How to Survive Renovating and Decorating Your First Home

Interiors & Decor

Photo by Madeira Creative Photography

We moved into our first home in November of 2018. Newly engaged, we left our one-bedroom apartment behind to embark on painting and decorating plus completely gutting and refinishing the upstairs space in a one-and-a-half-story Minneapolis bungalow.

It sounded like an almost romantic opportunity to build a life together. We’d start fresh, knock out the remodel in a few months, and be finished by spring.

Oh, how naive we were…

As a woman who thrives on a good deadline, it was this very article that finally brought the 14-month renovation that followed from the disastrous mess shown above to a clean and satisfying conclusion.

Many lessons were learned, many dollars were spent, and many tense words were said.

Despite the longer-than-anticipated timeline, I’ll say now we couldn’t be happier with where we ended up. Hopefully, there is something you can learn from our year of trials and tribulations.

Before Moving In, Renovation Begins: September 2018

Due to a strange and fortunate situation, we were able to begin demo on the upstairs of our house before we moved in. The space was a former bedroom and was ugly, carpeted, and not really being used. With two bedrooms downstairs, we decided to make it into an office and TV room. As a trashy TV enthusiast and someone who works from home often, these two things were very important to me and I needed them to be just right.

We wanted an open, airy feel, so we started with new, European-style tilt turn windows that open both from the top and the sides. These aren’t very common in the States, but we absolutely loved them and couldn’t be happier with the decision.

We also added skylights, removed ugly yellow wood paneling, and tore out all the built-in closets and an inexplicable 1.5-foot drop ceiling the previous owners put in. Through this demo, we immediately gained a ton of space and completely opened up the room.

My husband’s family is very handy, so we saved a lot of money doing this ourselves. Demo is extremely tedious and not very fun; however, I will say ripping out boards after a long day at the office can be strangely therapeutic.

With demo complete and colder weather looming, it was time to move in.

Moving in, Painting, and Buying Furniture: Fall 2018

Photo by Madeira Creative Photography

Late fall was spent painting and moving in furniture on the main level. I would love to say I spent months thinking about colors, but in reality, I immediately decided our entire house would be white and bought a matte for the walls and a semi-gloss for the trim during a 40% off sale at Sherwin Williams. I don’t like to overcomplicate things. 

While perfect for us, the house isn’t huge by any means. The white opened everything up and let in a whole lot of light. My mom was fairly worried it would be “so white!” but with furniture, plants, and decor we were able to bring a lot of natural color in that toned down the walls a bit. We also removed the door that led upstairs, which made the dining room seem a whole lot bigger.

We ditched all of our cheap college furniture and made a rule that nothing goes into this house that isn’t going to stay for at least a year. This allowed me to figure out what we had and see where the holes were. It also required a lot of patience—which is not a virtue of mine. I didn’t love living in a half-finished space, but it gave me the push to get shopping.

When buying furniture and decor, I used the following criteria in my decision-making:

Is this item in good shape and will it go with the general aesthetic of the house?

Out went the furniture we’ve held on to since college. If I’ve learned anything as I’ve gotten older, it’s that particle board is worthless.

Photo by Madeira Creative Photography
Photo by Madeira Creative Photography

Is this worth keeping but the wrong color?

We painted our previous kitchen table black (good enough for now), and took an old vertical bookshelf, turned it on its side, painted it white and made it into a buffet for the dining room. This gave us a whole room of furniture for just the cost of paint.

We also inherited an incredible vintage couch that was in great condition, but was a 70s green. While friends and relatives begged me to keep its retro color intact, it just didn’t feel like me and I had it reupholstered. It cost roughly the same as a new couch, however, we were left with a one-of-a-kind centerpiece for our living room in a charcoal color and style that will last. I didn’t regret the change for a second.

Photo by Madeira Creative Photography

Can we find it used?

Buying vintage is cheaper, better on the environment, and items usually have more character. We were able to find a large teak bookshelf, our coffee table, and much of our other furniture at local vintage home stores including Southside Vintage, Haus Theory, Arlee Park, Golden Rule, and Golden Age Design, saving hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars in the process. 

I also scored some really incredible pieces on @noihsaf.home and @SwoonRugs, Instagrams where you can buy and/or sell home goods.

Photo by Madeira Creative Photography

Mix high, low, and in-between.

I made myself a promise when we moved in that we would stop buying cheap Ikea furniture. We were adults now, I thought. We can go to the Room & Board outlet like a responsible 30-year-old married couple.

That promise was broken last month. After scouring the Internet for a desk that would fit in our new upstairs, I found their line of bamboo items. They were exactly what we were looking for in the space, plus they were sustainable.

