It all looks so easy on TV – an expert interior designer tells their client in 5 minutes everything they need to do to make their house amazing. Then they bring in a team of workers to tear out walls, change the flooring and cabinets, bring in a houseful of new furnishings – and bam! It’s all said and done within a week or two – and all for a surprisingly tiny budget.

While the homeowners, designers, and houses are real on these shows, many people are surprised to learn the timelines, budgets, and processes you see really don’t resemble real-life design projects.

In much the same way cooking shows produce a 4-course meal in what appears to be 20 minutes, these home shows are very inspiring… but they’re using “the magic of television” (as well as more than a few product and service donations from vendors who want the exposure) to make it all happen. That means those weeklong, seemingly inexpensive design projects you see on TV are truly out of the question in reality – even for the very best designers.

I wanted to get to the heart of the misconceptions and gaps in information many people have about working with a designer, so I got together with Melissa Sanabria of the Pretty Little Row House blog and Sanabria & Co to compare notes.

Here’s what we think you should know before taking on your next design project.

Mohindroo Interiors

Hire an interior designer? But that’s so expensive!

It’s true that interior design is a “luxury” service and generally speaking it isn’t cheap.

But at the same time, you should also know that a good designer will actually save you money in the end.

The truth is there are literally thousands of decisions, purchases, and tasks that go into designing a single space. Using a designer prevents you from spending incalculable hours running around from showroom to showroom and store to store, as well as scouring the internet for the right products and finishes. A designer will also prevent you from making poor design decisions and will keep your project from leaking money due to poor planning and delays.

Melissa says, “Ultimately, a designer can save you money by making sure that you have planned sufficiently and that you have your materials selected and ordered to be on site when they are needed.”

I completely agree. The idea that ”time is money” is so true of residential interior projects. Making sure someone is constantly project managing your orders and tracking the status of every item in the order is vital to expediting your project. This seemingly small (but actually huge) detail will help your contractor and subcontractors stay on schedule. Delays on your project mean you’ll be out of your house longer than expected which puts added stress on your family’s day-to-day lifestyle. Delays also often turn into change orders that impact the overall budget, as there’s pressure to make alterations to the design plan, material selections, just to try to keep things moving forward.

Sanabria & Co

What if I don’t want to hire an interior designer to do everything but I still want professional design advice?

If there just isn’t room in your budget to hire a designer to handle your entire project from start to finish, or if you simply want to handle certain things yourself, there are still ways for you to enlist quality professional design help.

One option is to “cherry pick” the areas you feel shakiest on.

“The homeowner should think about his/her pain points and where they need the most help,” Melissa says, “If you are just terrible at paint colors, then hire a designer to help with paint color selection. If you have challenges with how much furniture to fit into a space ask a designer for help creating a floor plan. Homeowners can right-size the scope to suit their budget and their unique needs.”

I find that some of the hardest decisions for homeowners to make on their own are ones that deal with technical, functional, or spacing aspects of the design. It’s often easier for them to pick items that appeal to them aesthetically than it is to make decisions that involve space planning and selecting items that will help them function optimally in their new space.

“Homeowners tend to focus only on the pretty finishes and furnishings,” says Melissa, “but they lose sight of the practical needs of the spaces like storage for, say, coats or cleaning products; or they don’t know what type of grout they need or even what color that grout should be, etc. Interior designers have a comprehensive vision for how the spaces should look, feel, and function and they know exactly what choices to make to bring that vision to life.”

If your budget is tight, a great option for engaging a designer is by using e-design services. These tend to be less expensive than in-home consultation services and they’re not as all-encompassing as full-service interior design. The good news is there are tons of very talented e-designers in our industry right now who can make sure you have a fabulous home while keeping your entire project in line with your budget. Just search “e-design” on Google and you’ll find loads of great designers.

Another scenario in which you may need a smaller scope of services is when you’re doing a renovation or new construction with a design-build firm. Melissa advises that if your builder assigns you an in-house designer to help you with finish selections (countertops, flooring, paint colors, lighting, etc.) but you feel you need additional help and/or you want more options to choose from, hire an outside designer as your consultant. Great design-build firms will be happy to work together with your designer to help your project succeed. In fact, many firms already have working relationships with local designers and can readily recommend a few.

