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An Interior Designer Reveals How He Charges For A Renovation

March 3, 2020

With over three decades of experience in the industry, Blaine Robert is one of the leading interior designers in Malaysia. As the face and the CEO / Creative Director of the Blaine Robert Design Sdn Bhd and Blaine Robert Lifestyle Sdn Bhd, Canadian-born Blaine Robert has worked in Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore transforming the homes and commercial spaces of many high-end clients.

Interior Designer Costs

As a trusted firm - who has recently earned the 2020 Qanvast Supertrust badge - we had the opportunity to speak to Blaine on renovation budgeting and spend, design fees and the process of engaging with an interior designer. Here’s what he has to share:

Qanvast (Q): Can you walk us through the process of engaging an interior design service through Blaine Robert Design?

Blaine Robert (BR): During the first client meeting, I will usually assess if I can work and get along well with the client. If the client comes back with more questions, it's a clear indicator of their interest in my firm. Then we will issue an invoice to start the ball rolling.

Ritz Carlton Residence, Kuala Lumpur by Blaine Robert Design Sdn. Bhd.

Q: How do you charge your design fee?

BR: The design fee includes a site visit, full site measurement, full site photography, full site consultancy, liaising with the management company, renovation permits, all of the 3D, all of the technical drawings, submission to local authorities and the approval.

The design fee is generally between 7-10% of the renovation budget, and it's usually paid upfront in the first invoice.

Ritz Carlton Residence, Kuala Lumpur by Blaine Robert Design Sdn. Bhd.

Q: What would you advise homeowners who are often clueless about the amount of money to set aside for their home renovation?

BR: When a client asks me how much money they should spend on renovation, my answer is always the same, “Do not spend any more money than you can afford!”

A lot of homeowners are reluctant to tell the interior designer what their budget is. Now you have to ask yourself why. My feeling is that some of them probably feel a bit embarrassed to reveal their budget thinking that their budget is probably too low. I try to change that thinking immediately. The home renovation design is based on your budgetary constraints. I cannot start designing anything until I know how much money the client wants to spend.

For example, you ask me to buy you a car. Of course, I’m going to ask you for much money that you want me to spend on. But you would say to me, “No no no, just buy me a car”. OK, so I go out and I have to think if you are a Myvi, a BMW, an Audi or a Ford girl. When I finally made that choice and decided to buy you a Toyota, you came back to me saying, “Oh, I can’t afford that, I can only afford a Myvi.” See? That’s trouble!

Ritz Carlton Residence, Kuala Lumpur by Blaine Robert Design Sdn. Bhd.

Q: What’s your opinion on interior firms who don't charge a design fee for their creative work?

BR: I went to a university to study interior design, so did my team. All of us have a set skill that most people don’t have, so I think an interior designer is a chargeable skill in my opinion, just like a doctor, a lawyer, a dentist or an accountant.

Ritz Carlton Residence, Kuala Lumpur by Blaine Robert Design Sdn. Bhd.

Q: Can you walk us through the services in Blaine Robert Design?

BR: Every interior design firms have their own pricing structure, but generally speaking, there are three types of services that we offer:

1. Core Renovation - Some new properties come as a bare unit which will require a core renovation. This will include a dry and wet kitchen for cooking; wardrobes for storage and your plaster ceilings finished with all of your core down lighting in so you can see at night. A core renovation costs between RM80-100 per sq ft.

Ritz Carlton Residence, Kuala Lumpur by Blaine Robert Design Sdn. Bhd.

2. Designer Renovation - A designer renovation includes the core renovation, but we will add more design features. This includes the built-in TV cabinet, the kitchen island, the built-in headboard in the master bedroom, the built-in side table and the built-in home office. Basically, a designer renovation is carpentry works and everything that’s fixed in the structure of the home. A designer renovation costs between RM100-RM150 per sq ft.

Ritz Carlton Residence, Kuala Lumpur by Blaine Robert Design Sdn. Bhd.

3. Turn-Key Renovation - The turn-key renovation, of course, includes the core and the designer renovation and on top of that, we’re adding the curtains, the artwork, the coffee tables, the side coffee tables, the sofa, the dining tables and everything else. Basically, you can just bring your suitcases and move into the home immediately after the renovation is completed. A turn-key renovation costs between RM150 - RM180 per sq ft.

Ritz Carlton Residence, Kuala Lumpur by Blaine Robert Design Sdn. Bhd.

Q: How do you deal with a client who comes up with a lower budget than what you have suggested above?

BR: Sometimes, I have clients who want a turn-key renovation, but their budget isn’t RM150 per sq ft. It‘s less than that. In that case, this is where it is important to make sure your client understands realistic expectations. Although in situations like this, it can still be done, but you have to let them know that, “OK, maybe we can’t do a complete built-in home office, but we’ll buy loose furniture instead”. We have to figure out where to economize the budget, but still, keep the design feel.

Some clients come with a way too low budget, but with high expectations. In this case, we will make them understand that their budget isn’t sufficient enough for the renovation.

Ritz Carlton Residence, Kuala Lumpur by Blaine Robert Design Sdn. Bhd.

Q: When do Blaine Robert issue the first invoice?

BR: After the design fee is paid, the design is completed and confirmed. Then, we will provide the client with a full detailed costing of the renovation for them to review. After the full costing is run through and everything is confirmed, we will issue them the first invoice:

  • At Blaine Robert Design, we will first issue payment terms of the 50% deposit of the total renovation cost.
  • The next invoice is the progress payment, which is 45% of the total renovation cost. We will issue the invoice after all the carpentry work is finished at the factory and everything is delivered to site, and when we start installing the carpentry work at the client’s home.
  • The final payment is 5% of the total renovation cost. We will issue them 6 months after the renovation is completed. We do this because we feel that the client will feel confident if they can hold that 5% in case there are any defects, such as a little leakage or minor gap on the built-in wardrobe that needs to be rectified.
Ritz Carlton Residence, Kuala Lumpur by Blaine Robert Design Sdn. Bhd.

Q: Often there’s a dispute between the interior designer and the homeowner over ‘hidden charges’ or Variation Order (VO). What actually constitutes a VO and how do you avoid/ solve this problem?

BR: Variation Order (VO) is when a client asks for something more that is not on the quotation and it’s going to cost more money. Then you give them another costing for the variation order or for the additional work.

When I was younger and I didn’t have as much confidence, that would happen more often. Now, at Blaine Robert, we work so hard to create the design to a point where the client is happy that I encourage them to not make any changes after everything is confirmed because if we have to make changes, there can be additional costs and there can be many things that can go wrong. With me, generally, my clients seldom change their minds or want to add more or add less. When the design is fixed, no changes are required, therefore no VO is needed.

Writer’s note: The need for VO is usually the result of miscommunication, misunderstanding or rushing in without being thorough enough with the contracts. Before hiring an interior designer, it’s probably a good idea to look over your contract and make sure everything is properly detailed to avoid any VO during the renovation process which will eventually cost you more than your initial budget.

Ritz Carlton Residence, Kuala Lumpur by Blaine Robert Design Sdn. Bhd.

Q: Lastly, do you have any advice for homeowners on choosing the right interior designer for their home renovation?

BR: Everybody is going to tell you what you want to hear. When you’re deciding which interior designer you want to work with, don’t base that decision on what they tell you; base your decision on how you feel about being with them. If both the client and the interior designer mutually like working with each other, things will go smoothly. Don’t just hire an interior designer because he keeps saying, “Budget - no problem”. If the interior designer keeps saying that, then you should prepare yourself for a disaster!

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