Working with an interior designer on a home improvement project can be a time- and money-saver — if you plan the collaboration carefully. Admittedly, it can seem overwhelming, like a project all its own. Here are some tips for hiring an interior designer.
1. Find the right interior designer
The first step is to ask around for referrals, says Denver interior designer Gail Doby, 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 most 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 and remodels, while others prefer to work with new construction projects. Some designers focus on kitchen and bathrooms, others make a specialty out of window treatments.
2. Research your interior design project costs
If you’ve never done an interior design project before, you’ll need to do a little homework to get a sense of its price. Contractor search service sites, such as Angi, HomeAdvisor, Thumbtack and Fixr.com, often offer articles describing national average prices and ranges for particular projects.
Another helpful resource is Remodeling magazine’s annual “Cost vs. Value” report on some of the most popular home renovation projects, describing their typical cost and the value those projects retain at resale. The most recent report covers costs and values updated as of 2021. It gives figures both on a national level and for particular regions in 150 U.S. markets.
If you want a real-life sense of what local costs are, there’s no substitute for asking around. 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.
It’s good to know these numbers, because the interior designer’s fee will be in addition to them, or tied to the project price.
3. Be clear about your interior design budget
Doby and Sheridan stress the importance of being upfront about how much money you’re willing to spend on your design project. 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 major kitchen remodel, with everything completely customized, but have a budget of only $30,000, 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.
4. Let the interior designer 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.”
5. Understand how the interior designer bills
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. Some interior designers base their fees on a percentage of the project’s price, or charge a flat fee per type of project.
Be aware that if the interior designer does the purchasing on your behalf, you often will be expected to pay 100 percent of the costs upfront. Many designers also require the payment of a retainer. Typically, this will be about 10% of the project’s total estimated cost.
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 this type of work.
“They’re going to do a complete project … from conception all the way through to execution,” Doby says.
6. Consider an online interior designer
If the cost of an interior designer seems steep, consider an online interior design service as an alternative. These sites work with clients virtually, via uploaded room photos, software renderings and video-conferencing consultations. While some charge an hourly rate, most bundle their services in flat-rate packages.
While highly convenient, these services primarily offer decorating ideas and furnishing suggestions (plus options to buy recommended items). Their actual “design” services are limited or cost extra, especially for new builds or total gut renovations.
The final word on hiring an interior designer
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 in your home remodel project, 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 an interior designer.