Help Around the House

Affordable options for getting professional advice on your home update projects.

Photo courtesy Edith-Anne Duncan.

Who among us can say that they don’t want (or desperately need!) to change something about their home? We’ve had plenty of time to consider updates and throw together quick fixes over the past year. In the shadow of the pandemic, our living spaces are often doing double, sometimes even triple, duty. We sleep in our bedrooms and work in them all day. Kitchens now serve as classrooms. Living rooms are also workout spaces. Throw in an addiction to Pinterest and a few thousand hours spent watching HGTV, and the desire to transform your four walls into something gorgeous or, heck, even livable, can reach a fever pitch.

Perhaps you’ve already tried some updates yourself with less-than-desirable results. A lot of us have overestimated our abilities, taking on DIY projects that don’t end up meeting expectations, says Matthew Lee, a principal at Hanbury Architecture & Planning in Norfolk ( and the president of the Virginia chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers. “Everybody has been home for quite a while doing the DIY work, like repainting rooms and switching out furniture, to try to make it better. Our spaces need to do a lot more for most of us these days, but to change our living environment successfully generally requires much more than a quick paint job and a new chair,” he says.

Hiring a professional to help improve your home’s interior spaces sounds, and can in fact be, expensive and daunting. Where do you begin? How much will it cost? 

Designers and Decorators

First, it’s helpful to know the difference between an interior designer and a decorator. The distinction can be a little murky. 

Photo courtesy La Diff.

According to Lee, American Society of Interior Designers members have a degree in interior design from an accredited four-year college or university. They understand how people react and behave in various environments, and are trained to create functional spaces that resonate with an individual’s emotional needs. Designers also know about local building codes and the principles of accessibility, efficiency, and even acoustics.

Some are also certified. Currently, there are 493 Certified Interior Designers in the state, a title that requires an accredited design degree, two years’ monitored experience, passing an exam, and an application fee. “It’s a big deal,” says Kathleen R. Nosbisch, the executive director of Virginia’s Board for Architects, Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors, Certified Interior Designers, and Landscape Architects. “Certified Interior Designers need to not only prove they know about the elements of design, they also have to know about fire codes and the use of nonflammable materials, for instance.”

Similarly, an interior decorator uses paint, fabrics, furnishings, and various accessories to create aesthetically pleasing and functional interior spaces. However, there’s no required education or training, and no state certifications.

No rules prohibit someone from referring to themselves as an interior designer or decorator without the special qualifications, say both Lee and Nosbisch. It’s always good to ask about credentials when considering hiring someone to help you create or refresh your interior spaces.

Retail Inspiration

Photo courtesy La Diff.

As with most things these days, it’s all about customization. Retailers like Pottery Barn and Crate and Barrel offer free online design services, with the understanding that these stores are selling furnishings and accessories that will be the focus of any design suggestions. 

Some local furniture stores also offer design services. For example, in Richmond, modern furniture store La DIFF ( provides design consultations for $175. The process starts at the store, so the designer can narrow down your likes and dislikes. Follow-up meetings can take place at the store or at your home. The $175 fee will be applied to store purchases to complete the design. “It’s super helpful for customers who have a modern style and just need a little help putting a space together,” says design specialist Lea Huggins. 

Virtual Advice

Outside of retail options, more customized interior design services are now available online at prices that won’t break the bank. Chelsea Mulroy, the lead designer of KEPT, an online interior design company the Virginia Beach-based entrepreneur created six years ago (, feels that, “Everyone, no matter their lifestyle, deserves a haven as their home. … So, I needed to find a way to offer my interior design services at an affordable price.” Mulroy charges $75 per hour for remote services and $125 per hour for in-person consultations. She also offers design packages that range from $400 to $2,500, depending on the size and scope of the project. 

Photo courtesy Chelsea Mulroy.

Interactions with clients typically involve conversations about their lifestyles to determine what story they want to tell about their spaces. Online clients also must provide detailed measurements. “I’ve been working with people all over the country,” she says. With a typical waitlist of one to two months, she’s seen an uptick in 2020. “Everyone is at home wanting to improve their spaces.” 

With clients stretching from Florida to Maryland, Blacksburg-based interior designer Edith-Anne Duncan ( also offers online services. She begins with an initial consultation with clients about the size, use, and goals for their spaces. “I ask a lot about lifestyle. … I want to know everything from what their favorite outfits look like to do they drink coffee in the morning and what time they go to bed. Lots of questions,” she says, laughing. She dedicates a day to design, which often also involves more calls or video chats. She charges $1,500 for this process, including a 30-minute follow-up conversation. 

Kitchen and bath retailer Ferguson Enterprises ( offers customized virtual design appointments. Richmond-based design consultant Amy McCarty says lots of people look to these areas for redesign. “I walk customers through their layouts by sharing my computer screen. We can peruse the cabinetry manufacturers’ websites to make initial color selections, as well. I find that this is incredibly helpful for initial appointments. But eventually the customer will need to see the colors in person, since computer screens will always alter the color a bit,” she says. Pricing is done on a case-by-case basis.

Selecting a designer is a two-way street. Just as you are looking for the right chemistry, they are also looking for the right fit. First impressions are important, and so is knowing what you’re willing to spend and value of a designer’s time and talent. As Lee points out, “Designers are walking into someone’s life. It just doesn’t get any more personal than that.” 

For more about online decor services, click here.

This article originally appeared in the December 2020 issue.

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