Budgeting for Renovations & Big Projects

This is a question I receive a lot. I’m going to preface this by saying: budgeting is hard, and it’s an imprecise science, but after some experience you start to get closer to the mark on what a project costs.

I’m a big spreadsheet geek. Like for instance, for my very first Manhattan apartment I input all the IKEA products I needed for my bedroom into a spreadsheet and then cross-referenced the tax rates at each of the closest IKEAs to NYC – Long Island, New Jersey, and Brooklyn – to determine the lowest price factoring in the cost to distance and product availability at each location. Yeah, so, now that we’ve all come to the same conclusion that I’m a huge dork, let’s dig in.

Step 1: Break down a project into its components

I start by listing off all the items that go into the to-be-renovated space in separate lines in a Google sheet and classify them by category. So, for instance, I’d say in the fixture category we need a faucet, a shower head, a tub-fill, a toilet, sink, tub, and a tub drain. And then I’d go down the room by category listing off everything I need to complete the space, for instance, all the flooring materials (including grout, thinset, Hardiboard).

Step 2: Assign everything a ball-park price

At this stage, I’m doing a quick Google search for roughly how much each component costs at the size I need and then I input it into the spreadsheet. I’m also ensuring I know approximately how much square footage I need of every material, and I’m throwing in ballpark placeholder numbers for any labour that I need to hire out. If there is something specific that I already know needs to be in the space, then I include that exact item (e.g. a specific brand and style of tub).

Step 3: Add it all up

This point is where you sum up all the approximations in your spreadsheet, and if the number plus 20% feels doable, it’s time to move forward and start sourcing the actual items for the space. If the number is terrifying and way exceeds your expectations, then I go back over the figures and see if there are any big unknowns that need to be defined better (e.g. plumbing costs), if not, I think about areas I can cut back. If no such areas exist, then I put the project on hold and start saving pennies.

A lot of the projects that are more intensive (e.g. a bathroom or kitchen), can’t be done piecemeal, so you really need to have all the funds up front for the project. But, if you’re dealing with a living room or more furnished space, you have some leeway to set a plan upfront and buy as your budget permits.

Step 4: Evaluate the budget at a high level

Once I’ve narrowed down the budget to a target, then I’m taking that amount and evaluating it in the context of our house. If I spend that much, do I expect to at least break even on it when we sell it? Is the level of finishes that I want to use consistent with what houses in my area, when renovated, include? If you don’t care about overinvesting in your home, or the renovation serves to improve the quality of your life and you’re committing to the house long-term, then don’t worry about this. But, I always like to do a gut check to ensure I’m not putting too much (or too little!) into the project financially.

If I feel like I might be overspending for the return, I might take one more look at the budget and see if anything could be cut back. Personally, I love financial restraints because I think they yield a more interesting and creative finished product, but I know you can only do so much cutting down of the budget before the finished product is sacrificed. For instance, to offset the cost of the marble in our master bathroom, we bought our vanity used off Craigslist and with some wood-fill, primer, a gallon of high-quality paint and a spray gun it was completely reinvented for about half the price we were quoted for a custom vanity. However, if it got to the point where we were using lower grade finishes across the board because that’s all we could afford at the time, I would have paused on starting the project and waited until I could afford the items that I thought were important in my master bathroom and in-line with what future buyers might expect.

This vanity in our Master Bathroom was a huge budget savings in order to afford the all-over marble. You’d never guess how basic it looked before, trust me.

What are your best tricks for budgeting?

Camera Gear For Interiors Photography

I receive a lot of messages asking about my camera set-up and recommendations for lenses and tripods, so I figured it was worth a post. To preface this, I’ve had the same camera for five years, so while it’s expensive, it’s definitely an investment. And one other tidbit – often times, upgrading your lenses can have a bigger impact on the quality of your images over upgrading your camera body, so I often start there if I’m feeling like I can’t get the shot I’m envisioning.

One final note, I’m not a camera tech junkie, so for me, I’m looking for gear that allows me to get crisp images for the scenarios I’m shooting in most frequently, but I’m not one to get into the nitty gritty on specs.


I’ve been shooting with a Canon 5D Mark III for over 5 years and have had zero complaints. If I were buying a camera today, I would upgrade to the newer model. This is a full-frame DSLR, which means it has a full-sized sensor and is compatible with all standard lenses.

About 12 years ago, when I first started shooting photography, I started with a basic Canon Rebel, which has a crop-sensor, meaning that when you use standard lenses with it, the images are cropped tighter than if you used the same lens on a full-frame camera body. If I were getting into photography today with the intention of it being a hobby, I would likely pick up a mirrorless camera (like this one) with a few good lenses, since it’s more user friendly and portable, making it better for travel.

