Don’t Make this Common Mistake When Buying a House

Tricia Firmaniuk, my senior colour designer was in Los Angeles with me last weekend along with Irene Hill my senior copywriter. I was presenting my system to a large corporation and they were so great to have as resources in the room.  I am so lucky to work with both of these amazing women!

Tricia, Maria and Irene in Huntington Beach

Tricia is also an artist and my resident colour scientist who understands my System for Specifying Colour like no one else.

She is also a great writer, this post is an important lesson for everyone, read on:

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It was clear from an early age that I was an artist and a decorator. When I was nine years old, I desperately wanted a mint green and peach room with a canopy bed and pillows with ruffled trim. It was the early 80’s. I went on and on about it, but my parents, being practical and hardworking, could see no good reason to indulge me.

Source

My childhood room remained builders beige with a painted plywood floor and sheets tacked over the windows for curtains because I couldn’t convince my dad that a can of paint and some fabric were that important.

I loved drawing and writing as a kid, so I carried a journal where I would write stories and draw pictures. I thought I was a failure as a writer because my desire to continue the story dried up once I finished the opening bit of setting the scene in detail. I realize now, that was the point. I was filling my need to create pretty spaces without any physical resources to do so.

There is certainly nothing wrong with having to make do, but I think back to my family home, from the perspective of an adult and a decorator, with some sadness, because while I appreciate that my parents certainly worked very hard to give us what we needed, I recognize that they made the very common mistake of buying a house bigger than they could afford, and certainly bigger than they could furnish, essentially making us house poor.

A well decorated room is richly layered with contrast, texture and interest Design by Monica Bhargava Source

It was a split level house with largely unfurnished rooms on the two lower levels that tended to collect toys, piles of laundry and hockey equipment. The living room was very basically furnished with a sofa, chair and coffee table, and not a decorative element in sight. It was spartan to say the least.

The house was built in 1979 and had chocolate brown carpet, busy brown and gold lino, dark wood trim, cabinets and countertops, and cream walls. To be honest, it was a bit bleak.

My mom managed to put a pretty metallic wallpaper in the main bathroom with elegantly arched reeds and flowers, that I loved to look at. But overall, I was desperately under stimulated visually. The house only had a warm and inviting feel at Christmas, the only time of year it was deemed important to do some decorating.

Don’t forget to budget for details that create interest like wallpaper  Source

So in the end, that my dad had made the all too common mistake of choosing the biggest, most impressive house the bank would allow him, meant that it was never a cozy and inviting home.

I see people making this mistake all the time. They buy a house at the top end of their budget, investing all they have in the shell and leaving nothing for the content. It’s like blowing your budget on the gift box and not being able to buy the gift.

And I think creating an inviting and beautiful home is an important gift to give yourself and your family. I’ve long overcome any received notions that decorating and caring what my space looks like is somehow wasteful or self indulgent.

Plan and budget for pretty details like mood lighting Source

We have a tiny house, my husband, daughter and I, but it is chock full of pretty things, and lots of art (below).  I never hesitate to invest in that can of paint or pretty pillow I need to pull it all together. And guess what? My house is the one everyone wants to hang out in all the time.

My husband who was admittedly a bit alarmed by my propensity to paint a room or redecorate on a whim, has come around to admit that our house now feels like a home.

My casual dining room with painting by Violet Owen (paint colour BM Indian White)

The bottom line for me is that I would never buy a large house that I couldn’t afford to decorate well. And it’s a value I’d like to share. If you read this blog, chances are, you get that it’s important to decorate, but I’ll bet you have friends or family who don’t.

Good quality furnishings, window coverings, lighting, art, decor and all the little details that make a space a home don’t come cheap, even if you are very clever and thrifty.

Beautiful drapery gives this kitchen polish

Source

It amazes me how often people are willing to invest in extra renovation details like fancy mouldings and expensive tile but don’t give a thought to, or reserve any kind of budget for, actually furnishing, decorating or styling their home.

