The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tips for finding an interior designer who fits your style and budget

(The Washington Post illustration; iStock)
7 min

Whether you want to update a single room or are starting from square one in a new home, designing a stylish and functional space can feel like a major undertaking. Perhaps you have a vision, but you’re not sure where to start or how to bring it all together within your budget. Or maybe you don’t have any idea of what you want. Either way, it might be worth hiring a professionally trained interior designer to help you identify what you’re looking for, plan a layout, or assist you in choosing and installing fabric, furniture and accessories.

Interior design is an intimate process, so it’s important to choose an experienced pro you can trust. But other factors — especially your budget and style — will play a role in your decision, too. Here’s how to find a reliable and skilled interior designer, and how to ensure a smooth process from start to finish.

Where to look

As with other pros, word of mouth is a good place to start. Kathleen Anderson, an interior designer based in Texas and Tennessee, suggests asking local friends, real estate agents or employees at appliance, tile or paint stores for leads. Social media sites are another option. Anderson recommends entering “interior design” and your city or neighborhood in the search bar on Instagram to get a sense of your options.

How to furnish, fill and decorate your new, larger home

Online directories such as Houzz or Interior Collab can also be helpful, says New York-based interior designer Rozit Arditi. You may really like someone who lives a few hours away, or you may even opt to work with a virtual designer. But Arditi recommends going with a local designer, because that person will probably have more vendor and trade contacts than someone who has never worked in your area.

You should vet candidates before reaching out. Most experienced designers share photos of their work on their websites, Anderson says. Their website may also list awards they’ve won, publications they’ve been featured in or their affiliations with professional societies, such as the American Society of Interior Designers. A degree in interior design is another item to look for.

Most interior designers can work with a broad range of styles and budgets, says Mark Cutler, an interior designer in Los Angeles. But you can tell whether designers are comfortable and experienced with your style by browsing their portfolios. If you favor a more traditional look but the designer has primarily worked on eclectic projects, then you may want to reach out to someone with an aesthetic that’s more similar to yours.

What to consider

How many designers you contact is up to you. If you’re on a tight budget, Anderson says, it may be a good idea to interview a few. Most pros will do a free chat over the phone before scheduling an official consultation. Anderson says those calls offer a great opportunity to further vet the designer, inquire about the typical price range for a project of a similar scope, and ask for client references.

Make sure the designer has experience in any special requirements you might have, such as if you plan to age in place, need accessibility, or want durability for kids and pets. “You wouldn’t want to hire an interior designer who specializes in outfitting condos for single young professionals if you have a house with grandparents, kids and a dog,” Anderson says. “You also wouldn’t want a designer who typically works in the suburbs to outfit a tiny downtown apartment, as they may not be aware of issues like how to get furniture up elevators.”

Ask about how they manage projects. Some designers offer turnkey services, taking the brunt of the work out of clients’ hands. Others provide e-design services, giving clients the basic outline of a project and allowing them to implement elements at their leisure. “It all boils down to your budget and whether or not you enjoy being part of the process,” says Philadelphia-based interior designer Liz Walton.

Seven tips for creating a classic look at home

You’ll also want to understand the workflow: the meeting schedule, how you’ll approve designs and products, and the expected timeline. Designers should also have a procedure for documenting decisions and recording your approvals, as well as an easy way to reference that information, such as a portal or shared document. “This is a good indicator of an experienced designer that has their processes buttoned down and is efficient with execution,” says Kristin Bartone, an interior designer in Chapel Hill, N.C.

As you interview designers, pay attention to how they communicate. There’s no right or wrong way; the goal is to find someone you want to work with for the duration of your project. “Finding an interior designer you want to work with is a lot like dating,” Anderson says. “You want to trust and like the person you’re working with.”

During an official consultation, you can also share more about your design goals and allow the designer to see your space in person. There is typically a fee for these appointments, but you can still decide not to work with the designer. “Most designers leave people with deliverables in case they decide not to work together, like suggestions for a specific room,” Anderson says.

What to look for in a contract

When you’re ready to move forward, you’ll sign a contract that sets the stage for everything you’ve agreed on. According to Bartone, the most important parts of the contract are the services your interior designer will provide and the expected timeline.

“The scope of work in its entirety should be clearly written in the contract, including how many sets of drawings you’re entitled to, billing, if project management services are included and any deliverables you will want from your designer,” she says. Make sure the contract also lists an “all-in” fee that includes design fees, sales tax and delivery, so you won’t be surprised by any costs.

And always make sure to read the fine print before you sign. Anderson says some designers may want you to buy furniture through them or may have rules about how many revisions are included in the fee.

'E-decorating' services fill the gap between high-end decorating and DIY

Also, every designer has different markup percentages and billing schedules, Arditi says, so be aware of your responsibilities. It’s also important to be aware of cancellation and return policies, in case you end up not liking a piece or how it fits into your space.

Communicating with your designer

Communication expectations also should be laid out in the contract. Walton says many designers hold weekly meetings for larger projects, and you can expect regular contact, via email or phone, about what to expect next, progress and delays.

Ask about the best way to reach your designer for questions between regularly scheduled updates. Bartone says she uses an online client portal with a messaging center, which makes it easy to find information without digging through emails. “If we receive text messages or emails from clients, we will follow up and document the conversation through the Web portal,” she says.

Throughout the process, be honest about what works and what doesn’t. Updating your space is an investment, and effective communication can protect that investment. “Your interior designer wants you to be thrilled with your space,” Bartone says. “Don’t hold back if you hate the tufting on the sofa or the fringe on the pillows.”

More from The Home You Own

The Home You Own is here to help you make sense of the home you live in.

DIYs you can actually do yourself: Don’t be intimidated by those home projects. Consider which renovations add the most value to your home (including the kitchen and bathroom), what you can actually get done in a weekend, and everything in between.

Your home + climate change: Whether you’re trying to prepare your home for an electric vehicle or want to start composting, we’re here to help you live more sustainably.

Plants and pets: Your furry friends and greenery add more life to your spaces. For your green thumb, find tips for saving money on houseplants and how to keep your plants alive longer. Pets can make a house a home, but stopping your cats from scratching the furniture isn’t always easy.

Keeping your home clean and organized: We breakdown the essential cleaning supplies you need, and point out the 11 germy spots that are often overlooked. Plus, hear hacks from professional organizers on maximizing counter space,

Maintaining your home: Necessary home maintenance can save your thousands in the long run. From gutter cleaning and preparing your fireplace for winter, to what to do if your basement floods.

Contact us: Looking to buy your first home? Do you have questions about home improvement or homeownership? We’re here to help with your next home project.