When Carolyn Leonhardt and her husband, Ted, sold their Seattle-based graphic design business more than a decade ago, she had no idea she would find herself in the home design/renovation business. After successfully remodeling three small cottages in the Napa Valley, word got out and she found herself with several clients looking for help with their renovations. Carolyn’s remodels are not lavish affairs, but they’re sensibly and tastefully refurbished and have taught her where to spend and where to save. How does she pull it off? As she tells Remodelista, “I study the space to understand how it does and does not work and try to use what is there when possible. Sometimes cosmetic work is enough—new cabinets, new appliances, etc. Other times, major surgery is required, but careful planning and smart choices can keep costs down.” Read on to learn several of Carolyn’s secrets:
1. Pay attention to the foundation. If you are buying a house, ask the agent about setbacks and lot coverage. Not every house is expandable. Always examine the foundation before you buy, as replacement is costly and disruptive. Usually it’s the most cost-effective to maintain the footprint and envelope of the existing building.
Above: The doors in this small three-bedroom cottage are the standard 7 feet but the ceiling was opened up to 15 feet at the highest point to provide a greater sense of space.
2. If possible, use existing plumbing locations. In the UK and Canada, plumbing is on the outside of the building, but in the US it is in the walls, so changing it requires much more work. (Many houses have a crawl space, or a basement, which makes plumbing and wiring more accessible.)
3. Insulate all exterior walls and ceilings. If you open up any internal walls, put in insulation, particularly around bedrooms and bathrooms. It’s cheap and it helps reduce sound. (For an eco-friendly and affordable insulation idea, see Rehab Diaries: An Unexpected Insulation Solution.)
4. Unless you are a serious cook, or money is no object, don’t buy an expensive commercial-style range and fridge. There are many mid-priced, great-looking appliances out there. Appliances are standard sizes, so start with what you can afford because you can always move up later.
5. Spend money on door hardware, light fixtures, and faucets. Think of it as jewelry for the home.
Above: A small pass-through leading to the kitchen was turned into a study painted a dark color to make it feel bigger.
6. Last, but not least, never underestimate color. Paint has the power to transform. It is fast (immediate gratification), and even the good stuff is relatively inexpensive, and a careful amateur can do a good job. Hate your house? Try paint first.