I’ve already started my project without an interior designer – is it too late to get help?

I’m a strong believer in putting together a solid design team right from the start to ensure your project will run with few delays and minimal change orders. A designer’s main goal is getting to know you and the way you and your family live in your home, to help you define your style, and to make sure the design is personalized for your family before they start making decisions for your project.

Without that foundation, it’s difficult for any designer to make the best choices for you in regards to layouts of your rooms and how to place furniture, your storage needs, lighting plans, millwork plans, material selections, etc. To be honest all of these design elements are so much easier (and less expensive) to change during the planning phase than they are during the construction or demo phases of a project.  And, having a designer make those choices for you in the later stages means you take on a level of risk that it could cost you more to avoid making mistakes than if you’d had a designer on board to catch them earlier.

That being said, however, if you’re already knee deep into your design project and you’re realizing you need some professional help, it may not be too late. A good professional will jump in and try to help make better sense of your layout, design plans, and selections that will benefit your family and in the end fit your aesthetic goals for your home. This is exactly why I created my “Designer on Call” service. It’s perfect for clients who feel they’re in over their heads and need a professional to review their project.     

Melissa also warns, “You should set realistic expectations about what a designer will be able to do for you depending on how far down the road you are already. Any timeline and budget limitations that you can’t flex on will require you to reset your expectations to make them more reasonable of what a designer can actually achieve for you at that point.”

Which is a great point having reasonable expectations will only help you and your designer in making the best decisions for your home in the later phase of construction.

Mohindroo Interiors

Why will my interior design project take so long to complete? I thought a professional designer would get it done quickly.

Melissa and I agree that one thing most homeowners don’t fully appreciate – whether they’re working with a designer or not – is the importance of allowing sufficient time up front to plan and design their projects.

Melissa says, “Typically homeowners focus on starting their renovation ASAP and they want to rush through it quickly. But ultimately it never works that way. Rushing to start any project without a good design plan and schedule in place is a recipe for disaster. It leads to delays and costly change orders because a design is being done on the fly. Also, homeowners don’t anticipate how long the lead times actually are on most materials. That means projects that aren’t planned out in advance run in fits and starts while waiting on construction materials and furnishings to arrive and the projects drag on forever. Homeowners often call me about engaging my services when they’ve scheduled their contractor to start demo in, say, two weeks. Unfortunately, that’s just not a reasonable amount of time for us to create a design plan and lay the groundwork that’s needed to make the project run smoothly and give them beautiful end results. It’s so much better if you call a designer months in advance!”

I couldn’t agree more with Melissa on this. I tell my clients all the time that good design takes time. Bringing a designer in as part of their project’s team right from the start prevents so many problems. It helps everyone to be on the same page with scheduling and availability of materials, not to mention the design itself.

To give you an idea of what that can look like, from the day I “kick off” a client’s project to the final meeting in the initial design phase can take anywhere from 6-8 weeks. This phase only includes initial meetings to measure and take pictures of the space(s), meet with contractors, create a design plan, and get quotes for products – and we are not even ordering anything yet at this point! This first phase can go longer depending on the size of the project and whether or not the client makes decisions in a timely fashion. You may be surprised to know that the ordering and the construction phases are even longer than the design phase and the installation phase for furnishings is the shortest of all.

Even though a project that’s led by a designer will take several months to complete, doing it all yourself is more than likely to take at least twice as long – if you can even complete it before losing steam.

“Sometimes I think of a big part of the value we bring as ‘the done factor,'” says Melissa, “In other words, how much are you willing to pay for this room to be totally ‘done’ – and done right! – so you no longer have to worry about it? I think of people I’ve talked with in the past who have balked at pricing and decided to go it alone and I can’t help but wonder if their rooms are done yet. My guess is probably not because these projects are so much more difficult and time-consuming than most people realize.”

I’m ready to hire an interior designer – but how do I choose one who’s right for me and my project?

