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Advice for HomeownersOne bad decision pays for the designerSelling Design

Danger: Free Advice will Sabotage Your Expensive Renovation

By 01/06/2013November 26th, 201852 Comments

I was recently consulting with a client from Upstate New York. We were finalizing the colours and finishes for her kitchen renovation. As one last piece of advice, I told her to make sure she did not install the 4″ slab of granite on the backsplash so commonly found in kitchens.


She said “I am so glad you mentioned that, because my countertop guy said that my walls were crooked and I had to have it but I don’t like the look at all”.

One of my designer friends was looking for a new home in the suburbs last year and after touring house after house she said:

“The combination of finishes (tile/countertops/floors/stone fireplace) in 99% of the homes we have seen are so ugly and so bad, it amazes me that it doesn’t occur to people to hire a designer even to consult on what they are ABOUT to install. They would save all kinds of money because they’d be doing it right the first time and actually be happy with the result instead of upset once they see how it all looks together.”

Danger: Free Advice will Sabotage your Expensive Renovation





In all fairness, a good designer is hard to find but once you actually find one, hire them, if even for a single consultation.

If you are a do-it-yourselfer, a consultation is even more critical because your ideas will usually be based on the current trends and have little to do with what is appropriate and will actually coordinate with your existing house (maybe).

If you want free design advice, you’ll definitely get it, but it will be from all the salespeople or trades who do not have the entire picture of your renovation in their head.

Your builder or contractor will say ‘It can’t be done’ because they don’t want to do it or they don’t know how, or worse, they’ll tell you to do something unnecessary because they will make more money in the process.

The hardwood floor installer will declare ‘That room wasn’t square’ so that’s why you now have a transition strip at the doorway where there should not be one.

Your painter tells you he uses that colour ‘All the time, and it works in every house’.

The salesperson assures you that the colour of the tile or carpet you are buying ‘Is definitely perfect’.

The person selling you a product should be relied upon for their expertise regarding quality and availability. Conducting a poll with anyone who does not have the design plan for your home is simply foolish.

Danger: Free Advice will Sabotage your Expensive Renovation


I recently had a client who purchased all new living room furniture from a high-end furniture store. ‘The designer was free’, she said. What she ended up with was a sofa that was the wrong scale for her living room, chairs that did not coordinate, clashing undertones, the list goes on.

The designers job in a furniture store is to sell the furniture in their store, not anyone else’s.

Add all this to the free advice you’ll receive from your family and friends and the renovation you were so excited about from the beginning might just turn into a mess that’s too expensive to re-do and will bother you much more than the old finishes you inherited from the previous homeowner because YOU paid for it.

Danger: Free Advice will Sabotage your Expensive Renovation


Are you depressed from reading this now?


I’m trying to jolt you into understanding that a beautiful house, kitchen, bathroom or living room takes a big picture plan and cannot possibly ever happen with 50 different opinions and points of view.

Oh and by the way, there might have been one or more people in all the above possible scenarios who was right and had the correct answer to your design dilemma, but by now you’ll be too confused to be able to see the YOU ARE HERE neon flashing sign.

If your renovation was not expensive but you end up with finishes you don’t like, NOW it’s expensive because either you or the next homeowner will take it out again as soon as possible.

So either stick to your guns on keeping it simple and beautiful or find someone who can help you get to where you want to be.  Only then can you have a house that fills you with happiness when you walk in the door.

Related posts:

The 3 Most Important Words in a Consultation

Is Hiring a Designer a Luxury or Necessity?

What Would you Do? Advice for Designers/Consultant

If you would like your home to fill you with happiness every time you walk in, contact me.

Download my eBook, How to Choose Paint Colours – It’s All in the Undertones to get my complete step-by-step system on how to get colour to do what you want.

To make sure the undertones in your home are right, get some large samples!

If you would like to learn how to choose colour with confidence, become a True Colour Expert.

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  • Momlady says:

    Well said!

  • Lori Sawaya says:

    Love this post, MK. I don’t care who it is or what they’re selling be it paint, flooring or whatever, a vendor is a vendor and they all have their own agenda and ulterior motives adding up to their own bottom line. Not yours/ours. Smartest thing a homeowner can do is hire an independent consultant/designer whom they know is 100% focused on their project and not quarterly sales and revenues.

  • Laura says:

    Also, you should be wary of a “designer” that works off commission by selling you things.

