Choosing and using an interior designer: More than a matter of style
By Writer: Sian Ballen

(MONEY Magazine) – Your friends' living room looks as if they had just casually tossed it together but everything landed in the perfect place in the perfect color and in perfect taste. Don't envy their decorating genius: they probably hired an interior designer. Do envy their consumer savvy: professional advice on overhauling a room, arranging the furniture and coordinating the colors and fabric selections to suit your personality and way of living need not be costly. It may even save you money. What's more, interior designers have access to fabrics and furnishings not sold in retail stores. For simple advice on furniture arrangement and color schemes, a designer who works for a furniture or department store will usually suffice. You will pay a fee of $250 to $1,000, which will be applied to any purchases made at the designer's store. But if you plan an extensive project -- one costing more than $10,000 -- you will be better served by an independent designer, especially for a job involving carpentry, custom-designed draperies or hard- to-find furniture. Independent designers work on their own or for design firms. Aside from | asking your friends to recommend designers they have used, the best way to search for someone to your taste and budget is by phoning the nearest chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers to get the names of members in your area. The minimum qualifications for membership are a degree from an accredited design school, a passing grade on the society's exam on design theory and technical ability, and at least two years of professional experience. Another option is to consult a commercial referral service, which you can find in the Yellow Pages of major cities under ''Interior Decorators.'' For a fee of $50 to $150, such a service will refer you to affiliated designers who, in turn, pay 5% to 10% of their commission to the service. Look for a service that represents at least 25 designers so that you will have a large pool from which to choose. Narrow your search to three designers who seem most promising, and meet with them in their offices to discuss costs and design approaches. Initial consultations are usually free. In describing your taste and needs -- whether you give frequent dinner parties, for example, or use your den as an office -- you might find it useful to take along magazine photos of rooms and furniture styles you like. Insist on seeing samples of the designer's work. Many professionals will be glad to arrange for you to tour the homes of clients or at least show you photos of rooms they designed. Your designer's fee will typically equal 30% or so of the wholesale price of the furnishings he or she buys for you. Since this is less than the usual furniture store markup, your net cost is often less than if you had done your own redecorating. And on projects costing $50,000 or more, the fee may be as low as 20%. A few designers will agree to a fixed charge, including merchandise and labor. If you expect the project to cost less than $1,000, you may be able to reduce the fee by negotiating an hourly rate, which ranges from $35 to $150, depending on where you live (large urban areas are most expensive). Once you select a designer, insist on a letter of agreement with a schedule of when payments are due and a list of all other anticipated expenses -- travel costs, for example, if the designer has to track down an unusual piece of furniture. It is a good idea to include a clause requiring binding arbitration of disputes between you and the designer by the American Arbitration Association. After you sign the contract, the designer will draw room diagrams and show you samples of paint colors, fabrics and rugs, and pictures of furniture. You may want to accompany the designer to showrooms to see furnishings and fabrics. To get what you want, make sure you sign off on all selections before they are ordered. Give the designer your thoughts at every step of the decorating process. But don't be unreasonable. You can't create a palace on a shoestring budget.

BOX: INQUIRE BEFORE YOU HIRE

-- Does the designer's style suit yours? To find out, visit homes of past clients or look at photos of his or her work. -- Were those clients satisfied? If you can't visit them, ask them by phone. -- Has any client complained to the Better Business Bureau? Call the BBB and ask. -- Does the designer pay fabric houses, furniture showrooms and other suppliers promptly? Ask whom he or she deals with and phone them. You are usually liable for unpaid bills on your job.