Styling, art and lighting create a look and feel. Source

As a general rule, you need to reserve at least ten percent of the value of your home to invest in furniture and decor. And that’s really the bare minimum. If you can’t comfortably make that amount available for the actual contents of your new home, you are spending too much on your mortgage.

I am no financial advisor, but what’s the point of a pretty house with nothing in it? No comfort, no beauty, no look and feel? It’s a waste.

My daughter’s small room is modestly furnished, but I bought her a bright green shag rug that she uses as “grass” for her horse stable games, a grown up bold multi colored floral bedding set with a pile of colourful throw pillows and curtains to match in in her favorite deep teal blue. She recently said to me, “Mom, I love my room, it feels so real, like I have real, pretty pillows and things to look at.” So there you have it, my childhood dream fulfilled.

Thanks Tricia for this great advice!

PS. Now is the time to find a Specify Colour with Confidence workshop near you this Spring. In the Fall of 2018 my schedule will only allow for 2 events and the price will be going up.

Related post:

6 Ways to Choose the Perfect Neutral Paint Colour

Danger: The First 24 Hours After you Take Possession

10 Ways to Save Money NOW By Creating a Focal Point

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  1. I love this! It’s so true!!! When I was growing up, it was the same. Our home was very spartan and I was always wanting to decorate my bedroom. It’s those personal details and layers that create a cozy home!

  2. I wanted to know the source for the photo with the fireplace. I clicked on the link and it just took me to the homepage of House Beautiful (or something like that). I don’t think that’s fair to the designer, nor to readers. Please track down the real source and give them credit. Just like Pinterest should never be the source as is not the real source. A little research to give credit would be appreciated. This is issue isnot just here, but on many blogs. Otherwise great post.

    • Hi Jonsey, thanks for bringing this to my attention. Sometimes image searches come to a dead end like this one. I searched it again and found a different photo of the room and added a link to the designer’s Instagram 🙂

  3. The “buy the most house you can afford” is a very Southern California realtor message. Spoken from about 50 years of hearing it, reading it and basically being bathed in that message from all types of local media. Don’t think Realtors in other areas are that far from the message. Just a guess.

  4. Tricia, I always really love your posts. I can relate to what you felt like as a little girl. I loved beautiful interiors so much that I literally had dreams about them, then I’d wake up in the morning with new ideas that I’d be sharing with my parents (who didn’t quite share my passion!!) But they tried. Now we are house hunting again, and I am always attracted to smaller houses because I know that I could never appropriately furnish a 5000 square foot home. But I could make a 2 or 3000 square foot one quite beautiful. This post is right on point!

  5. Thoughtful post. When you come down to it, most people live in 3 rooms, LR, BR & kitchen, what more do you need, other than making your home beautiful and inviting for the occupants.

  6. I agree. I wish we had bought a smaller home. I am good at renovating but not good at actually finishing a space with styling and decorating. Thanks for the encouragement to actually finish! I am at this very moment painting my kitchen the color you specified (well it’s really my hubby doing the work). Worth every penny to do the online color consult with you, and once it’s all done you’ll get some pics.

  7. Wonderful article! I used to dream of having an upholstered chair in my room. I would look through the jcpenney catalog and pretend the pictures were my bedroom!
    I have no desire to have a large empty house. I have always thought that even 4 pretty walls can become a prison if you can’t afford to leave them or enjoy them.

  8. Thank you, Tricia, for a wonderful, apt, post. I am so thankful that while my parents really had very little they both had an eye for art and design and were happy for me, at the age of 12, to repaint my bedroom in a cheerful “sunglow” (or colour along those lines) – even though the room still had a dirt floor (covered in linoleum) and was a thoroughfare for all to the single bathroom!

  9. Great advise! When we moved abroad we moved from a relatively modest 2,300 square foot home to a much smaller cottage. I don’t miss all that space – our small home is cozy, fun to decorate, and easy to clean. And, like Tricia, it’s the home that everyone gathers at – even though it’s usually bursting at the seams! People with much bigger homes comment on how cozy our house is – which you can really only achieve with smaller, human-scale spaces. I never wanted a big house, and now I don’t want anything but a small house. Although I would love a big basement and garage for storing all our toys and my season decorations.

