10 Things Your Interior Designer Won't Tell You

Ten things to look out for before putting the good taste of your home in a designer's hands.

1. "My qualifications? Well . . . my friends say I have good taste."
Chalk it up to the recent home-improvement craze, but the interior design field is hotter than a $20 Eames chair at a garage sale. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that "rising demand for professional design of private homes, offices, (etc.) should spur employment growth of interior designers" through this decade.

Such growth may be especially easy when there are few rules defining what a designer or decorator really is. In most states, anyone with a flair for picking curtains can hang out a shingle as an interior decorator or designer; in only 22 states are there regulations about the exams, education and professional experience a person must complete before legally calling himself or herself a licensed, registered or certified designer.

Of course, you may not care about such credientials if all you want is to hire the same designer who made your neighbor's living room look fabulous. Advanced training, however, covers materials, safety and code issues that can have a major impact on your home. Hiring someone who doesn't have that knowledge "can result in anything from material that allows slip-and-falls in bathrooms to kitchen appliances that are beyond the house's electrical load and can cause a fire," says Bruce Goff, a Reno, Nev.-based interior designer with the firm Domus.

So before you hire, do your homework. First, see what your state requires by checking out the International Interior Design Association's Web site. Then visit the American Society of Interior Designers' referral site, for a list of qualified designers in your area. Last, it's important to check that final, intangible credential: chemistry. That's why you should meet in person, to be sure this is someone you want to deal with on a daily basis, and in your home. Wayne Breeden, a designer in Washington, D.C., says, "I tell people we have to get together and see if our personalities gel."

2. "I'll decorate in my style, not yours."
Christine and Dan Cleary, of Shorewood, Minn., thought they did everything right when they hired an interior designer this past spring. They talked to the designer about their needs, budget and style preferences: His were contemporary, hers a bit more traditional. But neither of their tastes was reflected in the proposal, which had a distinctly trendy bent, even featuring animal prints. "I told him I wanted drapes; he came back with blinds. I told him we wanted a Persian rug; he showed us a very plain rug," Christine Cleary says. "What it came down to was that he wanted to sell us the furniture in (the firm's) showroom. He wasn't going to go to other stores to find furniture to match our taste." The Clearys severed ties with the designer and were reimbursed all but $250 of the $1,000 retainer they'd paid.

Indeed, "designers have the reputation for doing their own style over and over," says Beth Whitlinger, an interior designer in Trabuco Canyon, Calif. Or some stick too close to what's "hot." These days, she says, it's French country or Tuscany themes, "which are going to look like avocado green five years from now." When hiring your designer, look for a portfolio that shows a variety of styles -- including, of course, one you like. "Specializing in one thing means they don't know how to do anything else," Whitlinger says.

You'll have better luck with a designer with whom you have a good rapport -- another reason to set up a face-to-face meeting before hiring to talk about styles and compare opinions on, say, pictures of rooms you've clipped from magazines.

3. "I'll redesign your budget."
Unless you're careful, an interior designer may treat your budget like a swatch of discarded fabric. "Designers assume that budgets don't include things like their fees and taxes," Whitlinger admits, adding that they likely regard that number as the amount they can spend on furnishings and finishes alone.

That's why you should tell your designer that the amount you're willing to spend includes everything: furniture, fees, sales tax, delivery, installation, you name it. "Have the designer give you a proposal with everything itemized before anything is started," Whitlinger says. "That way you get a breakdown of how every penny is going to be spent."

Leslie Curtis, owner of Leslie Curtis Antiques & Design in Cape Cod, Mass., and Los Angeles, adds another tip: Collect a folder of looks you like -- fabric swatches, photo spreads from decor magazines, paint colors -- and show it to your designer before you get started. Your designer should be able to tell you the price range you're looking at, given certain brands, or suggest looking for cheaper alternatives.

4. "You have no idea how much that sofa really costs."
When you pick out new furniture with a designer, chances are that he or she will order it from a trade showroom at a discounted, "to-the-trade" price -- in between wholesale and retail -- and add a markup for her time and service. Some designers have been known to charge up to 100% commissions over that base price, says Elizabeth Franklin, creator of The Franklin Report, which lists and rates designers in the New York City area, Los Angeles and Chicago (see www.franklinreport.com). But you might not know you're being charged that much, since bills often just list one lump price.

While most designers charge commissions of between 33 and 50%, Franklin says, "ask your decorator where he or she falls." If you shop with your designer, be sure to ask what pieces in the showroom cost, says Celeste Cooper, creative director of the design studio and furniture store Repertoire. "Any designer not willing to quote net (another name for "to-the-trade") to you," Cooper says, "is not a professional."

5. "My hourly rate will make you see red."
When catherine lynn needed her San Francisco home redecorated, she used the same California-based design firm that had handled her home in Kona, Hawaii, four years earlier. Much to her shock, the prices had skyrocketed. The firm's billing practice had changed from a flat fee plus 30% product commission to an hourly rate plus commission. The result was a bill for $48,000 more in fees than she'd paid for the first, similar-size project. While Lynn admits that the hourly rates were described in the contract, "it never occurred to me that I would be paying $75 an hour for office assistants to place my orders, check orders and send mail."

