Since we got access to basic cable service at home, Brian and I have started making a habit of clicking over to HGTV when we have a spare hour or half hour before bed. As I've noted before, my favorite shows are the decorating and remodeling ones, but I often find it frustrating how cavalier they are about budget considerations. Often they don't even mention a budget at all, and even when they do, they seldom talk at all about what they plan to do to stay within it. Instead, in their quest to show a dramatic transformation, they tend to take the attitude, "When in doubt, tear it out," tossing aside old furnishings, appliances, and fixtures without even stopping to consider whether they could still be useful (either in that room or somewhere else). This isn't just costly, it's wasteful.
My favorite room makeovers are the ones that involve a big change on a small budget. To achieve this, the designers usually have to take a more ecofrugal approach; instead of getting rid of everything, they have to start by looking at what they already have and considering how to put it to the best possible use. Unfortunately, makeovers like this seldom show up on HGTV. The few shows that specialize in this kind of design—such as "Designed to Sell," "Design on a Dime," and my personal favorite, "Wasted Spaces"—don't tend to stay on the air very long, possibly because it's harder to get sponsors for a show that doesn't recommend buying lots of new stuff.
On the Web, however, it's a different story. Since a website has little overhead, and since people are always happy to talk about their own lives, there's no shortage of homeowners willing to share their own before-and-after pictures of rooms that they've made over, often on a truly impressive budget. Over the past few years, I've made a collection of a few of my favorites. All of these rooms were redone on true shoestring budgets—no more than a few hundred bucks—and all of them made a dramatic difference with a small outlay.
Tackling them on a room-by-room basis, let's start with the bedroom makeovers. Here's one that was featured as a "Reader Redesign" on Young House Love, my personal favorite DIY blog. This mom started with a complete blank slate of a room and transformed it into a fantastic bedroom for her two-year-old son. From the star-and-cloud cutouts on the walls to the artwork cut from the pages of a Shel Silverstein book, the whole room is alive with imagination. Although the blog itself doesn't mention the budget, the post at YHL says the homeowner estimates it as "under $200" for everything from furniture to art.
Another great kids' bedroom makeover was done by the YHL bloggers themselves, when they redid their 8-year-old niece Olivia's room. For $200 exactly, they turned her uninspired space into a girly haven with furniture, accessories, and color. On this meager budget, they brought in a desk, chair, and dresser, added a padded headboard to the bed, and punched up the art and accessories. My favorite features are the heart-themed bedspread and the collection of "Olivia" books displayed on the shelf behind the bed. A year later, they went back and did Olivia's bathroom as well, turning it from blah to bling with paint and accessories on an even more astonishing budget of just $82.58—the cheapest makeover in my whole collection.
The YHL bloggers have several other cheap bathroom makeovers under their belts as well. Both the master bath and the powder room in their new house have undergone what they call "Phase One" renovations, which basically means cleaning them up to the point that they can live with them while they save up for a full-scale remodel down the road. In the powder room, they significantly brightened up the room for an estimated $110 without replacing any of the fixtures by changing up a few key details (such as the dated wallpaper, mirror, faucet, and artwork). The master bath is split into two sections, a "sink nook" open to the bedroom and the bathroom proper, with toilet and shower, behind closed doors. Eventually they want to turn this all into one enclosed space, but their just-for-now redo in the sink nook has made a dramatic difference on a $200 budget. They painted the walls, replaced the old mirror, and made some modifications to the vanity, but the biggest change was to rip out the old carpet and paint a stenciled design onto the subfloor. But their most impressive bathroom job of all was the powder room they redid for John's grandmother, effecting a complete floor-to-ceiling transformation—floors, walls, cabinets, window treatments, and accessories—for a mere $169.50.
All of these bathroom remodels, however, were on half baths (or, in one case, just half of a bath). The most impressive full bath redo I've seen is this one, from the DIY/design blog "In My Own Style." Thinking there might be a move in her family's future, this cash-strapped blogger decided to update her bathroom on a shoestring budget to make it more appealing to buyers. And boy, is it more appealing! This room is almost unrecognizable as the builder-basic space she started with. She added board-and-batten walls, applied decorative molding to the bathtub, framed out two big mirrors, created a bold window treatment, added new cabinet hardware, and even changed the color of the floor tile—all for a mind-boggling $265. This woman is an absolute DIY goddess.
You may notice that up until now we've focused on bedrooms and baths, while ignoring the big DIY elephant in most homes, the kitchen. With so many big pieces that often need replacement (cabinets, appliances, floors), kitchen makeovers tend to run to big money; Better Homes and Gardens estimates that even a "minor redo" generally costs around $5,000, and an "upscale overhaul" can cost $75,000 or more. And yet this amazing couple in Milton, MA, actually redid their entire kitchen for a mere $645, making the subtle shift from "dated" to "vintage" by undoing an unfortunate 1970s makeover and restoring the kitchen to its 1920s feel. The key to their low-budget transformation was that they didn't move any walls or appliances, instead revamping the entire space with paint and a few key accessories: new light fixtures, a faucet, crown molding for the cabinets, peel-and-stick tiles for the floor, and an amazing slate-tile backsplash that this pair of handymen installed from scratch. My sister's reaction, when our mom sent us the link to the article, was, "I hate these people," but personally, I'd be more inclined to say I stand in awe of them.
As for myself, I can't honestly boast of any room remodels that come close to this level of DIY wizardry. I'm happy with the way our downstairs room and downstairs bath came out, but since we spent around a thousand dollars on each one (plus about $640 for the electrical work we had done professionally), I can't claim I'm anywhere near the level of these true masters yet. I can only continue to watch and learn in hope that one day I may have the skill to turn an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan without having to buy it all new feathers.