  10. I enjoyed your post and agree with you completely. Here in Atlanta, the ‘McMansion’ has been popular for years. Most of these homes are way too large in scale and proportion and are not even attractive. I think a shift is taking place here and elsewhere around the country toward more thoughtful design and cozier, more livable houses. I certainly hope that’s the case!

  11. My friends say they’d rather spend their money on vacations. But you live in your house the other 50 weeks of the year. So why wouldn’t you try to make it as nice as you could?

    • I never understand that either. Back in the days when I had to choose between and weekend away vs. buying home decor, a look and a feel in the space I’m in every day ALWAYS WON. I was renting but I would paint the walls. Why? Because you’d spend the same money anyway on just one weekend away but you get to enjoy it the entire time you’re living there!
      Thanks for your comment Mary!
      x
      Maria

    • This is an interesting point. I’ve never been able to truly neglect my home, but in our early years of marriage after a brief house-poor season, we sold our home and consciously spent much less on rent (which also meant a smaller space to decorate) and kept our decorating budget minimal so that we could travel. At home I satisfied myself with Ikea curtains, cans of paint, Craigslist/consignment finds, and the occasional clearance item. Because we rented a 1920s fourplex unit with wood floors, wide trim, and glass doorknobs, this was enough. We were married for 6 years before we had a child, and I’m SO grateful for the enriching travel experiences we had together. No matter where I live or what it looks like, these visual feasts and cultural experiences will always be in my heart and mind. I also think they shaped my aesthetic tastes. Stained glass windows in Paris! The mosaics in Rome! The breathtaking ceiling in St. Mark’s in Venice! So many more examples.

      Now? We’ve got two kids, I’m in my 30s, and I’m ready to “settle down.” I feel happy to trade our international trips for camping so that we can properly furnish and decorate our home. I’m even learning to reallocate our money from remodeling projects to decorating. The bathrooms are functional, so they can wait. I want a look and feel in the rest of my home. Thank you, Tricia and Maria!

  12. Great post! So, so true! Unfortunately, the folks that need to read this the most are the ones who don’t tune into designing websites. I will quote you on this going forward. Brilliant! Thanks, Tricia!

  13. Tricia, Wow! I am a middle age woman with 4 almost grown children and you really got my attention! In our early 30s my husband and I bought a large house with interesting details we could afford, but, still, I did not decorate my kids’ bedrooms. My husband and I certainly fell in to not thinking the kids’ rooms were important — and, after 18 years in the house, that powder room STILL has the 1980s wall paper even though at house closing we said it was the first thing to go. I did spend time and money on the other downstairs rooms. So, why didn’t I decorate the whole house, create a look & feel, more than I did? For me it comes down to 2 strong reasons. First, I truly believed (from growing up and my own adult experience) that the feel of a home came from the relationships of the people living there. That continues to be my primary focus, my one true calling. Secondly, though, like your parents, I just didn’t think it was that important. There was money to save for future adventures and needs. And, it didn’t bother me! I was comfortable and happy in our house and home. But, your words have really caught my attention today as I am now in our 2nd large house in a new state for my husband’s new job, and I have very much resisted making important (expensive) improvements to finishes because I didn’t want to spend the money which in turn has made styling and creating my look/feel as very time consuming as it’s challenging. Oh, the time I have spent reading blogs and learning how to decorate and style around the Tuscan Brown Trend! This home is temporary (2-3 years) so I have resisted strongly spending the money required to bring the conflicting finishes into better harmony and create pretty, well styled rooms. I enlisted the e-design service from you and Maria as well as bought the books and boards from Maria to better prepare myself to make the most sensible pretty choices the first time (saving precious funds I’d rather spend on trips & experiences.) At this point in my life, even with much improved knowledge and enough funds, I still have taken a year to move beyond decorating the family room. It’s interesting, learning as much as I have and seeing as much as I do on Instagram has become it’s own kind of trap. So many of the Instagram rooms appear to cost a very great deal of money, perhaps decorated for people who place a greater value on home decor or who have greater funds to spend on the look and feel of their homes. So, as I see these tremendously impressive, cohesive, interesting rooms, I almost feel trapped knowing I will not achieve the look of the professional photos of carefully, expensively curated rooms. Perhaps I now need to find new decorators to follow, decorators who showcase more achievable stylish, feel good rooms. Here is what I am going to take away from this wonderful post of yours: “I think creating an inviting and beautiful home is an important gift to give yourself and your family. I’ve long overcome any received notions that decorating and caring what my space looks like is somehow wasteful or self indulgent.” Maybe I do want to freely care more about decorating without getting hung up on the idea spending on decor is self indulgent & wasteful as perhaps your parents did. I am really interested to talk with my young adult kids about this very idea as they are beginning to rent and buy spaces of their own. Thank you, Tricia, for a post that will surely keep my mind considering these ideas for some time. I love that you created a happy space for your daughter. Well done, Momma!