I have a wall hanging from Target, pieces we brought home from Spain and Japan, and a chair and rug from Blu Dot Outlet. This mixing of things found in different places is the secret to keeping our home from looking too cookie-cutter without needing to hire a professional.

Renovation Continues and Then…A Long Pause: Winter 2018 – 2019

My husband and his father did the bulk of our upstairs work during the winter while I hibernated. They finished tearing out the wood paneling and old flooring. There was rewiring to be done and hours and hours of pulling staples out of the wall. 

When the upstairs had been cleaned out, we paid for spray foam insulation (which is very expensive for something you’ll never see again) and for someone to drywall the upstairs. Then we threw on a coat of paint or two, and with about 10% of the work left to do, we just sort of stopped.

We got married last summer and planning a wedding while balancing a very busy work schedule was tough. We also did a fair amount of traveling, which made the upstairs feel like one more thing we needed to worry about. And so our unfinished project sat for the next few months. The remaining work loomed over me, but I just couldn’t seem to get myself upstairs to finish it.

Decorating in the Details: Spring/Summer 2019

Photo by Madeira Creative Photography
Photo by Madeira Creative Photography

Spring is my favorite time of year. It’s a time we usually travel, spend time outside, and go thrifting. With a still largely empty house to fill and an upstairs I was pretending didn’t exist, I started to think through what should fill my walls and shelves. 

I love art, but have never been able to spend hundreds of dollars on one-of-a-kind pieces. But over the years, these constraints have led to a whole lot of creativity. People often ask where I find all the artwork in our home, and the answer is: “Everywhere! Most of it isn’t even really art!” Below are a few examples of things that are currently on the walls in our home, all using basic frames from Target or Michaels:

  • Greeting cards I’ve found at gift shops and framed using mattes so they look more impressive
  • A coaster I stole from a bar in Barcelona
  • $15-$30 prints from local shops, travels, Wit & Delight and Etsy
  • An illustrated card my aunt sent me when we moved into our house
  • Shelving from the kid’s section at Target (never skip the kid’s section! It’s super cheap, and often has fun colors, shapes, and patterns)
  • Block printed artwork I made during a community ed class
  • Artwork purchased at student art sales

Filling the shelves and tables in our apartment are a smattering of books and trinkets I have found in vintage shops, dried flowers, and family heirlooms . . . Old stuff is more interesting than new stuff, and it’s also cheaper. 

Filling the shelves and tables in our apartment are a smattering of books, magazines, trinkets I have found in vintage shops, dried flowers, and family heirlooms like my grandfather’s army mug and my grandmother’s collection of political buttons. None of them are all that expensive, but they are all things I like having around. Old stuff is more interesting than new stuff, and it’s also cheaper. 

Renovation Is (Finally) Completed: Fall/Winter 2019 – 2020

Photo by Madeira Creative Photography

As the one year mark rolled around, I got pretty embarrassed at myself for letting the upstairs we had put so much work into sit unused. We had a couch and a TV up there, but I avoided the space altogether because sitting in that unfinished room just made me feel like a bit of a failure.

So, I got started again. I painted, we finalized our wiring permits, and I started decorating.

After already having spent so much money on this house, the idea of spending thousands more on furniture for this now-empty space was just a non-option. 

Photo by Madeira Creative Photography
Photo by Madeira Creative Photography

The room is incredibly bright and cheery, and when I started looking at vintage, the vibe felt wrong. So, I took a deep breath, walked into Ikea, and fell in love.

Our basement is very monotone and I wanted to add some color upstairs, so I brought in plants, colorful artwork, and a brighter used couch we found for a few hundred dollars, all of which helped add character.

And, after more than a year, it’s done. It took too long, but we got there.

What I Learned

While the house was liveable (and nearly complete) for most of the year, I felt we were living in a bit of a limbo. The idea of coming home to a space that was unfinished weighed on me throughout the year. And spending a year feeling like we were “almost there” or “had just a few months to go” added a small layer of stress to every day in a way that I never anticipated. 

Renovating is also stressful on a relationship. My husband and I got in more than one argument that could have been avoided by simply deciding not to plan a wedding and redo a house in the same year. But we got through it.

But, if I’ve learned anything from this process it’s this: Things will never be really done, and there really is never a right time to do something. I constantly rearrange artwork and buy new things. I’m still not totally happy with our bedroom and guest room. Our house, and our life, will be an evolution. It’s important to celebrate each victory along the way.

BY Maggie LaMaack - February 16, 2020

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February 19, 2020 5:29 am

Thanks, great article!

February 28, 2020 1:39 pm

Love this article! Some home renovation blogs usually gloss over the tricky bits (or the human moments!)

Glad to see Minnesotans getting it done!

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