An Interior Designer’s Tips On Preparing For Your First Renovation

 In Housing, Featured

My homeowner clients often have a wish list of home improvement projects. Embarking on a major renovation for the first time can feel daunting. I collected my clients’ FAQs and interviewed Alice Chiu, founder of Miss Alice Designs in San Francisco, for her expert opinion.

What’s the difference between an interior designer, interior decorator, architect, and general contractor? Who should a homeowner hire first?

There are a few overlaps between an architect and an interior designer, and between an interior decorator and an interior designer.

An architect’s main focus is on the exterior of buildings, structural elements, foundation, roof, etc. If you want to add a second or third story to your home, create a balcony, add an ADU (accessory dwelling unit), or expand your home, an architect can help you. Architects can work on the interior layout as well.

An interior designer focuses not only on aesthetics, but functional, code-compliant, healthy interior spaces involving cabinetry, decorative moldings, electrical, etc. An interior designer also creates the best interior layout and can suggest moving walls, doors, windows, etc. This is an overlap between an interior designer and architect. Interior designers also research and recommend fittings, fixtures, furniture, accessories, and colors. Most architects don’t specify materials and furniture. But architects can specify doors and windows, which overlaps with the work of interior designers.

Interior decorators on the other hand, focus only on the aesthetics of a space. So, anything cosmetic like paint colors, furniture, accessories, floors, window treatments, rugs, etc… Interior decorators can provide best ways to lay out furniture, but they cannot suggest moving any walls or doors, etc…

In short, an interior designer can be an interior decorator, but an interior decorator cannot be an interior designer. An architect can design the interior layout, but an interior designer cannot be an architect.

A general contractor’s main focus is to take drawings produced by an architect or an interior designer and build the design based on the drawings.  A contractor usually does not purchase any of the finish materials like faucets, sinks, appliances, tiles, furniture, or accessories. They only purchase building materials like sheetrock and wood.

Who to Hire First

A homeowner should hire an architect and/or interior designer first.  Some contractors won’t provide a bid on a job unless they see the drawings, which will help the contractor understand the full scope of the work. I would definitely hire an architect/and or interior designer first so they can come up with a design concept/vision and produce drawings. After that, get bids from contractors.

Is the renovation process different for a condo vs. single family home (e.g., permitting process, dealing with HOAs…)?

Whether you’re renovating a single family home or condo, you must apply for a permit. Renovating a condo or townhouse requires an extra step of first going through the Homeowner’s Association (HOA) if your property has an HOA. Before speaking to an architect, interior designer or general contractor, I would first talk to your HOA about your renovation plans because you need the HOA to approve first.

For example, if you want to remodel your bathroom, and currently your bathroom doesn’t have an exhaust fan or you want to enlarge your bathroom window, you need to inform your HOA about it first, and find out what the approval process is on their end.  When doing any remodeling work, you need to bring everything up to code. Any of the professionals (contractors, architect, or interior designer) can pull the permit for you, or you can do it yourself.

What renovations provide the best bang for your buck?

These will help increase the value of your home and give you the best bang for your buck:

  • Improving your home’s energy efficiency such as replacing your windows or water heater
  • Updating your landscape
  • Remodeling your Kitchens and Bathrooms (could be on a small scale such as giving your cabinets a new paint color, replacing the countertop and backsplash, or switching out light fixtures)
  • Replacing your floors with hardwood or engineered wood
  • Giving your home a fresh coat of paint.

an interior designer tips on preparing for your first renovation

What should people budget for a mid-range vs. high-end kitchen/bathroom remodel in the Bay Area?

I’m going to answer this question assuming you’re talking about a full-scale remodel, rather than a refresh like painting cabinets and replacing hardware/countertops.

Kitchen remodel

For a mid-range kitchen remodel where the layout will be changed with completely new cabinets, plumbing, electrical, appliances, and countertop, you are looking at $100K+. For a higher-end kitchen remodel, you are looking at $200K and up.

Bathroom remodel

For a mid-range bathroom, $45K and up. And for a high-end bathroom $60K to as high as over $100K. Remodeling a large Master Bathroom by adding square footage, heated floors, a curbless shower for two, and higher-end finishes would be an example of a bathroom remodel on the $100K level.

Other expenses

You will also have to add the cost of hiring professionals such as architects, interior designers, and/or project managers. This can add another 15%-20% on top of your budget.

I also recommend adding as much as 25% for unforeseen factors.

What can your clients do to make the process as stress-free as possible?

First, hire not only a good architect and/or interior designer, but also a good contractor. It’s easier said than done. There are some contractors who provide the lowest bid just to get the job, and then charge additional fees when they start the work.

Next, be prepared for issues to come up, and always allocate up to 25% on top of your budget. Something will always come up, I guarantee that.  It could be that the contractor opens up the walls and find that the plumbing lines have to be completely replaced because it’s not up to code. Or there could be mold inside the walls, and the framing has to be redone. It could be anything. On every single remodeling job I’ve worked on, there were always issues that added to the budget.

Finally, I would make sure to hire an interior designer who also does project management, or hire a project manager to oversee the schedule and details of the design project.  It will save you a lot of time, headache, and stress. If you don’t have the budget to hire a project manager, be prepared to spend a lot of time communicating with the contractor, architect, interior designer, and all parties involved on the project. You will be the one problem solving issues, dealing with any material defects, and spending time overseeing the contractor’s work.

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