Cheap Clients and Permit Drawings

Jan 15 '14 39 Last Comment
Jan 15, 14 4:59 pm

I've been on my own for the last year and one of my biggest problems is dealing with clients who contact you to draw up "architectural blueprints" to get a permit from ____ city.  The process usually goes like this:  I get the call or connection, I go over to meet the potential client at the site, we discuss their vision and project, and I find that they pretty much have everything worked out - they just need someone to draw it up and stamp.  When I explain my reservations about stamping work without being fully involved in it from start to finish, and what the fee will be, that's where I lose them.  Many are just looking for some schlep to charge $1000 and be done with it.   

These kind of leads are starting to wear on me, and waste my time.  How do you all handle this kind of stuff?  Have you been successful in convincing a client looking to pay like nothing for an architect's stamp, to hire you for full services or at least a reasonable amount of services?


Jan 15, 14 5:02 pm

BTW, when I say fully involved, I mean full architectural services like code and life safety as well as more general programming and design.  Some of these clients seem to not understand the amount of time it takes to do some of those code related tasks, and when I submit a fee that reflects that, they walk away b/c it's too high in their minds, even though it's extremely reasonable.

wurdan freo
Jan 15, 14 6:36 pm

I do "permit" drawings all day long for $1000. Takes me about 12 hours to complete a set. Client is happy and I am happy. You don't like doing it, hire a draftsman to do this "bread and butter" work while you find new clients that are more fulfilling. Your contract should state specifically what your are being hired to do and what you are not doing. If they don't hire you for a life safety review. Then make sure the contract says that. 

Jan 15, 14 7:00 pm

I run into this all the time. As a sole proprietor you need to wade through a certain amount of them in order to get up and running. Then once you have a number of projects under your belt you can start turning them down, raising your fee and being picky about which projects you take on.

In my opinion the problem here stems from people not understanding the roll of an architect and a misconception about the actual product they are purchasing.
The permit documents, construction documents, details, final design, whatever, that a client receives is actual the byproduct of your work. Superficially this is all they are concerned about. When they compare these items to the fee, the fee always looks like a bad deal. "2k for six pages and a stamp! are you kidding me?  To get past this, you really need to be able to articulate the actual product you are providing.

Here is my strategy: As you wade through the first few projects you will probably lose money or if you’re lucky you will break even. During those first few projects you need to document your actual work product really really well. This is probably a good idea always and really important when you’re starting. At the end of the project you should have a really really long list of all these things. They should be action based items that speak to the problems you are addressing. Don't just say code research 2 hours, be super specific. Every sentence should have an action and a result. These are the actual product you are providing. 

1) Researched setbacks to figure out the maximum build able area.
2) Researched FAR requirements to ensure the projects schematic design is within the allowable floor area.
3) Calculated the current floor area to check against found requirements.
4) Negotiated stair rise and run with head height issue to achieve a comfortable stair landing.
5) Manipulated turning radius to maximize efficiency on the site.
6) Studied elevation massing to achieve better proportion from X perspective.
7) Yadda yadda, you get the point. Action then result.

Bring a copy of the permit set, construction set, whatever to show as an example of the byproduct they are interested in. Along with that you bring the huge ass laundry list outlining the actual products (thoughts, actions and results) you provided that allowed the byproduct they are interested in to be created. Chances are they have no idea that all of that thought went into a project. If they can then honestly say they don't want those thoughts, actions and results then you can say “well it sounds like you are just looking for a drafter, here is someone who may be more help to you but they will not be as versed in solving these types of problems”, then wish them luck.

Many times people will walk away and then start to worry about all those things they may not have thought of. They don't know what they don't know. Now you have planted the seed of doubt and your professional oversight is the only way to ease that concern. If they come back they will be hiring you for the right reason: To receive your true product of research, thought and design rather than simply drawing or a permit which are the byproduct of your work.