  • Excellent post, and many thanks Maria. You nailed it with this one. I’m a regular reader and love your posts on color. This one especially educates about our total skill set and the benefit of using a design professional. Hats off to you!
    Faith in Seattle

  • Elise says:

    I’m sorry, but I used my birthday/christmas money that I had saved for over 5 years to pay a designer for advice. I researched her and everything. She was AWFUL. Told me to paint my house peach. Now I can’t hire another designer because I spent my money and my husband, who thought it was a waste of money in the first place, well…there is no way I will convince him again. Which is terrible because I really need a designer. But it is very expensive and hard to know what you will get. If they are good…totally worth the money. But if they are bad, well, I could have bought a lot of things with that money.

    • Erin says:

      Same experience here :(. No peach but a mish-mash of undertones. It only looks cohesive if I keep the lamps on. I don’t know if I could convince my husband again…and I don’t know if I’d trust the process again either.

    • Lauren Tyson says:

      We did the peach thing. too. Never choose a paint color based on it’s delicious-sounding name: e.g., “fresh-baked bread.” Expensive lesson.

    • AK says:

      In every profession (think doctors, lawyers, etc., not just designers) there are people who aren’t a fit for us, and some who are just bad at their jobs. That’s frustrating, but it doesn’t mean the smart next step is to perform your own surgery or represent yourself in court.

      A simple 1-hour consultation with another designer will *still* much cheaper than whatever you & your husband have budgeted for your paint job/renovations. Especially if you mess it up by trying to do it yourselves.

      • Holly says:

        I agree with AK’s comments. A one hour consultation is a great way to get to know each other and determine whether you want to proceed with that person’s services. Maybe you go through 2 of those 1 hour consults but it may be worth it to find a fit for you and your home.

      • Kim says:

        AK I couldn’t agree with you more:
        In every profession (think doctors, lawyers, etc., not just designers) there are people who aren’t a fit for us, and some who are just bad at their jobs. That’s frustrating, but it doesn’t mean the smart next step is to perform your own surgery……

        As a painter and decorator for 20 years (I live in Australia) I regularly have to let my potential customers know that you can’t tar every painter with the same brush (no pun intended).

        Not everyone is good at their job and there are definitely ones out there that especially do not care for the clients, they do not take their wants/needs into consideration at all, so many here as just happy to slap a coat of paint around and not give 2 hoots at how it looks nor care at how precisely the preparation was executed.

        Unfortunately I am a perfectionist. At the end of every job I ask myself if I was paying for this how happy would I be at this result?

        P.s. just catching up on blog posts, I accidentally found Maria just a few months ago. I wish there was someone in Australia that taught this stuff?

        Have a lovely day ladies.. xx

    • Danielle says:

      My advice to people who have had a bad time with designers. If you can’t have a proper discussion with your designer and know you’re on the same page with your own tastes from day one…don’t continue on with them. Designers should be willing to assess and accept their clients tastes while helping them create a space that works for you. If they can’t do that, well then they don’t have what it takes to make you happy.

  • Jennifer says:

    Great post Maria!!


  • tara dillard says:

    I tell my DIY clients when we go over their plan, “You will find most sales people telling you ‘no’ or ‘it can’t be done’ or ‘that does not exist’.

    Cell phones are a blessing, you have no idea how many calls I get from clients at nurseries & stone centers.

    Most often I’m not the first garden designer.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  • cindy says:

    Well said Maria. Another informative post

  • Hannah Dee says:

    sharing, sharing, sharing, to all my clients! This is such a great post!!!!

  • Carol says:

    Let me guess…the countertop ‘guy’ loves to sell the 4″ backsplash because then they don’t have to be as precise in measurements….the extra piece will cover any errors for square and plumb against the wall. God forbid that they have to do some scribing or additional cutting at the site. I don’t love that I’m skeptical whenever “the expert” tries to add something to the design that my designer (or my eye) doesn’t specify; it nearly always means easier and cheaper for them and a result that’s less than perfect for me. Thank you, Maria, for continuing to remind us about the value of a designer with firm convictions! Happy New Year!

  • liza says:

    Hired a paint color “expert” in Florida. It was a huge waste of money. I could have done better with my eyes closed! Wasted A LOT of money. Now, I’m too skeptical to hire anyone; but I’m still floundering.

