By: Katie Anderson
January 22, 2018


It’s a New Year, bringing thoughts of exciting new opportunities, goals and yes….finally doing that kitchen and/or bath remodel.  The new tax laws aside, most people are looking forward to a tax refund this year and will likely use all or part of it for home improvements.

The sober truth in the interior design industry is that many homeowners in the U.S. report having terrible experiences with their interior design remodel projects.  Unfortunately the fact is that approximately 93% of these bad experiences are due to their own behaviors.  They are:

  • Not being properly prepared financially
  • Micro-manage their projects
  • Do not listen to their designer(s) or have selective memory
  • Do not follow through with their professional’s guidance or advice.

People seldom want to take any responsibility for their own experiences however, clients/customers are more often than not their own worst enemy, sabotaging their own success.

If you are contemplating a remodel of your home or your business or if you are just starting one, here are the 10 most common mistakes people make and are a must to avoid if you want to have a great result and stress-fee experience.

Mistake #1: Not Having a Realistic Budget or Financing in Place

Interior design and making changes to your home or business comes with a price tag often much higher than imagined.  The key word here is “imagined”.  When the decision is made that a designer is the best choice to design and complete a remodel, new décor or branding a business, people often do not do adequate research as to the cost for design services or remodeling.  They approach the project with their own “imagined” ideas of what they should pay and are shocked when presented the reality of the cost as it is always much higher than imagined.

Imagination is great and one of the best features in human beings in my opinion but imagination has its place and is often not an appropriate perspective to make decisions from.

You do need to imagine what your home or business workplace would look & feel like with the changes you want, creating enthusiasm to move forward with those changes.  However, this is where the imagination needs to stop.  You cannot move forward imagining the cost nor imagining that what you have saved is enough because that amount is what you want to spend or that the equity loan you qualify for or this year’s tax refund will be sufficient.

Cable design shows, in my opinion, are partly to blame for this as they generally don’t mention the costs involved or if they do it’s a price that is likely not reflective of the design/construction costs in your area.  These shows are for entertainment only and are so off the mark of cost and time it takes for the projects they portray and are not at all a true representation of reality.

To avoid the unpleasant experience of having your home improvement dreams splintered like a match stick house in a tornado when you receive the designers proposal, do a pointed research beforehand.  Just like when you buy a car, you do the research; gas mileage, safety, reliability, consumer reports, price differences at various dealerships etc.  You should do the same for your design project.

As an example, I did an extensive long term remodel with a client several years ago (in Greenbrae, Marin County) and I am often contacted by people asking how much her living room makeover cost.  My services for that room alone (as-built measuring, permit drawings, product research, lighting design, color design, space planning, drafting, shopping, purchase order & administration of PO’s, inspection of delivery, travel, etc.) was around $4,000.00 the year of that project.  Today in 2018, adding for inflation, the cost would be around $7,000.00.  What she paid for each item is a variable in terms of researching designer fees.  What one person can afford for each individual item is not what you are researching, you are trying to get a realistic cost example in terms of what designers charge for their time & services in your area.  My practice is in the Bay Area of California, a rather pricey place to live.

I recommend looking up designers in your area that are listed with one or more interior design trade organizations such as the American Society for Interior Design (ASID) or the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) or your State’s Design Certification Board to name but a few.  Look through these listed designers’ portfolios for projects that appear to be similar to the size and type of work you are seeking help with.  If you see something you like give that designer a call and ask what the cost of their services alone were for that particular project.  I suggest sampling at least 3-4 different designers.

Keep in mind we are talking about a “completed project”, your project sight unseen cannot be quoted.  You would need to engage a designer in a consultation and wait for their proposal estimate for your project.  The goal is to find interior designers that should be able to simply say how much their services alone were for a particular completed project.

The reality check here is that costs vary from region to region and increase over time.  What the final cost was in 2012 or last year is not the same for this year, it will be much more.

Mistake #2: Interviewing Contractors for a Remodel Without Having Construction Plans

This is one of the more frequent mistakes regarding remodels that people make.  I have often experienced people calling me to ask questions about their project and when the subject of giving them an onsite consultation comes up they tell me “no, we will get back to you, we are going to talk to the contractor(s) first.”  Big mistake and a colossal waste of your time and the contractor’s time.

