What we learned when decorating our first house (Part I)

Part I: Gathering Spaces

Although we no longer live in our first home, I wanted to share with you what we did and learned while renovating and decorating. Because I was in graduate school at the time, we had a very strict budget. We really lucked out on our house because the previous owners had somewhat eccentric taste and the house had been on the market for over a month. As a result, we were able to get a great deal on the home but had limited funds for renovations and decorating.

We lived in that house for just over five years and learned a lot in the process. I have listed the biggest lessons we learned from renovating and decorating our first house below:

Living Room

Before and after photos of the living room
Before and after photos of the living room

The first thing we did in the living room was to paint. The main wall in the living room was originally painted black with white sponge paint accents. We went with color Pewter Tankard by Sherwin Williams for most of the main areas. We eventually decided that the color was a bit darker than we liked, but that wasn’t the most important thing we learned about paint. All of the trim and doors (which had to be replaced) were painted Swiss Coffee by Valspar. We were really happy with this color and felt it was a true white without any yellow or pink undertones.

Lesson #1: Choosing the right paint was the first and most important lesson we learned when decorating this house. It is imperative to use a high quality paint. After living in this home for five years, I can tell you that the inexpensive paint recommended by our contractor was a huge mistake. The paint faded significantly and would simply wipe off if you attempted to clean the walls. It also highlighted every flaw. It was awful. If we had stayed in the house longer we would have certainly had to paint it again.

We also decided to replace the baseboards. The baseboards in this room didn’t match the rest of the house and we really prefer the clean look of the white baseboards. I really did love the floors in this room. We were really lucky because the previous owner of the home also owned a flooring store and had installed hardwoods throughout the house. The floors on this level were laid at an angle which provided a lot of visual interest.

After that, it was mostly new furniture (red leather isn’t really our style) and window fixtures. The entire space seemed much larger and brighter with these few changes.

Dining Room

Before and after photos of the dining room
Before and after photos of the dining room

Again, the biggest change here was paint. The new paint made the space feel very updated and fresh. We also changed out the window coverings and light fixture and added a rug. I found that one of the best places to find affordable window coverings was from JCPenney. It isn’t really a place you would think to look for blinds, curtains, and roman shades, but they have a great selection. I also found that if you watched for sales you could get high quality window treatments for affordable prices. In fact, all of the faux wood blinds in the entire house (we had to replace all of them as they were in terrible shape) came from JCPenney.

Lesson #2: The biggest mistake we made in this room was that we had a table that was too large. We had purchased this table for our first apartment but it was simply too big for the new house. It made it difficult to move through the space and made it feel cramped. In our new home we are slowly working to replace the furniture so that it is appropriately sized.

Family Room

Before and after photos of the family room
Before and after photos of the family room

In this space we continued the same paint color, but the biggest problem was that it was very dark. We originally had just the Ikea lamp left over from Brian’s college days and it was so dark that you couldn’t read or do any activity that didn’t have its own light source.

Lesson #3: Lighting is so important to making a room feel welcoming and to its functionality. In this space we eventually decided we had to spend the money to put in recessed lighting. The new lights were on a dimmer so that we could make it darker for watching movies but also make it brighter so that I could grade papers. The difference that lighting makes cannot be overstated.


Before and after photos of the kitchen
Before and after photos of the kitchen

The kitchen renovation was mostly completed before we moved in. The first thing you might notice in the before photos is that the previous owners kept a giant parrot cage in the kitchen. You probably think that is weird and maybe a little unsanitary- and I would agree. But from a functional standpoint, the parrot cage wasn’t a problem for us because it wasn’t there when we moved in. Instead, the biggest issue in this tiny kitchen was the lack of counter space.

Lesson #4: Useable counter space is essential to a functional kitchen. If you look closely at the before photos the only counter space is two small areas on either side of the sink. I don’t understand how the previous owners- who had three small children- could function with such little counter space. On top of that, the counters were tiled. This meant that every eight inches or so there was a grout line which would collect food and stain. To remedy this, we tore out the cabinets and countertops and added a additional set of cabinets in place of the parrot cage. But even with the additional counter space there were times I wished that I had more- especially when entertaining.

When selecting our new cabinets, we choose taller upper cabinets because the original shorter cabinets left wasted space between the top of the cabinet and the ceiling. Because we had chosen to keep the existing backsplash and flooring in order to save money, we chose to go with a darker cabinet to contrast the lighter tile. Paint was also important in this room. We used the same Pewter Tankard paint color in the kitchen because it was open to the living and dining rooms. The appliances were all in good shape except for the dishwasher so that was the only appliance we had to replace. In the end, we had a clean modern kitchen that had significantly more storage and functionality.

You can read more about what we learned when decorating our first house in my Part II and Part III posts.

What other lessons have you learned when decorating your home?

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