The Canadian government has just announced a sweet incentive to renovate your home. Through Feb. 1, 2010, every homeowner is eligible to receive a tax credit of as much as $1,350 for renovations costing up to $10,000.
If you were already considering getting work done, this could nudge you over the edge. It's not a bad idea. These days, your money goes further than at any time in recent memory; in addition to the incentive, general contractors, trades and vendors are dropping their prices to keep sales up.
In the coming weeks, I'll be making lists of the hard questions you should ask any professional coming into your home. This week, let's look at interior designers. Before engaging the services of one, check out a few. And when they come around, don't let them leave without first getting answers to these questions.
Can I see your recent projects?
First things first — make sure you like the person's approach. There are two kinds of designers: the kind with a "signature look" (homes get decorated in one style — his) and the kind who is "client-driven" (homes are inspired by your own style and needs).
The benefit of a signature designer is that you know what you're getting; the benefit of the client-driven designer is that the home will better reflect you. As Voltaire said, all styles are good except the boring.
Whatever your choice, request Web links and photos of the designer's recent jobs. Be sure, too, that the images you review are examples of rooms that you're thinking of addressing.
How much does your initial consultation cost? What will I get out of it?
A reputable interior designer will not show up at your home, gratis, to discuss a renovation. Designers want to know you're serious about a project, so they charge for their time. In Vancouver, the tariff for a two-hour consultation runs from $250 to $1,500.
The designer should make an impression — in addition to ideas, you'll want to hear vital questions about your project and straight talk about potential troubles and the designing/building process. During this meeting, the designer should be assessing the project's scope, timeline and budget.
As the client, make the most of your time by having your questions prepared in advance and presenting a stack of images that illustrate the style you're looking for.
Will you write an initial proposal? What will it include?
You need a road map from here to there. After the initial consultation, the designer should prepare a proposal. A good one will include four things: an overview of the project, an outline of the designer's process (and key milestones), a declaration of the fee structure, and a detailed list of the documents and drawings you'll receive.
Keep in mind, this is the first document you're receiving from the designer — it's an opportunity to judge how organized and methodical he is. Also, ask for a copy of his standard contract — his forthcoming proposal will likely refer to it.
How will you assess what I need?
It's a crucial question: Can the designer identify your needs and create an environment that addresses them?
In the first phase of meetings, the designer should ask questions about how your family lives. He'll likely take photographs of your home and belongings, and, if architectural drawings don't exist, conduct a site measure of your house. Afterward, expect to receive a brief that itemizes your requirements and highlights challenge areas. Done properly, this document is the key to the rest of the design process.
How do you present your plans?
A design presentation is one of the most exciting parts of the process — the first moment that you get a concrete idea of what is to come. Renderings, three-dimensional models and material presentation boards provide the best illustrations of the designer's ideas. Keep in mind, though, these services are time-consuming and costly.
Work out in advance with the designer the level of detail you require and how this will affect your overall service charge.
Do you prepare working drawings and a specification package?
As important as the designer's great ideas is his ability to communicate them to a general contractor. A spec package identifies every material, lighting and plumbing fixture, and hardware piece in the project — and it should include colour, series, size, finish, manufacturer, vendor, contact, price and lead time. The more detailed this document, the easier it is for your contractor to give you accurate budget numbers and timelines.
You also need a set of working drawings — to-scale, dimensioned illustrations that show the design of your cabinetry, fireplaces, vanities, showers and so on. These plans identify the location of every item — and save you the time and stress of communicating this to the contractor.
Don't hesitate to ask if you can see examples of both items before you make your final decision.
How do you bill for your time?
Most designers bill by the hour for themselves and their staff — fees range from $65 to $350 an hour.
On small projects such as a bathroom reno or kitchen upgrade, a designer may be willing to provide you with a set fee. But when a project gets to $100,000 or more, most designers will only make an estimate of their time. The reason is that unexpected changes (and, often, client indecision) can lead to late redesigns that are nearly impossible to account for.
However the designer charges, put away a 15-per-cent contingency fund to cover any late-in-game cost overruns or changes of mind.
What are the additional expenses?
In addition to his time, a designer often makes money on furnishings. If he purchases furniture at a discount, he'll mark it up 10 to 30 per cent; if he has it custom made, he'll mark it up 40 to 100 per cent. Ask in advance if this information will be disclosed to you. Ask also if the designer (and not you) will manage all the orders, tracking and deliveries.
Disbursements for items such as such as printing, shipping and couriers are usually charged at cost or with an administration fee. These are above your service fees.
May I have three client references?
However brilliant a designer's interiors, he may be a nightmare to work with. Ask for three references from recent clients and follow through on calling them. Ask them how of the above questions were satisfied, and whether they feel that the designer was organized, whether he listened and whether the project came in on time. Oh, and whether they love the final design.
Now that you're fully armed, go take advantage of that renovation incentive.