This wide shot wouldn’t have been possible without my 24-70mm lens

My favourite way to style a bed

When it comes to styling a bed, I almost always use the same formula: four standard pillows, with one oversized lumbar lying across the front. For me, less is more, and the fewer pillows required to get my bed looking put together early in the morning, the more likely it’s going to be made! At the end, I’ve rounded up my favourite oversized lumbar pillows.

I love the more modern, streamlined look of stacking the sleeping pillows.


The Kitchen Floorplan

We’ve been noodling on how to best tackle our kitchen for 2.5 years now, and we’ve landed on three potential floorplans (a week ago when I first took a stab at writing this post it was one, but alas, I’ve reopened a few of our previous ideas…). This is a good reminder that sometimes you have to live with your house for a while to see what makes the most sense, and sometimes you have to consult the masses because you’ve hit a wall, ha!

Backing up, let me introduce you to our kitchen in it’s current state:


And those wide-angle listing shots (we made a few changes):


A few things that I need to address before we proceed:

  • Yes, our kitchen was renovated about a decade ago and for the most part, it’s a reasonably functional kitchen. The appliances have served us well, and while we don’t plan to reuse them, we will find them a good home.
  • While this kitchen has been updated, it 100% does not align with the style of our house. It’s DARK in here. There’s no reference in the design to this being a 1940’s Colonial. It’s just a mid 2000’s bachelor kitchen.
  • Before you tell me we ought to paint all the cabinetry… yes, I know it’s a possibility, but for two reasons we probably won’t. The first being that these cabinets are not good quality. They’re an unfortunate laminate/MDF situation. If they were wood, yes we would keep them, but they genuinely are not good quality. The second reason being that the amount of dirt that accumulates in those ridges in the front panel of the doors is next level. These doors are impossible to really clean, and it drives us insane.

Kitchen Regrets

We’re going to be tackling renovating our kitchen this summer, so I’m deep in the research phase right now and am trying to learn as much as possible about how to design a super functional, beautiful, and on-budget kitchen. A few weeks ago, I asked on Instagram about what you all had learned from past kitchen renovations, and received so much incredible advice. Since the feedback was so immensely helpful, I’ve assembled it all by category below. If you have any additional feedback to add, please share it in the comments! Let’s dig in:

Rebecca Zaveloff in House Beautiful

1. Lighting and Electrical Placement

  • Overhead Lights: Think about where lights are placed overhead to ensure that when you’re working at the countertops or at the sink that the light is in front of you and not behind you to avoid shadows being cast onto the space in front of you.
  • Dimmers: Make sure all your lights are dimmable, so you can avoid being blasted by super bright light. This is great advice for every room in your house.
  • Under-counter lighting: Account for dimmable under-counter lighting, it’s very helpful. Also, make sure if you’re working with a custom cabinetmaker that the bottom of the cabinetry allows for the lighting to be flush with the cabinetry.
  • Outlets: Don’t forget about your outlets! The placement and orientation (horizontal can be a good idea). Also, make sure to source beautiful outlets and covers to avoid them ruining a beautiful backsplash. Think about where you’re going to need power within your kitchen, so you can keep your small appliances in a convenient place in the space.


2. Storage

  • Drawers: You guys are ALL about the drawers, and I couldn’t agree more! Drawers can be a lot easier to organize and access than your standard cabinet doors with shelves. Leverage deep drawers for pots and pans, and medium-depth drawers for plates and bowls. Add drawers under your stovetop for cookie sheets, muffin trays, and the like.
  • Pantry: If you have a deep pantry, add drawers so you can access everything that gets pushed to the very back. This really allows you to make the most of the space. You can never have too big a pantry, so make sure to allocate a good amount of space for food storage.
  • Non-Cooking Storage: Consider how you can find a home in your kitchen for other items like large serving pieces, cookbooks, and dog treats.
  • Appliance Garage: Nobody wants to look at lots of clutter in their kitchen, so think about how you can build in enclosed storage for your small appliances like toasters, microwaves, blenders and coffee-makers. A coffee bar that’s enclosed behind doors is a nice way to keep all your morning coffee items contained and out of sight, especially if you continue your countertop into this cabinet for easy cleaning.
  • Recycling and Trash: Don’t forget about enough space for recycling and trash, if you have extra space, it doesn’t hurt to make room for larger trash and recycling bins.
  • Cutting Board: Consider a slide out cutting board that looks like a drawer with a hole for trash for easier cooking prep.
  • Junk Drawer: Plan for a junk drawer. As much as you don’t want to have one, you indefinitely will end up with one.

