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DIY interior design: Is it a good idea?

7 questions to ask yourself before flying solo on your next interior design project

Carlos Chavarría

We live in a DIY culture. Whether we found instructions on a Pinterest board or watched an HGTV host easily redo her bathroom, transforming that neglected room seems like it should be so easy. But is the DIY route right for everyone?

It depends. For starters, interior design projects can run the gamut, from accessorizing a living room to gutting and remodeling a kitchen. While much of the attention to interior design focuses on the resulting look, any interior designer will testify that there is a lot of time and knowledge that goes into any makeover, including substantial aesthetic know-how, a clear grasp of how to make a space function better, and good problem-solving and project management skills.

Erin Davis, the founder of Mosaik Design, a design/build firm that does everything from interiors installations to comprehensive renovations, outlines a basic framework to consider when opting to go it alone. Davis is a professional kitchen and bath designer at work, as well as a DIY-er in her own home. She understands that taking the DIY approach to interior design projects can be creative and rewarding, as well as riddled with potential pitfalls. Here are seven questions to help you decide which process is right for you.


1. How complex is your project?

Define the scope of the project and its complexity through research—a lot of research. Consult a variety of sources and compare notes to get a clear idea of each step involved in the project, the labor or skill it entails, and how long it might take.

Take the example of a living room design. Once you’ve decided on the aesthetic, the next steps might be drawing up a floorplan, sourcing furniture and accessories within a budget, double-checking measurements and materials for fit and quality, and dealing with shipping delays or returns.

You may need to identify whether any sub-contractors are necessary, and whom to hire to do the work. Or whether, say, skim coating the walls is something you can learn to do yourself. Obviously, a kitchen overhaul could be even more complex and expensive. Either way, research is paramount before picking up any tools.

2. Are there risks involved?

Painting a piece of furniture or sewing a curtain panel won’t put you or your family in danger. However, attempting to reroute electrical, plumbing, or gas lines, or disturbing the structural integrity of your home, are much more serious. Find out if the project requires a permit in your jurisdiction and hire out the more complicated work to professionals.

When working with them, says Davis, "You need to make sure that they’re licensed and bonded, and they’re not going to run off with your money." Get personal referrals, visit their projects, read reviews, and check to see if there are any claims against their contractor’s license.

Sunny Eckerle

3. Do you have the necessary experience and equipment?

"The perfect DIY-er is somebody who does it a lot," Davis says. "But if it’s someone who’s thinking about trying to save money, and they’ve never done it before, choose wisely."

If you have no experience with DIY, try to gain more practice. Attend workshops, shadow a more knowledgeable friend, or try smaller projects first. Don’t forget to consider the tools you’ll need, and the additional cost of buying or renting them.

Davis cautions people to really evaluate what they can handle. "There’s a misconception that somebody can just take on a whole bathroom," she says. More complex projects require extensive project management—like scheduling the sub-contractors and making sure materials are arrive at the right time—in addition to being able to do the labor, which may not be obvious to the newbie.

4. What are your expectations of the project’s outcome?

Thanks to the internet, we have a wealth of absolutely beautiful pictures of interiors projects at our fingertips. This is great for inspiration, but it also means that we might have unrealistic expectations for our personal projects once they’re completed.

"Are you expecting this to be a professionally-designed, beautiful space that you know everything was done correctly?" says Davis. Will it bother you if the curtain hem or the tile grout is crooked? "If you’re okay with living with something that is not a professional result, then DIY might be the right avenue for you."

5. Are you okay redoing the project if you have to?

No matter how much you prepare, the reality is that you may have to redo your work. This can be time-consuming, like having to paint the same room five times to get the color right, and expensive if you need to bring in professional help.

Davis says that she’s received many calls from clients who were midway through a project and realized that they didn’t know as much as they thought they did. "They get into it thinking, ‘Oh, this is going to be super easy if I just Google it,’" she says. "And then they get stuck."

Sunny Eckerle

6. Is it worth your time to do it?

"I always ask people, what is your time worth?" Davis says. "Put that into a dollar amount." You should also put a price on the potential headaches that the project will undoubtedly cause.

A designer’s rate covers more than just hard costs, like materials and labor. When you hire a professional, you’re also paying for their ability to solve problems and maintain relationships with sub-contractors and vendors.

Also, factor in the possibility that the project may gobble up your free time. For some people, that’s part of the appeal. For others, giving up even a weekend is less than ideal.

Keep in mind that the time it takes to finish a home project can easily balloon beyond initial projections. Setbacks occur and mistakes will be made, especially if you’re learning as you go. Sub-contractors may not show up according to schedule, says Davis, because your job is a "one-off" commission, whereas a designer offers them repeat business. "The schedule can get super wacky with people trying to do it themselves," says Davis. Factor in extra time for when life intervenes.

7. Are you going to enjoy the process?

If you’re considering tackling your own interior design project, chances are that your idea of a good time is debating paint colors, using power tools, and rearranging rooms to better effect. If that’s not the case, then perhaps wait until you have enough money to work with a designer.

If you’re still on the fence, start with a low-impact project—such as an entryway refresh or mudroom fix—and gauge how much you like the creativity and challenges inherent to the interior design process.