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How to Save Money (While Renovating) With a Second Opinion

By 05/12/2016February 10th, 201748 Comments


Home Bunch

Sometimes I think people get fixated on the wrong things when they’re renovating. They spend wildly here, then get stingy there.

Even worse, if you’re doing a renovation on your own without the input of a design professional, you’ll swing back and forth even more.

For example, you’ll think the more expensive fireplace insert is important, but then forget about the colour.

One client showed me a brochure and the insert they were considering. I took one look at their existing black hearth and said, “Why not go for the black one?”

“Even better,” said the husband. “It’s $500 cheaper.”

Which, I should point out, is why you should never hire a designer like you’d buy an orange.

The more expensive your designer, the more money you’ll save because the advice you’re getting is usually based on years of experience. When you look at it that way, it almost doesn’t matter how much the designer costs, she just saved you $500 in one five-minute conversation. Imagine what can happen in two hours with all the other decisions you need to make!


Concrete countertops

Recently, I was with a friend who showed me a photo of her ’80s kitchen (that she was in the middle of painting white) and told me about the concrete countertops she was considering. I told her concrete generally looks the best in a contemporary kitchen (example above) and I would certainly not install them in her 30-year-old kitchen. I advised her to get a laminate resembling Carrara marble to compliment her white cabinets.

How much did I save her in that five-minute conversation?

When people stare at their old kitchen, wishing it was magically brand new, it does seems wrong to install another laminate countertop. But think about it: if it makes your kitchen just look like “new countertop, old cabinets” that’s not awesome either!


Contemporary staircase

Recently, while having dinner at my sister Elizabeth’s home, her friend showed me pictures of her split-level ’70s home with the original kitchen that was newly painted white. Looked a lot better! Then she started talking about her staircase and the contemporary design she wanted with glass panels (example above). “No,” I said.”Unless you’re about to rip out your kitchen and change all your woodwork for a way more modern look and feel, NOT a good idea.”

I think we all spend money this way regardless of the situation. It’s impossible to spend money on just the perfect thing everywhere you go, but we can certainly try, right? It’s why we read books, buy courses and hire professionals. Because once you know what you’re doing, your more likely to spend your money in the right place and not on a mistake you’ll rip out later.

It’s my mission in life to help save you money and also have money left over to spend on more important things, like lamps 😉 😉

So, let’s get on with the point of this post, shall we?

On the renovation I mentioned that started a few weeks ago, the quote came in for the black fireplace surround.



We are installing black, flat, quartz in the kitchen but you can’t use quartz slabs in the surround of a fireplace, so it had to be honed, absolute black granite (above). 

The price was almost $4000.


Here’s the before and during (above)



So instead we will install black quartz on the hearth only, and a playful white, penny tile surround instead.

And the price came down to approximately $1200. Much better.

By the way, here’s a sneak peek of the new kitchen cabinets:


Here’s what her kitchen looked like before.


Here it is being installed! Mike from Quality Cabinets in Vancouver, who installed my kitchen 4 years ago, is also building all their millwork.



We eliminated the kitchen eating area to give my clients an area where they could prepare drinks for guests that included a bar fridge (below). This way the adjoining dining room could actually be used for dining (it wasn’t previously).


So before you just accept the price on anything you’re about to install in your new home or renovation, get a second opinion and the alternative solution might be even better than the first.

Have a great weekend everyone!

If you would like your home to fill you with happiness every time you walk in, contact us! We would love to help you choose colours, select the right combination of hard finishes or create a plan to pull your room together. You can find our fabulous e-design consultation packages here.

Related posts:

The Enchanting World of Atmosphere

Three Most Important Words in a Consultation

2 Questions to Ask Before you Renovate vs. Decorate

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  • Laura says:

    Maria, how much money is too much for a designer? In my area I can’t find a designer who will get out of bed for a budget of less than 50K. And then, they want to charge me 10% of my overall budget to give me an estimate of how much the renovation/decoration will be!

