Budgeting for Interior Design Projects

How do I budget for my interior design project?

You’re beginning an interior design project and you have a bit money saved up to do it.   How do you know whether it’s enough to fulfill your design vision?   How do you know whether you can afford to work with an interior designer to help guide you along the way?

These are good questions, and while we can’t be specific about your personal project in a blog post, or even until we see your space and understand the full scope of what you want to accomplish, this article is designed to help you understand what factors go into budgeting.


One of down2earth interior design’s core principles is sustainability.   Why do we address that first in an article about budgeting?  Because sustainability and budgetary costs are linked.   However, they are not linked in some obvious or linear way.  You cannot say, as a rule, that the more green the project, the more expensive it will be.   Rather, there are some ways that sustainability may cost more upfront, but less over time, and some ways that it may actually be cheaper.   When we choose skilled craftspeople to build cabinets, or when we specify quality pieces that will hold up over time and that will age well, these are inherently sustainable choices in some ways; it means what you build or buy will not end up in a landfill anytime soon.  But that quality comes with a cost –perhaps a bigger upfront investment for you, the homeowner or business owner.   Here at down2earth interior design, we believe that beautiful design is possible without purchasing everything from exclusive showrooms or high-end furniture manufacturers.   But there is a limit to how low we can go in terms of expenditure without compromising our commitment to the long-term health of the planet and the long-term satisfaction our clients will experiences in the spaces we design.

Keep in mind that sustainability can also be MORE affordable, since we often try to find ways to reuse things you already own, and save transportation costs when we source local.   But in the end, since we stand by our commitment to specifying quality, timeless items, don’t expect our designs to be on the low end of the budgetary guidelines you may have seen elsewhere.


Budgetary Guidelines

Speaking of budgetary guidelines you may have seen elsewhere; it is also not possible to use costs you may have seen on a home design show to give you an accurate sense of what your design project will cost.   Many of the labor costs (whether by designers or carpenters) may be covered by the budget of the tv show.   Or they may be doing the projects in markets that are very different than ours, here in the northeastern United States.

So if a home design show is not an accurate way to get a sense of budget, what IS an accurate method?

Start by asking yourself:

  • What are my goals for aesthetics and function?
    • This will often have implications for how much work you will need to do and what level of materials you will be using.
  • What is the scope? When determining scope, ask yourself the following questions:
    • What type of room or rooms are you looking to renovate?
    • Do you want to completely start from scratch, or are there some existing finishes or fixtures or furniture pieces you plan to reuse?
    • How many square feet are we talking about?
    • Does your taste run towards higher priced items, mid-priced items, or lower priced items? It can be helpful to name roughly which items you anticipate needing for a space and creating a basic spreadsheet where you assign a price to each item.   Base that placeholder price on a low, mid, or high-priced item depending where your tastes fall.
    • Are you hoping for custom built-ins? Custom window treatments that are maybe motorized?   These can be big ticket items.  We’re talking five-figure items depending on size, so factor that in.
    • Will there be construction involved, or are we mostly looking at specifying freestanding pieces?
    • Do you hope to move walls, plumbing fixtures, or gas lines? Hoping to add electricity where there currently is none?   If so, an architect, structural engineer, or contractor is going to need to get involved to give you a sense of pricing about that.

These last two questions are important because if the answer is yes to either of these, you’re going to want to bring a contractor into the conversation.  You contractor can give you a sense of the costs of labor and materials.  The more specific you can be, the more specific the contractor can be, so you may not get super-far with specifics if you haven’t already brought a designer onto your team.    But if you’re hoping to understand costs before engaging a designer, you can rely on some cost per square footage estimates.   Typical cost per square foot numbers for renovations in our area are around the $250 – $350 square foot range in the Philly area as of early 2021, but with volatile material pricing right now, these are certainly subject to change.   And then of course, costs can go up depending on your selections.   Contractors usually put allowances in their bids for materials that reflect real world pricing.   Will a standard allowance get your needs met, or are you interested in higher-end finishes (marble?) or installation methods (herringbone tile installations?) which may raise the price.  If it’s early on in the process, you may have no idea if you want higher end finishes or installation methods.  If that’s the case, then know that the material costs used by contractors usually do not include high-end finishes because not all homeowners go there and it may make their bids look less competitive.   So assume a lower end cost has been embedded in the materials number, factor in some percentage if you have luxury taste, and turn to your designer to start getting specific about what those luxurious finishes might be.

Photo: Rebecca McAlpin


Factor In Professional Fees

Speaking of designers, if you’re working with us here at d2e, or with any designer, you will need to factor in our professional fees as well.   We charge hourly for our design time.   We can often get you to a place where your contractor can weigh in on specifics in about 10-15 hours of time (although this depends on the size of the project and how very specific you want to be upfront).  It’s a push and pull between not sinking too much time into design before knowing the costs and having enough information to start getting realistic budgets.

Because this is such a dance, we advise that you only hire a designer if you have a bit of wiggle room in your budget.   Availability of materials or homeowners’ ongoing deliberations can lead to direction changes during the course of the project, and we want to be able to be nimble and responsive to make the project the very best it can be.  As a result, we do not work with fixed design fees, but have an hourly fee model that is responsive to the homeowner’s working style.  If the homeowner is very decisive and does lots of the research and legwork themselves, they can save on design fee, our if a homeowner likes to see lots of options and their confidence is enhanced by us creating detailed visual representations of the design, this will lead to higher hourly fees.


Working with the Down2Earth Interior Design Team

So how do I know what I’m getting into in terms of design fees?

For a small kitchen with a client who does much of the legwork themselves, we can accomplish a full design in 25 hours, but most will take more like 40 hours to complete, and could be higher.

A more straightforward space, like a dining room or bedroom or family room that doesn’t involve custom built –ins, you can expect design time to take more like 18 hours.


Real Numbers

So, let’s talk real numbers.   If you want to get a true sense of budget, you add our design fee to the labor and material costs to get a total budget.

If you’re doing a kitchen, we are seeing that a realistic budget starts at six figures, just factoring in your labor and materials costs.

Bathrooms range widely depending on whether you’re looking to do a basic hall bath (figure $30,000) or a luxurious master suite bath (could be as high as $90,000).

Family or living room: Furnishings inclusive of lighting, accessories, window treatments, rugs we would recommend that you budget $25,000 and up (using existing furnishings can lower these costs).

Home office: Furnishings $15-25,000 and up for a design featuring a mix of furniture and custom built-ins.

Every project should factor in a contingency budget (say 15% higher than expected).


Additional Resources

For more information about budgeting we found two additional articles we think are helpful:

Glenna Stone’s “Budgeting for A Design Project

Bellweather Design-Build’s. “How Much is a Home Addition in Main Line Philadelphia?


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