Learning to Renovate (10 Lessons We Learned and Are Still Learning!)

When I think back on all the renovations we’ve done, beginning with our first homes (which are immortalized in our book Happy Handmade Home), I get a bit nostalgic! Even though there are certain things in those spaces that I look back on and cringe, there is also so much heart and positive energy in the designs. The biggest thing I see is two people who were excited to learn. 

Four renovations later, I’m realizing that this is a journey that will last our whole lives. I’m glad we naively felt “good at” designing and renovation even on our first try, because that’s what it’s all about—enjoying the process!

Here are 10 lessons we’ve learned along the way:

1. It’s more than just “good” and “bad.”
I used to cruise Zillow and be like good … bad … good … bad. At every house I looked at. Even when I began my current personal home, I was still in that mindset, trying to remove the bad and make it “good.” On some levels, it’s true that 90% of people would prefer plain white subway tile instead of old, chipped tile. But it’s all subjective!

Recently, as I’ve been obsessing over what a dream home could mean to me, I’ve realized that it’s so much more than just “good” and “not bad.” And I realized while cruising Zillow that even perfect mansions WAY above my budget couldn’t possibly mean as much to me as a home I slowly and carefully design with love.

2. On that note … don’t rush. 
I’ve said over and over that my biggest and basically only regret on the home we currently live in (and love!) is that I rushed. Especially in the beginning. I had unrealistic expectations about how long our house would be in renovation mode and it left me stressed and disappointed in myself for a couple years.

If I could go back in time and give myself a bit of advice, I’d say that it’s not worth it to buy a home that needs every surface changed unless you KNOW you can enjoy living in a home that “needs more work” for years. I didn’t exactly realize that was what I was getting into.

Looking back, a three-year renovation is NOT that bad. We made fun memories in our home throughout the whole process. I only wish I would have realized that our timeline was normal and not a big problem. In the future, if we buy another home that needs a lot of work, I will plan for and embrace a nice long timeline.

3. It’s true that everything takes longer and is more expensive than you think. 
Keep in mind on this next one, we have only ever done budget renovations. We have never hired a professional designer, architect or general contractor. We have worked directly with trades on most projects. My friends who have paid for all those services have had projects that turned out on budget and on time, although they were more expensive. It’s a trade off.

For us, the timeline on each project was pretty much double what the contractor told us. And the budgets have varied. A lot of the time they have stayed relatively close to what we were told, but MANY times once the demo has been done extra issues (aka extra expenses) have been uncovered. This is normal. Contractors don’t know what issues they will uncover when they remove a floor or open up a wall, and if it’s more than what you were quoted you will have to pay more.

I’ve heard people say to budget for double the timeline and double the price. I think when you are contracting trades yourself, that is pretty accurate. It’s helpful to be prepared for the worst case scenario, even if it only happens some of the time.

4. It’s OK to take breaks. 
If you choose to live in your home through a renovation, you will have people in and out of your home all day, everyday for weeks or months at a time. Depending on the project, it might also be noisy, toxic or even just stressful to never really have privacy. It can become overwhelming.

My best advice is to allow yourself to take breaks as often and as long as you need to. You don’t have to renovate your home through the holiday season. You don’t have to renovate your home through the summer while your kids are out of school. These are YOUR choices.

If you have a functional home with running water and toilets and showers, you have the choice to stop and take a few months off, or even a year if it’s what’s best for your family or your stress levels. I think many of us get so focused on the end goal that we don’t prioritize taking the best care of ourselves along the way. That’s a lesson I learned the hard way.

5. Keep in mind how long you will be living in the home. 

This is Emma’s advice, and it’s great advice. These is a massive difference between staying in a home 5, 10 or 20 years. If you’re not planning to stay in your home a long time, really consider whether it’s worth it to you to take on big projects. Consider how long you’ll be able to enjoy a renovation before you move. A realtor can tell you whether a renovation will add dollar for dollar value to your home or not, and that can also help you decide.

I ran into this in our current home. I waited until last to add a deck, and by the time we got to the project my husband and I decided that it wasn’t a good choice since it doesn’t add dollar for dollar value, and we’re not sure how long we’ll live in this home and be able to enjoy it. If I could do it over, I would prioritize that higher in our renovation plans and move some other things to the bottom of the list. Live and learn!

6. Communicate your values with your partner. 

This is HUGE. Whether you’re married, living with a partner or roommate, or in ANY other kind of shared living situation, communication is key! Renovating or decorating with a partner almost always requires compromise. Little compromises are no big deal. The important part is that you both know what you value in a home (this can take time to identify) and that you keep those values at the top of your collective priority list.

Which leads me to my next point …

7. Make a renovation plan in order (based on your values). 

Make a plan with a flexible timeline. Think about which spaces you will use the most, which would bring comfort to you (I will probably do our kids’ rooms first when we move, so they have a happy place that feels like home) and which rooms are easier, more intense and more expensive. For me, the best plan would go back and forth between big intense projects, and smaller fun ones.

