The Best Way to Renovate on a Budget

Updated: Jan 11, 2019


Dear Daniel,

I have $50,000 to remodel my 1,700 square foot house. None of it has been updated since the 80s. Given my limited budget, how do I reconcile quality and quantity?

Sincerely, Don't-Bust-My-Budget

Dear Budget-Buster,

It's shocking, but these days $50,000 is not going to be enough to redo your whole house. Making the decision between quality and quantity really depends on what your intention for your home is after you have finished your renovations. If your goal is to sell, you should focus on creating a consistent look throughout the home. If you are renovating and you plan to live there a long time, I always suggest going for quality over quantity. Develop a long term plan for the whole house and chip away at it over a period of several years until the place suits you and your family perfectly.

For sellers, focus on having the kitchen and bathrooms look fresh. Clean, light, durable materials would be my go-tos in this instance. Large scale porcelain floor tile and new square under mount sinks with stainless steel, polished nickel, or brushed nickel fixtures are the current staples. Quartz counter tops are a good bet too. Perhaps consider one accent color-but don't make it your personal favorite-do some research on what the color of the year will be when you plan to sell. (Yes, the color of the year is a real thing). The mass consumer look required to sell a home quickly is really not very expensive.

For those of you staying in your home for life, congratulations! I am such an advocate for people hunkering down and spreading their roots. In truth, $50,000 isn't even going to be enough to make a dream kitchen, so I'd start in whatever the next space is that will really change the way you live in your house. For many people, that space is the living room. I go into a lot of old houses where the living room is disconnected from other more heavily used spaces. These places were all built when it was still common for people to have help and less family life took place in and around the kitchen. Current inclination is always to go knocking down walls to get the living room to feel closer to the kitchen, but I argue that there are other ways to incentivize living room use.

The first way to draw people into your living room is to provide them with more to do there. A lot of formal living rooms stand empty precisely because they are too formal. It's like people think they need to have one room that's just for show. They buy two matching sofas, neither very inviting, and make them face each other as though one is interviewing the other. They get two enormous chairs to form a third side of the seating group, and fill the space between with a gigantic coffee table to cover with books they never plan to read and an orchid that will die. The only thing people can do in a room like this is stare awkwardly at one another and wonder when they will be dismissed to another more pleasant space.

Most living rooms can handle at least two furniture groupings that allow slightly different sorts of activity to take place. One group can be focused on the fireplace. This is the grouping that will get the most use. If you have kids, they will dump their backpacks out here. When you have your closest friends and relatives over, this is where you'll unwind after dinner. The furniture here should be comfy (think a sofa with a single, mattress-like cushion made entirely of down and piled with floppy pillows that you can wad up to fit nicely around your body. It should be really close to the fire so you feel like your toes might actually be warmed by the flames. I'm not sure when exactly sofas got so far away from the fireplace, but I suspect perhaps it was when its main function became that of TV pedestal rather than a heating device. Facing off this sofa, you might consider a pair of swivel chairs like the Seda armless chair from Cisco Brothers. I'm not always an advocate for armless chairs as they aren't usually very pleasant to sit in, but you can really sink into the Seda, and the ability to swivel is key in a room with multiple seating areas. Plus, with the Seda, it's possible to push a pair of them together to form a loveseat. There should be a coffee table or ottoman here; it should be big enough to play a game on, but not so big as to prohibit sitting on the floor in front of the fire.

The second seating zone can be slight less comfy. It's meant to facilitate more places for conversation when you have a larger gathering. It's anchored by a second sofa that is not necessarily related to the first in axes or aesthetic. The swivel chairs facing off the main sofa at the fireplace allow for this seating group to grow and become integrated with the primary group if it needs, or remain entirely separate and intimate. In each group, there should be plenty of cocktail tables where people feel able to set a drink or a plate of food. While some ceiling light is fine, each area should have its own table or floor lamps for greater warmth and usability.

The living room doesn't only have to be a place for intimate conversation. Maybe a large writing desk flanks the back of one of the sofas. It serves the dual purpose of providing a surface for placing lighting and to set up your lap top and be able to feel near the rest of the family while sending off some end-of-day emails. It's also fun to have a bar in the living room, but definitely not a built- in one with plumbing — this always feels too utilitarian for a private living space. Instead, set out some glasses and drinks on a bar cart or side table and make sure to keep the area stocked so guests always remember where to go. If you can't create that unified kitchen and living space in your old house, at least you can bring a bit of the kitchen into your living room.

I'll leave you with this, the famous American decorator said it is “bad manners for a room to look pretentious.” Spend your money making your living a space you actually use, rather than one that appears as though some day it might be used, and suddenly you'll have reclaimed the largest amount of contiguous square footage your home has to offer.

Sincerely, Daniel