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The Real Cost of Interior Design

Updated: Jan 20, 2019

The TLC show Trading Spaces is back. And along with it comes the excitement and budgeting and elation or disappointment associated with the decorating show. I have been watching since the “early days” of Page Davis and the gang in 2000.


I was not a designer then and found the show entertaining and a fun release to the grind of my busy work life. My husband and I would watch in the evening and predict whether the home owners would cry with joy or disappointment when they saw their finished product. To learn more about this fun and fast paced show, check it out here.


I recently had a touch of insomnia and watched a few episodes in the wee morning hours which got me thinking about a question I get asked all the time:


Why does interior design cost so much?


Sometimes I think all the design/decoration shows on television help potential clients realize how important the role of a designer is, but often, the dollars and cents of hiring a design professional is greatly skewed by how the job is portrayed on tv.


So based on a recent episode I viewed, I will try to answer this question by using the “tv” version of expenses vs. the “real world” version.


In 2000, the room makeover budget on Trading Spaces was $1000. Today the budget is $2000. Most of the rooms the designer and homeowners work on are average sized rooms (16x14) like a master bedroom, dining room or family/living room. For that $2000 all furniture, accessories, rugs, art, lighting and paint must be obtained. Part of the thrill of the show is to see how well the designer budgets the $2000 to get the most bang for their buck.


Celebrity designers assess what features of the room to keep, what needs switched out, built, painted, recovered, re-worked, made by hand and best of all arranged in a way that speaks to the amazing designer they are. All this while keeping in mind the practicality that most homeowners demand today. Did I mention they have two days to do this?


The reality of a Trading Spaces project is that the $2000 goes solely to the products or finish materials in the room. Nothing else is included in the “cost” of the room. Rather, the services or actual “work” is performed by said celebrity designers, celebrity carpenters, the homeowners themselves and what is sure to be additional “behind the scenes” helpers. All this adds up and is above and beyond the stated $2000 budget.


Let me explain the reality of the expenses associated with a room décor job when led by an interior designer, using the Trading Spaces Dining room as a reference.


The episode I am referring to turned out well. The homeowners loved their spaces and the designer leading the charge stayed within the budget without fail. But this is TV. And for the sake of entertainment, the reality of decorating a room from start to finish is not necessarily depicted as a true-to-life ordeal.


For this Trading Spaces dining room makeover, the following is an example of how they spent the $2000 allowance:

  • 9 x 13 Rug $400

  • Material for Table $375

  • Paint $150

  • Fabric $260

  • Light Fixture $250

  • Accessories and Art $350


Starting the design of a room with the base of a beautiful rug is a go-to for most designers. With many online retailers providing rugs in every shape, color combo and size, to find a large rug in this price range of under $1000 is reasonable. It will not be heirloom quality, but it will add softness and a pop of color or texture for the base.

But wait.......it is going to take a designer a minute to find the rug. Or maybe a couple hours, considering she will likely want to run a few selections by the client and incorporate the rug

into the overall design of the room. Two hours with a designer guiding the rug selection plus the rug itself is now $1200, given that $100 per hour is a very reasonable rate for an Interior Designer’s time. That $400 budgeted for a rug on TV in real life costs $1200 when all is said and done.


Every dining room needs a table and on Trading Spaces, a celebrity carpenter creates the dining table design penned by the celebrity designer. On the show, the cost calculated for the dining table only included the materials needed to build the table. In my world, (the real world), it takes at least two hours to design a dining table, gain approval of the client, collaborate with the carpenter and order the material. Someone must pick up the $375 worth of material to make the table. In a day, a team of two carpenters can make the table we are referring to and the following day it can be finished, whether painted or stained. All this time and energy comes at a price. A day of carpenters, painters, and a designer managing the whole project must be accounted for. That brings the real cost of a new dining table to $1775 ($375 for material plus $1400 for services).


At that true pricing of $1775, you could choose to buy a nice dining table sourced by a designer at a store like Arhaus or a few trade-only sources. By purchasing from a retailer or trade source a designer can eliminate the risk of mistakes or the table not turning out exactly like the client thought. For practicality, let's say the dining table for the room comparison costs $2000 taking into account purchasing, tax and delivery.



