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Choosing an Interior Designer

Tips to help you choose and hire an interior designer

By The Editors at HomePortfolio

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A Word About the Term "Interior Decorator"

Unlike the designation "interior designer," which is becoming increasingly regulated across different states, there are no rules around use of the term "interior decorator." Even a person with little or no formal training may refer to himself or herself as a decorator. However, this is not to say they aren't professional. Many interior decorators have several years of experience or are trained in related fields. There are numerous educational institutes and certification programs that offer training in specifics such as color theory, lighting and space planning, for example. Although this education isn't as extensive as that of an ASID-accredited interior designer program, a decorator with this training may be suitable (and possibly more affordable) than a licensed interior designer.

In the end, designers and decorators alike will tell you that experience is the most important credential.

Conduct a Successful Interview

Once you've narrowed your choices to a few designers (or decorators!), it's time to conduct in-person interviews. Here are some questions to ask: 
  • How long have they been working as designers and what are their educational backgrounds? Who are the members of their teams and what are their backgrounds?
  • Will they help you establish a working budget? (If you already have a budget in mind, they will need to know what it is.)
  • What is the size of their typical job? (This will give you a sense for their shopping styles, and also indicate if the size of your project is compatible with their preferences.)
  • Can they work within your time schedule?
  • Are they willing to do smaller projects?
  • How do they charge for their services?
  • How will they provide a visual representation of what the project will look like? AutoCAD or SketchUp (programs that give 3-D modeling), hand-drawn renderings, project boards, other? Decide which type of presentations you'll be most comfortable with, and determine if there are additional costs associated with your preferred method.
  • What are the criteria for choosing subcontractors? Professionals usually have a reliable network of professionals they bring to projects.
  • Who owns which piece of the project? In large-scale projects, it's easy for too many team players to focus on the same issues. The designer, architect, and contractor need to work collaboratively and efficiently. Consider whether a project is large enough to require a manager. If so, who provides management?
  • Who is responsible for insurance, bonding and licensing?
  • Is your involvement welcome? To what extent? (If you want little involvement, say so.)
  • Ask for a copy of the design contract.
  • Ask for current references.
TIP: Do not feel that you can only call an interior designer to do a complete house. A good interior designer will help you prioritize your design needs and develop the best plan for your lifestyle and budget—whatever that budget may be.

Understand the Fee Structure

While most design professional are honest and reputable, the unregulated nature and opaque "to-the-trade" pricing structures have left some consumers feeling vulnerable and victimized.  The key to preventing this is to hire a designer/decorator who has transparent billing methods. It is important for you, as a consumer, to have a clear understanding of what you're paying for.

These are the ways interior designers typically charge for their services:

  • Flat-design fee: Client pays a flat fee for interior design services based on creation of a design plan, time required, and scope of services.
  • Hourly rate: Interior designer bills a negotiated rate per hour. You may want to negotiate a defined number of hours per month then require your designer to check in with you before adding more hours. With this model, the designer typically passes along any industry discounts to you.
  • Cost-plus method: Interior designer charges a set percentage on merchandise purchased and third-party services rendered from such trades as upholsterers, window-treatment shops, faux painters, etc.
  • Mixed method: Client pays a set percentage on purchases and a base design fee at an hourly rate.
TIP: List prices for "to-the-trade" products typically include a built-in commission of anywhere from 20 to 50 percent. Likewise, third-party contractors may build in some additional percentage for the referral from the designer. A reputable interior designer will clearly explain these charges to you.

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