Building or
remodeling a home
in California:

Architecture fees you should expect to pay

*All architectural and construction firms will have their own way of setting fee levels and billing. Some sole proprietors may charge a lot less, and other firms may charge considerably more. This article aims to present the averages you can expect across the industry.

One of the first questions anyone asks when working with an architect to remodel or build a new home in California is how much will it cost me in architectural and permitting fees?

Starting a big project like this can feel like a leap into the unknown, especially if you’ve never undertaken a large-scale build or renovation before.

As a design-build firm, Letter Four guides clients in California through their projects from initial inception to move in, and everything in between. We pride ourselves on our clear and comprehensive process, so you know what to expect every step of the way.

With this in mind, we’re demystifying the way architectural fees are set and charged.*

Here’s everything you need to know about residential architectural fees — for both new builds and renovations.

First things first, what exactly are architectural fees for?

What are Architectural
Fees for?

Most residential architectural firms base their fees on a set “package” of services. These services are tailored to each homeowner, typically comprising a mixture of fixed and hourly fees.

The total price will reflect the complexity and number of services required, as well as the unique project requirements, site conditions, and deadlines. As you might expect, expenses increase with a more comprehensive range of professional services, expedited timelines or complex project goals and site conditions.

Architectural fees cover a wide array of services, including due diligence and research, design phases, securing permits, and involvement through the course of construction.

We’ll explain each phase in more detail (as part of Letter Four’s 10 Phase Process), but there are also several “soft costs” involved in custom-builds that homeowners need to consider.

Architectural Fees and Soft costs:

There are four main types of “soft costs” for new, custom-built homes or remodels.

Let’s take a look at each in turn…

1. Consultant Costs

Consulting costs vary depending on the scope and complexity of the project. Here’s a rough guide to these costs for a standard lot (listed in dollar amounts rather than percentages) so you have a clear idea of what to expect.

Surveying costs

Surveyor costs will depend on whether you’re constructing a complete new-build or adding to your existing home, as well as whether you’re building on a flat or sloped lot.

You can expect to spend:

  • Boundary (Flat Lot): $2,500 or Topographic Survey (Sloped Lot): $8,000+
  • Soils Report (Sloped Lot): $7,000
  • As-Built Survey: $3,500-$5,000 (or more). This cost will largely depend on the size of your existing home and the number of buildings affected by the project. An as-built survey is not required if we are tearing down the existing building(s) on site.

Engineering costs

The amounts involved with engineering costs will vary depending on the scope of your project.

Expect to spend in the region of:

  • Structural Engineering: $7,000-$12,000+
  • Civil Engineering (Sloped lot): $6,000-$8,000+
  • Energy Calculations (Title 24): $500 per building

2. Fixed Fee Architectural Services

At Letter Four, many of our architectural services are charged as a fixed fee. This gives you peace of mind, knowing exactly what you’ll spend at each stage of the project.

Our fixed fee phases include:

  • Due Diligence
  • Conceptual Design
  • Schematic Design
  • Design Development
  • Construction Documents

We’ll provide a brief introduction to our “10 Phase Process” in the next section, but you can also explore our step-by-step guide to the design-build process for more information.

At Letter Four our fees are not based solely on construction cost. That said, many firms do use this practice and it can be helpful to see fees broken down this way.

Architectural fees expressed as a percentage of total construction costs tend to follow this fee structure:

Construction Costs Architectural Fixed Fees
$350,000 – $500,000 15% -20%
$500,000 – $1 million 9% – 15%
$1 million – $2.5 million 6% – 9%
$2.5 million or more 5% -6%

Calculating single-family residential construction costs can be challenging. For help, please refer to What You Need to Know About Single Family Residential Construction Costs.

3. City Fees

The main expenses for city fees include Plan Check and Permit Fees. These tend to lie between 1.5% and 2% of project construction cost.

City fees usually include aspects such as plan check fees, permit fees, costs for special approvals, and “clearances”.

Clearance fees refer to the approvals necessary for Fire Department reviews, Storm Water (also known as Low Impact Development, or LID), Bureau of Engineering (BOE), and other departments. While this may seem like a lot of different agencies, they only account for a small proportion of total city fee costs.

During the Coronavirus pandemic, many cities adopted online payment methods. This means clients can pay fees directly without any additional markups. It all makes a difference.

4. Hourly Service Fees

At Letter Four, we bill on an hourly basis for interior design services, plan check expediting, and construction administration time spent by architectural staff. These fees are in addition to the fixed fees listed in the table above.

These fees vary significantly depending on the scope of your project, as well as your own desire to tackle this work and ability to make timely decisions.

As a rule of thumb, however, these costs generally amount to between 3% and 10% of total construction costs.

Summary

It’s important to remember that architectural fees aren’t the only design related fees you’ll need to account for. Additional fees include surveying costs, consultant fees for structural and civil engineering, plan check, permit fees, and more…

While consulting costs are largely fixed, these fees can vary significantly depending on the scope of your build, the complexity of the site, and what services you require.

Contact Letter Four to discuss your project, and we’ll be able to advise on fees and costs.

