Upset about design fee- am I unreasonable?

eastcoastmomJune 11, 2012

Last month I started working with a designer who charges a per hour design fee, plus a percentage of furniture and fabric purchased. We put down a returner and I have met with this person a few times. I understood that additional design hours, such as fabric selection, designing a floor plan etc. are billed and I had no problem with that, either.

However, I was initially given an estimate of typical number of hours billed per month. Just got the bill and it's DOUBLE the number of hours she had predicted was the MOST that would be spent per month . No warning to me that she was spending so much more time. I'm not in the position to know how much time these things normally take, which is why I asked in the first place.

How should I handle this? Was I wrong to assume that she should tell me if the time spent started to exceed the estimate? Or should I have simply assumed that the first month's bill, with all the initial work and planning, would be the highest by a factor of 2x-5x?

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^^ That should, of course, read "retainer" not "returner!"

    Bookmark   June 11, 2012 at 12:44AM
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Hi EastCoastMom:
You may want to negotiate a flat rate for your room or project in the future. However, in this situation, I would bet that your designer would be willing to scale back her hours for the upcoming month based on your budget needs. Perhaps she did more up front but now won't have as much to do the next few months? Did you discuss your total budget for the project and what percentage would be designer fees verses products you will be buying? Good Luck,

    Bookmark   June 11, 2012 at 1:30AM
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I would ask her why the amount exceeded her estimate by 100%, and tell her that you want to be notified as the estimate amount is approached. When you say an "average amount per month" I don't understand that, as a design project is by definition a short term commitment. If she said the amount billed would not exceed a certain amount THAT month, she has some explaining to do. Don't be hesitant to ask her! Clear up any misunderstandings now, before you proceed, especially if you like her work.

    Bookmark   June 11, 2012 at 6:42AM
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the amount she quoted you as a ballpark figure was probably a few months averaged out, I suspect the first month is the highest ; I think this is the best moment to clear the air and just voice your concerns, possibly she can point out what actions are the ones that translate in more billed hours, such as emails, etc...

    Bookmark   June 11, 2012 at 7:33AM
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I agree, voice your concerns but also let her know you have a budget to keep and if the cost exceeds XXX amount of dollars at any time, she needs to let you know.

    Bookmark   June 11, 2012 at 9:28AM
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I think only she can answer the question. Have you looked over the bill, and reviewed each item? Do you like her work?

I find that high end vendors are often cavalier about billing. I think part of it is an attitude that goes with the luxury status. Part of it is having clients who sometimes pay little attention to costs. In any event, if you are trying to stay within a budget or just get good value, you should make that clear and make sure you use a designer who will comply. I suspect most of them are for more adept at ways to make great rooms without spending hundreds of thousands, but rarely do they seem to put those talents to use for clients. I often get the sense that they show their clients the things they love but cannot afford themselves!

    Bookmark   June 11, 2012 at 11:02AM
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Mine doesn't even do a breakdown on her bill! You have to be carefull with mentioning other items/projects that you might want done, because then the next bill will include a few hours research into those items. I'm learning to keep my mouth shut!

I was also surprised by last month's statement as the bulk of things had been ordered and I didn't think we'd had much interaction. I put it in writing that the scope of work was only for current orders and not any research for future projects/items. It will be interesting to see next month's statement.

mtnrdredux, you last 2 sentences are spot on.

    Bookmark   June 11, 2012 at 11:49AM
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I agree with Mtn. I would call her on the carpet about it. Sounds like she's deliberately throwing in extra billable hours, at your expense of course. I don't care how good she is, IMO, that's very unprofessional.

Do you have a contract?

    Bookmark   June 11, 2012 at 12:11PM
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I used a designer to help me with my backsplash and possible window treatment, because I was so desperate. Our plan was that she would only spend X amount of time at 150 per hour not to exceed 10 hours for her expertise.
Of course, when she presented the bill, she said that she actually spent more time but just charged what we agreed on.
The kicker is, I did not like any of the fabrics and I also did not like the backsplash options. $1,500 out the window!
The up side is that at least I made it clear what I was willing to spend.
If I use a designer again, I would certainly make sure there is a cap on spending.
Of course ,if you wind up with a fabulous room, it is worth every penny. But if you don't, you feel foolish.