It’s amazing how complex the storage can get behind cabinet doors, some of my favourite kitchen accounts to follow for storage inspiration on Instagram are Humphrey Munson and Studio Dearborn.

Alison Cayne via One Kings Lane

3. Where to splurge

One of the biggest themes I heard was that it can be hard when you’re in the middle of an expensive project like a kitchen renovation to splurge on some big ticket items, but that a lot of you regretted not splurging on what you really wanted from the start. The lesson: don’t compromise on what really matters to you, despite it sometimes being the more expensive option, since you can’t easily go back and change your mind once it’s been installed. The items you wish you’d spent more on:

  • Larger 36″ ranges
  • A nicer backsplash, either one slab of stone or nicer tile
  • Porcelain sinks
  • Higher-quality cabinetry

Also, make sure the high cost of the project doesn’t scare you away from taking some design risks.

And one area not to splurge: solid maple interiors on your cabinetry are an expensive splurge that rarely gets seen and doesn’t make much of a difference in the scheme of things.

Robert AM Stren via Cottages and Gardens

4. Cleanability & Durability

  • Trim: Simpler trimwork and profiles will keep from becoming dust magnets.
  • Paint: Professionally painted woodwork is way more durable in the long-term. Make sure you use paint that’s graded for cabinetry.

5. Appliances

  • Fridges: Measure for the exact fridge depth so it doesn’t stick out. Opt for counter-depth fridges so they don’t take up as much real estate in the kitchen (this is one of my biggest pet peeves and is currently an issue in our kitchen).
  • Panel Ready: For a cleaner look, opt for panel ready appliances (the standard in Europe, but are becoming more popular here), however, be careful that the weight of the panel itself is on spec for the appliance, so as not to impact the mechanics of the appliance. We’re hoping to use an integrated, panel-ready fridge in our kitchen renovation because I just don’t typically love how much visual attention the standard fridge often commands in a space.
  • Range Hood: Don’t do a combination microwave and range hood, the ventilation is never as good (also an issue in our current and past kitchen), and it’s a missed opportunity to make a statement with your hood. We’re going to be hiding our microwave away since we rarely use it, and have no desire to look at it every time we’re in the kitchen. Make sure the ventilation on your hood vents outside and that your ventilation is powerful enough for the room.
  • Dishwashers: Stainless Steel fronts on dishwashers will show water drops, so be careful about the material you choose (Another issue in our current kitchen).
Athena Calderone


6. Countertops, Backsplashes & Flooring

  • Countertop Material: There was a lot of conflicting opinions on this one. Some people wish they hadn’t gone with quartz because it’s isn’t actually as indestructible as people say it is and can scratch and stain. But, lots of people love their quartz counters and are happy they went with them. Some people regret doing marble because it’s high maintenance, while others are happy with how it patinas and ages. One common sentiment is that a busy or loud countertop choice will boss your kitchen around visually, so it might not be the best place to go bold.
  • Tiling: Take the backsplash all the way up to the ceiling if you’re tiling. Don’t feel rushed to install your appliances before your backsplash in the event that you want to run your backspash behind the range and need access.
  • Floors: If you’re doing tile on your kitchen floors, be aware that lighter floors will show a lot of dirt and wear quickly.
Emily Henderson

7. Layout & Size

  • Sight Lines: Make sure there are clear views to other rooms for watching kids and entertaining
  • Adjacent Rooms: Consider continuing the same cabinetry into other adjacent spaces, like the mudroom and laundry room for a more cohesive look and more functional storage.
  • Size: Ensure the space is large enough, on paper might look good, but the room starts to fill up fast with cabinetry and appliances.
  • Islands: Go with a larger island if you can and really maximize the storage within the island.

8. Sinks & faucets

  • Sink: Go with a big, deep sink if you have the space for it.
  • Faucet: For ease of use, a single lever faucet with an integrated sprayer is the way to go.

And some general advice: trust your instincts, and don’t let poor quality work slide. Know that it will take longer than you expect. And don’t cut corners, at the end of the day your kitchen is a workspace that is one of the most hard-working rooms in your home, so make sure everything is as high-quality as possible.

Introducing The Office

A few weeks ago we started tackling our last remaining room upstairs: my home office (our third bedroom). This room is pretty small at 9.5 x 9.7, and thanks to a closet that bumps into the room, an off-center window, and a radiator, it feels even smaller and more awkward than the overall dimensions indicate.

