Architects and remodeling contractors are the folks to call for structural planning, while interior designers work out optimal room size, traffic flow and lighting. When it comes to choosing and coordinating the color schemes, paint finishes, cabinet styles and light fixtures that go into that room, that's where an interior decorator comes in.

A good interior decorator will save you months of hunting down product samples and other research, and prevent some potentially messy missteps. What's more, the decorator can do everything from simply acting as a sounding board for your ideas to undertaking more involved work, like buying paint and fabric, scheduling an installation and even supervising the job.

Your contractor and interior decorator must work closely together. So begin by choosing a decorator your contractor likes, preferably someone with experience on your type of project. A pro who specializes in new construction or commercial space might not be equipped to integrate an addition with the rest of your house. Here are some other essentials for getting?and working with a first-class decorator.

Billing Basics
Do some prescreening by looking for members of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), which educates and tests interior decorators. Then look at which of the three billing methods each uses: free, flat-fee and hourly.

While getting something for nothing might sound irresistible, a decorator who offers free services is really a manufacturer's rep who pushes certain products. Besides narrowing your options, you may pay more in the long run. A flat-fee decorator also looks like a bargain. Unfortunately, this pro often insists on acting as your exclusive buying agent, and may steer you toward products she marks up or for which she receives a commission. Take the case of one decorator who charged $26 per yard for carpet that retailed for only $18—an extra $200 for a 15X15-ft. room. That's why you should always check prices you get from your decorator against retail.

Your safest bet is an independent decorator who charges by the hour. You'll usually pay from $30 to $75 per hour depending on the level of service. But the per-hour arrangement lets you sever your relationship at any time. With a flat-fee decorator, you pay for the entire job, even if you part ways early on.

Bring Them In
Once you've gathered a few names, spend lots of time walking prospective decorators through your home so they know your taste. Express your likes and dislikes. And determine which ones are good listeners—essential for giving you what you want.

Then be sure you hire a decorator before building plans are drawn. Things work out best when the decorator is brought in at the inception of the project. That's when the decorator's input—how much wall space a window treatment needs or the window height required for a certain couch, for example—is essential. Otherwise, a decorator can create cost overruns by adding or removing a window, changing the distance between doors and windows and adding recessed lights that weren't wired behind the walls. All of these are costly alterations that often involve structural changes. You can always choose wall and carpet colors later. But your architect and contractor must know early on about design elements that affect the structure.

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