    Bookmark   June 11, 2012 at 12:21PM
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I think you should ask, and not "call her on the carpet" or anything. When I billed hourly I had to keep detailed records of what I did for those hours and that was always provided to the client if they questioned a bill... sometimes things just take longer than you think they will and I think that is why many designers prefer to charge hourly, so they don't get caught short. I would not approach her as a liar or a thief or anything, just ask politely why it was different than what your understanding was and what you can expect costs to be going forward and I agree that it is reasonable to ask her to contact you if costs seem to be going more than an hour or two over what you expect so that you can ok it before she proceeds. Vent here and then be polite when you talk to her - I can tell you that it does not feel very good when you are legitimately giving your best for someone and they treat you poorly for it... I never had problems justifying my time but did not like being treated like I was trying to put one over on someone.

    Bookmark   June 11, 2012 at 12:54PM
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"However, I was initially given an estimate of typical number of hours billed per month. Just got the bill and it's DOUBLE the number of hours she had predicted was the MOST that would be spent per month . No warning to me that she was spending so much more time. I'm not in the position to know how much time these things normally take, which is why I asked in the first place."

You did your part. You asked up front. She should have informed you that costs were going far beyond what she had estimated.

How confident are you going to feel from now on regarding this designer's truthfulness, her reliability, her ability to manage your budget, etc.?

    Bookmark   June 11, 2012 at 2:07PM
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It is always a good idea to be generous with your kindness and watchful with your money.

I would be curious to know what exactly is in your contract or letter of agreement that should cover this issue. People on both sides of a residential design project are so often not specific enough, and don't think of the designer as a general contractor, which s/he is.

That said, the designer should have done several things differently.

She should know that you must never do anything to damage your trust in her. This is a very intimate business relationship, and requires us in the trades to bend over backward, particularly at the start, to build that trust.

She should have explained clearly where in the timeline most of the hours would be spent. Mitchdesj is exactly right that the early days are the most demanding of time.

She should have called you immediately when she saw that she was already more than 20% over her monthly estimate, and talked it over with you.

Sure, there are things you might have done differently - but it is my belief that you hire a professional because you don't have that level of skill and knowledge, and those relationships with the workers and suppliers. And you don't necessarily understand the business. You shouldn't have to go to graduate school to learn how to manage the process - it's the designer's responsibility to gauge your level of sophistication in the industry, and to meet you where you are.

So I would call her and say very gently that you are a bit bewildered by the bill, and ask her to explain why the total is so much higher than you expected. Be polite but firm, ask all your questions, like whether or not she is going to stand by the original estimate for the whole job, and what she would like you to do to help hit that target. But do not say anything about what you probably should have done, or how you may have misunderstood, or anything that negotiates against yourself.

    Bookmark   June 11, 2012 at 3:09PM
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A person can still call someone on the carpet by being kind but firm, so they don't appear to be a pushover and taken advantage of in the future.

Sorry, I didn't mean to imply being nasty to her. lol.

I'm also with Mel, can the designer be trusted now?

    Bookmark   June 11, 2012 at 3:46PM
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I don't know your designer works, but there's generally a lot of work--invisible work--that happens early on that doesn't need to be done again, things like drawing an accurate as-built floor plan for a client who doesn't arrive with one. Those things won't need to be done over later on, so the average bill in subsequent months can drop significantly from the start-up costs.

For new clients, I always like to give them the benefit of the doubt if something seems odd, or I don't understand something, but if things were reversed and
I were hiring a designer to help me, I'd do the same thing. Taking that tone early on will help to smooth the inevitable problems when they arise later on--and they will, believe me, due to things beyond the control of either one of you--rather than racheting them up (even unintentionally) by setting an adversarial tone right out of the gate. But defintely give her a call and ask--nicely--for a clarification. It can only lead to good.

I've been fortunate. I have several good friends who started out as mere clients.