For those of you who follow along on Instagram, this is certainly a belated post – for me, designing is like a puzzle, where once I nail down one item, the next one becomes a bit more clear, and so on, so scarcely are my initial designs for a space quite where I land up, so I didn’t want to jump the gun with a design that wasn’t even half-baked.

A year and a half ago, I very nearly tackled this room for my first official One Room Challenge, and then, at the last minute convinced my husband that we should instead take on our guest bathroom. I have zero regrets about that change of plans, but it does mean that this room has been sad and neglected for a very long time. In honour of that post, below are the before photos of the room from 2017 (to be fair, the only thing that changed before we started on this room was that we refinished the floors at the end of the 2018).


Trending: Sculptural Furniture

Last week, when the new seasonal CB2 collection went live, I was immediately drawn to all the sculptural furniture. There’s something so sophisticated and elevated about a piece of furniture that looks like it could have been carved out of a block of stone or wood. Now, I can’t stop thinking about all the places where I can introduce more sculptural furniture in my own home, perhaps starting with a new dining table. So, I’ve rounded up some of my favourite pieces that straddle the line between art and function, and some inspiration for how to use them in your own home.


How to take safe risks when decorating

With the rise in sharing our homes on social media and the huge amount of inspiration that’s now available when we are decorating our homes, I’ve started to notice just how many homes start to look nearly the exact same. A lot of the spaces are no doubt pretty, but many are lacking that spark that makes a home memorable and unique.

Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand: decorating can be expensive and can feel very permanent, and playing it safe with white walls, light floors and neutral furniture feels like the risk-free way to spend your budget. But, I strongly believe that every room needs to have at least one risk, something that pushes you outside your comfort zone, to allow a space to be truly fabulous. I want to challenge us all to push the envelope just a little bit further, and I’ve pulled together some safe ways to take risks to hopefully inspire you to take your space to the next level.

1. Paint the walls an unexpected color or tone

I’m going to be upfront, colour on the walls is scary for me, but it’s exactly because of that fear that I’ve been trying harder to lean into it. The great thing about painting your walls is that it’s 100% reversible, but paint will always have the biggest impact on your space because your walls are your biggest surface area.


We painted our main floor bathroom black, including the ceiling, and it’s one of the most commented on feature when we have guests over.

The 2019 Project List

Looking back on 2018’s Project List, we definitely knocked quite a few big projects off the list (namely the master bathroom, master bedroom and closet, and refinishing the floors upstairs), but missed on a few others (the office is kicking off this month, and we put off some of the prep work for our kitchen and living room remodel). It’s great to be able to look back and see the hopes we had for 2018’s projects and how completely thrilled we are with the final result.

So, let’s jump into what we’re planning to accomplish in 2019:

1. The Office

This one is finally in progress. It’s the last room left to tackle upstairs and refinishing the floors was the last item standing in the way of getting started in here. Updates to this space are mainly cosmetic: adding crown moulding, paint, new lighting, new furniture, and organization. We’ve refinished the floors and cleared the room of the furniture that won’t be staying in the space. We’re finalizing the design plans now, so stay tuned for more details in the coming weeks.


Hacking the IKEA Pax into a Fully Custom Closet

When I first started imagining how I wanted my closet to look, I became stuck on this image of Jenny Wolf’s closet. I absolutely adored the blue, custom cabinetry and decided I was going to figure out a way to get a similar look in my own house with a non-custom budget.

IMG_0195-e1502403840270 (1).jpg

I initially assumed that we would make all the cabinetry from scratch, but Cory brought me back to reality with the truths that 1) we’d never built a cabinet in our lives, let alone lots of drawers, shelves and boxes, and 2) the cabinetry would take forever, and would make this room impossible to accomplish for the One Room Challenge.

So, I sought out a closet system that I could customize and paint to match my vision. And in this search, the IKEA Pax kept coming up as the most common, highest-rated, and budget-friendly closet system. I’m no stranger to the concept of hacking IKEA products, though we actually had never done it ourselves. In my research, I discovered that lots of people have hacked the IKEA Pax or IKEA Billy systems to create a built-in look. But there were some upgrades that I wasn’t able to find any examples of in the wild, including recessing in-cabinet lighting and adding drawer fronts for an inset, full custom cabinetry look. The drawer fronts were critical to my vision: the IKEA Pax drawers look very modular and modern to me, making them stick out like a sore thumb in our 1940’s home. Most people hid the drawers by adding doors on the wardrobe units, but we didn’t have the space, or the desire to add so many unnecessary cabinet doors to our space.

The transformation

So, let’s get started on how we transformed our closet from this:

Photo Aug 12, 7 06 38 PM

To this.