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Your Home | Kitchens & Baths

Need some help with your home decor? Here’s how to hire a professional

What to look for, what to ask, and what to expect when searching for an interior designer or decorator who can deliver the look you want.

kirsten ulve

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In a 1972 interview, the modernist designer and architect Charles Eames famously said that the primary condition for design is recognizing you need it. Perhaps, but things have gotten more complicated since then, with two 24-hour-a-day cable networks and countless websites devoted to “house porn,” as peeking into the process — and other people’s homes — has become known.

If you buy a home and want to rethink your furnishings, or just look around one day and decide your space needs a professional face lift, how do you know where to start?

Doing Your Research

First, let’s define some terms. Every state is different, but in Massachusetts, an interior decorator generally will help you with material finishes, pulling a space together with furniture, window treatments, colors, and “soft goods” such as pillows and rugs. An interior designer is typically described as capable of doing “interior architecture” — working with an architect or builder to reconfigure rooms by suggesting adding or removing walls, converting closets to other purposes, and so forth. Most interior designers do decorating, too, but not all decorators are designers.

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Confusingly, not everyone in the home interiors business adheres to these definitions. “Half of the designers and decorators in the industry don’t know the difference,” says designer Jon Andersen of Jon Andersen Interiors in Concord.

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Accreditation through the Residential Interior Design Qualification Certification (RIDQC) or the Council for Qualification of Residential Interior Designers (CQRID) involves some schooling and a certification process, but it’s not required and many competent professionals have learned by taking courses and by years of experience. “If you’re looking for a wow factor,” says Andersen, “there are people out there who have artistic vision but have never been to design school.”

Finding the right pro for you can take some legwork. Home-design websites are useful tools but usually don’t let you search based on criteria like price point or style. Houzz, which many consider the premier search engine for home professionals, and Angie’s List, a popular ratings site, are also “pay to play,” with home professionals who can afford it getting extra exposure.

“It’s so confusing out there,” says Kathie Chrisicos of Chrisicos Interiors in the Back Bay. Her advice: “If online is overwhelming, depend on other sources. . . . Ask people you know. Look at local shelter magazines to see the work of various designers — not only the features but the ads, too.”

Choosing the Right Person

Once you’ve narrowed down your search to a list of names, check candidates’ websites for previous jobs and for information on education and experience. If you’re looking for a designer rather than a decorator, check the American Society of Interior Designers’ web site, asid.org, to verify credentials.

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Talk to prospects on the phone before setting up in-person interviews with your top few contenders. Meeting in their studios lets you see more examples of their work, while meeting at your house lets them see your existing style — but be aware that if the interview turns into an idea session, you’ll generally have to pay an hourly consultation fee. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing: If you have the money, it can be useful to pay for a few consultations before deciding whom to hire.

Ask the designers how they work. How will they help you communicate your own sense of style to them and refine it, while ensuring that your tastes don’t get lost in theirs? “I have my own personal style, but I bring different styles to the client,” says Chrisicos. “People in Boston come to us because they want a unique look for themselves,’’ she says. “So ask [if any potential designers] can work in different styles or have a signature look. That might tell you if you want to work with this person.”

You’ll also want to find out how long the job will take to complete. Some designers prefer to store items in a warehouse as they come in and then stage the room all at once, to give the client one big reveal. That won’t work if you need a dining table yesterday but can wait on the sideboard and window treatments. (Also, warehouse storage fees usually add to the price of the project.)

Other practical questions to cover: What hours do they work, and what are their availability boundaries? If your schedule makes it difficult to talk or meet in the daytime, don’t hire someone who can’t be flexible. How do they like to communicate? If they prefer e-mail but you’re a text person, ask if they can accommodate you. When can they start the job? Beware of anyone who says “tomorrow,” but also make sure you won’t be waiting too long, especially if a forthcoming event or holiday means a strict deadline.

All designers have sources that can help provide you with an individual look; you don’t need to ask specifically where they go for products, but if you want to make sure they stay up on trends, ask what trade shows they go to and how often, and whether they belong to a buying group that will give them contracts with multiple sources as well as deeper discounts.

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No matter how much you like his or her style, if a decorator is chilly or overbearing, scratch that one from your list. This will be a close, long-term relationship, so you have to make sure you like the person you ultimately hire. “It’s kind of like dating,” says Madeleine Bickert, owner and lead designer of Decor Rx in Brewster and Boston. “You’re looking for someone you’ll have a relationship with for at least a number of months, so there has to be chemistry.”

Finally, make sure to get references, and when you call them, ask if they were happy with not only the look of the finished product but also with the working relationship and the person’s general demeanor as the job progressed. Ask if communication remained good and the designer responded quickly to questions and comments; if the project came in on time and on budget; and if the homeowner would hire that person again.

Setting Your Vision

Once you narrow down your list of pros, the next step is typically to share your idea or mood board. Some clients start creating these boards long before meeting with the decorator, but if you haven’t done so yet, give yourself plenty of time to put it together. Each designer works differently, but for Vani Sayeed of Vani Sayeed Studios in Newton, the most efficient way to help homeowners envision what they want is to start with the floor plan, sometimes even marking how much space each piece of furniture should have with painter’s tape on the walls and floor.

“People can’t judge scale and proportion,” she says, “and they end up setting their heart on a couch that’s too big or too small or won’t fit through the door because they live on Beacon Hill. Marking it out can help them focus their idea board.”

