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5 tips for hiring an interior designer

Woman with swatches standing in front of a painted wall

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Save money on home improvements

Working with an interior designer on a home improvement project can be a time- and money-saver if you plan the collaboration carefully.

But first you need to understand that for all the expertise and creative ideas that an experienced interior designer can offer, there are two questions that only you can answer. What do you want, and how much do you want to spend? Once you’ve figured those things out, you’ll be ready to begin the process of hiring a designer.

Find the right designer for you
Couple with laptop

Denver interior designer Gail Doby says the first step is to ask around for referrals. She is also co-founder of Design Success University LLC, a business mentoring service that offers a free report for consumers with tips on working with designers.

Real estate agents are great, (along with) your neighbors and friends … whose homes you’ve seen that you like. Also, if you see something in a magazine or an article online, those are great places to start,” Doby says.

Once you have a list of interior designers you’d like to check out, head to the computer. Doby estimates that 75 percent of interior designers these days have websites, although the extent of the information they contain will vary. Pay close attention to the visual samples on each site.

“With the photographs that are on the website, you can get a good idea about style and whether you like what the designer is doing,” says New York interior designer Judy Sheridan, author of “How to Work with an Interior Designer.”

Consider hiring designers whose services fit your needs. Some specialize in renovations. Others prefer to work with new construction projects. Some designers offer nothing but window treatments. Others focus on kitchen and bath design.

Research project costs
Glossy magazines

If you’ve never done an interior design project before, you’ll need to do a little homework to determine a reasonable budget. Friends and neighbors who have done makeovers similar to what you have in mind — and are willing to discuss what they spent — can provide a good basis for a ballpark number.

Another helpful resource is Remodeling magazine’s annual “Cost vs. Value” report on some of the most popular remodeling projects, based on a survey by the National Association of Realtors. The most recent report appears in the November 2010 issue and can be accessed from the magazine’s website.

On the midrange scale of luxury, a major kitchen remodel averaged $58,367, according to Remodeling. The average cost of an upscale kitchen remodel was $113,464. The cost of a midrange bathroom remodel averaged $16,634, while the upscale version averaged $53,759. A master suite addition averaged $108,090 in the midrange and $232,062 for an upscale project.

Be clear about your budget
Architect and client working with a plan

Doby and Sheridan stress the importance of being upfront about how much money you’re willing to spend on your design project. But according to Sheridan, the difficulty in getting clients to discuss their budgets is a frequent source of frustration for interior designers.

“It’s a real cat-and-mouse game,” Sheridan says. “They leave it up to the designer to somehow, with a crystal ball, figure this out.”

Sometimes your vision for a design project will turn out not to match your budget. If you’re dreaming of a custom kitchen but have a budget of only $20,000, it’s probably not going to happen. An interior designer can help you prioritize your wish list, showing you what your budget will allow you to do now and how you can work toward your goal a little bit at a time.

Sheridan says designers can provide you with ballpark figures on the cost of doing a particular kind of project, say a whole living room or a bathroom renovation. But with such a wide range in the quality and costs of materials, how much you end up spending is mainly up to you.

Understand the billing method
Female interior designer with client

According to the Design Success University website, interior designers frequently charge an hourly fee, plus a markup for handling the purchase of furnishings and materials. Some provide access to a discount on retail purchases. A few designers simply bill by the hour with no purchasing services offered. There also are designers who charge a flat project fee.

Be aware that if the interior designer does the purchasing on your behalf, you will be expected to pay 100 percent of the costs upfront. Many designers also require the payment of a retainer, ranging from $500 to $25,000, when you sign the contract, according to the Design Success University website.

Make certain the designer you hire is selling the services you want to buy. For instance, if you are thinking about a do-it-yourself room makeover, some designers will offer consultation for an hourly fee to provide a few ideas or some planning assistance. But many won’t take on these types of clients.

“They’re going to do a complete project … from conception all the way through to execution,” Doby says.

Let the designer help you find contractors
Let the designer help you find contractors

One of the biggest ways an interior designer can save you time and money is by helping you find good construction and remodeling contractors.

“This is what we do all day long,” Doby says. “Usually we have a group of contractors and subcontractors that we work with every day. We know they’re going to show up on time, and they’re going to be respectful of people’s homes and their personal possessions. They’re going to have integrity and do what they say they’re going to do for reasonable prices.”

Additional resources
Paint samples

Looking for more ways to save money? Get your HGTV on with these tips.