Renovation Guide: Contractor vs Interior Designer

Renovation Guide: Contractor vs Interior Designer

In Singapore, the lines between contractors and interior designers are blurred. If you ask most people, the only difference they know is that “interior designers are more expensive”. That’s true, but that’s also because interior designers do plenty of things that contractors don’t. Here’s how to differentiate and choose between the two:

Who is a contractor, and who is an interior designer?

In theory, here’s how it works:

The interior designer’s role is project management. The designer conceptualises the entire renovation project: it’s their job to create 3D sketches, figure out the right dimensions for features, pick out colour combinations, and so forth.

Interior designers also consult with you on what materials to use, where those materials are sourced from, and what kind of aesthetic suits your tastes.

The contractor’s role is execution, rather than planning. The contractor takes the plans drawn up by the designer and then hires the right experts (subcontractors) to make the plans happen. The subcontractors are professionals such as electricians, plumbers, painters, and so forth.

The contractor’s role is to ensure subcontractors finish their jobs on time, to a standard that’s acceptable.

In reality, the lines between designer and contractor are often blurred. There are many contractors in Singapore who - although they may not have interior design qualifications - can help to conceptualise projects. Some of these contractors are industry veterans, who have been at the job so long they can also do sketches and come up with ideas.

To muddle things further, there are contractors who hire interior designers for their firm but take charge of the planning themselves (they prefer to communicate directly with the client).

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What are the practical differences you’ll face?

When choosing between contractors and interior designers, these are the practical differences to take into account:

  • Pricing
  • Hands-on versus hands-off
  • Specific versus general needs
  • The amount of time available

1.     Pricing

Designers tend to charge more than contractors. For example, some designers charge for consultations that involve 3D drawings, or for walking you through a materials catalogue; with contractors, these services tend to be free.

However, note that there are exceptions: a start-up interior design firm looking to build a portfolio may charge less than a well-established contractor. Also, some contractors don’t consider their skills or time to be less valuable than a design firm, and will also charge at the same rate.

For all practical purposes, work out a budget first, and then choose between the two. If you have a budget of $50,000, for example, then whoever can get the job done for $50,000 or under is the one you pick (regardless of whether they are a contractor or designer).

If your budget could accommodate both a contractor and a designer, then proceed to point 2.

2. Hands-on or hands-off

If you want to supervise the renovations yourself, then choose a contractor. There’s no point paying more for a designer, as you’ll be buying consultations you don’t need.

If you don’t want to be involved, then consider a designer instead. A design firm can oversee the whole process, so you don’t need to keep checking in on everyone’s progress.

In general, first-time renovators and home owners are better off with a designer. When you dictate terms to a contractor, they won’t be responsible for design errors (e.g. the bathrooms turn out too cramped, or there’s too much heat in the living room). All the contractor does is follow your plans, and it’s your problem if they turn out bad.

A proper designer, however, would answer for such mistakes and rectify them.

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3. Specific versus general needs

If you have specific renovation needs, you don’t need an interior designer. Some examples of these are:

  • Installing a new staircase
  • Changing the flooring material
  • Converting just one room into a study or nursery
  • Converting to a new kitchen layout (when you’ve already got the plans)
  • Building a false ceiling

A contractor can do these jobs, so long as you give clear instructions.

4. The amount of time available 

Both designers and contractors can work fast when needed. But overall, designers need more time to deliver their best work.

The design process is detailed, involving numerous 3D sketches, gradual refinements, and even custom made fittings and furnishings (yes, designers do commission custom furniture, if they can’t find off-the-shelf products that meet their standards).

But time constraints may not allow for all this. If you need to move into the property next week, or you have tenants waiting, then it may be best to call a contractor. Any decent contractor can make an unfurnished or old house livable, even without a designer.

Don’t forget to use renovation loans before personal loans!

When renovating your house, don’t forget that you can use renovation loans first. Renovation loans have a lower interest rate (around 2% to 4% per annum) than many personal loans. Most of them are capped at six months of your income, or $30,000.

It’s always a good idea to take a renovation loan first, and then use personal loans if you need to cover any excess costs. You can find out more about renovation loans here.

At present, three of the top renovation loans are the OCBC Renovation Loan (2.86% per annum), DBS Renovation Loan (4.88% per annum), and the Maybank Renovation Loan (3.86% per annum). You can renovation loans on GoBear to get the best rate. Just select "Revonation" under the Personal Loans search engine. 

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