    When I told one designer that my husband and I want to do as much as we can ourselves to save cost, I was bluntly told, “You don’t sound like our typical client. Usually, it’s a stay at home wife with at least one personal assistant on staff.”

    I have talked to 12 designers so far. With a budget of 35K and a desire to save money when possible (we can do some painting ourselves, for example), none have wanted to meet with me.

    So, Maria, I am beginning to think only very wealthy people can afford designers.

    • KA says:

      I worked with a general contractor in 2006 who said he didn’t want to do a kitchen remodel if the client wanted to do the demo, because inexperienced people can do more damage that isn’t part of what was quoted, then would have to be fixed and he’d end up over budget.

      I have a team of people who I work with who know what they are doing, work quickly and have remodeled entire homes in 5 weeks. If we had to wait for others, we’d not get done as quickly. We have jobs scheduled into July at this point, and from my perspective, I can understand wanting to take bigger jobs. When people have a limited budget, every dollar counts and you’re taking much time to shop for the cheapest.

      I met with a client this am who said “I should have listened to you from the beginning — you were totally right about the dishwasher. I guess I’m more my father’s son than I realized! ” His father was an accountant, but I saved him money by steering him in the right direction by not wasting money on ripping out tile that was fine and just painting the walls and vanity in his bath.

      People watch HGTV and see a 1 hr program or many and think I could do that! But it’s harder than it looks because of the editing magic of TV. Then you also see people who think everything can be bought online and then it comes in damaged, you have to wait for the replacement and the project becomes a series of compromises where you end up like that blogger who got a mishmash kitchen in a greenish cream and brown counters surrounded by white trim, with clean blue, etc. I’ve seen a lot of kitchens where people pick out stuff that doesn’t look great together, while beautiful individually, and they spend a boatload of money. Like a 25,000 bathroom that looks like a 5,000 one because the single guy picked out stuff like ORB knobs & pulls and chrome Grohe faucets and Hollywood Regency light fixtures. In a house he wanted to look like a Craftsman. Oy!

      • Laura says:

        Hi, Ka. Thank you so much for your reply. I completely understand what you are saying. A 50K reno which looks like 25K is not what anyone wants.

        I should have added in my original post, however, that we are not talking about a kitchen or bath reno. We aren’t trying to move walls or create windows or even lay tile. That stuff, we would definitely leave to a professional if this were the kind of thing we seek. What we want to do ourselves is strip the wallpaper (which costs a ton of money to get a professional in my area) and paint the walls (also, a very large expense here). I’d also be glad to shop around estate sales and antique stores and refinish certain pieces I already own (I’ve done this before). I’d also prefer (but not insist) to have some of our existing furniture reupholstered, if possible, rather than replaced. The rest, we just want a nice living room and dining room furniture, maybe a new rug or two, and some pictures. It’s hard for me to believe a designer can’t get this done for a budget under 50K. Do you agree or is this, really, the going price now-a-days? Also, is this standard practice everywhere to charge 10% of the budget just to give me a cost estimate? It seems to be standard practice here.

        I understand the point of if only the client had spent 70K, their 50K redecorate or reno wouldn’t have come out looking like 25K. But, if 50K and UP is the only amount a designer will get out of bed for and many (most?) people don’t have that kind of money to spend on furniture… then, maybe only wealthy people can afford a decorator and this post just doesn’t really apply to many (most?) people. And that’s a little frustrating in the sense of, “Here is what you should purchase, otherwise you will make mistakes, waste your money and come out with something you don’t like… oops, sorry, you can’t afford it. Guess you will waste your money and not like the results, then.”

        • Maureen Byrne says:

          Why don’t you hire Maria to consult online with you?

          • Kay says:

            Second that.

          • Laura says:

            Alas, I don’t live in Vancouver. 🙁 And she doesn’t pick fabrics for online consultations, or at least she didn’t when I asked her back in… 2013 or 2014. I *especially* need help with fabrics (curtains, table cloths and reupolstery fabrics) in addition to paint colors and new furniture. Also, I’m not sure she would want to decorate my house. It’s on old, very traditional house and we have old, very traditional tastes, also. 😀 It might not be her thing.