Jan 15, 14 7:03 pm

If I feel their 1k budget  for plans is sufficient , then I would take the project.  If it's not  I tell them so and why.  First off, just because the client thinks they solved the design  doesn't mean they have.  99% of time they have barely scratched  the surface.    So really all they have is a concept, for which they need an architect to make a reality.  To do that, an architect will most likely have to improve and make changes to the concept.   And I understand you wanting to be involve from the beginning for various reasons. If the client is open to you making creative changes to their concept,  then it's all good.     When client asks for "blueprints"  it's usually  just because they are naive.  Have you ever taken a residential project start to finish on your own?   Being knowledgeable about the process is a big part of the "sell".  Because your selling yourself, not just your service. You have to inform  them that  they need you.     I have been a sole proprietor for last ten years. 95% of that is residential work varying from new homes to additions and couple of commercial projects. each year. Before that,  I spent 17 years  working  for small architectural firms doing the same thing.  With the additional experience of actually managing anything from  50k to  several million dollar construction projects.  Sometimes, personally   building portions of the project.   

Sometime you have to think  "basic services"

Standard procedure for me is to visit the project. discuss their wants, and needs.  You may have to tailor the services you can provide to fit  a particular client to get the job, be flexible.   Explain what you think the project needs.  "Permit drawings " may enough to get a building permit, but severely lacking when it comes getting the bidding process done properly, not every project needs the full range of services. Residential projects typically don't need the architect to be involved in bidding and negotiations or construction administration.   That's usually only affordable by the upper end market.  Small projects cant support it.    I get all my work  through word of mouth, once you have a satisfied  client they tell their friends and so on.   I have a few contractors that I have been working with repeatedly since I went out on my own.   They have been my best clients some years.  So get the work however you can and  eventually  you be able to command a fee on a regular basis that you'll be proud of.   The new home projects may stop or slow down when the economy takes a crap  but people never stop renovating


Jan 15, 14 8:17 pm

I'm glad to hear (on the one hand) that I'm not the only small time architect suffering through this. On the other hand, this work is my bread n butter. Yes, I do hope one day to be bringing in larger dollar & larger size projects, but in the meantime...this is what I can do when I'm just going out on my own (only a few months now) in a brand new city. 

A lot depends on the client and the complexity of the project. I make sure to tell them that I have to do certain things as part of my professional duty. If they can't pay for that work, then I can't take the project. So, when a client comes to me asking me to re-draw a garage addition (that a draftsman had butchered, not taking into account the design of the home) I have to explain that I do need to redraw the foundation plan, etc, and it does cost more "even though the work is just a roof change". 

I do try (and sometimes even succeed) to capture the correct number of hours for even the little projects. So far, my price is moving upwards, not because of the complexity of the projects but because I'm getting better at figuring out how long things take. I have turned down a few projects when the client's not willing to pay enough. Feels kinda stupid when for the next two weeks I have zero work and could have made at least some money off the cheap skate client. 

I suppose I'm learning that I probably have a "minimum price" for a project - there are a certain number of hours I put in every time. I suspect this price is approximately $1000, for even the dinkiest project. All my projects are dinky right now, but some are smaller than others. Ideally, for the smaller projects, the client can pay up front & if I can complete it in a day or two, then it's positive cash flow. 

Not sure exactly how to price projects though. I try to estimate the hours, then pad the number of hours. Some clients want an off the cuff estimate - I had an embarrassing interview a week ago where I couldn't give a number (but was trying). Should have told him I'd sit down and work it out, then send a proposal. 

Would be nice to have some rule of thumb - like $xx per sheet + minimum price + $xx for complexity. Or $$ per square foot + minimum price. Etc. 

I'd also like to know how to get from my dinky work into larger work. I know it's probably a matter of time - waiting till the word of mouth kicks in. 

I know we're not supposed to share pricing. Actually the AIA isn't. I suppose we can share all day long. I know architects bill out at $75 up to $200 / hour and even above. I'm below $75 right now, but hope to be at $75 or above in a year or so. I did bump the price for the new year and figure I'll keep bumping until the clients complain. Lucky I have zero overhead except for the need to eat. 

Token AE
Jan 15, 14 8:32 pm

The amount of money that you are getting paid for the drawings themselves should be miniscule in comparison to the amount that you are getting paid to assume the liability from stamping those drawings.

It's not just a product you are giving them.

I'm a structural engineering litigation consultant. Please cover yourself adequately.  Get legal help drafting up basic contract provisions to protect yourself if you aren't familiar/ don't have any from proposals from a previous job.

Jan 16, 14 10:53 am

A couple of thoughts/questions:

-By doing permit drawings, aren't you assuring a life safety review has been done?  Many municipalities I've run into don't require stamped drawings but some do.  How do you cover yourself when you do permit drawings?  Put "Not for Construction" on the drawings and in the contract?  When you stamp permit drawings, could you be liable for something that happens b/c of something that's build not to code?  Basically, if you're not involved with construction (many clients don't want to pay you for CA), then how do you cover yourself?

