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Educate home owners to avoid rogue interior designers

Accreditation schemes could disadvantage new designers or those who did not go to design school, and they are also not helpful unless they guarantee compensation

Accredited companies in service industries here often display their badge of honour with pride. The endorsement - framed and hung on a wall or visible on a glass-door entrance - implies that these companies are professional and can be trusted.

So when the Society of Interior Designers Singapore (Sids), which has 140 members, says that having accredited interior designers will improve the industry's professionalism, it sounds like a good idea.

But accreditation will likely not work for this established industry.

First, accreditation is never foolproof. There is no guarantee that an accredited design firm will not shut down suddenly or that every designer in a design firm will live up to the professional status his company has received.

And if a designer leaves a home owner hanging or an interior design firm shuts down, it is hard for the home owner to get his money back.

Interior design firms that are private limited companies can enter into legal contracts, sue and be sued. However, as a company is a separate and distinct identity, its shareholders and directors are generally not held liable for the company's losses.

 

There is no guarantee that an accredited design firm will not shut down suddenly or that every designer in a design firm will live up to the professional status his company has received.

This means home owners who want to claim money from a bad interior designer will likely face roadblocks - the worst-case scenario being if the company goes bankrupt and the interior designer cannot be found.

Those who want to pursue the matter in court set themselves up for long, expensive battles that hardly seem worthwhile - compared with salvaging the renovation with a new interior designer.

Unless the accreditation scheme addresses how home owners can get some, or any, monetary recourse quickly, accreditation means nothing when a firm goes rogue or bankrupt.

Business aside, the interior design industry is a creative one.

These days, interior designers can turn a Housing Board flat into a Scandinavian retreat with lots of wood furnishings and pastel shades; or give a home owner a chic hotel suite in the suburbs.

Sids proposes that interior designers and firms seeking accreditation be vetted based on their academic qualifications and body of work.

But this puts trained designers who are starting out at the back of the queue because they lack projects; while those who have a strong design eye, but did not go to design school, will be disadvantaged.

The industry has evolved in the last couple of years and so has the Singapore home owner.

There are now more resources for home owners to do their own background checks.

Savvy home owners can trawl through social media and the Internet to find good designers who make use of the medium to advertise their stunning projects.

Then there are aggregator sites, such as Qanvast, which list only interior designers or renovation contractors that make their cut - no shoddy work or poorly designed spaces get airtime. There are about 200 interior designers and firms listed on Qanvast.

If home owners need extra reassurance, many of these sites have reviews by customers, who give their comments and leave ratings.

Even though the reviews do not give the full details of the home owner - usernames are used on Houzz, while Qanvast lists a generic description of the property and the home owner's first name - the reviews are surprisingly detailed and honest. Some list the pros and cons of working with the interior design firm they chose.

Internet history has shown that a customer scorned is never one to keep quiet. Reviews of poor services and stories of scammers often spread widely online.

The Consumers Association of Singapore even has a Company Alert List sorted by industry, to help consumers find out if a company has been reported.

All this means accreditation would be nice to have, but is not necessary.

If a home owner is not already thoroughly reviewing his options, looking for accreditation would not be the first thing on his mind.

Also, Sids faces competition from the Interior Design Confederation Singapore (IDCS), which has been working with the DesignSingapore Council on its own accreditation scheme since 2014. The council is the national agency for design and is part of the Ministry of Communications and Information.

There are no details yet of how either group plans to award accreditation to interior designers they deem legitimate. The vague circumstances throw up more questions than anything.

If both schemes come to fruition, which should home owners pay attention to? Will the IDCS scheme have more weight because it is being worked out with the DesignSingapore Council?

Setting up an accreditation scheme takes time and money - resources that could be better spent on educating the consumer.

For example, both groups could come up with public service announcements filled with tips on how home owners can avoid fraudulent interior designers and firms.

Sids also complains, as part of its push for accreditation, that firms often misuse the "interior design" label - sullying the name of good design. So educate the consumer on the difference between interior designers, design-and-build companies and renovation contractors, and why it matters.

Ultimately, a home owner should do his homework before engaging an interior designer. Renovating a home is a big investment and costs can run into high five-figure sums.

Why roll the dice and take a chance?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 19, 2016, with the headline 'Educate home owners to avoid rogue interior designers'. Print Edition | Subscribe