            Thank you both, Maureen and Ka, for your input. It is very gracious of you to reply to my outburst of frustration. 🙂

        • KA says:

          Ugh, removing wall paper. I wanted to do that in my guest bathroom that didn’t have very much and still wanted to slit my wrists after only getting 1 wall partly done using the tools my drywall guy gave me. I gave up and told him we were going to drywall over it instead. Mom and I did her master bedroom wall from 1966, using a rented steamer and burned ourselves because the builder hadn’t primed there either.

          Even though I do kitchen and bathrooms, I still did a long distance consultation with Maria for ever thing else in the house. Getting ready for the consult helped me fix the problems I was having with the background off two of the decks and the color of the flowers. I just flipped the pots from one deck to the other and my annoyance was solved. Even an hour or two will help.

          • mrsben says:

            @Ka: On the subject of wallpaper removal if you (or any readers) wish an excellent product, web search: Safe and Simple Wallpaper Remover. It is the greatest stuff and what many professionals use. (It’s non-toxic as well.) -Brenda-
            P.S.: I am NOT a spokes person for them and for those living in Canada they will ship it to you.

          • KA says:

            Mrsben, thanks. That company turns out to be from LA County, which is next to mine. Probably invented because of the post war housing boom, covered with a lot of old technology wallpaper. Will try that. Was using Dif or whatever that blue goop was and the Paper Tiger scoring tool.

        • mrsben says:

          @Laura: Is there a college (or similar) in your area that teaches Interior Design courses as that might be another venue you may wish to try. In other words; many new graduates are happy to do such work at a reasonable cost namely to create their portfolio. -Brenda-

        • Marilynn says:

          there are many design bloggers who will e design for you. Classic Casual Home is awesome. As is Enchanted Home.

      • aprilneverends says:

        I agree that desire to save can create more unnecessary spending.
        I also agree about purchasing on can backfire. Unless it’s books and clothes etc.-it might turn from a great deal to a big hassle.
        One of the few things we purchased in a brick-and-mortar store-a VERY high end one-was the bathtub.
        Long story short-there’s been a mistake that our framer did, the bathtub doesn’t fit an inch or two.. One option: to break and redo everything. Another: to purchase a slightly narrower bathtub. Our GC highly prefers option number two because even with him eating the cost, it’s twice as cheaper for him. Okay, I talk my fuming husband into it, the GC orders a new tub.
        Now, the tub wasn’t made by the store right? It’s manufactured by a factory. it’s a special order. It’s not like they have all their models on premises..
        So.They don’t refund it, and they take 25 % restocking fee.
        So-how not buying this tub on the internet really helped me, in the end of the day?..

        Also, about 5 week remodel..we waited for 8 weeks for our blueprints just to be approved by the city..I don’t know where you live of course, and whether you were talking just about the work itself, not counting the planning and purchasing and waiting on permits and approvals in. But just not going to happen here where I live. No way.

        I still wish I could have a designer. because it’s more than just picking colors and materials; it’s being able to visualize something that’s not there, to anticipate needs and potential problems, to have experience that a client doesn’t have even simply because he’s never done it before..and not all granite guys or windows and door guys or other trades will go to explain to you in length all the existing options. They assume you’ll ask; you assume they’ll ask. Communication is not something given, and a GC as great as he might be won’t go with you to ALL the places you’ll need to go in order to get a huge project done.
        So yes, I wish we’d have a designer. I’d be healthier right now, and my complexion would be better lol.
        But it’s not exactly easy.
        I live in one of the richest counties in one of the richest countries in the world; I know we’re more fortunate than mimimum 95 percent of population to even undertake something like a full remodel while living in different house.
        And no, I still don’t have “at least one personal assistant”. LOL.
        I can relate to the frustration in Laura’s comment.

