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Can You Afford the Ahhh Factor?

photo by Maegan Tintar

YOU'VE HAD YOUR HUSBAND rearrange the furniture three times. You popped that bright orange chenille pillow on the sofa for a burst of color. You painted the walls a pale lavender that looked fantastic in the last issue of your home and garden magazine, and you bought that overstuffed chair for the empty corner. All this and still your living room lacks the ahhh you want when you walk in the door from work.

No matter how much HGTV you watch, your home-decorating efforts fail to achieve that put-together look. Defeated, you plop in the gigantic chair, ruining its white upholstery, and wonder: What is missing?

Perhaps the answer to that common question is an interior designer. Before you pooh-pooh the suggestion and lament that the aid of a professional is more than you can afford, calculate how much you’ve already spent in dollars and hours doing it yourself. The price of dissatisfaction is high. “In the long run I save my clients money,” says Cam Osborne of C.S. Osborne Interiors. The expert advice and guidance of an interior decorator or designer can eliminate costly mistakes made by DIY-ers. Osborne removes the “hazard” from haphazard and adds “-py.” She says, “When you feel happy in your house, you feel better all the way around.”   

Many homeowners are confused by the terms designer and decorator. “An interior designer,” explains Courtney Wier of Plan C Spaces, “is formally trained in all aspects of the decorative arts.” Designers have bachelor degrees in their field and have attained National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCDIQ) certification via exam. “A decorator,” says Wier, “is someone who has an eye or a knack for the decorative arts.” While a designer can make structural changes to a house, a decorator cannot.

The scope of the project determines whether a decorator or a designer is ideal for the job. Due to their educational background and broad range of services that include drafting plans for spaces, planning room lighting and providing interior and exterior specifications, interior designers may charge more than decorators, whose rates run about $75 per hour on average. Homeowners can expect to spend around $100 per hour for interior designer services. After the first full hour, partial hours are usually prorated.

Not only do designers and decorators save homeowners
from costly mistakes, they also save homeowners from
redecorating and remodeling stress.

When interviewing a potential designer or decorator, ask what services the hourly fee includes. Some designers, such as Wier, send clients a written summary after the consultation. Ask if travel time is charged separately. Also give a clear description of the service desired and request an estimate of time needed to complete it.

Designers and decorators use other methods of billing as well. The initial consultation fee may be followed by a separate hourly rate thereafter. Clarify this at the outset of the professional relationship. Cost-plus billing refers to charging a client for merchandise purchased by the designer or decorator for a project. The client pays the wholesale or retail price plus an additional percentage, which typically ranges from 25 to 40 percent. Don’t let this scare you. Remember, the designer seeks to help you spend your money wisely and is privy to the best prices. “Even at local stores we get a better price than our clients,” says Osborne. Again, ask about cost-plus billing at the outset. Find out when payment is expected and what percentage mark-up the decorator or designer charges.

Not only do designers and decorators save homeowners from costly mistakes, they also save homeowners from redecorating and remodeling stress. Wier says, “We work directly with builders and architects to make sure it’s a seamless and painless process.” Osborne agrees, adding, “As a designer, you become like a contractor. I coordinate the people who come in and do the painting, tile work and installations of window treatments, lighting and shower doors. It’s just one less headache for a homeowner.”

But wait, you’re thinking, I only want help with my living room. Take heart. Designers and decorators are just as willing to advise on small projects. Osborne has assisted clients with jobs as small as throw pillows for a sofa. A lot can be accomplished in 60 minutes: furniture arrangements sampled, paint colors picked, fabrics selected and more. In fact, consultations on paint colors are the number one requested service, according to Wier and Osborne.

Fear that a small project, however, will turn into a runaway train with dollars puffing from the smokestack holds many a homeowner back from seeking services. “People have the misconception that they’ll be charged for every minute the interior designer is doing research or shopping,” notes Wier. “We don’t charge for every little phone call or email.” Face-to-face time and time spent in the home implementing the plan are billed, but legwork done in the background is already factored into the hourly fee or, for large projects, the contracted price.

In addition, an interior designer isn’t going to swoop in and clean the slate and start over. Homeowners worry that their style tastes will be critiqued and judged to be poor and then their stuff swept out to the trash like wardrobes in the television series What Not To Wear. Osborne says, “I love integrating the new with the old. I help clients maximize what they have and use it if possible.” Sentimental knickknacks, favorite seating pieces and Grandma’s lamp are safe. A fresh coat of paint or updated upholstery or relocation to a better placement may be all that’s necessary.

Even big projects can be done on a budget...there is no rule that says a homeowner has to do it all at one time.
Even big projects can be done on a budget. Wier frequently draws up plans for clients who postpone moving forward until their budget allows. Step-by-step implementation is a cost-effective way to get that ahhh sensation in the kitchen without an ouch sensation in the bank account. “Ninety-nine percent of my clients do room-by-room,” says Wier. There’s no decorating rule that says a homeowner has to do it all at one time. Sometimes, it’s best to let the plan evolve.

Wier and Osborne offer other ways to increase affordability of interior design and decorating professionals. Do some research before the consultation to develop a clear idea of what you want and define your goals. If your to-do list is lengthy, prioritize it. Know what your budget is for the top priority. This information will not only save time, thus money, on the consultation, but it will also open the lines of communication between you and your interior designer. Clear and consistent communication throughout the process will ensure an enjoyable experience and desired results.

When the decorator or designer arrives for the consultation, have a list of questions ready. This is your opportunity to pick the brain of an expert. Maybe you called him or her in to pick paint colors, but you have 20 minutes remaining in the first hour. You’re going to be charged for those minutes so get the most from them. “Ask a ton of questions and get as much as you can out of that time you’re spending with the designer,” says Wier. Armed with the answers, you can then do the work yourself if you choose.
We hire plumbers to fix our pipes, attorneys to write our wills, Realtors to sell our property and doctors to cure our ills because we lack the knowledge and skill to do those things ourselves. It makes sense to hire interior decorators and designers to create efficient, comfortable spaces in our homes. “Anybody can afford an interior designer,” says Wier. Osborne adds, “If you don’t call and find out, you’ll never know. A phone call doesn’t cost anything.” 

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