    • This resonates with me so well. The other issue I have is knowing that in 10 to 15 years, the furniture purchased is now outdated, or the color is wrong, or the height of furniture has changed, or fabric changed, etc. After the first couple years of marriage, I decided I was tired of my second hand living room furniture (1982). I spent a considerable sum of money for that furniture for the time (i.e., $350 for a pair of lamps, $1,100 for a peach sofa, $1200 for 2 arm chairs, $1800 for coffee and end tables). Well, that furniture went out of style before it wore out, and I was tired of looking at it too, so when I had to repurchase, I bought a sofa only and found other quality furniture on craigslist. I guess I’m a value shopper now but there is a trap if you buy good furniture that you feel you need to keep way past it’s style period.

  14. I completely agree with you Tricia! Great post. I’ve always said I’d much rather live in a small, jewel-box of a home than a huge empty mansion. I grew up in an 1100 sf home and shared a bedroom with my younger sister. Our parents let us choose the decor. We had purple walls and green and purple shag carpet. We adored that room!

  15. As a relatively new homeowner (purchased our home in 2014), I find this post so insightful. I would just add that you don’t know what you don’t know. When we reached out for help to people we trusted during this process, the advice we got on furnishing / decorating was, “Oh don’t worry, you’ll figure it out after you move in.” or “Take your time, live in your house for a while and then you’ll figure it out.” In hindsight, not terribly helpful. And all of our cost assumptions were way off and based upon the only people who would disclose that information to us: our parents. It would be wonderful if hiring a trusted, experienced designer was considered as essential as a realtor or attorney in the house hunt process. I know that for me, it will be, if we ever purchase another home.

  16. Tricia, You absolutely knocked it out of the park with this post. I can relate to your childhood feelings. I grew up on a farm and the barn and outbuildings were much more important than the house. But Mom tried really hard with lots of wallpaper. I used to pour through the Aldens’ catalog and dream . . .

  17. True and well written, thank you!
    Brought back sweet childhood memory for me of my late mother. We didn’t have a lot of money, but when I was in 6th grade I got my own bedroom. My mom said we would paint it any color I wanted and I could choose the bedding. I still remember the peach and mint green comforter, peach walls, and white cotton curtains my mom sewed to match. My bedroom was my peaceful sanctuary throughout middle and high school, and I know it was because my mom knew how important it was to me to let me decorate it. I don’t remember my friends moms doing that, but don’t think I ever thought about it until your article and it brought gratefulness for my mom to me today. Thank you.

  18. So true! I wanted that frilly canopy so much that I cried. I think I finally got a purple frilly bedspread somewhere along the way.

    My parents had VERY little extra money for decor, but my mom would at least rearrange the furniture on a regular basis. I remember that she saved her tips (beautician) for years to buy a couch & loveseat. Later we thought the fall leaf pattern was hideous, but at the time it was the fanciest thing we owned!

  19. That last bit about your daughter’s room is awesome! My little girls finally have a nice room instead of sharing with storage items and a drum set. I’m having fun slowly making it pretty. We just moved from a 1200 sq ft cottage to a 1600 sq ft ranch (though it feels larger due to open layout and high ceilings) because with this move we decided to pay for more land instead of a huge house. My husband did not budget for decor, just renovation, which really took all we had. But I had made some side money last year which I wisely hoarded for decorating. SO IMPORTANT – this place would have been a shell like you talk about, if I hadn’t done that.