  • Cindy says:

    Great post Maria! I believe the struggle can often be that 1) most folks embarking on a home remodel or decorating project want the very BEST on a very TIGHT budget. And 2) inspiration comes through photographs from Pinterest, blogs and magazines, which can contribute to unrealistic expectations.
    As you mention, it is best to find a good designer and when you do…hire them! I agree.
    The problem can be that hiring a “professional” designer/contractor, even though they have been researched and come highly recommended, can also leave a customer disappointed as not all the tools in the shed are sharp, ethical or for whatever reason don’t put their “all” into each project. This is a disservice to the consumer and also to designers like you who are true professionals that give their all. Often, I believe, the inspiration for a project can in no way be attained; by either the skill of the professional OR due to the financial resources being contributed to the project…both of which should be discussed well before a project is even taken on. A contractor may not have the carpentry skills or knowledge of working with certain finishes and the consumer may be unrealistic about the costs associated with their inspiration.
    Lesson is likely to put as much resources into the project you can possibly afford. Talk, explain and agree about as much as possible before the commitment to a contractor or designer are made. And I believe the most important thing to do is to manage expectations! Whether a DIYer or hiring a professional, we will be well served to keep expectations in check. Our inspiration and expectations are often based on the photographs we use for our projects and these are photoshoped, taken at special angles, or taken in million dollar homes. So, inspirational pictures are “looks” that may just not be attainable. Often they aren’t even “real” rooms at all and set up just for a GREAT web shot.
    So, the moral of this comment is mine and based on my experiences in DIY and hiring professionals …each can be beneficial, but each can be challenging. So, keep project expectations realistic and in check!
    LOVE your blog Maria! I visit often, but usually don’t comment. Thanks for the chance to share my thoughts.

  • Coley says:

    Oh thank you! I am so sick of hearing ‘that won’t work’ or ‘it looks great, everyone is doing it’ or ‘dark wood is the only way to go’. I just had someone in my home tell me that I should have installed a multicolored glass backplash instead of my white subway tile (I have busy granite). ugh.
    Wonderful post!

  • GaBi says:

    Brilliant post! In simple advice it was explained how it works these days.
    It will change, but we have to be patient.Definitely Maria nailed.

  • elaine says:

    Just want to say that your blog has more helpful info on a regular basis than any other blog i follow. love your style too! thanks maria! Elaine

  • kara says:

    After living in our 1860’s home for 8 years, I found a carpenter that was willing to restore our original arch top windows. He rebuilt a new frames and even restored our weights for the attic windows. It was way cheaper than custom windows from Marvin. We are finishing our attic and ecstatic that we found someone that gets keeping the old. I’m hoping in time all of our windows will be restored. This was a great article & my mother even waited to find the right person to do her farmhouse kitchen–he totally got it! There is incredibly talented people out there—be picky & patient in finding them.

  • Lisa Lucas says:

    You wrote exactly what I was thinking after reading discussion after discussion on with homeowners getting so much advice for projects that could be potentially extremely expensive mistakes. I can’t imagine basing a health decision on free advice from someone who has little or no professional experience but when it comes to interior design so many will do just that. Thank you for a fantastic post.

  • Tawna Allred says:

    So sorry to hear, Elise! As a designer, I know there’s a chance, a high one, that you’ll have a “relationship” that never works out. It’s a hard thing to remedy, too!

    The only thing I figured that I could do would be to keep a color consultation as a one time fee, and if it’s not right, I will fix it for free. And I’ll keep working on it until the client loves it. Luckily, I haven’t had anyone take advantage of that either.

    There’s so much communication that needs to happen, and Maria, when all these messages start clashing, it does turn into a wild ride!

    ‘Tis the hardest part of the business, and we can all improve on explaining why and trusting. I would hope that when a client hires you, they are very willing to listen. If they aren’t, why did they hire you in the first place?

    And Cindy, so true on the Photoshop. One thing Photoshop can’t do (unless you’ve really got a skilled computer person?) is “marry” a space. If undertones don’t jive, they still won’t in the picture. Yet, inspiration pictures are in expensive homes and worked over shot after shot after shot.

    I LOVED your point Maria, that you always have to deal with what really exists. Nothing can be implemented in isolation.

    Great post!

  • Design & Decor says:

    Thank you Maria for sharing this post.

  • Fabulous post. You expressed in well chosen words what many of us experience constantly. I always believe in hiring a professional if I want great results. For example, I don’t try to fix my own teeth. I know I don’t have the skills. Instead… I go to a dentist.

  • Carol Anne says:

    So agree with everything above, I am a designer working out of a store and do free measure, floor plan, space planning, presentation… I have to say no to clients all the time, they do not enjoy it but I will not spec anything that is wrong just to sell the piece… I drive management crazy somedays but they get me after 7 years…. but not everyone is me!
    Be careful that the designer like me is honest and will say no to you…

  • Mitzi Leigh Hinton says:

    I wish I could have this displayed on a billboard! Well said. I will be sharing your words with my own clients for years to come. You will be quoted and I promise you will be given the credit!