    Bookmark   June 11, 2012 at 5:49PM
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I think what Bronwynsmom and Magnaverde are saying makes total sense. It could be and probably is just a matter of poor communication and not a case of whether she can be trusted or not. I've never worked with a designer before but would think it's similar to working with a contractor. It's a type of partnership and there has to be a good open line of communication between the two of you. There were many times when a charge seemed out of sorts to me and I'd have to address it with our contractor. He'd either take the time to help me understand why something cost what it did or we'd negotiate the fee. It's just part of the process.

    Bookmark   June 11, 2012 at 7:06PM
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Thank you for all of your thoughtful responses and replies.

Melsouth asked "How confident are you going to feel from now on regarding this designer's truthfulness, her reliability, her ability to manage your budget, etc.?"

Not very!

In my line of work, I wouldn't be in business for long if I treated clients this way. Yes, if I had it to over again I would have addressed all this in writing instead of verbally. I won't make that mistake again. But I could never have imagined a design professional whom would take such liberties with no regard to clearly stated expectations - both hers and ours.

Our mistake was in expecting to be treated in a reasonable and professional way. The great irony is that It's not really about the dollars spent. While, yes, we were trying to hold down unreasonable and excessive costs, it's the principle of the thing that I object to more than anything.

    Bookmark   June 11, 2012 at 11:47PM
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More typos:

"who would"

    Bookmark   June 11, 2012 at 11:49PM
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To answer an earlier Q, we do have a written contract. It specifies the price per hour and the commission she gets for whatever is purchased. It's generous even without the hourly rate, but that is not unusual around here. The rest was discussed verbally, and our expectations were made very clear. BTW she has acknowledged making the estimates, but stands by the bill.

Had the amount exceed the estimate by a little, I'd agree with those who say have the talk about expectations and move forward. However this was major overstepping, in my opinion.

It all seems pretty unprofessional, not to mention short sighted to me. Especially since we had a whole house to do after this project.

At this point, I doubt we will move ahead with this person.

    Bookmark   June 12, 2012 at 12:06AM
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A designer I used charged a $1000 retainer. I erroneously thought it would have been credited towards work but it wasn't. It was just to have me as a client! I didn't realize that at all. I was irked ... 1K just to put me in her database?! but I guess that is how some designers work. At least I decided on some furniture choices quickly so that helped to keep costs down.

    Bookmark   June 12, 2012 at 2:48AM
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I'm really fed up with designers. I have paid them hundreds of dollars and gotten very little in return. Major rip.

    Bookmark   June 12, 2012 at 8:13AM
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East, I think you did the right thing. Question, now that you've probably paid her, who owns the work she's done so far? Drawings, ideas, etc.? If you own it, can you get your hands on all the paperwork she's done? Sounds reasonable to me.

We had to fire a designer and contractor when we did our house, but since we paid for the work the designer did I took her ideas and actually used some of them.

    Bookmark   June 12, 2012 at 9:05AM
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Eastcoastmom, I'm so sorry you had this experience. And SaraKat, I promise you that those of us who are serious about the business are as fed up as you are with bad practitioners. The profession is regulated state-by-state, rules about who can claim what professional designations are all over the place, and often anybody who takes a two-week course can hang out a shingle.

The big message through this post to clients is, assume nothing, ask everything, and write it all down. Keep asking until you understand everything. And hesitate to do business with anyone who is reluctant to commit everything to paper, or impatient with detailed questions.

This is why good designers often work solely on word of mouth and referral. Assuming ability and experience, your reputation, communication skill, and customer service are everything.

    Bookmark   June 12, 2012 at 10:41AM
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We're in the process of redesigning our entire house... new furniture, curtains, lamps, tables, paint, etc. We're about 80% done and I love it. I purchased most of the furniture at BigLots, Most of the wall decor came from Bed Bath & Beyond including the window treatments.

I don't think a designer could have done a better job. The best part is that if you don't like something, you can take it back for a refund. We purchased excess stuff like wall art and what we don't use we will simply return the extra.

I couldn't imaging paying someone to do what I accomplished in 2 weeks. But I also don't have the money to pay someone either lol.

I would definitely tell her you don't agree with the bill.

    Bookmark   June 12, 2012 at 12:02PM
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Seeing this post makes me think of my own experience with a designer last year. She talked about billing an hourly rate plus percentage over furniture price. I told her that I knew she couldn't give me an exact figure on how many hours she would spend on the project, but asked her if she could give me a range. She got all offended and gave me an attitude implying, "If you have to ask, then you can't afford me."