Chairs are essential for your dining table, of course. In this episode, chairs the homeowners possessed were painted and recovered, so there was no cost calculated for the chairs. In reality, there will most likely be an additional budget line for dining table chairs.


The next item budgeted was paint at $150 total. Painting a normal size room when including walls, trim and ceilings will likely cost $650 plus the cost of paint. A good painter is worth their weight in gold when the goal is a professionally designed room. So when you are paying a realistic $800 for the painting of the room, it is crucial to get the color right. A designer will help achieve that goal by using their knowledge of color and finishes. That will come at a cost of at least $200, which brings the painting of the room to a grand total of $1000 in reality.


In the dining room on Trading Spaces, there was a large window. The treatment for the window featured two extra-wide panels and a tailored valance all the way across the straight portion of the window. While there is a chance the fabric/trims for these curtains and matching seat cushions could have been sourced and purchased for $260, this would come at a cost of a lot of time spent sourcing heavily discounted bolts of fabric and trim. The stated budget would allow for roughly $14 per yard fabric and $3 per yard trims. If I were estimating the true cost of such finishes, I would quote the fabric finishes at $480 for seat cushion covering and $990 for window treatment fabrications, plus the cost of fabric and installation. That brings the real-life cost of this category up to $1900 for a large finished window and chairs.


The team on the show found an extra large chandelier at a re-sale source for $250. They painted the fixture and hung it boldly in the center of the room. I would estimate $250 for an electrician to hang such a light and it would require $36 worth of bulbs. Let's just say a homeowner would paint this fixture themselves (I have actually had clients do this!) and the designer found the light in record time, like an hour. This massive light fixture has a real cost of $636. A new fixture would add to this cost by $500 to $1000.

Hardly a room is complete without the jewelry that brings life and emotion to the space. There is no doubt that fresh flowers, vases and dishes could be sourced and purchased for what would add up to $350 if someone had weeks to do so. And then you’d have to add in the embellishing tasks, painting items, and generally sprucing up used items. But this isn't a craft show we are talking about. The goal is to end the episode with a room that looks professionally decorated.


For the final touch in this episode, the cast members of the show created a huge canvas of mixed media art which dominated the design of the room. The oversized canvas alone (even with a 50% off coupon at Hobby Lobby or JoAnn's) would cost $45 and the time to create such a masterpiece would total 6-8 hours at a minimum. Let's just say we gathered free labor of the homeowner's children and had them take part with a couple hours of supervision, so the total of the large art piece plus all the accessory pieces would end up in the range of $750. If original art from an artist was desired, you could expect to pay a minimum of $2500 for such a large piece.


Whew! If you are following me you understand that we have all the pieces that pulled this room together on Trading Spaces. But wait ... we haven't counted on any time for the team to unpackage and unroll the rug, vacuum the rug, load in the furnishings, stage the accessories, arrange the flowers, hang the artwork and sprinkle the whole space with fairy dust for noteworthy photos. That all takes time and my guess for the time needed for staging a dining room would be 4-6 hours. So add in another $400 minimum to the cost of this room.


This comes to a whopping 20-hour-total for the time it will take a designer to source and stage this completed dining room.


Had this been a bedroom or a living room where even more furnishings and accessories needed to be sourced, I could see it being more like 30-40 hours of time and the furniture costs would be substantially more.


To put it in perspective, what a show like Trading Spaces portrays as a cost of $2000 for a completed room will actually cost a client, using a mid-priced designer/decorator, more like $9900. Big difference, right? Here’s how it breaks down …


When your room makeover isn’t handled on TV, the real budget for this project when guided and designed by a professional is as follows:




So why does interior design cost so much?

As you can see ... a comprehensive plan for pulling a room together to reflect the way you want to use it, how you want it to make you feel and best of all, how you want it to reflect your personal style, takes time. Besides time, it takes many elements the average homeowner doesn’t usually consider (if they haven’t been through this process before) and may not know how to source on their own.


My point of view is that the plethora of design and decorating shows available to the public only reinforce the importance and value of the interior designer.


By partnering with a designer, time and money can be saved and costly headaches can be avoided.


Best of all, there is a much better chance of your project goals being reached – successfully – when a professional is involved to keep the project in motion and on track until completion.