How much do you charge? How do you collect the money? Do you apply the charge to construction costs?

Anna Mavrakis, TNL Design/Build Canton, Ohio

We do charge a design fee for any drawings done for a job. A free estimate is only for the initial visit to the home, to see what clients are looking for. We have a separate design contract and charge a minimal amount for the work; it basically separates the serious buyers from the tire kickers. We charge $400 for a simple bathroom or kitchen design that is being done within the existing space of the home, $800 for a simple addition, and $1,200 or more for multiple rooms. The fee includes the drawings, specifications, and cost of the design work. If the prospects decide to enter into a construction agreement with us, we will apply half of the design fee to the construction contract price.

Brad Cruickshank, Cruickshank Inc., Atlanta

Yes, we charge for design. We do it to help qualify our prospective clients. We do it to help keep from feeling "abused." We do it because it associates a value with the services rendered. We used to quote hourly rates up to $100 per hour, depending upon who was involved. Now we're moving to a fixed rate for specified services. It's easier to bill that way.

We're also trying to raise fees. We have charged anywhere from $800 for a simple basement design up to $4,000 to $8,000 for a whole-house remodel. The fee depends on the nature of the work and the specific services provided (for example, as-builts, zoning variances, complex spaces like kitchens and baths, lots of design, alternatives, showroom visits, etc.).

Mike McKean, McKean Building and Remodeling, East Syracuse, N.Y.

We work exclusively with one architect. We treat him the same as we treat a subcontractor, in the respect that we bring him to the site and he will quote us for the design work. We then sign a design contract with the homeowner using his quote plus our markup.

Randall Hall, RHI Design/Build, Dallas

We provide an initial visit at no cost, where we can determine the clients' needs and wants and explain how our program works. If the project is going to require some design work, then we determine how much time will be spent designing and estimating their project and any other costs related to the design phase. Then we give them a fixed price for the designs (usually in the $750 to $2,500 range). This usually separates the people who are really interested and those who are just "tire kickers." It also pretty much locks them into our company if they decide to do the project. We do a separate design agreement and collect the fee up front on small projects and split the fee into two draws for higher end jobs. We have done this as a stand-alone agreement in the past (non-refundable), but I am starting to lean toward crediting some amount back to our client if they continue on with the actual construction of the project. I always tell clients, "We are not in the design business. We are in the construction business. So if you do not plan to use us for the construction of your project, then we are probably not the people you want to use for your designs."

Lynn Monson, Monson Interior Design, Minneapolis, and DreamMaker Bath and Kitchen, St. Louis Park, Minn.

I own two businesses, Monson Interior Design (high-end kitchen and bath design/build) and a kitchen and bath remodeling franchise, DreamMaker Bath and Kitchen. We take the view that if you don't charge for your design, it isn't worth anything. Fees range anywhere from about $500 to $2,000 at DreamMaker (which is applied to construction costs) and from about $3,000 to $6,000 at Monson Interior Design (which is not applied to construction costs). We make it clear up front that we are not interested in design only, and if that's what the prospective client needs, we refer them elsewhere.

We offer a complimentary first meeting to get to know the prospective client, the scope of the proposed project, and the clients' expectations. The client has an opportunity to see our portfolios and learn about our company and how we do business. At Monson Interior Design, we then offer a design contract if it seems like the client and project would be a good fit with our firm. At DreamMaker, a rough initial plan and budget range are worked up to give the prospective client an idea of what we could do for that particular project within a given budget range. If they would like to pursue this further and we feel it would be a workable relationship, a design contract is offered. Monson Interior Design requires an initial partial payment to start, with the balance due upon presentation of plans, specs, and budget. DreamMaker requires the entire amount up front.