-How do you cover yourself with projects like this:  owner calls about doing a small addition/remodel.  Owner is a contractor and plans to GC the whole thing, and only needs schematic drawings for initial pricing and then slightly more detailed for permit drawings.  Otherwise, he'll figure everything else out.  What do I need to do here contractually and notes on drawings? 


Jan 16, 14 6:55 pm

I do architectural construction litigation expert work (usually on the plaintiff side)..  Yes, your stamp on the drawing opens you up to a world of liability. 

To cover yourself in generic terms:  Learn "standard of care" and what that means.  Add a ton of boilerplate language (and details) on the drawings, specifically "builder's set of plans" with that being clearly defined (insurance companies have some nice language).  Make it clear that you should be contacted if they have a question or need some direction; those 'cheap clients' never do anyway during construction. And a very, very clearly defined contract that is clear about the limitations of your scope and what you are providing.  And yes, that means a long contract not some two page work order thing or a handshake deal.

That makes it very difficult for someone like me to apply 'industry standards of reasonable and prudent architects' if your contract is specific and limited services to allow for lower standards.  You just need to stick to the terms of that contract.  Fee's have zero to do with the liability you assume.

Sidenote; Building shell (flashing, clearances, assemblies) are generally where architects loose due to lack of or poor detailing.  I don't care how 'pretty' it is, if it leaks or cracks or fails to perform.. you have a problem.  I've only seen one "aesthetic consideration" type lawsuit...

And yes, my heart breaks every time I see the architect only got paid a penance in fees and is losing several hundred times more in damages.  Then again... these are also the architects that drive architectural fees down in our industry.  So seeing them run out of town is a mixed feeling.

vado retro
Jan 16, 14 7:07 pm

become an llc and have nothing in your name. put all your assets in your spouse's name and don't cheat on her/him.

Jan 16, 14 7:22 pm

Actually... Just incorporate and pay those corporate taxes.  Keep everything separate from your personal, and get insurance.  Marriage won't help if they can prove you are just transferring funds made to that account.  And now you've opened yourself up to your wife having full access to 'the corporate check book'... that's a bad thing.

Lawsuits generally aren't between people in construction litigation, it's between insurance carriers since win or lose, you just pay your deductible and they decide whether or not to fight it to figure out which insurance company is going to pay out and how much.  Which btw raises all of our insurance premiums so again I don't feel too bad running these architects out of town. 

Jan 17, 14 10:31 am

mightyaa has some good suggestions.  The obvious problem is that long contracts, tons of details, boilerplate, etc. etc. all take time.  That's the bind that these kind of little jobs put you in.  They generally just aren't worth the time and liability.  It's another example of how economically weak this profession is.  The horrible economy is creating a race to the bottom.

Miles JaffeMiles Jaffe
Jan 17, 14 10:40 am

I won! I won!

Jan 17, 14 3:31 pm

If I did long contracts I'd have no clients. Maybe I can attach AIA contract by reference and make it viewable at the architects office LOL

Jan 17, 14 3:59 pm

"If I did long contracts..."

You do recognize that something like the '97 AIA141 is only 14 pages right?  With some condensing like not listing the project team, deciding on mediation or arbitration or court, etc. it easily becomes 8 pages...  That's too long to save yourself from a million dollar lawsuit you only got paid $1000 for doing?

With repeat clients, we have a work order and do reference the prior contracts for terms that should still be considered applicable for this new minor project.  I think that'd suffice though it hasn't been 'tested by trial' yet.

Oh and stick to the AIA contracts and language... they've been interpreted and upheld in so many cases, it's extremely hard to interpret them different.  It's usually what we default to 'standard of care' for those handshake deals without a contract.

Jan 17, 14 4:31 pm

Except my clients can barely read. 8 pages would kill them off quick.

Jan 17, 14 7:39 pm

Miles....did you win the Power Ball and your holding out on all you FRIENDS???????

Jan 17, 14 7:46 pm

Those kind of Clients:  Tell them you are extremely busy  and their project  would be a long way out.  Tell them most likely your going to have to go to Planning and Zoning, Inland Wetlands and Winter is coming quick even though it is  Spring.  Then tell them your jamming on other project  for about 6 months before you could even start their project and truth be told it would command a significant fee to move forward beyond the conversation your having today.  Most likely at this point they will ask you if you know of anyone who can help them out....and suggest your Brother In Law....who lives in South East Asia or Russia.