  • Susan@Susan Silverman Designs says:

    Best post ever…I so totally agree with everything that you wrote. I couldn’t have said it better myself. There have been so many times when feel like walking away from a project because I know the client is asking advice from every Tom, Dick and Harry who don’t have a clue what the overall picture is.

  • Linda Veldman says:

    So well said Maria. I see a prime example of what you are saying everyday as I drive past a newly built home – it makes me want to cry. The owners have built an enormous house of very dark brick with a tiled roof (same dark colour) and small narrow windows. Oh I want to cry – it looks like a big hunk of vulcanic rock sitting in a paddock and it’s so glum and sad looking and I bet they’ve already spent about half a million dollars. : – (

  • Kimba Haas says:

    I renovated my kitchen two years ago anticipating that I would need to sell the house. I replaced all the cabinetry with crisp painted white. They’re solid maple underneath and shaker door style. I think it looks clean and classic. Then, I got corian countertops in a neutral pattern. The countertop has flecks of gray, beige and white on a light background. I painted the walls dove gray and accented in yellow-green and blue and wood tones.
    As kitchens in this neighborhood go, this one stands out as being light, fresh and endlessly changeable. You don’t like the cabinets? Paint them. The countertops will go with any wall or cabinet color.
    But every person who has walked through my house acts like it’s a big let down that there isn’t granite in my kitchen. Now, I’ve seen the other houses on the market in my area with the granite countertops and they are uggggggly. Everything is dark. The cabinets are dark brown, the countertop is dark brown and flecked with ugly colors. I wouldn’t want to be cooking in a cave, especially someone else’s idea of a cave that I couldn’t change without a big expense. I don’t get it. I’ve had several real estate agents tell me it’s lovely and I did a great job but you can’t fight popular opinion, apparently.

  • Holly says:

    Great, well written post Maria. I’ve shared with my readers and enjoyed reading the conversation that you have going here. There is so much to discuss with this topic and I could probably write a novel with my comment. I was in a local furniture store recently for a client and overheard a couple come in and tell the sales person that they wanted a new sofa, chair. And the sales person asked them what colors and patterns do you like? Not what is already in your room or do you have any photos of your room? But what do you like? That isn’t necessarily going to transition well into your home if you have no idea existing elements. Anyway, love this post and enjoyed reading it.

  • Fantastic post, Maria; I couldn’t agree more. So often it turns out that the most expensive way to do things is the so-called “cheapest” way.

    The only thing (almost) worse is design-by-committee, where people solicit opinions on everything from everyone and their cousin – especially after already hiring a designer, and then argue with the designer about her recommendations.

    Pick your designer, and then let him or her do their job.

    If you want your friends and neighbors to design your house, go to them instead – but be prepared to live with the consequences.

    • ellen says:

      Yes.. I always ask my clients… have you seen the butcher or bakers or candlestick makers homes? Would you wish to live there?
      Why solicit advice on design from such random people?
      Design by committee is dangerous. You could end up with a race horse or perhaps another four legged critter like a camel!
      I’ve lost projects because I’ve been honest with my clients, and not tried to sell them on an idea just because its the latest fad or look. I can only guess, folks are seeking approval from their circles of friends & acquaintances. bottom line, they don’t have to live with it!

  • I believe you have to be very strong willed or very stubbborn when you’re renovating. I had loads of free advice that weren’t really advice but people trying to sell me what they wanted to sell me. For example everybody (contractor+tile store) wanted me to choose multi-sized tiles because it was trendy. I knew it would look ridiculous on the tiny rooms of my fisherman’s cottage. Still they made me feel like I knew nothing and was making a mistake. But I have even-sized tiles and it looks perfect in the space I have!

  • thank you very much about sharing this post with us

  • Mary Anne says:

    I am so glad that I read this post again! I am not a decorator , but have always had gut instincts with what colors to use inside the home and colors in my gardens. I had to add to this “old post”, that when I was doing some updates to my kitchen in 2011, I took out mirrored back-splashes, and replaced formica with a light colored granite- the white cabinets were already very good shape as were the mottled cream floor tiles . Now the professional advise was to add small glass tiles above the 4″ granite backslash and then larger tiles up to the cabinets…or to use 2″ square tiles.all the way around ..or large tiles that looked like the size of my floor tiles and looked pinky beige! Long story short, my gut instinct was nice white subway tiles, no granite 4″ backsplash, and always I related back to why I liked simple despite the coaxing from the tile people. It was hard to stand my ground and say this is what I like and I know it will be classic and I wouldn’t tire of it!
    I am so happy that I purchased your White is Complicated so now I can fine tune my approach to choosing whites! Thank you for your continued spot on Blog…I am also a girl who likes white kitchens and bathrooms . Why I used to paint crappy old furniture white and amazing what that did!! Thank you again!

