What to Know About Virtual Interior Design

A brown-and-white board design idea of what a top-notch grand parlor looks like.

When you work with an online, or virtual, interior designer, you’ll typically receive a custom room design, a loyout and space plan, recommendations for furniture and decore and a concept board, much like this one from Room Design Online.

After making many decisions about your new home, the idea of furnishing and decorating it may seem like a daunting task.

Most folks think there are only two options to 
interior design — do it themselves or hire an interior designer. But many don’t realize there's a third option: go online for virtual interior design.

For Georgia homebuyer Christi Yeager, working with a professional was an obvious choice. Having worked with an interior designer on a former home, Yeager opted for professional help with decisions such as space planning and ensuring her finished home would match how she and her family
 lived. She selected Lisa Davidson, a North Carolina interior designer who has appeared on HGTV’s “Designer Challenge.”

“Lisa helped me right off the get go with making some changes so the home best fit our needs. Her very best recommendation was a modification of the floor plan giving us an extra bedroom we desperately needed, but did not think we could fit in the existing space,” Yeager shares. Davidson went on to design layouts, furnishings and finishes for five rooms, in addition to making overall recommendations for flooring and paint colors.

While working with an interior designer is not unusual, Yeager’s experience was far different than her first foray into hiring an interior designer — Davidson never set foot in the house nor met Yeager in person. Instead, she worked remotely as an online, or virtual, designer. “I was nervous about working with someone that I never met, but the cost savings were so good that I knew I needed to try it out,” Yeager recalls.

Like traditional designers, online designers offer a range of services from consultations on an hourly basis to whole house designs. Although each designer works a little differently, clients typically complete an extensive questionnaire and provide photos and room measurements. In a phone call, they share their design goals with the designer.

In return, depending on the services contracted, clients receive a custom room design, a layout and space plan that shows where everything goes and a concept board to visualize the overall look, as well as specific recommendations and pricing for furniture, lighting, wall and window treatments and floor coverings. And, most important, a step-by-step guide to completing the room.

“The quality of our designs rivals those designed by way of traditional on-site interior design, but at a lower design service price point,” explains Lisa Ellis, owner of Room Design Online. “Our clients still have access to the same to-the-trade products and retail products that our on-site clients do. They also have unlimited access to us via phone, email and Skype. The only difference is that we don’t step a foot into their homes.”

“It’s not one size fits all, although that’s what I thought it was when I started out,” shares Davidson, owner of InteriorDesignServiceOnline.com. “Services are all pretty individualized depending on what an owner wants. The cost for online design can range from less than $100 for a quick review of an existing room to under $500 for a custom room design to a couple of thousand for an entire house depending the size of the home and the range of services.”

Honing In On the Vision

Budget considerations aren’t the only thing that makes virtual design attractive to buyers of newly built homes. Anyone who’s walked through a home under construction understands how difficult it is to envision the finished product.

Like traditional designers, online designers offer a range of services from consultations on an hourly basis to whole house designs.

“You’re walking through rooms with wood framing and steel beams. It’s hard to get an accurate feel for the space,” explains Ellis. “With a home that’s already been lived in, you’re likely to see how the previous owner laid out the furniture. The countertop is already there. While it still takes imagination to see yourself in that home, new construction requires a huge leap of faith. An online designer can get you through that leap of faith to ensure that the home you buy works with the way you want to live.” 

Designers can look at a set of plans or photos and envision each room, the volume and feeling of space. “That saves my clients money, mistakes and lot of headaches: like trying to maneuver around a sectional that swallows your entire space,” Ellis says. 

Quick Answers

Because homeowners must make many decisions in a short amount of time, Davidson says new home construction can be a challenge. “The contractors want instantaneous answers, and homeowners have no clue what grout color might be used. That’s the kind of thing that is overwhelming. But, (because I am) working remotely, I can answer quickly,” Davidson says.

“With Pinterest and Houzz, people are looking at so many things, it’s no wonder they need help,” she explains.

For designers, the task becomes deciphering the common element from all those photos and helping owners understand where they want to go in terms of design. “A good way to make smart decision is to have a vision of where you are going and where you want to go,” Davidson says. 

Additionally good designers understand how to cut costs without compromising on value. Yeager says the biggest challenge for her in making decisions was the budget. “What I like, I often cannot afford! Lisa did help me understand where to splurge — like on the counters — and other places to save. This also meant justifying the cost to my hubby was a lot easier.”

Do Your Homework

When Davidson started her business in 2007, there were few online designers. In recent years, though, the field has exploded. Just as with traditional designers, you need to do your homework including interviewing past clients. Also, not all decorators are designers. Designers typically have completed a specific educational program, often earning a degree in design or the fine arts, have passed a qualifying exam and are members of professional organizations such as the American Society of Interior Designers. 

Online design is not for owners unwilling to do the work. “You need to be ready to do some work yourself, but for a busy mom on a budget who still wants a good looking and smartly functioning home, online is awesome,” says Yeager.

Camilla McLaughlin is an award-winning writer specializing in house and home. Her work has appeared in leading online and print publications, such as Yahoo! Real Estate, Unique Homes magazine and Realtor Magazine. She has also freelanced for the Associated Press.

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