Asking a contractor to travel to your project site and then proceed to verbally describe what you want, pointing at various items and areas of your home or business and then expect to receive a value number as to cost is unrealistic, it is an impossible question to answer under these circumstances.

You need a designer first to create drawing plans with a fully executed schedule sheet (all space planning and all items & finishes for purchase priced out & selected). The Contractor comes second (after all of the before mentioned has been completed).

A contractor needs plans drawn and printed out on paper in order to analyze the scope of work requested, comparing the existing conditions to the proposed changes to determine the amount of time to schedule the subcontractors needed along with their costs and materials necessary to install.

What you are asking for is stable data regarding the cost of your project and by engaging a contractor without design plans you cannot get an accurate answer to your question.  Without plans you are going about your project backwards and are not helping yourself towards the direction you need to go.

If you are not interested in engaging a designer for your project then at minimum, have them create your construction documents for permitting and general contractor’s estimates.  There are many who provide this type of service for a flat or adjustable fee.  Having the drawings done by a certified professional designer gives you a guarantee that all necessary code compliances are folded into the project plan and provides a strong design direction that (depending on how detailed you allow the designer to get involved) will protect you from potential change orders.

Mistake #3: Not Reading the Contract Through

I am always amazed at how many people sign contracts when they have not read the entire body of text.  The contract is legally binding for the terms of payment and work to be completed so take the time to read it through, ask questions and be sure you understand all the terminology and agree with the stated scope of work and compensation.  Have your lawyer read it with you and explain it if you need.  Take your time to understand what you are entering into.

If you are not comfortable with something in the contract or want to make changes tell your prospective designer what you would prefer.  No contract is final until everything is agreeable to both of you.  Your designer wants to provide the best service they can and make a decent and profitable living from performing that service.  You don’t work for free and neither do they.

Contractual agreements can be changed before they are signed, not after.

Mistake #4: Choosing Price over Quality

The expression “you get what you pay for” is indeed a hard fact in all design projects, be it remodeling, décor or business branding.  Hiring the “cheapest” contractor or designer is not the best choice, it ends with terrible results and greater costs to fix errors and slipshod work. It has happened in every one of my projects that a client of mine went this route.

What is necessary to understand is that the installation of a design whether it is décor or a full blown remodel requires many layers of communication that must be expertly coordinated.  If a designer is recommending particular contractors or tradespeople you should follow their recommendations.  They have good working experience with each other and can vet their quality of work.  No designer will give work to someone who has not done stellar work for their past clients or other designers they know.  They will only use the people who have performed to the quality standard that is an extension of their own business.  It is true that occasionally a recommended tradesperson may go rogue however, this is generally an anomaly rather than the norm.

Another aspect of this is the client who is singularly “cost forward”.  Every choice or selection of product is based solely on price.  This makes it extremely difficult for both the designer and the contractor to provide a quality result.

Price is only one part of the equation, there is also function and aesthetics.  All three should play in equal balance when creating a design plan and choosing merchandise that completes the project’s design parameters.

If cost is truly the most important element for you, making all your life choices by price alone then interior design services are not for you.  Stick to DIY (do it yourself) only.


Mistake #5: Not Following Through with the Designer’s Advice or Too Many Cooks Spoil the Soup

If you come to the initial consultation with all of your family, neighbors, friends and realtor in tow you are creating a wall of noise so loud you will never be able to hear what the design expert has to offer you.  The same if you bring all of these other people to your contracted design meetings either physically or with their stated opinions for any design direction.

This is not only irritating but is disrespectful to the designer.  Of course you love your family, friends & neighbors, they’re wonderful people but they are not experts in this matter.  Engaging the perspective of non-professional designers who are also not going to be living with or paying for the design is deeply self-sabotaging.  All that chaos of external chatter only confuses and muddies the design process and damages the client/designer relationship.