  • linda knopsnyder says:

    I totally agree with you Maria. I simply don’t know how to find a good designer.

  • Laura says:

    Thanks for the great reminder, Maria. I often think I can do a project by myself but then when I try to get started, I find myself aimlessly walking around the store not knowing what the right decisions are. After too many mistakes and frustrations, I’ve learned that hiring the right professional will make my home be filled with loveliness.

  • carolanne says:

    I will repeat what I said before….
    So agree with everything above, I am a interior designer working out of a store and do free measures, floor plan, space planning, presentation… I have to say no to clients all the time, they do not enjoy it but I will not spec anything that is wrong just to sell the piece… I drive management crazy somedays but they get me after 10 years…. but not everyone is me! Be careful that the designer like me is honest and will say no to you… and maybe been to Maria’s class (twice, lol)

  • THANK YOU! A few months ago, renovations were the topic of a HOUZZ article and one of the pieces of advice was to listen to your contractor. I made the comment that you should not always do that and shared my experience of how when we were doing our renovation and in the midst of all that decision making I would sometimes ask our contractor (who did a fantastic job, by the way) what his opinion was. Every time we did that and we followed what he said, I regretted it (and still do because we’ve not changed those things). That’s because his interest at the time was not making sure that I loved every single detail of our renovation but that he got it done on time and moved on to the next project. If what I was asking about required something to be redone (even at my expense) his answer was always the opposite because he didn’t want to have to redo it.

    I got absolutely FLAMED by contractors due to my comment on that HOUZZ article but I still get plenty of other people “liking” that comment. Still it was amazing to me how horrible the comments from contractors were (most of them were something to the effect of “We know best”).

    thank you!!

  • ruo says:

    maria, how do us- nondesigners tell that a colour expert is a good one or bad one?

    is there a way that we are not researching correctly and in the process get blindsided with bad advice only to see the awful results and live with it. it is crushing to see money poorly spent.

    • Maria Killam says:

      Well I would look for a True Colour Expert trained by me, there are now over 300 of them all over the US and Canada.
      And I think checking out someone’s portfolio is always a good place to start.

    • YaleMichMom says:

      You hit the nail on the head for me. I feel as if I spin my wheels sifting in the sand looking for the right designer and contractor. Contractors and builders often have their own in-house designers. I recently had a bad experience where my (now fired) general contractor had me use his in-house designer. She never asked one single question about our lifestyle, needs, desires, favorite colors, etc. When I questioned her background and asked if perhaps I should seek outside help and bring a ready-to-go design to them, she was naturally insulted, but I felt I was getting no where with her. Her reply was that her help was “free!” My point exactly: “free” doesn’t mean much if the advice is poor or the effort lackluster. When I asked if she would be putting together a sample board of our ideas, selections, paint colors, wood tones, etc., she just said that took too much time and would cost more money. We had to fire the contractor for other, serious reasons, but unfortunately are now being billed for his design team’s (lack of) design time. Really a shame.

  • Linda says:

    I shared this post on my site, too.

    Just one thing to add about free advice from friends, neighbours and often in-house designers:

    “Free advice is worth what you paid.”

  • YaleMichMom says:

    I agree, but my difficulty is finding a trusted and talented designer who is affordable. i live in a small town about an hour east of Chicago. It’s very difficult to find anyone in my immediate area who isn’t a “fly-by-night,” self-proclaimed designer. I usually judge the person by the portfolio of work, if one even exists. I could work harder to find someone in Chicago or its suburbs, but I’ve found those individuals only work with very high-end clients…maybe even ones who have knockout kitchens, but don’t actually cook in them, for instance. I’ll take your advice to heart, though, and keep looking. In the meantime, I feel stuck in the process until I find that trusted (and affordable) person. I guess I need to realize paying more upfront for GOOD design is worth not paying less for bad finished spaces. My final concern is that I will hire an expensive designer, but still end up with design choices that doesn’t match my needs or taste; therefore, I will most likely stick to simple design elements that are hard to screw up. (e.g. White Shaker cabinets, white/off white subway tile, and light quartz countertops)

  • Rhonda Godwin says:

    Hey Maria, I’m am totally remodeling my bathroom after Hurricane Michael. I have chosen vinyl plank flooring in a neutral wood, white vanity and mostly white, gray and some black in my wet room. I was going to use matte black fixtures, but second guessing that decision since reading your blog on to much black in a bathroom. My second choice is the new champagne bronze. What is your opinion on this? Please help, I want it to be a classic bathroom, but not be boring.

    Thanks so much, Rhonda

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