to get slapped with a change order if you make any midstream adjustments.
And finally, a good set of plans can help scratch the itch to hurry up and see results as they should include elevation drawings, which are two-dimensional line drawings of certain views of what the finished project should look like.
If your designer is really slick, they will include some 3-D renderings of various views throughout the house, giving an even better picture of what things will look like.
Who you use to draw the plans is up to your level of experience and comfort. As with most things, the level of service (and corresponding cost) is on a spectrum.
At one end, you have architects. Architects will provide the highest level of service and will shepherd your project throughout the entire process, from intial planning to contractor selection to jobsite walkthroughs to handing over the keys when the project is complete. That level of service comes at a cost, though. This is definitely the most expensive option.
Architects are probably the best route if you are building new, adding square feet or significantly changing functionality of a space (like moving a kitchen). You definitely want someone with credentials on your team if you are taking on a project this size.
The other end of the spectrum would be a draftsman. This route would work if you are just opening a wall and making some minor updates without rearanging anything or changing functionality. Just tell the draftsman what changes you are making, and they pull measurements and draw it up. They are not likely to provide advice, but this is the cheapest option if you don't mind doing the planning legwork and are confident in what you are wanting the finished product to look like.
In the middle would be a designer. They are not an architect, so they do not have the capability to design structural changes or mechanical systems, and oftentiemes their engagement ends when they hand over a set of plans. However, they will meet with you multiple times and do the heavy lifting on the design side. They recommend changes and give advice on implementing industry practices ("kitchen triangles," outlet placement, lighting plans, etc.).
We went with a designer for The Blouin Project and now The Camellia Project and could not be happier with the results. It was not cheap either time, but the cost was significantly less than an architect (like $5,000 to 10,000 cheaper), and in both cases, our permit application flew through the review process and our subcontractors commented frequently about how easy our plans were to read and understand.
Now that we are on the same page about the importance of plans, next time we will discuss what to do with the plans when you have them: permitting.