Jan 17, 14 7:50 pm

BTW....mrs snooker-doodle -dandy....rolls her eyes when she hears me giving this pitch. It is kind of like the other  talks I have with people wanting to sell me investments, manage money, collect money, sell me copy paper.  As much as I hate these people for wasting my time I get the enjoyment of tossing it back at them.

Jan 18, 14 11:06 pm

Let me ask you guys this:  for typical permit sets (I realize it varies per municipality, but...) what contract are you using (AIA?) and what are your deliverables? Floor plans, RCPs, elevations if applicable, site plan showing lot lines?  Anything more?

Also, by calling these type of deliverables "permit set" and without a stamp, are you clear of liability if a builder or owner builds the project without your future guidance?

Jan 20, 14 11:02 am

I use a modified AIA 141...  Also "permit set" doesn't work well for you from a liability standpoint. 

Assuming you are on the IBC, take a look at Section 107.  Little things like manufacturer's instructions are a part of the drawing set now, which is impossible if you aren't specifying.  So the reasonable interpretation (as well as the law) of a 'permit set' would have all this stuff.  Site plan, electrical, etc. are also a part which I doubt you are providing.  So avoid misrepresentation by avoiding anything that might suggest what you are providing will be complete enough to get a permit.

That's why you should use "Builder's Set" and define it as 'incomplete' in your definition language where the contractor (or others) must provide or request additional information when required.  Then pick and choose your deliverables based on what you plan on providing. 

Jan 20, 14 11:09 am

Oh... and not stamping them won't help you if it goes to court.  You are or are not a licensed architect regardless of that stamp on the drawings; That is how you will be judged.  Your only argument for not having the stamp on the drawings is they weren't complete.  But that will quickly 'go bad' if you released them knowing the client would get a building permit with them.  Actually, it will get you in more trouble because it looks like intentional deceit, opening it up for higher damages against you.

Jan 20, 14 12:28 pm

If I release for permit, it has a stamp. Many states require an arch stamp if you are an arch, even if the project is exempt.

Jan 24, 14 12:48 pm

Many municipalities don't require a stamp and only require a floor plan, site plan, and elevations.  The client, knowing this, will only pay for this and nothing more.  However, are you setting yourself up for potential problems by only producing those deliverables, which are woefully incomplete?  Do you all typically produce a much more detailed set, even if they don't require it?

The thing I don't get about naming a set "builder's set" going out for a building permit is this:  it seems to me you're saying it's a set the builder can use to build the project, when in fact, it's incomplete.  Thoughts?

Putting a stamp on each drawing saying "not for construction" would seem to help, no?

Jan 24, 14 2:03 pm

when i first struck out on my own, i went thru a similar process and because of this there are several prospective project types i simply will not take on.
is there is a vast gap in understanding the scope of work required? architectural process?, approval process?, construction and a realistic budget?
clients who refuse to disclose their budgets are a waving a big red flag.
all of this just brings trouble down the road (read as liability).

I recently went to look at a mess of a building as a favor to a long standing client.
the building (10 unit apartment) was ordered to be vacated and went thru condemnation hearings.
this 1980's construction has so many violations it's a lawsuit waiting to happen.
to my mind this is an owner who never intended to do the right thing....realistically I'm not about to change his direction.
I referred him to a local architect who is known for this sort of work.

theirs also a difference between negotiating a fee and resigning to accept what is being offered,.
If a prospective client thinks it's too high, i'm okay with it.
chalk it up to not seeing eye to eye.

one thing is certain: you gain a reputation for whatever work you do.
you will become the "go to person". if it's not the direction you want to head, reevaluate it, or be more selective.
somewhat hard to do in this economic climate, especially just starting out.

some of the best advice i ever received was to raise my fees.
Best of luck to you

Feb 3, 14 12:20 pm

Question for you all:

On a number of upcoming small house addition projects, I'm planning on using AIA B105 for the owner/architect contract.  I submitted fee proposals for each a few weeks ago, that the owner's accepted.  They spell out the fee and what services it includes and excludes.  Do you think I need to re-spell out all this directly on AIA B105 or can I reference it on the AIA doc?


