Considering Hiring an Interior Designer? Read This First.
Hiring an Interior Designer is one of the most personal decisions you can make. Whether you’re building, remodelling, or redecorating, your designer will be working closely with you on creating the most intimate spaces in your life for months, or even years.
You may even be considering whether hiring a designer is the right decision for you at all.
While I can’t answer the question for you, I’ve been on the other end of clients desperately trying to fix mistakes they’ve made in hiring the wrong designer or going it alone. So I hope that these considerations will be useful in helping you make your own personal decision.
This is a very in-depth guide, so to make navigation easier, here are some quick links:
Free Book: 10 Common Decorating Mistakes That Fill Homeowners With Regret
If You’re Building or Remodelling a Home
If you’re an avid HGTV viewer you may be considering going it alone. While some people make out great designing their own space, there are many benefits to hiring a designer that extend beyond making things look pretty when building a home.
A good interior designer will make incredibly detailed plans before the build project even gets underway. Here at Comfortable Dwelling our spec binders are often 1,000 pages or more!
That’s 1,000 pages of decisions that you would be asked to make should you decide to go it alone.
These spec binders include even the most minute details like where to center start the tile in the bathroom…
Or the fact that the hardware should be hung 2.5″ from the bottom of the cabinet for the particular door style that’s chosen.
Having a designer work on your build project from the very beginning will help you to:
Secure more accurate quotes from your builder. When you are looking for quotes from builders they’re left with the difficult task of giving you an allowance for every fixture, material, and finish in your home because you haven’t been asked to make these decisions yet.
Some builders will include a lower allowance for finishes so that their quote is cheaper and they “win” the job. This means that you will likely end up compromising on many of the finishes that are important to you in order to meet the quote provided or go tens of thousands of dollars over budget (which is more often than not the case).
However, when you bring in a designer at the beginning of your project to create and spec out the home, you’re able to get an accurate build quote based on the exact finishes that you want.
This will allow you to make decisions around what you want to compromise on in order to suit your budget right from the very beginning of the project.
The way most builders work is this:
They give you a quote with allowances for finishes built-in.
They get to the building and when it’s time for you to choose certain things they’ll let you know to do so.
This means that if you go over on a finish early in the project…
By the time you get near the end you may be stuck on the low end of those allowances and unable to find finishes that really suit your style.
This happens a lot. I walk into expensive builds with laminate countertops because they simply ran out of money by the end.
Keep your timelines tighter. When your builder needs a decision from you, you may not be comfortable answering right away without doing a bit of research first because you don’t speak the lingo.
This often causes delays in the project which costs you money.
Instead, if you make your designer the lead point on your project they’ll typically have the answer at their fingertips so that your build team can keep working without causing any delays.
Saves you time and money. No, designers won’t work for free. And they aren’t cheap either (at least not anyone good).
But a good designer will wind up saving you thousands of dollars on your project — offsetting their fee and then some.
This is for a few reasons:
1. They save you time. Time is money as they say. Building a custom or semi-custom home is at least a part-time job and some weeks will require you for full-time hours should you go it alone. If you’re a working professional this means time away from the office or extremely long days.
2. Designers know of cutting edge materials that could save you thousands. A designer who takes their job seriously will attend multiple trade shows a year to learn about new technologies and finishes that are more cost-effective.
3. Their drawings help avoid expensive mistakes. A builder’s trade team has the difficult job of taking 2D drawings and translating that into a 3D room. Mistakes will be made — and if the drawings that you signed off on weren’t clear you’re on the hook for the fix. Most people think the builder will be on the hook, but more often than not this simply isn’t so.
Not every designer will create an extremely detailed spec binder — many are quite thin. However, if you hire a designer whose drawings are extremely detailed these mistakes can very often be avoided.
When we create a spec binder it includes every minute detail with notes to ensure that even a 5-year-old can get it right the first time.
A designer will be your advocate. In the absence of detailed drawings, specs, and communication the onus falls on you when mistakes are made.
However, if the instructions were very clear and a trade ignored those to do it how they always have in the past… now liability falls on them.
Your designer is someone who speaks the lingo and can act as an advocate between you and your trades to ensure that things are moving along and that when mistakes happen (notice I say when not if. They WILL happen) that you aren’t left on the hook to foot the bill.
They’ll plan through down to the last toss pillow, not just to finish up your build. A beautiful custom home simply doesn’t look like a beautiful custom home when it’s filled with highway store furniture.
