By Jennifer (Smith) Schuler
Our Little House in the Big Woods
When we bought our home in 2006, we had a small house and BIG plans. We would take this quaint, though somewhat neglected, “bungalow” with barely-enough-room-to-squeeze-into bathrooms, tear it apart – one room at a time – and give it a (major) facelift!
Then, without warning, life happened. You know what I’m talking about … transition into new job life; loss of new job life; kid on the way life; I wasn’t expecting that expense life. Suddenly, all the money those fancy renovations take to make happen wasn’t there.
Big plans and shattered dreams. Or were they? Could this little house with great potential, yet in need of much work, ever become our dream chateau in the country?
As it turned out, yes it did – and so can your home … no matter how small. It may appear otherwise, but few of us live in those sprawling 7 bedroom houses we so often drive by. Since we live in a Washington, DC suburb our monthly mortgage is more than some people pay for a mortgage and two car payments! Yet, at just 1,184 square feet, our house is very small compared to what most people would consider livable square footage.
What we began looking for was balance. Balance between making our wish to turn our house into a home come true – and knocking down a wall to expand our square footage in order to achieve it!
Just one of Sarah Susanka’s many helpful decorating books for small houses and spaces!
That’s when I finally picked up a book I bought some time ago: The Not So Big House by Sarah Susanka (she has written a number of books on this subject). The premise of the book is that a “Not So Big House” exchanges space for soul, and that their owners, rather than spend their budget on spaces they never use, tailor their houses to fit their lives. Additionally, their home design expresses something significant about their lives and values without going overboard. So this past fall, we began those upstairs renovations we had longed for and they are now nearly complete. Ms. Susanka’s book gave us the help we needed to find that balance, and to “have our cake and eat it too!”
Do you face the same dilemma, or just want to give one area of your house a “lift?” If so, use these tips and suggestions to get started on home renovations, upgrades, and design and decorating ideas you put off in the past due to cost and logistical concerns.
Go for It!
+ Read, research, and write/map out your ideas. When I put my researched ideas and creative thoughts on paper and carried them around my house as I considered them, I finally saw our ultimate dreams could come true.
+ Contractor is key. Hiring a professional, skilled contractor helps you get what you ultimately want and gives you peace of mind in the process! I believe in the “don’t try this at home” philosophy. Painting the walls in your guest bedroom is one thing – creating arched entrance ways or installing crown molding is entirely different.
I don’t want to discourage checking references, yet keep in mind that these (and even photographs of project work) are easily faked. We no longer check references for things such as paint jobs and house cleaning services. Instead, when we find a service provider we like, we hire them for a small, less significant job first to see how that goes before launching into a bigger project. We also never give a payment “upfront,” and always make sure one of us is home during the work phase.
We hired an experienced gentleman who tended toward a perfectionist nature. He took a little longer than another contractor might have, however he finished the job in a reasonable amount of time. He was upfront and honest, produced what we wanted, charged just for materials and time, required only smaller payments throughout the scope of the project, and provided invoices with a service/cost breakdown.
+ Proceed slowly and with caution. No matter how well thought out and prepared you are, little glitches do happen along the way. It is easier to add something to your project than take it away so consider your plans carefully!
+ Do it right the first time. The do-it-yourself projects of previous owners created the need for a good bit of repair and renovation on our house that would not have been necessary if handled properly the first time. When the bathtub in our son’s bathroom needed new piping, we were unable to get to the pipes from the access door located in his bedroom. Shelves, in the form of sloppily sawed wood boards painted white, had been nailed directly over it! Needless to say, those are no more. If you do it right (and well) the first time, it really will last forever!
+ Live with it! Once you have a renovation idea, think about it for awhile. Make the project come to life in your mind and then once complete, live with it before moving on to something else. We did not add objects to our beautiful new hallway display case until a “theme” came to mind a few weeks later.
We have many options for showcasing items in our new built-in display case.
+ Simply updating furniture and accessories can change the look of a room. Rather than spend thousands of dollars to replace the white IKEA-style cabinets in our kitchen, we unscrewed the thick plastic white handles and installed simple silver ones we picked out at our local hardware store. This little change immediately gave the cabinets a sleeker, updated look for little expense and effort!
Kitchen Cabinet Handles – After
Kitchen Cabinet Handles – Before
+ Small touches make a big difference. When redecorating, you may wish to keep the essence of your original home. Built in the early 1960s, our house has elements of the “retro” style popular then and remnants from the more simplistic era of do-it-yourself home projects. We gave a “nod” to our home’s original style – for example, leaving the tiny square floor tiles in the upstairs bathroom, and keeping the homemade closet shelving in the bedrooms. We created a more current look throughout our house by tweaking the appearance of what we chose to keep and adding fresh, modern paint colors to the walls!
+ Let your interests inspire your decorating, not overwhelm your surroundings. Part of turning a house into a home is reflecting your interests, cultures and memories. We have an affinity for Native American culture, value nature and the outdoors, and feel connected to our son’s African American heritage. Rather than clutter tabletops and shelves, and cover every inch of wall space, we share our interests by carefully choosing and arranging items of special significance. As an example, we enjoy our beautiful native bird species so a mysterious painting of an owl waiting out a storm hangs on one wall, a custom-framed arrangement of birds common to our woodland property is clustered on another – and we left the rest of the birds outside! A good friend has also successfully incorporated this decorating tip. When you visit her home, you see what holds meaning and value to her family on display in a corner dining room china cabinet. Rather than being haphazardly scattered throughout her house, these treasures are enjoyed in one special place.
The perfect wall to show off our custom-framed bird paintings
+ Your house and its appearance is a reflection of you. De-clutter! Purge thy surroundings! If you haven’t looked at it, worn it, remember where you got it, or even thought about it in a year – it’s time to toss it! If you feel you really can’t part with that stack of “antique” books old Aunt Martha passed along to you, arrange them in front of a pretty backdrop, take a photo, and put it in a frame to display on your end table. Now send those books a-packin’ down to the local book store. You might even get some extra spending money in exchange! Another easy way to cut down on “stuff” in your house is to regularly sign up for charity pickups; we do that monthly. When I know a donation truck is coming, it makes it so much easier to get rid of unused items – after all, I have to give them something. I keep an empty box in the corner of my office at all times, drop things in as I purge, and there you have it – an instant tax write-off!
Everyone has their own decorating style and sense of what “looks good.” My husband and I just happen to be super-organized, and like clean lines and well-defined, clutter-free spaces. Our home renovations and decorations reflect this. As you consider what you ultimately want your home to look like, consider your personality, interests, how you live – and design your home accordingly. Use some or all of the above tips to get started, yet remember that the most important thing is that your house feels like home!
Our “new and improved” Home Sweet Home!
Do you have additional decorating tips and renovation stories you can share with our community? Many people begin work on home projects in the spring and summer so please join the conversation!