Feb 17, 14 1:51 pm


Feb 17, 14 3:15 pm

I would put it right on the b105

Feb 17, 14 10:57 pm

 Feels kinda stupid when for the next two weeks I have zero work and could have made at least some money off the cheap skate client. 

I'm going to stop your right there.  Loser clients aren't worth the time.  Don't think of it as two weeks of billable time gone, think of it as two weeks gained to hunt for better clients or spend more time on "winner" projects and clients.

Feb 18, 14 11:48 pm

Another request for advice:  I got a request to turn some rough floor plans into permit drawings.  Then the client is going to build the house themselves.   What contractual language should I use to legally cover myself in this situation, especially if they're not going to pay me to do detailed construction documents and CA?

Feb 19, 14 12:11 pm

The "not for construction" language on the drawings is too cute by half and isn't going to give you any real protection.  Any judge and any plaintiff's lawyer will see through that.  Of, course, the drawings are for construction!!  Why else would you be doing them?  Who are we kidding?

Feb 19, 14 10:22 pm

I would argue that a "builder's set" is incomplete and the contractor should request more info if needed.  


So how the hell do we protect ourselves for this kind of work?  Lots of these type of clients, if not all, are not going to pay for an architect to do exhaustive construction document level drawings, specs, etc.  I'd love to get the clients who will, but while I try and establish my practice, I need to take on this type of work.  

Feb 20, 14 12:05 pm

I don't think you don't need to do "exhaustive" documents.  You just need to meet minimum level of competence.  Basically, the kind of liability you have to worry about is if the building a) leaks, b) falls down, c) doesn't meet code or applicable laws and regulations,  or 4) is in some obvious way a danger or unbuildable.  Don't spend a lot of time worrying about aesthetics (blasphemy I know!) because you don't have the time and it's not something you will ever get sued for.  Note the obvious stuff like egress windows, doors, stairs, etc.  Be vague about exactly what materials you show unless you want to be responsible.  For example, call out "stucco" but be vague about exactly what system it is.  Let the contractor/client take responsibility for it.  Put boilerplate language in general notes about "all work to comply with all applicable codes and regulations" and "selected by owner" for things you aren't specifying.  The engineer will be principally liable for structural info.  Use common sense.  Needless to say, don't design something that is prone to be a problem like bizarre roof shapes susceptible to leaking or untried materials.  Keep in mind the competence level of your do-it-myself client.  And make sure your fee is going to cover you for the inevitable hand-holding you are going to have to do if the client gets in over his head.  If it's obvious to you that the client has absolutely no business playing contractor, you probably should pass on the project.  You weren't destined to get rich or famous on it anyway.

Since you're being hired as compensated as a drafting service, you need to go in with that mentality.  We've all done this kind of shit.  Good luck.  

wurdan freo
Feb 20, 14 12:46 pm

This is when I wish there was a rating system on archinect.

"We've all done this kind of shit" HA! That's funny. 

Feb 20, 14 7:08 pm

Great response, thank you!

Feb 21, 14 6:26 pm

Just had a client tell me that doing a concept design "could be banged out in a couple hours"

Now that guy screams lowball jerk from a mile off.

Not even getting a response.

I can't even complete zoning research and set up a project "in a couple hours"

Miles JaffeMiles Jaffe
Feb 21, 14 6:39 pm

I think you meant to say "potential" client.

No problem as long as you have the prerequisite decades of education and experience. Estimate the fee, take 20%, and divide by 2 or 3 to get the hourly rate.

Good luck with your project. Let me know if there is anything I can do to help.

Feb 21, 14 7:31 pm

For $1000 just make sure Limitation of Liability is there. Now you have a one pager. 

Feb 22, 14 5:10 pm mean to tell me you didn't bat your eye dollar signs and then rub the tip of your chin and scratch your head and say, "Hummm , concept design takes only a fraction of a second it is every thing else that goes along with it. (long pause)  .I could kick it out in less than a minute."  Then you get the pleasure of looking into the Client eyes and watching their tongue drop.  Then you tell them,  "you pay for that kind of service and it is not inexpensive."  You watch their jaw drop again.   Then you  say,  "Sorry with my current work load I don't think I could get around to your project for about a year." 

Problem solved cheap client never wants to wait for anything less pay  top price.

Feb 22, 14 8:17 pm

LOL. Yeah"potential" client. I can do it that fast, $1000/hr

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