This happens so often because homeowners run out of money by the time their house is built and then have to bring in old beat-up furniture and pieces that can be bought on long-term financing.
This stems from poor planning.
In the planning stages of your build or remodel project your designer should be planning where certain furniture pieces will go.
Not only will this help ensure that the architecture meets the needs of how you’ll actually use the space…
For example, if you want to place a King sized bed between 2 windows but they’re only spaced far enough for a Queen, your designer will catch that in the planning phase, rather than having to re-frame or never catching it until the bed is moved in.
But your designer will also ensure that all the details are there to make the home look perfectly finished once the furniture is in place.
Like if you want to float a sofa in your open-concept living room and place 2 lamps on the end tables, there should be plugs in the floor. Otherwise, you’ll have cords running across your open-concept space — a dangerous tripping hazard and not a good look!
It will cost 15-20% of what you spend to build your home to furnish it to the same standard.
This means that a $1,000,000 home will cost $150,000 – $200,000 to decorate and furnish!
Not having this planned and budgeted out front usually means that you’re left moving into a home you spent a fortune on… that doesn’t quite look like a fortune was spent.
What will it cost to hire a designer?
If you’re building a home, a decent designer will cost about 10% of your home build.
If you’re renovating, design fees will range from $1,250-$12,000 per room depending on the level of service you’re looking for and how expensive the design firm is.
Some builders have in-house designers, however, don’t be fooled! More often than not these designers are only there to help you choose your finishes when the time comes. They’re function more as salespeople for the builders and typically will not benefit you in all the ways that I spoke of above as their job is to help keep builds moving along for the builder.
Click here or scroll down to discover the questions you should ask when hiring a designer to ensure that you find the very best fit for you.
CD Budget Guide
We’ve taken the most common rooms in a home and totaled budgets by line item in 3 different categories: high quality, good quality, and low quality.
Inside you’ll see a breakdown of everything you may need or want in your room and what to expect it to cost so that you can set a budget and stick to it!
If You’re Decorating a Home or Room
The interior design part includes structural changes and space planning. In Ontario, these things must be done by a licensed designer with a 4-year degree.
However, if 4 walls a ceiling and a floor already exist in place, it’s likely that your project needs interior decorating, not design.
This can get very confusing online because you’ll see marketing and videos saying interior design that are really decorating projects as this has become the trendy word.
Also, professionals who don’t work in Ontario may call themselves interior designers with aboslutely no training!
In fact, many decorators within Ontario also call themselves interior designers even though it’s not legal to do so, because there are very few who ever get caught (and many of them don’t even know it’s wrong!).
There are interior decorating certifications, however you do not need any formal training to call yourself a decorator.
Should I hire someone with formal training? If you just need help picking out a few things that look pretty, then working with a decorator with no training is fine as long as they have the eye to do so.
However, there are so many benefits to working with a trained professional on your project that shouldn’t be ignored!
Deep knowledge around furniture construction and quality. Whether you’re going fully custom or fully IKEA, you’ll spend thousands of dollars furnishing and decorating your space. It’s an investment at any level and therefore you want to be sure it’s going to last.
There is a lot that goes into the manufacturing of furniture that you won’t see in a product description online.
Things like the type of wood used, the joint construction, the fabric, the type of glue used, and the treatment of the covering material will lend itself to how long your piece lasts and how expensive it looks (no matter the price point).
The vast majority of untrained decorators (and some that are trained also!) will only look at aesthetics and price point.
A firm understanding of flow and function. This is particularly critical when we’re thinking of a kitchen or bathroom, however, many people don’t think about the importance of flow throughout all of the areas of your home.
I’ve been obsessed with The Home Edit lately and the transformations the girls at T.H.E. via organization. The premise is that when you have a system for where your things go, it makes everything in your life easier.
Function and flow perform in much the same way in your home when it comes to decor.
If the refrigerator is in the wrong place it can be incredibly frustrating when it blocks traffic or impedes the chef in the kitchen.
Not having the things you need within an arms reach wastes time and causes families to fight more frequently.
A sofa that’s just inches too large an become an impediment to the flow through your home.
Recently a new client was telling me that the last Decorator she hired planned a drawer that was as big as her coffee table in a walk-in closet. Not only would that be too heavy to function well, but pulling it out would pose a massive challenge when it comes to flow and space.
Training on form. If you just want your decorator to copy a room from Pinterest with a few changes, then nearly anyone can do that.
Heck, you can do that yourself. Head over to a shop that carries modern pieces (may we suggest shopcomfortabledwelling.com?), pick out things that look like your inspiration photo, grab a colour consultation at the paint store, and save yourself the decorator’s fee.