        • Laura says:

          “I’d be healthier right now, and my complexion would be better lol.” LOL, I understand this. 🙂

    • Joanne Michael says:

      You have clearly had a horrible introduction into the world of interior design. Keep going forward till you find someone who gets you. They are out there. Also, perhaps you should hire Maria. She does this ALL the time. You know you already love what she does. Why not try her out?

    • Maria Killam says:

      Hi Laura,
      I forget that there are a lot of designers who only take full projects and don’t do any one-off consulting. That’s basically what I’m suggesting in this post, when people DIY a project that’s when they really need to get correct advice and information to avoid the mistakes that will surely happen without it. I’m sorry to hear you’ve been having so much trouble! Maria

    • carolanne says:

      where do you live… wonder if your near me?

    • Beth L says:

      Hi Laura,
      If I may make a suggestion. Try an experienced home stager in your area. We do a lot of exactly what you are asking for……for an extremely reasonable price.

  • paula Ryan says:

    Seriously love this WHOLE blog post Maria…spot on as usual!

  • Fran says:

    Great advice, as always, Maria. I love your client’s new white kitchen!

  • Mary-Illinois says:

    Great advice. As usual.
    I’m sure I don’t need to tell you but penny tile can be tricky to install. I’ve seen so many pictures of penny tile installed badly. It comes on sheets & if they aren’t layed perfectly you’ll see the seams.
    Thought you should know.

    • Maria Killam says:

      Thanks for the tip, we have a good tile guy, when he got to the middle of the floor in the kids bathroom he realized that there was a bump he hadn’t noticed so he had to take EVERYTHING out that he had already started, now it looks beautiful. Maria

  • Kelly says:

    Hi Maria-I just purchased your book It’s All In The Undertones. Ask me how much I wish I had purchased it before having a color consultant help me…. I am doing a full renovation of a 1914 Victorian and we selected OC-85 Mayonnaise as the kitchen cabinet/whole house trim color. Now that they are installed – the kitchen cabinets are the only “fixed element” in the house (although I would argue the heart pine floors aren’t truly neutral). Is the undertone of OC-85 white or yellow? Would it be correct to say that OC-85 is “dirty” as compared to OC-117 Simply White or “clean” as compared to OC-83 Antique White? I am floundering as to where to go with the rest of the house based on the fixed element of OC-85.

    RE: the post – in retrospect, I would gladly give up my custom-built cabinets for stock + the help of a kitchen designer to design a kitchen within my budget. My experience was finding a GOOD designer for $50K max gut kitchen remodel (in the DC area) would happen only if I had my own Fairy Godmother. Thank you!

    • Maria Killam says:

      Mayonnaise is a creamy yellow. There’s nothing wrong with that colour if your colours are darker and earthier because that’s why you’d choose a cream over a white or off-white, which I go into at length in my ‘White is Complicated’ eBook. But I think it’s fine in this situation to go with white dove for your trim this way you can keep your walls pale which is what most people are looking for these days. Hope that helps, Maria

  • Debra says:

    Love that fireplace makeover!

  • Cheryl says:

    Honed slate is a nice fireplace surround as an alternative to marble, granite, or tile.

  • Kate says:

    Love how you finally decided to deal with that eat in nook of your client’s. Sounds like it will be a great spot to use for entertaining. I am looking forward to seeing the final result!

  • I have been repeating your advice, which I distill as “plain is good”, since following your blog. I agree that in many cases, your basic black, white, or sometimes gray material is the best option. And you can add pizazz elsewhere, with a light fixture, mirror or wall color – something relatively inexpensive and easy to change, when the time comes.

  • I just saved my client over $2,000 in the first 5 minutes. She wanted to installed limestone in her modest home’s kitchen floor. I mentioned that I knew of a beautiful porcelain tile that was only 1/4 of the cost of the limestone – and it’s less maintenance and looks better!
    Here’s to designers who truly love their jobs and are committed to helping our clients!
    Maria, I can only imagine the help you would give the first commenter!

