Updated: Aug 26, 2022
The issues homeowners face when engaging the local renovation industry are not receiving sufficient attention. There are a ton of under-the-table deals transacted at the expense of none the wiser homeowners, hence they sometimes end up being out of pocket by inexplicably extravagant sums.
Fyi, interior designers (IDs) needn't attend any courses nor acquire relevant certifications from the get-go. This is starkly different compared to those from e.g the real estate industry where property agents have to register with the Council for Estate Agencies (CEA) and don his/her tag whenever he/she is onsite. Or the financial industry where a business may require oversight by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS). As far as IDs are concerned, anyone can call themselves one, start a company and simply close down / run away with collected deposits / start a new company the moment a dispute arises. There have been many such cases reported in the local newspapers.
But what I want to talk about here pertain to the shady relationships existing between IDs and suppliers that many Singaporeans aren't aware of. Because homeowners like us will never know the real prices of raw materials, we will always be vulnerable to unscrupulous IDs and contractors who connive together to skim off us. Because of the lack of regulation, there is nothing to stop IDs from overcharging as they damn well please.
This is very much akin to, say, the tuk-tuks in Bangkok which camp outside a tourist spot to jack up prices together in a cartel-like manner or the taxi mafia which fervently conspire to prevent Grab drivers from coming in to pick up tourists. Sure, you might still be able to enjoy market transportation rates - only if you are willing to trek 1km+ with your luggage out to the nearest open road and try your luck there. But it should NOT be that way.
I am sharing my experience herein with a recent interior designer because what happened to me is so prevalent these days, thus warranting genuine cause for concern.
Why it is difficult for the average homeowner:
• The Interior Designer I sought comprised just two people (project managers). They would in turn enlist various other contractors to carry out actual renovation works; in other words, they act as the main contractor.
• How it usually works: You either pay a project management fee and they presumably proceed to secure the best rates for you, OR you don’t - they would instead take a cut of the sub contractors' fees. They have families to feed too, understandably.
• In my case, my ID quoted a fee of $15,000+ for both the management and design of my home. (Context: The whole renovation project cost was over $100k on account I stay in a private property.) Upon my agreement to pay this amount, I was informed I will subsequently not be charged any markups and all pertinent invoices shall be duly provided.
• Throughout my time working with them, I discovered several contract amounts not tallying up, many promises to fix things conveniently “forgotten” and over 10 instances of possible dishonesty (nevertheless I gave them the benefit of the doubt).
• My suspicions were further aroused when I requested for add-ons which required fresh quotations. I wanted multiple sources so I could make comparisons accordingly, yet more often than not only one was supplied. Initially, I attributed to their sheer laziness for sticking to the same vendor again and again. However......
How shady interior design firms "operate" in Singapore
• When I sussed around for the quotations myself, boy did I get a huge shock. For 3 separate fixture additions (blinds/curtains/etc), the prices quoted turned out to be only half as much!
• One of these contractors whom I independently looked up (and offered a much lower rate as mentioned above) coincidentally was a current supplier of my ID. It was then that he explained in depth how the ID + peripheral supply industry functions in general.
• An ID approaches a supplier and asks for the cost price charged. Thereafter, after factoring in a between 20%-50% markup, the ID will instruct the supplier to issue clients an invoice citing the inflated amount. The larger the markup (aka profit to the ID) a supplier is willing to accommodate in this conspiracy, the more likely he is to be roped in for future contracts.
• Ultimately, I ended up exceeding my renovation budget by about $30k with provisional charges for miscellanies like electrical installations nearly doubling from $10k to $20k.
• What really infuriated me was that despite the hefty project management ($15k+) fee already paid in exchange for transparency and a peace of mind surrounding subcontractor prices, my ID was still grossly bloating invoices - thus effectively charging me twice.
Apparently, my story isn’t uncommon. All in all, it should not be this hard for the average Singaporean to renovate his/her home. Things need to, and MUST change henceforth.