First, check out their style and make sure it’s in line with your taste. But, more importantly, make sure you can get along with the designer and there is no personality clash. Some larger projects can take up to 2+ years to complete, so you need to make sure you enjoy working with this person. Ask questions about their processes and systems and pay attention to their personality and communication style.

“Before you hire anyone, it’s important for you to be clear on what level of service you need (full service where the designer handles everything for you vs. a more limited consultation type of service) and also what type of personality / work style best suits you,” Melissa says, “This will help you target who will be a good fit for you and set expectations on what you are asking for a designer. It should be a big red flag to you if their approach to design or work style does not jive with you. Every designer has different strengths and work styles, so if one isn’t a fit, just move on and call another one.”

I also think it’s vital to make sure both you and your designer understand and agree on the overall scope of work, the budget, and the timeline. This is absolutely critical for a successful project. I would say that by the end of your initial consultation you should have a clear idea of how that person works, how they structure their fees, and what the estimated timelines for your project will be. At that point, the scope of work should be documented; project goals and expectations should be determined; a plan on how problems will be handled should be clearly communicated to you.

Melissa agrees, “If it’s unclear what they will be delivering to you, that’s a big problem. You should have a clear sense of scope, the activities the scope entails, and what you will be getting at the end.

How to Get the Most Out of Working with an Interior Designer

Because they deal with design projects every day, interior designers have the experience and expertise to achieve your goals for your spaces while minimizing problems and maximizing results. While you can’t possibly know all of the ramifications that come with making a particular design choice, designers do. Their seasoned advice protects you from making mistakes in your home that you’ll either have to learn to live with or spend even more money to fix.

But your designer can’t protect you from those mistakes if you won’t let them.

I find that some clients have a hard time passing the “trust torch” over to their designer. They’re afraid of the unknown and would rather make what they feel are safe choices, but in reality, those choices will leave them with exactly the same kind of style they were living in before.

To get the full benefit of hiring a design professional to help you with your project, trust their advice and their processes. If they’re advising strongly for or against something, it’s for good reason. Ask questions and listen to how they’re trying to get you the best results rather than just focusing on the fact that you don’t agree.

“A great interior designer will bring a sense of order and control to your project. They’ll also know where to push back (on architects, GC’s, installers – even you!) to achieve the desired outcome,” Melissa says.

But that doesn’t mean your designer doesn’t need to consider your tastes and preferences. I assure my own clients that I’m focused on being an advocate for them by making sure I walk them through all of the difficult decisions. I also use scaled CAD drawings and renderings so they’re better able to envision what I’m proposing. Having a designer who really listens to you and gets to know the details of how you live (like unique storage needs and daily routines) will ensure you’ll love everything once the project is done.

While we can’t say that – like the home shows you see on TV – you can get great design in real life quickly and inexpensively, Melissa and I hope you now feel empowered to make informed decisions about how to proceed with your next design project – whether you opt to use an interior designer or not.

And if you live in the Milwaukee area and want to discuss your next project with me, please reach out to me here.

If you live in the Washington, DC area and want to talk with Melissa about her services, you can reach her here.

Sanabria & Co

Melissa runs Sanabria & Co., her residential interior design firm based in Washington, DC and writes the popular design blog, Pretty Little Row House Although she’s worked in the design industry for less than two years, Melissa feels she’s been in the design world her entire life. Before running her firm, Melissa was a Director at Pricewaterhouse Coopers and she holds a master’s degree in Applied Economics. She considers herself a “data nerd” and tends to be a quantitative and logical thinker – which she finds comes in quite handy for managing her design clients’ projects efficiently and effectively.

Melissa’s specialty is designing small, urban spaces (specifically historic row houses or townhouses) for busy professionals with young families. She loves combining traditional architectural elements like those found in old homes with modern, relaxed furnishings to make her clients’ lively spaces look and feel functional, family-friendly, and stylish.

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  • Mia Stewart

    I like how you explain that you should find an interior designer that will work best with you. I would want an interior designer that I could get along well with and that has a similar style to what I want. That way there are no problems and I can get the style I want.

    • Lisa Mohindroo

      Thanks so much…Yes that is right. When interviewing your Designer make sure you get along with them as it takes a couple months or years to finish a project.

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