Should I hire an interior designer?

So you’ve signed on the dotted line and you finally have the perfect home. Except that it’s nowhere near perfect. The carpet is stained and threadbare and the colour scheme resembles something from an Austin Powers film. What do you do? Well, before you reach for the paintbrush and home furnishings catalogue, why not enlist an interior designer to help you achieve your dream home?

An interior designer is a trained professional who plans and supervises the design of interior decoration and furnishings of homes, offices and other spaces. Most professional designers offer a full, consultancy and project management package, as well as a design-only service.

Not only will they draw up the plans, source materials and furnishings, they can also arrange subcontractors to carry out the necessary plumbing, construction and carpentry etc. They supervise the entire process until the curtains have been hung and the sofa has been positioned appropriately.

Sounds expensive. Couldn’t I just do it myself?

Well, maybe you could. DIY, make-over shows on TV have convinced a legion of would-be designers to don their over-alls and get stuck in to that loft conversion they’ve always wanted. Some people have a natural instinct for what looks good, a clear idea of what they want and the time and resources to make it a reality.

However, if, like most people, you aren’t abreast with the latest trends in interiors, you’re kept busy with your day job and don’t fancy the stress of having to deal with plumbers and decorators, an interior designer might be the answer.

A good designer will have spent years studying and practising their art. They have been trained in various aspects of design, art and architecture and can work with a variety of styles. They also have access to materials not available to the public and have good, working relationships with reliable trades people.

These come at a price. Exactly how much will depend on the scope of the project, the quality of the materials used and the experience of the designer. Re-designing your living room, with a fresh lick of paint and some new sofas could set you back £5,000. A complete refurbishment of a large house, meanwhile, could cost you £100,000 or more.

But there are so many designers out there! How do I find a good one?

The best way to find a designer is through word of mouth. Ask friends, colleagues and relatives if they can recommend someone who has completed an interior-design project for them. If you’ve seen an interior that appeals to you, try to find out who designed it.

Failing that, contact the British Interior Design Association. They have an extensive list of professional interior designers and decorators. Any reputable designer should be registered with them.

Most professionals will have a degree or diploma in interior design. But while qualifications are important, there are other factors to consider. A good designer will have a personal style that appeals to you, be versatile, welcome your input and be reliable and trustworthy.

Marie Blackman of Nu-ne-lah Design Consultants has been designing interiors for 22 years. She says there should be a “synergy between the designer and the client. It should be a collaborative process – a good designer will build confidence in the client, who can then make their own decisions”.

If cost is an issue, try to find a designer based in your area. Distances can drive up costs as designers and subcontractors often charge for travelling time. But don’t base you decision solely on cost. Lower costs often mean a lower level of service. As designer Jane Churchill puts it: “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.”

Do your research and ask lots of questions

Browse designers’ websites. You can view their past work on-line and learn more about the services they offer and fees. Once you have a list of candidates, contact them directly to ask about their work and discuss your needs. Ask to see their portfolio and get references from previous clients.

Make sure the designers clarify their fees structure. The first consultation, during which they assess your needs, is usually free of charge. After that, fees vary considerably. Some designers charge a fixed design fee for smaller projects. If the project is more complex, or the client is unsure about what they want, the designer might insist on charging by the month or by the hour.

Fixed design fees, including plans and fabric samples, start in the region of £500 per room. Hourly rates for consultancy and project management start at £50.

BIDA recommends you get at least three quotes before you make a decision to hire. It also advises you check the designer is covered by professional indemnity, public liability and employers’ liability insurance. This is required of all BIDA members and ensures that, if something does go wrong, and the designer is at fault, you can claim compensation.

Find out if the designer offers a design-only service, if this is what you want. Some designers insist you sign up for the full, implementation service.

If you do want a full service, including project management, make sure the trades people the designer works with are fully accredited. Also ask whether the client or the designer is responsible for contracting them. Usually the designer will recommend the subcontractor, but the client will hire the subcontractor, who insures their own work.

