Should You Hire a Designer or a General Contractor?

Picture of Dawn Matze, the Woman Builder

Dawn Matze, the Woman Builder

Dream. Build. Love.

Designers and contractors are two different animals with two different job skills and different deliverables.

Designers may bump up a budget between 15%-30%.

How do you know if you need a designer?


ow Builders and Designers Differ:

What Designers Do

Designers don’t play in the construction world most of the time. Designing is a specific piece of the puzzle, another sub-contractor on the excel spreadsheet for budgets.  

Designers help with finish materials, and creating an environment that suits the homeowner. They charge for their design services in two ways: 

1) Per hour of research, shopping, and designing. Homeowners pay handsomely for this type of contract. 

2) By finding design materials at a courtesy, presenting options for owners, then marking up the materials that the owner wants for her home.

What Builders Do

Builders or general contractors construct and build according to blueprint designs or per owner’s specs. You know the drill: plans and permits, lumber, pipes, plumbing fixtures, electrical, demo, new walls, cabinets, counters, etc.

Builders and Designers Are Different Creatures

Builders and General contractors sometimes have a design background (at least the women general contractors like me!), but this is rare.

Likewise, few designers have building experience. They are excellent at flooring, wallpaper, some lighting, furniture, window coverings, rugs and other interiors. Some are even great at paint colors. They can often assist the homeowner in furniture layout prior to the construction starting.

Very few designers have a sense of overall budget. Most designers don’t have the building experience to know what building costs are, so they don’t really know how they fit into the overall budget. They are used to having a micro budget just for designing.

I am an unusual builder in that I have a strong design background, having owned an interior design firm in a previous career. Most larger remodelers have a designer on staff as an employee, or a consultant they refer to. This employee or consultant is hired for their skill of specifically helping clients find selections they want and products to purchase.

“75% of the time homeowners assume I am a designer. People still can’t wrap their head around a woman general contractor.”


hen to Hire a Contractor:

When You Don't Know That Much About Renovation

When the process of what comes first, second, third etc. and who to call for different expert trades is a mystery to you, you probably want to hire a contractor.  You basically want a professional to manage your remodel or build from start to ‘turnkey’ or move in. Many homeowners want to do a DIY with a general contractor’s direction. This is often the case with the millennial generation. If a generation older, most homeowners elect to hire the general for the entire project.

When You Need a Permit

Another reason to hire a contractor is when you need a permit, which these days is almost always. The builder has draftsmen, draftswomen or architects that draw what the client wants (designers overlap here sometimes.) The difference is that when a permit is needed you need to know current building codes for your state or local municipality. The land of permits and codes is a builder’s world, not a designer’s.

If You Don't Have Time to Manage the Project Yourself

The third reason to hire a general contractor is if you have no time to manage a project yourself. Often the homeowner is busy with her own business and career, her children and her extended family. Life for her is already full of chaos and a very busy schedule. She has no time to add the equivalent of another full-time job to her plate.


hings to Consider If You Do Hire a Designer:

The Cost

Ask yourself this-What is your most Important project criteria?  Is it budget? Then you may want to be very careful here. Think twice about using a designer. 

There are tons and tons of free services and help out there to keep the cost way down. Every darn builder charges more when there is a designer on board. Every single one of them!  This is because design slows the project. 

Yes I know designers sell themselves as speedy and helpful but….it just ain’t true.  Design means more meetings, more decisions, more expense.  I know because I’ve been around the block a few times on this. Its an unwritten rule as a builder, partly because we never want to ‘bash’ another trade. We want to be respectful.  Designers are true artists and have been hired to be artistic and create things. That’s their job. Specialty designs and materials for that high-end unique look. As a builder, I just see $$ signs.

There is a time and place to hire a designer for sure. I don’t want to bash this wonderful trade. Often they can make a plain and ordinary remodel turn into amazing if the dollars are a plenty to do so.

The Time Frame

Once a builder is hired its ‘GO TIME’. Anyone in the time frame way will get crushed. They become a bone of contention for the builder, collateral damage, if you will. 

What I mean here is that if a homeowner really insists on a designer then there must be ground rules. Clear rules about who is the boss. This can get ugly, but doesn’t have to if there is clarity as to who leads. The contractors’ fee is always based on a timeframe to finish the project and collect her hard-earned money. If the designer delays, changes or expands the scope of work the contractor will lose money and time. 

Every contractor and builder works in a unique cadence, the pace at which they work best. This is an unsaid rule in construction.  Mess with a builder’s cadence and it becomes a living nightmare, unless of course there is a caveat in the contract providing for longer time frames if a designer is hired.

75% of the time homeowners think I am a designer. I can tell them over and over and they still can’t wrap their head around a woman general contractor. That’s another topic to be covered another time. ☺

Creative Juices

As a builder I always ask what a homeowner is looking for from a designer.  Usually people want creative ideas for problem areas. I will send them to a handful of websites and voila! they have been secretly reborn! Transformed into a creative, artful lovely right-brained homeowner – surprising even themselves. 

A designer has their bent on what they think is beautiful for the client. Their objective is to be ‘objective’ and help the client uncover their namaste home. The home they want and love.  Visualizing what that is can be tricky for most homeowners. Pictures are a must here!

The renovation shows on TV and cable are magnificent compact visuals filled with drama and excitement. In reality they often are ‘overdone’ for the camera, don’t give ‘real’ timeframe expectations and don’t tell it like it is. Remember these are TV people – they only have a portion of an hour to relay an ‘ugly to beautiful’ transformation. 

As humans it’s hard to be objective with design. Many folks want to say ‘I love it’ or ‘I hate it’. Yes or no, right or wrong, absolute words. Good design isn’t like that. Beautiful art is in the eye of the beholder and unless the beholder knows what they want, they are victim to the one directing them. 

So open your mind and design eye to see things that work and things that don’t work for you, instead of the absolutes.


n Summary:

It’s best for designers and builders to remain in their own respective fields, with the caveat that a builder can many times do the design work that affects the building portion.

If you – as the homeowner -crave a bit more elaborate and detailed design work and layout then know that it will increase your overall budget quite a bit, putting pressure on that budget.

A talented boutique builder can have a keen eye for design.  Ask your builder first if she does assist in the design process. It may save you a boatload of money. 

Once the build is completed, the designer can then be hired to add in any bells and whistles as an alternative.

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