1) Do I need a permit for any type of work in my apartment?

No not at all, it all depends on the size and complexity of the project. Many co-op boards request that you pull a permit even for minor things, but they don’t really know. If it’s a minor change and you know that your neighbors won’t complain, just do it. However, if you are doing any significant plumbing or electrical changes, then ask the plumber or electrician to pull the permits for you. If you aren't sure, ask an architect or designer, not a contractor.

2) How can I find a good contractor, should I ask my buildings co-op board?

No, many co-op boards promote their favorite contractors, often for kickbacks. Ask an architect or designer for referrals. In addition, you should not work with a contractor directly. You don’t know his past history or the quality of his work. Look for an architect or designer to select and supervise your project. Contrary to popular opinion, it will cost you less in the end and the work will turn out better.

3) I was thinking of changing all my incandescent bulbs to the new fluorescent screw-in variety to save money and to help the environment.

That’s not a good idea for the following reasons: a) the quality of light is vastly inferior to incandescent bulbs, b) regular incandescent bulbs are inexpensive to use, c) fluorescent bulbs contain mercury, therefore, you are releasing mercury into the environment whenever you break one or throw one away, d) it has been shown that extensive fluorescent light exposure (in the office all day and for several hours in the evening) could potentially make it more difficult to sleep.

4) What’s the difference between an architect, an interior designer and a decorator; and which one should I use for an interior renovation?

a) In general an architect is trained in the planning and designing of buildings. Architects are usually involved in supervising aspects of the project. Many architects work in interiors as well. An architect can sign and stamp official state and city documents.
b) An interior architect specializes in interior planning and design. Their work includes all aspects of the built interior, from structural and HVAC work through decoration.
c) An interior designer has more or less the same responsibilities as an interior architect, however, they cannot sign and stamp official documents.
d) A decorator can be referred to as a house painter or someone who practices interior decoration. They usually have the least or no foundational training.

You should look for someone who specializes in interior environments. That can be an architect or interior designer. Although there have been some outstanding decorators in history, most don’t have the qualifications and experience for a major project.

5) I want to hire an architect to help me design my 3 bedroom apartment but I’m afraid it will increase the cost of the project significantly, is there a way to hire a design professional without escalating the costs too much?

Yes there is, and this economic climate is the perfect time to make deals with design professionals. You can hire an architect as a consultant and pay an hourly fee, or request a set price for a particular project. In addition, more and more clients are doing DIY (Do-It-Yourself) supervised by a designer. This is the way it works: the architect/designer does a preliminary consultation with the client for a set price, often $300-$500. The designer then establishes a “things to do” list for the client, like a homework assignment, and checks up with the client as needed. The price to supervise the assignments depends on the amount of work involved.