    I think for some people they really don’t feel as impacted by their surroundings and so it is low on the priority list for them. But like you said, the place they all want to hang out at is the awesome home with all the little touches so subconsciously it still makes a big difference!

  20. Nicely written post Tricia! It does bring back fond memories of my childhood. It is funny what you perceive when you were a child. My father was an artist and a business owner. He bought property next to a river in Illinois and built our beautiful small two story home. Because money was tight and there were four girls plus parents of course we had to make do with what we had. Everyone thought we were rich because we had boats and I had a canoe. Everyone wanted to come to our house because we had wood paneling in the living room and mom made our drapes. The floors were wood and often squeaked. My father wallpapered our kitchen in a loud plaid wallpaper which at the time we thought it beautiful. Because there were four girl we had to share bedrooms. My sister and I would decorate ours in pastels and pretty rugs but it never looked the way we wanted it. We thought we lived in a mansion but in my adult years I have gone back to look at our old house and was amazed how small it was. I guess lesson learned is what you perceive to be beautiful and what makes you happy! Love this post!

  21. Tricia, this is absolutely true. We built a small retirement home that meets our needs. You helped with the colours and they are perfect. Hubby has budget in place for me to decorate. I am one happy gal who, like you, started with decoratiing my doll house and asking my parents for paint and wall paper. Make do and thrifting during the young married thing and now…. my dreams come true. Your daughter is blessed. Thank You!

  22. Wonderful advice, Tricia, and I love your casual dining room – would love to see the artwork more clearly, any chance you could include more perspectives on the room in a future post?

  23. What a terrific article and so true. I too moved “up” to a 3300 so ft house from a 1600 sq ft house. (Just the two of us). Even though each room is furnished I find a lack of cohesiveness that just makes me uneasy. As others have mentioned looking at all the photos on Pinterest of these perfect living spaces actually gets depressing knowing the cost is way more then you can afford. Even though I love this area and my home in general I was happier in the old place as far as decor is concerned.
    Thanks for a great article!

  24. I was fortunate to have a Mom that liked nice things. She grew up with 13 siblings and they had nothing. Like Tricia I think she lived her childhood through us, we always had nice clothes, lovely birthday parties, she was a great cook and we lived in a nicely furnished and decorated home. Of course this meant she was a working Mom in the 1950’s/60’s. She is 98 now, and still appreciates a well decorated room. Although she was quick to tell me my framed Richard Avedon Beatles lithographs were the ugliest pictures she has ever seen! I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

  25. Love your post and examples Tricia. Growing up on a mini farm, I always wanted a horse to go with our cows and chickens, but that was impractical, so I appreciate your story of childhood longing.
    As a suburbanite, I have always been restless to go back to the country. After thirty years we are finally decorating, so I wonder if this will bring content.

  26. Such a thoughtful, relatable and so very useful write – this is so true. Thank you.

    And I feel it is the exact same thing with every part of our life. We decide on doing something, what ever it is (a house, a vacation, a relationship…), which is the ‘gift box/wrapping’ that you mention, but whether or not it lives up to the dream we had about it (how it all feels when you have it), depends upon what we chose to put in it every step of the way. That never ending ‘putting in’ part being the most important. <3

  27. Thank you for the post! Thoughtful spaces makes a place feel more like a home. Our first living room set was dated but it was slightly used quality custom furniture. We bought brand new trendy family room pieces and extensive window treatments for our second and semi custom built home and I regretted it when we moved. Since then we have embraced used goods and lower end decor once more. Why?
    1. I do not feel guilty changing things as we are saving this way. I normally resell my used stuff for what I paid or more and if not that is OK. 2. Basically a necessity with our cross country and nation moves (do not want to pay to transport and sometimes not even sure where we will finally live) 3. What is old is new again… furniture is the right look but wrong wood color? – Paint it! 4. We do not buy new expensive decor pieces but aim for the look (helps this is a middle class neighborhood starter home). 5. Kids and non declawed cats make investing in new difficult. I will NEVER invest in window coverings again. 6. A curated look is better and many times the quality of older goods is greater. 7. This has allowed me and our girls (with their room) to explore style and color. In an ideal world I would like to mix in some new custom pieces 😉