Look to the expert you have hired, your designer, to help you and guide you to your project’s completion. The designer is working for you, their client.  The opinion of these other people, who are not their client, have no merit in the conversation of what the designer is creating for you.

Mistake #6: Refusing to Get a Permit for the Project

This is truly never a good idea.  It also puts the contractor in an uncomfortable position as this would put them at risk of having their license suspended or revoked if they perform the work without one.

As an aside tip, any general contractor who agrees to work without obtaining permits for any work that is not under the label “home improvement”, such as a full blown remodel is a red flag.  Check to see if they have an actual contractor license and if so, make certain that it is current and in good standing with your State’s Contractor Licensing Board.

The cost of the permit (2%-5% of construction costs depending on the city) and the inspections for each phase is a nominal amount in time and money compared to the delay and increased fees if you are “red-tagged” for non-permit.  It can come from the craziest places; nosey jealous neighbors or nosey jealous pedestrians passing by your home on a walk or your tenants if the work is being done on your investment property, etc.

Inspections are necessary to keep the public and property owners safe.  The designer cannot know if something (such as plumbing or electrical) was installed properly, that is not their job nor training and should not be expected of them to know.

The inspector(s) look for quality installation and of course the code compliancy, ensuring that the installers have done their work in a manner that keeps you, your family or business and your largest asset safe!

Mistake #7: Making Changes to the Plan Without First Consulting with the Designer

This mistake can be excruciatingly expensive!  When doing a remodel of any part of your home or business you will be working with a general contractor (GC).  The GC will be on the job site everyday while the designer is not.  However, this does not mean the designer is not involved or aware of the progress of the job (especially if you hired their recommended GC).

The mistake of plan changing is that it translates into a “change order”.  A change order is when there is a change or an addition to the stated scope of work or change in material to the stated scope of work as it may increase the time of a sub-contractor or require an additional sub-contractor.  Any change order is outside of the original stated fees for contractor work and is thus billed on a “time & material” basis.  The hours can pile on and the possible need for a specialty tradesman at a higher cost may compound the rising fees.

This situation often happens when the GC or one of their sub-contractors approaches the client (you) with a question that requires a decision or choice as to how to handle a problem or situation that was unforeseen or they may present a choice of materials that was not previously specified.  You have no idea what they are talking about and will likely make a decision thinking that you have the understanding of the plans and scope of work enough to do so.  Never true, all questions should be run by the designer first.  No decision or change should ever be made without first consulting the designer.  In fact a GC or their subs should never approach the client first with any question of this type. If you are approached with questions you should tell them to ask your designer first and not get involved…yet.

The reason for this is that designers know “contractor speak” and can tell (from all their job experience, experience you the client do not have) if a change is actually necessary and if so how to make that change possibly without costing you more in both time (delayed installation) and money.

Another reason is that you did not create the design, the designer did and therefore she/he knows what the end result should be and can speak about the situation with the contractor how to best solve whatever is needed towards that specified result.

Mistake #8: Unrealistic Perception of Time

Fact: Wanting something to be completed within an arbitrary time frame that you have decided is not possible, especially regarding interior remodel projects.

There is something bizarre about the holidays from Thanksgiving until New Years and that is people wait until September to hire a designer wanting to be finished in time for these events.  This simply cannot be done.  If you are interviewing designers in August/September/October and state that this is what you want and any one of them tells you that they can get it done in that small amount of time, they are not being honest with you.  They are likely saying what you want to hear to get the job and if you do hire them you will be sorely disappointed because they will not be able to follow through, having the job completed within that miniscule time frame.

If you want things to be finished by the holidays you need to start planning (depending on the size and scope of work for your home or business) by the end of the previous year and start construction no later than April/May of the New Year.  Seriously, custom furnishings with custom fabrics being manufactured & shipped from various continents takes time.  Remodels take time just for the planning and coordination of many, many elements along with the time to fabricate all the components required.

The average time for custom cabinets to be completed for an average sized kitchen and two small bathrooms is 8 – 10 weeks from the time of approving the manufacturer’s “shop drawings”.  This means that if the general contractor says they can be finished in 8 weeks, your project is actually going to be 12 – 14 weeks long for having to go through the cabinet approval process.  This is fairly standard, they measure the space after demolition then prepare drawings for the client’s approval.  This is a crucial process so that you can be certain that you are going to get your desired function and style.