Fee Category Summary of Associated Fees
Consultant costs

Surveying costs

    • Boundary (Flat Lot): $2,500 or Topographic Survey (Sloped Lot): $8,000+
    • Soils Report (Sloped Lot): $7,000
    • As-Built Survey: $3,500-$5,000 (or more)

Engineering costs

    • Structural Engineering: $7,000-$12,000+
    • Civil Engineering (Sloped lot): $6,000-$8,000+
    • Energy Calculations (Title 24): $500 per building
City fees The main expenses for city fees include Plan Check and Permit Fees. These tend to lie between 1.5% and 2% of project construction cost.
Hourly service fees (See our 10 Phase Process below for hourly phases) Interior design services, plan check expediting, construction
administration and other hourly fees often amount to
between 3%-10% of the
Fixed fee services (See our 10 Phase Process below for fixed fee phases)

Building or remodeling a home in California will involve fixed fee project phases. This phase account for the following costs as a percentage of construction cost:

    • Construction costs of $350,000 – $500,000: 15% -20%
    • Construction costs of $500,000 – $1 million: 9% – 15%
    • Construction costs of $1 million – $2.5 million: 6% – 9%
    • Construction costs of $2.5 million or more: 5% -6%

Fixed and hourly fees across the Letter Four 10-Phase Process

1. Due Diligence

Fixed fee. Here we evaluate your project’s unique goals and constraints, as well as city requirements, site conditions, timelines, and budgets.

2. Conceptual Design

Fixed fee. Next, floor plans are created in order to review with you and prepare for the next phase…

3. Preliminary Pricing

Fixed Fee. Now is the time to pull together an initial, estimated cost of build based upon the approved Conceptual Design. The estimate is based on costs per square foot, using cost ranges from recent projects.

4. Schematic Design

Fixed fee. This step involves drafting and modeling the approved hand sketches prepared during the Conceptual Design phase and consulting structural engineers if needed.

5. Design Development

Fixed fee. Letter Four will now develop project documentation to the level necessary to coordinate with engineers, submit basic plans to the Department of Building and Safety, and secure your approval.

6. Construction Documents

Fixed fee. Drawings are developed to allow coordination with construction professionals and detail the specifics of your project. These are the drawings we use to build your project.

7. Finish and Fixture Selections

Hourly. At this stage, we select and present finishes and fixtures for your review and approval. Quantities and budgets are prepared and monitored closely. We also place all orders for our clients so that they benefit from our discounts.

8. Landscape Design

Hourly and Fixed fee. Letter Four provides in-house landscape design to ensure cohesion with architectural plans, as well as City requirements. This includes aspects such as planting, hardscape, lighting, and irrigation.

9. Building Permitting

Hourly. This phase involves hourly work and submission of drawings necessary to secure the required agency approvals for your project.

10. Construction Administration

Hourly and Fixed fee. Letter Four provides in-house landscape design to ensure cohesion with architectural plans, as well as City requirements. This includes aspects such as planting, hardscape, lighting, and irrigation.

Residential Architectural Fees in Practice

With a firm understanding of what our architectural fees cover, how does this work in practice?

Here are three examples of three very different projects, to help you understand how residential architectural fees are applied. These are summarized as a percentage of construction cost. For more information on that please refer to our article.

Example One: A New Construction Project

Involving the construction of a 3,000 square foot, four-bedroom, three-bathroom home on a flat lot; a complete new-build residential project designed to a high-end specification.

Estimated Construction Cost: $1.2 million

Client Details:

The client works full-time and can’t stop by showrooms or frequently visit the site as the build progresses. They require a full level of service, including finish and fixture selections, permitting, construction administration, and landscape design.

Cost Break Down

Consultant Costs: $19,000 +/-
Architectural Fixed Fees: 8% ($90,000)
City Fees: 1.5% ($15,000)
Fees for Hourly Services: 6% ($60,000)

Working with the figures above, the soft costs for architectural, engineering, landscape, interior design and city fees would total $184,000 — roughly 15% of the project construction costs.

Example Two: A Second Story Addition

A project adding a primary suite as well as two additional bedrooms with a “Jack and Jill” bathroom to an existing home, located on a hillside lot.

Estimated Construction Cost: $850,000

The Client:

The homeowner is confident in their ability to select fixtures and finishes for the project. Despite this, there are complex considerations and additional costs for a remodel on a hillside property.

Cost Break Down

Consultant Costs: $29,000 +/-
Architectural Fixed Fees: 9% ($68,000)
City Fees: ($17,000)
Fees for Hourly Services: 5% ($42,500)

Using the figures above, the complete soft costs for the project would total $173,500 — roughly 20% of construction costs.

Example Three: Major Remodel

A 2,000 square foot home, with no new square footage added. While this is a smaller project, the entire home is being gutted. Ceilings will be vaulted and the floorplan opened up, requiring structural engineering, framing, and foundation work.

Estimated Construction Cost: $350,000

The Client:

A professional couple who’d like help selecting finishes and fixtures for the project,  including their kitchen and two bathrooms.

Cost Break Down

Consultant Costs: $13,500 +/-
Architectural Fixed Fees: 12% ($42,000)
City Fees: 2% ($7,000)
Fees for Hourly Services: 6% ($21,000)

Working with these estimated costs, the soft costs would be the region of $82,500. This is equivalent to roughly 23% of the project construction costs.

Conclusion: The bottom line of costs

As you can see from the examples above, it’s clear that when you’re embarking on a residential building project, you must account for more than just construction costs.

Architectural fees, consultant costs, city fees, and a contingency for unforeseen conditions (it’s wise to keep at least 10% of total construction costs in reserve) all need to be factored in.

Consulting costs (involving boundary surveys, soil reports, and structural engineers) tend to remain reasonably consistent. At Letter Four, we provide many fixed fee architectural services, as well as hourly work. While we do not determine our fees strictly as a percentage of construction cost, it can be easiest to calculate them this way and compare them to the industry standard.