That said, you deserve better than a carbon copy of a Pinterest board.
And so does your wallet.
Because what you see online in droves — those are trends, my friend.
And though you may be in love with them now, I’ve been around long enough to know you won’t be in love with it 5 years from now.
Given a living room will cost $12,000 – $30,000, do you really want something that you’re going to get sick of?
For example, shiplap is everywhere today. Can you remember another era we stuck wood on the walls and were obsessed with it?
Yup. Wood paneling in the ’70s.
It still looks great in a mid-century style architecture, but ’70’s wood paneling in any other home? We all hate it now.
We’ve already seen a shift away from the Modern Farmhouse trend so it’s only a matter of time before we begin trying to hide that Shiplap we threw up everywhere. Unless your home is a modern farmhouse architecture. Or a Southern home that was traditionally built with shiplap. Then it’ll last forever.
Knowledge of architecture, history, and forms allows your decorator to educate you and help remove trend blinders.
Trend blinders happen when you see a specific style so often that you begin to truly believe that you love it and want it for yourself.
This is what marketers do in the fashion and home industry. They create a “look” and bombard you with it tog et you to buy.
Then in a few years time when buying of that trends wanes, they move onto the next one.
As I write this the trend is this:
White walls. Light grey or cognac leather sofa. Vintage style rug. Shiplap. Gold hardware. Black windows. A fiddle leaf fig in the corner. Light wood. Watercolour prints.
Now, am I saying you should avoid all these things?
Not at all.
But copying this look isn’t your style. It’s a trend.
It’s important that your decorator shows you things outside of what you’ll see online so that you can remove the trend blinders and discover what your style truly is… not just what you love right now.
This will ensure you love your room for decades. That should be the goal!
A more in-depth understanding of colour, pattern, and texture. Colour is complicated. Neutrals are even more complicated because they contain undertones that don’t play well with all neutrals.
Most decorators — whether they’ve received formal training or not — know what looks good and what doesn’t.
However, training allows the decorator to express why it looks good and quickly determine what other colours will look good with it.
It’s this understanding of the why that will save time and hours on your project. This will save you money because your decorator will spend less time with colour swatches and decisions that fall under billable hours.
How much will a decorator cost?
You either pay for their time or you pay for their experience.
A trained decorator will cost more per hour than someone who built a house and decided they were pretty good at decorating, so decided to hang up a sign.
However, in the end, it’ll cost you about the same because training and experience mean efficiency and fewer hours spent.
Fees for decorators can vary greatly from $100 for a simple paint colour consultation up to $15,000 for a celebrity decorator.
On average, if they’re sourcing everything expect to pay around $2,500 for a room for someone with training and experience.
For e-design where the decorator will provide a mood board and some suggestions, then you do the legwork yourself will be closer to $1,200.
Free Book: 10 Common Decorating Mistakes That Fill Homeowners With Regret
Questions To Ask When Hiring an Interior Designer or a Decorator
As I mentioned above, hiring an Interior Designer or Decorator is a deeply personal thing.
To pull of a successful project, your professional can’t just be good at making things pretty…
They also need to be great at fine details, staying within your budget, explaining the details so that you understand why decisions were made, and make you feel incredibly comfortable and taken care of along the way.
Hiring an interior professional can be incredibly rewarding from a time perspective, a financial perspective, and for the outcome of your project.
That said, hiring the wrong professional can be a complete nightmare. And unfortunately, it’s not abnormal to experience. In fact, 1 out of every 4 clients we sign have a horror story of another pro they’ve worked with.
Proper screening can really help you to ensure your experience is enjoyable.
1. What is your process?
Red flag answer: “It’s different for every client and project”
Design is a profession that requires an insane level of detail. Therefore, your pro needs to have their process locked in.
Although the pieces and look of each project will differ, the process from beginning to end should be the exact same every time.
Otherwise, things WILL fall through the cracks.
2. How do you charge?
Red flag answer: I charge by the hour and how much it costs depends on many factors like how many revisions you have.
There is no standardized way of pricing in the decorating and design industry.
Some pros charge by the hour. Others charge a flat fee. Sometimes the fee includes furnishings, and sometimes not.
If a pro can’t tell you what your final bill will be, then it’s likely they also won’t respect your budget.
It can take 6 hours to spec a sofa, especially if it’s custom. It can also take 30 minutes.
But don’t let your pro put that on you. You should have a very clear answer upfront as to how much your final design bill will be.