A better method is to ask for a fixed fee. To calculate a fair price, consider that a room typically takes about 20 hours of designer work to complete and hourly rates can range from $75 to as high as $350. "A fixed design fee is a better deal for clients," says Deborah Wiener, of the Silver Spring, Md., firm Designing Solutions. "If I'm paid by the hour, I don't have as much incentive to get it right (the first time)."

6. "Shop at the right stores and you'll pay less for designers."
Just because you don't want to spend 50 grand on your living room doesn't mean you can't hire an interior designer. National retail chains such as Bloomingdale's, Ethan Allen and Robb & Stucky, along with some independent furniture stores, offer the services of trained designers at excellent rates. At Ethan Allen, design service is free with a purchase -- whether you spend $100 or $10,000. Bloomingdale's charges a $750 design fee to do one to two rooms, with a minimum purchase of $10,000 -- but that's not limited to Bloomingdale's merchandise. The designer will help order nonstore products such as tile and curtains.

Before you sign on, though, make sure your in-store designer has membership in a trade organization such as ASID or IIDA to ensure you're working with a trained pro and not a glorified salesperson. Ask for referrals, and get any fee and purchase requirements in writing.

7. "My contractors will cost you."
When it's time to lay new tile or paint your kitchen, your designer will likely recommend his or her "preferred" contractors -- folks that he or she trusts. But taking these referrals can often be more costly than finding a contractor yourself, thanks to the hidden referral fees, or kickbacks, that designers often get from their preferred contractors. For instance, if a painter normally charges $500 for a job, he may charge you $550 when it comes through a designer, then pass that extra $50 back to the designer.

"We thought we would have better luck getting contractors through a designer," says Heather Wagner, of Colorado Springs, Colo., who hired a designer last year for a living room makeover. The designer charged a 15% "contractor management" fee, then repeatedly booked appointments with contractors who didn't accommodate Wagner's and her husband's schedules. When the Wagners dumped the designer and called the same tile and woodworking contractors themselves, they ended up saving $1,200.

Hidden referral fees are against ASID's ethics code, so ask your designer up front about his or her policy. Plus, to see where a preferred contractor's prices fall, "call three different (contractors) and get price quotes," advises Michelle Byers, an interior designer in Rockford, Minn.

8. "You and I have different perceptions of time."
If you want your dining room redecorated in time for the holidays and it's already October, designers have two words for you: good luck. Not surprisingly, the preholiday season is busy for designers, but spring is too, as clients anticipate summer visitors. That means they don't have as much time for your project, and compounding the problem, furniture delivery anytime tends to be "excruciatingly slow" -- up to nine months, says Celeste Cooper. "Most designers prefer not to be up front about it because they're afraid you won't end up purchasing (the pieces)."

Worse, even if a designer can do your job in what she considers a quicker-than-normal time, it'll cost you. Rush fees, FedEx packages -- all these costs are passed on to a client. "I don't think designers are always good about saying, 'I can do it, but you'll wind up paying another 30%,'" says designer Deborah Wiener.

So before the project begins, ask whether your time frame is realistic and what rush fees may be incurred. Better yet, postpone your project until winter or summer. Wiener says she has cut her rates by as much as 25% during slow periods in December and January. "I would gladly give a better rate to someone who says, 'You can start the day after Christmas.'"

9. "Custom-made can make a big mess."
Thanks to economics and industry consolidation, there's less "standard stock" furniture on showroom floors these days. As a result, "custom" furniture is becoming more prevalent, whether it means just ordering different upholstery from the one on the showroom model or, says designer Michelle Byers, "being able to say, 'I want (that sofa) 96 inches,' as opposed to 98."

Either way, it can create trouble. If your shortened sofa still won't fit in your study, or its chocolate-color chenille looks more like latte, tough luck. If the product passed the manufacturer's inspections, it's unlikely you can return it. One Denver woman discovered that when the $7,000 handmade rug she'd ordered, which was supposed to be slate blue, came out turquoise. Her designer exchanged it for a $2,000 nonhandmade rug but wouldn't refund the difference in price.

To avoid similar problems with custom orders, Bruce Goff makes his clients sign off on every step of the process, from the initial sketch to samples of the finish, fabric or yarn, which are called "strike-offs." For rugs, he recommends that clients buy a sample corner. At about $250, he says, "it's the cheapest insurance you can get."

10. "If I botch your project, good luck getting reparations."
Five years ago Janet Mitchell and her husband, Jeff, had to pay an extra $10,000 to get their new furniture delivered to their San Juan Capistrano, Calif., home after their prepayments evaporated under their designer's care. The Mitchells filed complaints with IIDA and the California Council for Interior Design Certification, and later received a letter of apology from the designer, c.c.'ed to the CCIDC.

Letters, of course, won't get your money back. If the designer doesn't have insurance, and many don't, you may not be able to recoup your losses in court. Indeed, the Mitchells filed a suit against the designer but, feeling pessimistic about their chances, dropped it. "We felt it was throwing good money after bad," Janet Mitchell says.

So when you're hiring designers and contractors, demand to see a certificate of insurance from each of them, says Natalie Haimowitz, who owns a custom window treatment company in New York City. Even better, ask to have your name added to the designers' and contractors' policies as an "additional insured" so you're protected against any claims of worker's compensation or liability. "If someone installing drapes falls off a ladder," Haimowitz says, "he can sue you for worker's comp."