  28. This must be common temptation, to overbuy house, and forget decor and maintenance. We were house-hunting in the early 80’s in a high-end Chicago-area suburb. So many of the listed houses were grand and impressive from the outside but tattered and in need of major work on the inside. The realtor tried to sell us on the idea that the area was so prestigious that wannabe’s like us should mortgage to the hilt, do whatever needed to get in the magical neighborhood (no word on maintenance or decor!). Needless to say we dialed it back and found a find a better choice in a wonderful but less prestigious area. My problem is always the struggle to maintain an overall mindset of less consumerism, but then again, I love so many color, art and decor trends!

  29. Very well said. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. A while back, my daughter’s friend, during her first visit to us, said, “I love your house, I love your house!” I will always remember that compliment from a pre-schooler. She could sense and appreciate the expression, detail and warmth I had created in our home. Now, I help other families create their own well-designed homes. Speaking of children, attached is a link to Margo’s “panda” room that I recently designed. I did decide on the black and yellow scheme before Maria said it would be hot! https://www.facebook.com/designbyMolly/photos/pcb.2014450932109544/2014450638776240/?type=3&theater

  30. My ex-husband and I made that mistake. Now I live in a lovely small house that is furnished with things I l ove.

  31. There is no mistake here financially: Over time houses (generally) go up in value, trendy decor goes down. I agree that thoughtful use of paint, fabric and art can make one’s living space much more pleasant. But 10% of a homes’ value??? I’ll stay with IKEA drapes and retire two years earlier.

  32. What a delight to read how you have made your house a home using your creativity as inspiration, or as I call it ‘playing’, which I think we can sometimes forget to do as we grow older.

  33. I bought not the biggest house, but the best schools and neighborhood. I had to make expensive unexpected repairs. I left my job so my kids weren’t raised in daycare.
    None of this would have been possible if I had saved 10% on my home price.
    I love pretty. Women often don’t have permission that there is value in beauty. So it’s good to be reminded of that.
    But it’s also good to remember parents are doing the best they can.
    My house isn’t decorated but my kid is in a good school.

  34. I think some people are just not visual. I’ve painted a ton in our house and made some changes on a budget, and while my husband is appreciative, he would never had made any of those changes on his own, he doesn’t need things to look nice to make him happy. In fact I’ve changed the artwork on a wall about 5 times and he didn’t even notice. Lol Maybe your parents were the same way, the atmosphere in the house didn’t make any impression on them & so they couldn’t see the point to decorating. Luckily my mom was a tasteful decorator though we were raised in a humble, smaller home. As a teenager we moved into a nicer house & neighbourhood but I never liked it as much as our first house, probably because of the memories.

  35. If you always keep your housing costs (mortgage payment, insurance, property taxes, etc…) at 28% of your income and save 15% every year for retirement, you will never have any financial problems. If you are in a high cost of living area, you either need to move, increase your income or decrease your housing commitment.

  36. My parents also did this, and my father never allocated funds for decorating (per my mother 😉 i had a white canopy bed, with white bedding, white walls, and white bookcases and dresser and nightstand. My first attempt to make my room beautiful on my own was in elementary school… I had ordered a book of cute baby animals and proceeded to tear out the pages and make a “border” around my room of the animal pictures… using a ton of thumbtacks! My mom was so mad at the holes I made in the walls, she made me take them down (I still remember my tears). I also have memories of buying postcards of a historic mansion we toured in Galveston and pouring over every architectural detail in the pictures. College was my first opportunity to decorate to my taste… but could not paint. So the border was put up with ticky tack and I had matching bedspread and towels. When I finally got my first home (early 90’s), I painted the master bedroom a rich burgundy… and loved it! I have loved making a home everywhere we have lived since…