Should you decide to add more to the project, then at least you’ve made that decision.
3. How long will the project take?
Red flag answer: “It depends”
Your designer is not a contractor, so yes. It will depend on contractor timelines.
That said, your designer or decorator should be able to walk through a timeline of how long each and every step in the process will take for you before the project begins.
If they can’t, that’s a red flag that they may not have done it before. Or that they don’t pay close attention to timelines.
Whether you’re renovating, building, or decorating, it’s going to be a disturbance and you’re going to want to keep that disruption to a minimum.
4. Can you show me a range of completed projects you’ve worked on?
Red flag answer: They don’t have completed projects or don’t have a range of styles to show you. Another red flag is if all of the photos appear to be from one home.
Many design pros work only in one singular style. Going outside of that style is very difficult for them.
And if all photos are from one home, it’s probably their own… meaning you may be the first client they’re completing a project for.
The big issue with this is that how an individual sees beauty is programmed into you at a DNA level.
What you find beautiful is genetically different than what I or anyone else does.
So, when you hire someone to implement their style, it’s very likely that you’ll grow tired of it in a shorter period of time then had your pro worked hard to define your personal style.
Seeing a range of styles in their portfolio will mean that the pro is more likely to listen well to their clients.
It’s okay if you don’t like all of the photos. They were designed for the family! Seeing a range is the most important thing.
5. How many people do you have on your team? This is particularly important if you’re hiring your Designer or Decorator to see your project through to final installation.
It truly takes a village to pull off a project.
There are plenty of solo designers out there who do amazing work and if you’re simply looking for a design plan to execute on your own, or some help choosing colours or styling, then your only concern past this would be what happens if they get ill or cannot otherwise complete your project.
However, a large build project will often require 40-50 hours a week or more. This means that unless you’re their only client, your project won’t get the attention it needs through a solo design firm.
The bigger the project, the bigger the team required. A 25,000 square foot home will require 4-5 people on staff at least.
And 2-3 people will be required for most installations no matter the project size.
6. Do I have to buy everything from your sources?
There’s no real red flag answer here, but it’s something that you need to understand upfront.
Designers and Decorators often earn a commission or markup on products purchased through their sources.
This allows them to charge less in fees while still covering the overhead of their expensive tools, project management systems, licensing, mileage, office overhead, team members, and still earn a living.
Essentially, Designers and Decorators who source solely via retail or online have to charge more because they aren’t making up the balance on products.
You’re going to pay for the products anyways. So using a designer that sources from their product partners can be very beneficial in terms of cost savings.
That said, being limited only to their sources can also make sticking to a budget or getting a particular look difficult.
There is no right or wrong answer here, but it’s important that you understand how they work upfront.
7. How will you communicate with me throughout the project?
Red flag answer: They can’t precisely define what regular communications you’ll receive.
It doesn’t matter if you’re decorating a single room or building a mega-mansion, your project will go on for months at minimum.
Your design pro will spend hours upon hours working on things without your supervision (after all, that’s why you hired them). However, being left in the dark can feel daunting and be dangerous for your bottom line.
Ensure that your pro has a regular process in place to communicate with you at least bi-weekly. Weekly is even better!
8. Do you welcome client involvement? Or will it be more hands off?
Again, there is no right or wrong answer here, it’s more a matter of preference.
Most interior designers will source everything and then present it to you for approval.
However, if you want to be more hands on in every decision, then it’s important to find a pro that matches your work style.
9. Tell me about a mistake you’ve made on a project. How did you handle it?
This sounds like a weirdly formal interview question, however when it comes to your home humans are touching everything. And mistakes WILL be made along the way.
It’s not about whether your design pro will make a mistake, it’s about how they rectify it and ensure it never happens again.
Your interior designer should be your advocate on the project and should be have the best outcome at hand.
As them about what they have in place to avoid mistakes and what happens when it’s a trade outside of their team that makes the mistake.
10. Tell me why you chose what you did in this picture?
Red flag answer: They can only talk about how it works style-wise or tell you it’s what the client wanted.
A seasoned pro has reasons for everything they source.
Their answer should depict a high level of expertise and they should be able to explain every choice in a room in a way that makes you feel confident that they’ll do what’s best for you.
Book Your Discovery Phone Call
Ready to hire a pro? We'd love to see if we're a good fit!
Usually what we do is book a discovery phone call where we will learn more about your project and style, walk you through our process, and if it feels like a fit for both of us we can talk a bit more about what it looks like to work together.