Design, good design takes time.  Meeting a new person, deciphering what their problem or need is, determining what their value perspective may be (cost forward v. design forward etc.), their tastes and architectural appropriateness cannot be done quickly.  There is a lot of information for the designer to process and then process not only a functioning solution but a solution that incorporates a unique beauty as well.  Design is a deep art form.  This concept is all too frequently lost on the public.  You will not get the best result if you wait until the last minute to hire and do not give the experts enough time to fully do their job.  Rushing decisions or trying to move the project faster than recommended will always yield terrible results.

You also need more time to process what your design decisions will actually mean, how it may affect your quality of life.  The more information that is decided and recorded in the construction document drawings, the less likely a change order will occur.  Any decisions made after the start of construction will be billed as a change order.  Take more time to plan, review product, styles, colors, allowing yourself to be in a place of calm and certainty rather than in a mindset of rushed panic to “just get it over with”.

Mistake #9: Making Purchases Without Consulting or Informing Your Designer

This is generally the mistake made by those clients who love to shop. There is nothing wrong with doing your own product research and telling your designer that you found something that you absolutely adore and simply must have!  The problem is not telling them first and leaving enough time before making that purchase for the designer to evaluate if it will actually work or fit-in size-wise in the agreed upon and developed design.

I had a client once who changed her mind about re-installing/using her perfectly fine nearly new Thermador cooktop from having visited a Gaggenau showroom on her own.  The salespeople were very good as evidenced by her leaving the store having purchased the Rolls Royce of cooktops along with other top of the line add-on components.

It was beautiful but I had no idea that she had done this until the cabinetry was being installed.  I received a call from the carpenter saying the drawers that go under the cooktop would not fit.  Of course they would not, they were designed for a different cooktop.  Fortunately this client always used the people I recommended and I was able to work with the cabinet maker for a solution to make them fit (without costing her more for that adjustment).  She lost some valuable storage space but everything came out looking gorgeous and she was very pleased.

Proper space planning is the issue here.  Your designer has measured the area to be affected and knows what dimensions will fit and what will not.  Let them know before making purchases, allowing them the time to make the necessary adjustments to the drawings (and purchase order list) to determine that all the components will work.

Mistake #10: Micro-Managing

The micro-managers often mean well but they are almost as destructive as termites, gnawing at the designer and tradespeople every day, many hours of the day.

Imagine a customer calling, texting, e-mailing you or randomly showing up at your place of work every day, several times a day to “check-in” and demand attention.  This constant interruption halts any progress or work flow, creating distraction from important tasks and that distraction leads to unnecessary mistakes.  It also erodes the client relationship with the professionals across the board.

After the 10th text message or e-mail of the day the entire team will begin to tune you out and if you do have an important point to make it will be missed, no one will be paying attention as you have made yourself an unbearable nuisance.

Showing up daily at the job-site, interrupting the workers with questions will stop their flow and distract them, putting them off their focus and cause mistakes to happen.  It also causes the dreaded change order by trying to “manage” what work is done and when it is done. You do not know when or how any of the work should be done.  What you think regarding how something should be done or the timing for the completion of any task is a made up idea in your mind, not the reality of how a remodel should effectively unfold.  The only people who know when, how and the timing of the project installation are the hired professionals, not you.

It is both a necessity and a requirement that you extend your trust to your designer and the hired tradespeople to do their job.  Not hearing from any one of the team for one to three days means that they are busy doing their work, not neglecting it.  Likely the designer will designate a weekly meeting time with you for progress reports fielding your questions along with pertinent discussion regarding the project.  Unless a true emergency happens (rain storm coming and that new hole for the new skylight is uncovered) stick to the designated communication schedule.  You will keep your team on your side by showing them the respect to leave them alone to do the job they were hired to do.

Ready to Start Your Design Project?

I’d love to talk to you about it. You can reach me directly at 415-722-9124 or send me an email by clicking here.