  • Elizabeth says:

    Do you have alot of experience with the laminate countertops that look like marble? We currently have ubba tuba granite -I have always wanted marble but it was not in my budget. I have seen pictures of kitchens with the formica 180fx marble laminate and they look really nice -but many people think I am crazy to replace granite with laminate

    • Maria Killam says:

      Your definitely NOT crazy to replace that builders granite with a laminate marble countertop if that’s what’s in your budget. This is about the look and feel, NOT about keeping a granite countertop that was never your choice to begin with. Maria

  • Sandy says:

    Oh Maria,
    I’ve purchased your books, I’ve brought home 7 BM white paints and so far I think Distant Grey is the whitest I can find. My walls have swatches of something soft oak?, white dove, simply white, chant illy Lace, Mayonaise. Then I see the post above and that color looks like what I’ve been after!! Please please tell us what color paint is on the mantle and walls. It is gorgeous!!!

  • Mid America Mom says:

    Hi Elizabeth – my mothers first kitchen reno was back in the early 90’s. She always kept in mind a kitchen with carrara (or is it carrera lol!) that a client of hers, had from like the 70s or early 80s. Mom could have gotten the real thing but it is a commitment some are not interested in. She installed the laminate version. They sold that house and the subsequent owners reno’d much but kept the entire kitchen intact. That same counter was still there back in 2012 when I was there last. It was in great condition and still felt timeless. Unless someone is really paying attn to the kitchen they do not notice it is not real. And even if they do they love that it is a more maintenance free option of a great look! I almost installed it in our kitchen this year and was leaning toward the fancy edge. Good luck with whatever you decide!

  • Elizabeth says:

    thank you both so much for your input about the marble laminate- I have been struggling with the decision for awhile!

  • mrsben says:

    For DIYERS, I agree Maria that a 2nd opinion of a professional can be worth its weight in gold and/or be a great preventative from having your head explode due to the challenge of decision making … ☺; however IMHO I also feel prior to doing so one should: a) evaluate their limitations to determine their actual professional needs. ( i.e.: Interior Designer/Interior Decorator/Interior Stylist; Architect/General Contractor/Tradesperson)
    b) still do their homework in respect to product choice and pricing to attain an overall perspective. (i.e.: Visit showrooms/Retailers/Internet web search etc.) -Brenda-
    P.S.: Do love the choice of bullion design on Crystal’s new cabinets. Hopefully you will have permission to post the final reveal.

  • LyndaPerry says:

    If you’re trying to save money, just wait until you have enough for a renovation! There are so many tricks you can use to make a difference in your home. Let alone – a million DIYers show exactly how to be creative using inexpensive products. I love how 2-3 new pillows on the couch make such a huge change. Risk, try, test! And do it the way it suits your style best. Not how it is “cool” now 🙂 Just my opinion 🙂

  • Rachel says:

    I agree, Laura, that it only seems the wealthy can afford an interior designer. I think most people cannot afford it on top of the cost of the reno or new build. I’m on my third build and am doing it alone. I think I have a good sense of design and feel pretty confident about making my choices. Building a home is an expensive endeavor and I can’t imagine how I could have money to pay a designer and still get the finishes I want. I also want to be able to furnish my home in a way I like at the end and hiring a designer would make that impossible.

    I totally get what Maria is saying about mistakes being costly, and if you can afford a designer it’s an awesome bonus. But I do think it’s a bonus. I just don’t think your average family can afford it, especially if you live in such an expensive area as Vancouver.

    I love interior design and I think that designers are amazing! I wish I could be one! I think they offer a great deal of value to a project. I do sometimes feel that their rates are over the top though. Why is it that a designer should make so much money compared to many other (good) jobs? The fact that they do makes me feel that they are only meant for those with high incomes. There is nothing wrong with that, I’m just saying that your average home owner just can’t have one. Thoughts?