I really didn't find my question unreasonable, and in retrospect it seems like that was a giant red flag. How many people commit to buy things when they don't have a clue what it will cost them?

    Bookmark   June 12, 2012 at 12:17PM
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SAS, the attitude you describe is, in my experience, prevalent in the ID business. It seems a lot of folks have trouble reconciling the concept of luxury goods and value (maybe this means most luxury goods are poor value!).

I also agree with the OP that it is the principle more than the cost. Nothing enrages me more than the sense that people are ripping me off "because they can".

I've told the story before about the guy who quoted an AV system for our house. First he kept asking if I wasn't sure that I wanted every kid to have an AV system (I am totally sure, mister ... I don't want AV zombies). Then, when he gave me the quote, I asked him (perfectly nicely, I promise) some clarifying info about the pricing. He declined to answer and then withdrew his quote!

Ahh the cast of clowns and criminals that one had to deal with in this industry!

That said, IDs do hold the keys to all of the "to the trade" goodies, which I personally could not decorate without. Moreover, they do know the rudiments of scale and traffic flow and have a sense of color. I have picked some of that up but still need help with it. Lastly, a really good ID knows where to find good labor and how to manage it...

    Bookmark   June 12, 2012 at 12:37PM
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"If you have to ask, you can't afford me"...????

Boy, you were lucky to get this one's number so fast. Divas, divas everywhere, nor anyone to think....

    Bookmark   June 12, 2012 at 1:25PM
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Believe me, I value the work and skill that it takes to do this job well. If this hadn't happened, I would have followed through all the way. Yes, floor plans etc. belong to us at this point,but as mtnrdredux says, I don't have the connections or the knowledge to do most of this on my own. I wasn't using her for her ideas- anything but.

I had made it clear in many ways that the monthly hours had to be monitored, even saying that I had no problem with extending the time frame or postponing some elements of the project. It shouldn't matter what my purpose in doing this was - for all she knows her fees were out of current cash flow. Mostly I just wanted to give her an incentive to work efficiently and not run up huge bills.

I'm disappointed - was really looking forward to getting this room done. Now we're a little put off of the whole process, at least for now. Thanks for letting me vent and for all the good advice.

    Bookmark   June 12, 2012 at 1:33PM
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While we are on the topic of ID, I have several items/projects on order and I'm waiting for things to be built and installed. I have paid more than 50% of the cost so far. Today my ID asked for more money. I don't feel I should risk more than 50% of the total cost. When I have ordered custom items from brick-&-mortar stores I have never given more than a 20% deposit up front and paid the balance on delivery. I don't feel that I should be funding payroll for my ID! Any thoughts?

    Bookmark   June 12, 2012 at 7:09PM
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Chispa, it is customary for designers to require 50% of the cost of things being ordered up front. The designer's cost is at least that much. Unless s/he is the proprietor of a shop, s/he doesn't have inventory, but must order everything on her own account. That's what you are paying for.

It only takes a few years in the trade, graciously taking back and reordering a couple of dozen sofas and mirrors and rugs because the client doesn't like them after choosing them, having a year when your profit is slashed by three or four clients who just can't seem to pay their final invoices, losing money hand over fist, and the necessity for the 50% policy becomes evident!

For most of us, the margins are not very large, and yes, we do have to pay everyone who does all the work out of our receipts, and that comes from the client. You are in fact funding the payroll for your project, and you still have a lot of leverage when it's time to pay the final bill, which is likely where all your designer's profit comes from.

I hope that helps you feel better about it!

    Bookmark   June 12, 2012 at 10:34PM
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bronwynsmom, I had already paid just over 50% down and more money was asked today. I had no problem with what I had paid so far, but was surprised that the ID asked for more. The items/projects are being sewed/built, but probably won't be ready for at least a month. Should I pay more? It seems to make me carry the burden of risk if one of her subs flakes out. If the ID wants to be the middleman then they can't just have the profit without some of the risk. ID will come by and we'll discuss, but I wanted some input.

    Bookmark   June 12, 2012 at 11:46PM
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