New Real Estate Pros

Bruce Irving wasn't looking for a new job. For 17 years he'd worked behind the cameras at the television show "This Old House," eventually becoming the show's executive producer. But in 2005 the series's owner, Time Warner, laid him off. After years of chronicling home renovations, Irving was forced to remodel his career.

As he reflected on why he loved working for the original home improvement show, he realized that the television cameras weren't the reason. "The part that really turned me on was fixing up the houses," says Irving, who's based in Cambridge, Mass. "I'd stood at the center of the architect, the building products suppliers, the town officials and the homeowner, and I couldn't help but notice that everybody was speaking a slightly different dialect, metaphorically, and that the homeowner was really at a disadvantage."

He's right. When the average American homeowner decides to remodel a house, he hires a contractor, who sketches a design himself. Fewer than one in 20 homeowners hires an architect to design a renovation. Those that do nearly always get a better-designed space, but architects can't guarantee a trouble-free renovation. Often, they also end up conflicting with contractors, who complain that architects pay too little attention to minimizing costs, designing projects that are unnecessarily complicated to build. Contractors are hardly perfect, either: once the job begins they're usually happiest when they're hammering nails. Many have little patience for holding homeowners' hands, patiently explaining the decisions that need to be made or explaining why a project is going over budget or taking longer than expected.

Irving figured there was room for a new kind of professional to help bridge these gaps. So he printed up a brochure offering his services as a "renovation consultant"—a job title that, so far as he could tell, hadn't previously existed. He launched his new business in the spring of 2006, taking on jobs large and small. Some clients hire him to tour a house they're considering buying, to scope out whether it's viable for remodeling. On some jobs he becomes a full-fledged partner, helping the homeowner choose the architect and contractors, then regularly appearing on the job site to measure progress, help guide decisions and serve as a translator and intermediary. For short-term jobs Irving charges $300 per hour; for longer jobs he receives a monthly retainer.

For jobs that last a couple of hours, that's short money in the scheme of a renovation. For longer-term jobs, Irving estimates his services could boost the total cost of a renovation by around 3 percent, and that's on top of the 10 or 15 percent charged by an architect. Some clients have likened his services to those of a wedding planner, and Irving says he can understand the comparison.

Often his job involves helping people figure out how to bridge the gap between architectural drawings and doing a renovation they can afford. For one couple Irving spent two hours talking with them and studying the drawings, showing them ways the architect should simplify the design to make it more affordable. "God bless architects—they do their very best to help realize the dreams of their clients," Irving says. "But a combination of a desire to build very beautiful things and satisfy their clients' wish lists more often than not leads to an overly ambitious structure." Homeowners can be reluctant to push back, or they don't know what should be simplified, and Irving can help show them how and why that can be worth doing.

On another project Irving spent time with a man who owned a converted carriage house and was agonizing over whether to renovate it. "By the end of the discussion it was clear to me that this building could never be what he wanted it to be, so I gently [asked] … whether he'd ever thought of finding a better house," Irving says. "It was like the weight of the world came off his shoulders."

Dwight Schultheis and his wife Lauren have utilized Irving's services on two different homes. The first was a loft the couple was renting. They were thinking about buying and renovating it. Walking through the home, Irving rattled off a long list of ideas to make the renovations cost less than they had expected. "It was one of the best information downloads of my life," Schultheis says. Instead of buying the loft the couple purchased an 1846 brownstone in Boston's South End, on which they planned to do a $200,000 renovation. Irving pointed them toward an architect and an interior designer, and spent several hours making recommendations. Among other pieces of advice, he suggested they not expose a brick wall to preserve the home's history—which would also save thousands of dollars in labor. He advised against building a walk-in closet, showing them how Ikea cabinetry could serve the same purpose without disrupting the heating system. Total charges for this consultation: $900. "He probably cut $80,000 worth of work out of [the job], and opened our eyes to a lot of stuff that was totally unnecessary," Schultheis says. "I don't know where else I would have gotten that kind of help."

On the surface this might seem like a difficult time to launch a renovation-focused business. Thanks to the housing downturn, Americans' spending on home renovations will fall this year. But even as home prices have fallen, there are still plenty of longer-term homeowners sitting on large dollops of equity—and in Massachusetts, a state with very old homes, there are still plenty of people wanting to update their houses no matter which direction the housing market is headed. Irving says he hopes to turn his consulting practice into a full-time business that can support his family, but he's not there yet. To supplement his income as the business grows, he still takes on occasional television jobs and writes for shelter magazines.

Irving admits missing the camaraderie of the gang on "This Old House." But after 17 years he was ready for a change, and he's enjoying the new gig he's constructing. "I find myself giddy when I'm fully engaged in this kind of work," he says. "It's so satisfying when you see the fear melt out of homeowners' faces, the kind of relief that comes across them." For anyone who has experienced the stress and anxiety of living through a large-scale renovation, that's a compelling proposition.