    • Maria Killam says:

      The reason why ‘consultants’ fees are high is because they save their client money and/or direct you to buy the right and appropriate finish for whatever application is required. A lawyer who charges $600 an hour obviously has clients who need his level of expertise and then save said client hundreds and thousands of dollars because of their expertise. It works the same with a designer. I agree that if you hire a designer to choose everything right down to the tassels on your $1200 pillow then yes, of course that makes hiring a designer a luxury. You say you can’t afford to pay a designer and ‘still get the finishes you want’ but look around at all the homes out there where the homeowner got ‘exactly the finishes they wanted’ and it’s just plain UGLY. You are probably building your 3rd house because you don’t like what you see out there. And I’m not saying that your house will fall in that camp (you read this blog) but 90% of them do unfortunately. The most basic example is the subway tile one that I preach until the end of time. Someone might think that it’s super important to get that geometric, trendy tile to go with their quartzite granite, spend all the extra money to do that and end up with a bad combination with too busy finishes. A good designer would save you from that by suggesting subway tile, there’s the designers fee, covered right there. And that’s in the first 5 minutes, as discussed in this post. I am always kind of amazed that no matter how many ways I say it (and NOT to sell my services–I’m busy–just to plug professional help in general) I still get these kinds of comments?

      • Rachel says:

        Maria, I didn’t intend for my comment to come across as dismissive of the great value an interior designer brings to a project and I apologize if it appeared that way. I do agree that you could save someone money by suggesting subway tile over something trendy that will quickly date itself. I think many people benefit from someone guiding them through the process of choosing their unalterable finishes like flooring, tile and countertops.

        We build homes because we love the process and are able to build our equity this way. I have learned a lot from reading blogs like yours and I appreciate that many professionals use a platform like blogging to share advice.

        All I am saying is that it can be difficult for average income homeowners to come up with the extra it takes to hire an interior design professional. If only money was no object, we would all have stunning homes. 🙂

        • Maria Killam says:

          Hi Rachel, thanks for your sweet comment. I just always wonder how I can explain it better so perhaps I misunderstood what you were saying. I wish for the sake of all the designers out there consumers would understand that one consultation should be MINIMUM for everyone undertaking any kind of renovation project. Maria

  • Marilynn says:

    I hat subway tile. Everytime I see it I am reminded of the ugly, nasty subway bathrooms in N.Y. LOL

  • Rachel says:

    Hi Maria, I wrote a whole comment and somehow it went missing! Anyway, I wanted to apologize if my comment came off sounding as if I don’t value what an interior designer brings to a project. I do agree that you can save someone from the headache and waste of choosing the wrong finishes. Thanks for your blog. I have learned a lot! I have a lot of white subway tile chosen for my new home!

  • Maria
    I just finished the design for a new fireplace. Here is an economical resource for a stone fireplace surround:
    We are doing the surround in marble and the rest of the fireplace in wood.

  • Stacy says:

    We have been remodeling our home in Orange County for over 7 years and I’ve consulted with MARIA several times. She has saved me money as well as another designer paid by the hour. We are not rich, but can’t afford to make expensive mistakes either. My neighbors comment on how cohesive, classic and not trendy our house is…I have been attending open houses in our area of homes in the $800k to million dollar range and they are so ugly. It definitely made me appreciate my house a lot more because who wants to rip out ugly at that price point!! The only homes that were done in a classic design were bought by developers/architects and were well designed with the fixed elements were waaay more than a million! So my manta is boring now is classic later…my kitchen looks stark and white right now with my cabinets and counters but once I add the backsplash, flooring and lighting it will be time,ess. Small, but timeless. I haven’t seen anything close to that in my area so I always support Maria when she says to consult a designer first!

  • Very interesting thread. I downsized into a 70’s house that has the original cabinets, but painted off white. Have been wanting to upgrade the laminate counter (yellow beige) and tile backsplash (purple taupe). Horrible! Hate to admit that it never occurred to me to get a better looking laminate!

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