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Leave it to the pros: An interior designer can save you time, money — and your sanity

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Instagram, Pinterest and HGTV have many of us believing that we, too, can be designers.

To some extent, social media and TV can be educational. However, translating that information to your own home is not as easy as buying a light fixture you fell in love with online.

I am guilty of this. I choose wall art and the scale is all wrong. I pick out paint that, once applied, has an unintended undertone. I buy a new couch, and my cats use it as a scratching post. My vision and execution don’t always match up.

These are mistakes I have to live with or fix, and the latter can be expensive.

I called Laura Suhr of Suhr Interior Design to find out which design mistakes she sees most often — and how to avoid them. She told me she’s fielded numerous phone calls from anxious homeowners who forged ahead alone and started second-guessing their designs as soon as the contractor showed up to work.

“I’ve had people call me in a panic, asking if I can come tomorrow,” Suhr says. “Then I’m trying to finesse their decisions after they’re locked into a certain direction.”

Those change orders become added expenses and can delay a project’s timely completion.

So, you could say the first expensive mistake to avoid is not hiring a designer. Having a professional lined up at the outset of a project is a sound policy when it comes to managing your time and stress level.

“The anxiety goes down five notches,” Suhr says. “We’re communicating as a team and everybody is happier.”

Suhr says that many of her clients can tell her what they like and don’t like — but they don’t know how to put it all together. The extra expense of paying a designer can deter some homeowners.

“People don’t jump up and down for 10 percent off at Home Depot, but they wouldn’t pay that for a much better result and process?” she asks. “Think of it this way: it’s insurance.”

Another expensive mistake to avoid is setting an unrealistic time frame.

“Sometimes clients come up with a schedule in their head with a do-or-die date for hosting a party,” Suhr says. “They make rush decisions and it generally doesn’t result in a good outcome.”

A normal planning period should be two to three months before you want to start a remodel, she adds.

Kitchens and bathrooms are often the most requested spaces for redos, and often where dollar signs add up the quickest. Because they are spaces you will spend a lot of time in, consider hiring a specialist such as a Certified Kitchen Designer (CKD). There are more than 50 guidelines established by the National Kitchen & Bath Association (NKBA) for these designers to follow that you’ve probably never even thought about.

At the top of your no-mistake list is cabinetry.

“Having professional cabinets isn’t just about what they are going to look like,” Suhr says. “It’s about getting the right storage, and if they’re not functional, that can be really frustrating.”

There are plenty of other places to go wrong, too, from misunderstanding the use and care of different countertop materials to cheap plumbing fixtures to the efficiency of your work triangle and traffic patterns. Maybe your glass-front Sub-Zero looks great with its neat rows of green Perrier bottles, but if you trip while walking to the fridge, it won’t matter.

Furniture is another big-ticket category to consider.

“Some people think that certain retailers are high-quality when they are not, and you pay more for them,” Suhr says. “At the store, you can’t see the stuff that matters, so it might look fabulous, but after a year of wear, it looks crummy.”

Designers can access lines you can’t get in retail stores, with the added benefit of many companies manufacturing products in the United States with a lifetime warranty.

“That makes more sense long-term,” Suhr says.

A final area that hurts if you mess up is exterior paint color. Making a poor decision based off a little swatch could cost you $5,000-$10,000.

“A color consultation is a small investment with a big impact,” Suhr says.

Finally, remember that time equals money. Are you paying yourself for all the research and shopping?

“Some people love to shop while others want their time to themselves,” Suhr says. If it’s less efficient for you to do the work, designers are good listeners and hustlers who will get the job done right.

That’s more time for you to sit back and scroll through Pinterest for your next big idea.

Dos and Don’ts

  • Don’t hire your contractor to double as your designer. Many can offer advice, but design is not usually their forte.
  • Do invest in a designer. Designers’ fee structures differ: Some bill by the hour, some by the project and some by a percentage of the project. Choose a pricing structure you’re comfortable with.
  • Don’t skimp on quality. “Remodeling itself is not inexpensive,” Suhr says. “If it’s done well, it brings a much higher return on investment.”
  • Don’t get too personal. If you’re making updates to sell your house, keep it neutral to appeal to the masses. A fresh coat of paint and carpet are fine; a hot pink chandelier is not. However…
  • Do what you love — in certain places. Paint or wallpaper, yes. Even change out your backsplash to a tile that shows your personality. “It is a construction project, but it’s not a major messy one, and it’s not a lot of square feet,” Suhr says. “A couple grand can really change the look of a small space, and in five to 10 years, you can do something different.”
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