The designer, in turn, may ask you a lot of detailed questions about yourself, your family and your lifestyle. Don’t be put off by this apparent intrusion – the better the designer understands your needs and expectations, the easier it will be to meet them. In fact, you should be wary of a designer who doesn’t ask a lot of questions – they might be more interested in their own agenda than in yours.

Try to develop a clear idea of what you want to achieve from the design project, before you choose your designer. It’s also a good idea to do some research on the industry in general. You will feel more confident about the process if you know how it works and it should help to lower costs.

If you already have the details of the supplier of a particular sofa you are keen on, this will save time and money. Some designers might not appreciate your legwork, but a good designer will welcome your initiative.

Money, Money, Money

Once you have chosen your designer, it’s important to have your budget worked out before they start making detailed plans. Make sure it’s an amount you are completely happy to spend to achieve what you want. It’s a good idea to have a 10 -15% contingency fund, which will allow for any unforeseeable problems that might crop up.

This is particularly important if the project involves building, plumbing or electrical work, where structural problems might be an issue.

You should always be upfront and honest with your designer about your budget. Setting precise, spending limits from the start will mean fewer misunderstandings and less wasted time further down the line.

Many people are unrealistic about budgets and don’t realise how costs can add up, especially on big projects. Your designer will do their best to accommodate your wishes. If your budget really won’t stretch to meet all your needs, don’t give up altogether. Your designer might be willing to spread the work over a longer period, giving you more time to find the money.

Or they could try to find another way to achieve your desired look at a lower cost.

Be willing to compromise, but let the designer know if there is something you absolutely have to have. If that antique, Japanese, dining table is really important to you, you might have to forgo those designer curtains.

What to expect during the project

You should meet regularly with your designer to go over ideas for the design. If the project is particularly complex, you might meet several times before the final plan is completed. The designer will produce detailed flowcharts, plans and fabric samples, based on a combination of your expectations and their advice.

The designer should consult with you throughout the design stages, making sure you are happy with all the details, including any changes. Make sure you voice any fears or concerns as soon as possible, so they can make the necessary adjustments.

If you have asked the designer to implement the design, they will act as project manager, ordering fabrics and furnishings and liaising with the necessary trades people. Again, you should be actively involved in the process, and the designer should keep you well informed of progress, including any hitches or setbacks.

When things go wrong

If you have been actively involved in the design process, there shouldn’t be any major problems with the final design.

However, if don’t like the designs, tell the designer straight away. They should be willing to make adjustments. If the designer misinterpreted your wishes, they shouldn’t charge you for redesigning the project. If you failed to clarify your wishes, or you simply changed your mind after the design process had finished, you will probably have to pay for a redesign.

In any case, let them know before they begin to implement the design. If you wait until construction is already underway, it will cost a lot more to make changes.

Misunderstandings over costs cause the most headaches in designer-client relationships. Some interior designers always charge the full recommended retail price on materials and furnishings, while others are willing to pass on discounts offered by the supplier, charging a fee for procurement.

The cost-conscious client who has painstakingly researched and compared prices from several suppliers might feel aggrieved that they are having to pay a ‘middleman fee’ to the designer.

To ensure this doesn’t happen, make sure the designer has clarified their purchasing fees and ask for written estimates before purchases are made. Remember, not all suppliers will deal directly with the public, so you might not be able to get that bargain carpet without your designer’s help.

If you feel the work carried out by a particular tradesperson is not up to scratch, you will usually have to take this up with them directly. The designer might have recommended the tradesperson and supervised their work, but they usually do not have the technical expertise to guarantee the work. Unless the designer hired the tradesperson themselves, which is rare, they cannot be held responsible for any shoddy work.

If you have any problems with the service provided by your interior designer, you should always talk to the designer first. Most designers would never want to leave a client unhappy at the end of a project and should be willing to discuss your misgivings.

If you really feel you cannot resolve the situation privately, you can ask BIDA to put you in touch with a mediation service. If you feel that the designer has been professionally negligent, contact your solicitor for further advice.

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