Cut pictures from magazines, keep a Pinterest page, or both, finding inspiration at all price points on product websites like Olioboard and in blogs such as Design Sponge and Apartment Therapy as well as on retail sites. When you meet with your decorator again, try to have a clear idea of why you were drawn to the items you’ve selected. “What specifically is it that you like in this room?” says Chrisicos. “Is it the color? Sometimes it’s ‘I like the leg on this ottoman.’ Sometimes the client doesn’t know what it is because it’s just a feeling that’s evoked, but figuring out very specific information on what gives you that feeling is extremely helpful.”

The decorator should ask you plenty of questions, too, not only about your taste, budget, and timeline, but also about your lifestyle. What do you already have that you want to keep? Does anyone in the home have special needs? How long do you plan to live there? Do you have children or pets? How do you use your home or room, and what problems are you encountering with livability? How do you want to feel in this room — energized, relaxed, at peace?

At the end of this meeting, check how well you’ve understood each other by asking the designer to summarize what he thinks you expressed. “If they come back with a vague statement, it means they didn’t ask you enough questions,” says Bickert.

About a month after the first meeting — be sure to set the date upfront — the designer should come back to you with two or three concept boards showing various proposed elements of the entire room or rooms, including suggested fabrics, furniture finishes, sample tiles, and the like. If you’re looking for only one or two pieces, give the designer about a week to come up with some options. “Say we’re looking at table lamps,” Bickert says. “After the first go-round I’ll send the client six or seven that I think would work but that have a wide range of styles. After they narrow down this list, I’ll send them two or three that closely mirror what they liked. After a few product selections, I get what they’re envisioning.”

If you’re the designer’s main contact in your household, make sure that anyone else who has to live with the final look weighs in along the way. “It’s a red flag if suddenly one member of the couple stops participating in the process,” says Bickert. “If I’m not getting any feedback, I always regroup to make sure they’re both happy. That will eliminate the problem of someone saying, ‘I hate this chair’ halfway through.”

Speaking of which, what happens if the designer comes back with a totally different vision after you’ve shared dozens of pictures and think you’ve clearly communicated your style? “Say, ‘I really enjoy working with you, but you’re not getting what I’m looking for,’ ” says Bickert. “Sometimes,” she adds, “clients need to be patient and give the designer a second chance.”

Sayeed agrees. “Just hit the reset button,” she says. “Meet in person. Say, ‘This is my Pinterest board and this is yours. It’s totally different from what I envisioned.’ Ask her to explain her thought process to you.”

Also, remember that idea boards are just that: ideas. “You have to look at the space as a whole,” Sayeed says. “You like the idea, but with the space you have or what you have in the house, will it work for you? Don’t be wedded to it. You might replicate one image, but the room still looks askew because you didn’t replicate it as a whole. As designers, we look at the whole thing.”

Getting to the Bottom Line

Comparing rates and deciding a budget can be one of the most intimidating aspects of hiring a designer or decorator if you’ve never done it before, since there is no industrywide standard for how fees are set.

“Pricing is all over the place and varies so widely from one firm to the next,” says Melissa Hammond of Hammond Design in Andover. Here are some common payment structures for residential projects; the pro you hire may use more than one or even a hybrid.

  For larger projects, pros might charge a design fee calculated as a percentage of the job’s total cost, ranging from 10 to 30 percent, depending on the scope of their work.

  In another model that works for bigger jobs, cost-plus or purchase-fee, the designers’ earnings come primarily from their markup on furniture and other materials, which they buy at a discount. “Say I’m buying 10 yards of fabric for window treatments. I get 50 percent off, so I share 15 percent of that with you,” says Hammond. Discounts may vary depending on the material. “On tile I only get 25 percent, so if I give 15 percent to the client the margin just isn’t there,” she explains. For some things, it can seem like a wash, she says — “but not really, because you’re saving the time and effort of having to order yourself, wait for the products to come in, get them to the job site, deal with the wrong color or broken boxes, go back to the tile place or whatever, reorder, wait another six weeks, and so on.”

  The hourly rate model for services can start as low as $50 for a decorator and go as high as $500 for a designer. This type of pricing is generally for smaller jobs and can seem like the easiest to figure out — except that there can be different prices for different activities; a designer may charge $100 an hour for your first consultation meeting but $75 an hour for drawings or shopping and $150 for physically staging the finished product. When it comes to paying for materials, a designer or decorator may also pass along a portion of their discount to you (see the cost-plus method).

  After the initial consultation, which is most often billed hourly, some decorators will switch to a fixed or flat rate for services that covers concepts and presentation boards, choosing furniture and other materials, the designer’s time, and any subcontracting work needed, such as for custom built-ins or a sound system. This model is often used for projects encompassing just one or two rooms where no significant construction work is required. Cost depends on the scope of the work and involves an agreed-upon cap on the time a designer spends on the job. As with hourly rates, you might also get a discount on the cost of furniture and goods.

Communication is key as you review cost estimates. If one quote seems very low or high compared with others, ask the designer to go over its components with you again—you may be missing something. And once you’ve made your choice, be sure to get a letter of agreement. “I don’t care if the person you hire is your best friend,” says Natasha Lima Younts, CEO of Designer Society of America, in Palm Beach. “It helps you set parameters like budget, time frame, whether the client or the designer will accept deliveries, and so forth.”

Remember, you have great latitude to help with the project as much or as little as you want. If you need to stick with a modest budget and don’t mind doing a little legwork, most designers are glad to accommodate you; just make sure to set the parameters up front. “At the end of the day, it’s your money,” says Sayeed. “You decide how much you want to spend and where.”

Elizabeth Gehrman is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com