Your renovation plan can pretty much be a priority list, so put the things up high that are going to elevate your everyday life the most. Just learn from my sad deck story and don’t save something you’re really excited about for the very end. Leave stuff at the end that’s more take it or leave it. Because you never know—life could happen and you don’t always stay in a home as long as you plan to.

8. Take your time exploring and testing options. 

There is such a big difference between seeing a paint color or a tile on a blog and in YOUR home. Even just the lighting can make a huge difference. When people message me for the “best” white paint color, I always give the same advice! Go get some samples of a few different whites including plain untinted white, a warmer white and a cooler white. Paint a swatch for each in the brightest part of your home and another in the darkest. Then compare the swatches during the night and the day.

Everyone has slightly different preferences for whites. I want a white that’s slightly warm. Others want one that “doesn’t pull yellow,” which means it’s slightly blue. The natural and artificial light in your home will make the color look different.

I almost never look back and regret painting anything white, so don’t stress too much!

9. If you don’t have the money to do a big renovation, distract yourself with paint while you save up.

Moving is always more expensive than you initially think. Between down payment, the things you need right away to make your home functional and those not-so-sexy expenses (like a new water heater or a new roof), your budget might be depleted for a bit.

If you have a renovation you know you want to do but need time to save up for it, definitely suggest waiting it out. To fill the time as you save up, make a big list of low-budget projects (DIY!) you can do. Paint goes such a long way! Add plants. Shop thrifts and bargain shops for secondhand treasures you can paint. Do a DIY wallpaper. Stalk Facebook Marketplace (I’ve seen some GOOD stuff on there for next to nothing). Make your own art or weaving. Think about what you CAN do with a tiny budget, not what you can’t do.

If you’re still looking for ideas, scroll our archives. There are hundreds of things you can make for your home that aren’t expensive at all!

10. Prioritize spaces where you’re going to make memories. 

Saved the most important tip for last! Emma was just telling me how her hot tub sparks so much joy. To some, it might be kind of random, but she uses it all the time and it helps her feel happy through those long Missouri winters.

When we moved into our current home, I wanted to put my painting easel and paints in the corner of our sunroom. My husband wasn’t crazy about the idea, as he thought it would look cluttered and that I would never use it. To be fair, it does look kind of cluttered. But now that we have Nova and we use it constantly it’s become one of the most special parts of our home. Recently, Jeremy said to me that I definitely have to make an art space in our next home (!!!!). I loved that now he sees it as an essential because we’ve made so many memories there!

Think about where you spend the most time and where your favorite memories have been in your home. Spend your money where you are going to make memories!

In our current home, I am SO glad we did the projector and spent a lot of time decorating our den (the room we spend the most time in), the playhouses (here’s the other one) and the art corner. Probably my best memories in this home were decorating our children’s rooms (Nova + Marigold) before they arrived.

I hope this post has been helpful to you! If you have a renovation journey in your future, remember to enjoy your home through the entire process—even when your home is a wreck. I really meant what I said in point number two: If you can’t enjoy living in a renovation zone, DON’T DO IT. Just buy a smaller home that’s already remodeled. Renovation is not for everyone and that’s OK too! I’m actually jealous of people who can go house shopping and just choose a house that’s remodeled and not change ANYTHING. haha

xx- Elsie

Credits//Author: Elsie Larson (with a lot of contributions from Emma too). Photography: Amber Ulmer. Photo edited with A Color Story Desktop.
  • So many great tips.. we have renovated most of our 40 year old house with help of contractor and DIYing it and we are still learning.. every project teaches us something new.

  • So many great tips.. we have renovated most of our 40 year old house with help of contractor and DIYing it and we are still learning.. every project teaches us something new.

  • I will make my husband read this. We get the keys for our first house on october 1st. There is a lot of renovation to do. He already made a timeline, trying to coordinate the craftsmen. I constantly tell him this won’t work out and we have to go with the flow. Especially as we have a 5 week old daughter. I’m pretty laid back (for now), the only thing thats stresses me out a little is all the design choices like tiles and flooring. We live in Germany where you usually don’t buy houses just for some years (in my experience). So we are considering this definitely as our forever home.
    I got to much inspiration through your blog. I look forward to the renovation process in excitement!
    And extra thanks to Elsie: You inspired us to do an art room for us and our child (hopefully future children). An idea were my husband jumped right in as we met in art classes at university and he is an art teacher.

  • That last tip is my favorite. This post also makes me want a list of renovations that are typically easy, budget friendly, and impactful besides painting. You may have done this already…. Lastly, Elsie, can you tell us who makes that cute black corduroy jumper you got going on up there?

  • I love the titular photo of you two – you guys are adorable! Thanks for sharing all your tips! ❤️✨

    Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog

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