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Y ou know the feeling: You walk into someone's house and it feels like home (except way better than yours). There's nothing too fancy, nothing you can quite put your finger on, but the space is both comforting and comfortable. You want to curl up on the couch and not budge until someone makes your house feel like this.

If you're like most people, you probably haven't had much luck turning your house into a haven all by yourself. Yet many of us never would dream of actually hiring an interior designer. After all, they're bossy, downright scary, and wildly expensive, aren't they? According to a survey the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) conducted, this is a common myth. In reality, a creative interior designer can help manage your decorating budget while turning the ordinary into the extraordinary. And if you want financial assistance, Pacific Community Credit Union can help with a credit card or other loan types.

How it works
Some interior designers work independently, others are on staff at furniture stores and design centers. Designers may charge an hourly rate, a flat fee, straight commission, or a combination of these fees. The design service that stores or design centers offer usually is complimentary, but other rates may apply to certain situations. How and what designers charge can vary greatly, so shop for a designer who will give you the best value for your dollar.
       Doug Zander, owner of Zander's Interiors, Madison, Wis., says private designers can purchase an array of products and aren't limited to one store's inventory, as some in-store designers are. "We do most of our business selling goods at retail with a discount, which covers our overhead and allows for some measure of profit," Zander says. "However, if the client prefers to pay an hourly fee, we can draw up a room, pick out the paint, fixtures, lighting, carpeting, and furniture specifications, then hand the list over so the client can search for the best price. We're also available to come back to inspect the merchandise once it's chosen."
       "The in-house designer service at furniture stores is complimentary, as long as you're purchasing through your designer," says Terry Marine, senior designer, Dayton's Home Store, Rosedale, Minn. Dayton's designers also work on an hourly consulting rate if, for example, the clients want help purchasing hardware, plumbing, or other products that aren't available through the furniture store, or if they're moving and can't decide how to arrange the furniture they're taking with them. "In most larger cities, there are designer showrooms that generally are off-limits to consumers," says Marine. "Dayton's has accounts with all the local showrooms.... This gives the designer more freedom, and offers the client more choices."
       The flat fee works best for Dottie Volpe and Dolly Sturman, who own and operate The Redecorators in Boston. For a flat rate of $250 per room ($150 for each additional room booked for the same day) they will redecorate a room using things their client already owns. If the client wants to go further, Volpe says they'll design a master plan for the room that includes specifications for paint color, wallpaper, window treatments, furniture, and a resource list for shopping. This, too, is included in the flat fee.

Getting what you want
"Major furniture purchases usually happen twice in your life," Marine says. "Most people decorate when they first get married or move into a new home, and then again when the kids are leaving home. There's such a huge time span in between that their budget may not be realistic, and that's where a designer can help."
       The key to working successfully with a designer is finding one that best suits your needs, your budget, and your personal style. Before you start shopping for a designer, first think some things through:
  • Evaluate what you've got. Make a list of things you want to keep--furniture, artwork, heirlooms, kids' art, photos--so the designer you hire can incorporate these items into the design plan.
  • Learn what you love and hate. "At least three months before you meet with a designer, browse through magazines and decorating books," says Dayton's Marine. "Start two files--one for pictures of things you love, the other for things you hate. Later, as you go through the files with a designer, patterns quickly emerge and likes and dislikes jump right out, making it clear what looks you'll be happiest with."
  • Visit showrooms to update yourself on current styles and prices. Always keep in mind the difference between price (what you pay today) and value (durable satisfaction over time).

Credentials, experience, and style
According to the ASID, rely on referrals when choosing a designer. Zander suggests consumers get names from friends and co-workers, then schedule a few interviews. Don't be shy. Ask questions about how the designers charge, their training, and professional affiliations. Discuss how they work, including such things as guarantees and personal service. Are you comfortable with the designer? Is he or she a good listener?
       Also review their portfolios, if available. "Get the names of at least three clients whose lifestyles are similar to yours--young children, condo owners, retiree--and call them to ask about their experiences," Zander says. Did the designer stick to the budget? If not, why not? Is the finished project comfortable and functional? Would they hire the designer again?

Design plans work for you
"Most people buy furniture one piece at a time, which can be hit or miss," Zander says. "It's better to work on a five-year plan--completing one room at a time, or one floor at a time, depending on the budget." If the budget's limited, Zander encourages clients first to do things that will make the most impact. "First you paint, then carpet, install window treatments, buy furniture, then accessories, and finally, art work."
       Besides flexing creativity, designers work on technical matters. Marine says she gathers information from clients about how they want a room to function, their lifestyles, their likes and dislikes, and then she formulates a design plan that meets their needs and affords the room proportion, scale, and balance.
       Sometimes people already have everything they need, they just don't know it. Before The Redecorators start working, Volpe and Sturman talk to their clients about what they're looking for in style and function. Then the client leaves for two hours while Volpe and Sturman work their magic. "We bring a fresh pair of eyes to each room," Volpe says. They scour the house, taking furniture, art, and accessories from one room and moving them into another. "Our clients know we won't be judgmental--we want to use their stuff. Placement is one of the biggest things when decorating," Volpe says. "What looks so overstuffed in one room can be perfect in another."
       "Communication, trust, and honesty are key," says Marine. "One of the first things I say to clients is that they won't hurt my feelings if they don't like something. Sometimes people are afraid to say if they don't like it, but it's their house--they need to love it."

Five Biggest Decorating Mistakes
  1. Spreading things, such as framed photos, all over a room instead of grouping them.
  2. Putting furniture up against the wall, rather than have it float in the room.
  3. Hanging art too high.
  4. Buying things too small, such as lamps and tables. "Even in a small room, big makes the room look larger," Volpe says.
  5. Buying several small rugs instead of one big one, creating visual clutter.
Source: The Redecorators

Columnist Franny Van Nevel is a consumer advocate and writer. She formerly was director of consumer information for the Wisconsin attorney general's office for 12 years, and is a frequent contributor to Woman's Day.

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