How We Prep & Plan Before Starting A Project

Q: I would like to know your guys’ thought process BEFORE you start a big project (like your kitchen, living room, bathroom, a nursery, etc). Could you delve into how you ‘read’ a BEFORE and how to consider function along with style? Where/what do you research? How do you decide which projects to do when? What makes a project top priority while others take the backseat for a while? How do you determine your budget? How do you live with the mess while a project is going on? Basically, how do you mentally and physically get from BEFORE to AFTER? Lots of questions, sorry. On a lighter note, how do you unwind and NOT think about every single thing that you want to improve all the time? Sometimes I feel CRAZY making my mental home improvement list! Thanks for all the inspiration and hard work. – Dana

A: Good question! It’s actually one of the most often asked queries that we get- but unfortunately the answer isn’t really that cut and dry. There’s very little method to our madness as we sometimes tackle hard projects because we’re particularly inspired while other times we blow them off to do something easier while we wait for more motivation (and less sore muscles) to arrive. As for research, that really depends what we’re tackling. The first time we switched out light fixtures we did some pretty extensive googling and turned off the power to the entire house in the interest of not killing ourselves. But when we were searching for the perfect curtains to flank the window between our bedroom built-ins the research was a lot less involved… we just picked up a bunch of curtains at Bed Bath & Beyond and tried them all and returned every pair except the ones that made the cut.

When it comes to determining our budget, that’s always the easy part. We’re cheap. And if we can’t afford something we don’t get it. This might sound harsh but we often think that it’s this very fact that causes us to get creative and come up with more affordable solutions (like hanging two blinds next to each other to mimic the look of one long expensive one in our living room). And as for how we live in chaos and prioritize our projects, we did learn pretty early on into our big home makeover that it helped to focus on completing one task entirely before moving on to another one whenever we could.

his method helps us feel more accomplished and focused instead of being all over the place and living in an environment where every room looks like a war zone. Sure we painted a bunch of rooms over the course of a few weeks (leaving them all in disarray) but we quickly learned that was no way to live, so when it came to remodeling the kitchen or adding the bedroom built-ins, we focused only on those tasks with 100% of our brainpower and manpower, and then happily checked them off our list and moved on to making a mess in the next room.

But enough general jibber-jbber. We thought it might help to visually share one room’s specific journey from before to after- so you can really take a peek inside our home-improvement-crazy minds (and watch the process unfold firsthand). Fasten your seatbelts, this could get intense.

Let’s take our living room (seen above in its raw “before” form). When we first moved in we had no idea we would ever turn it into a living and dining room and convert our small formal dining room into a more-functional-for-us third bedroom. That came waay later after living with our home for a while and learning what we truly wanted before doing anything rash. So we started off with the obvious things that were a lot less intimidating. First we got rid of that dated wooden divider near the front door (I actually took a hammer to it and had dragged it all the way out into the garage by the time John got home from work). A bit of spackle and sanding had the wall where the divider had been affixed looking as good as new. And then it was time to remove the dated old curtains (leaving only the basic honeycomb blinds) for a cleaner and more updated look that would tide us over until we could later snag some curtains and blinds down the road.

Then we moved on to slapping some paint on the walls. Our first color choice was anything but flawless (we were going for a soft celadon and ended up with a too-bright pastel green tone instead), but just getting some color on the walls and painting the pinky-beige trim and baseboards a crisp white tone made the whole room feel a lot fresher and we knew we could easily repaint it once we developed a better sense of the colors that we gravitated towards (which was as easy as finding some inspiration photos and quickly discovering we like warm creams, sandy tans, and blue-gray tones). And we can’t forget about tackling the dark fireplace that sucked a ton of light out of the room with some fresh white paint.

We know, we know. We were SORELY lacking in the furniture department (moving from NYC in a minivan meant we had virtually no furniture to our name so we had to make due with hand-me-downs and cheap Craigslist finds until we could save our pennies and add the items that we liked). So in the meantime we slowly upgraded from our cheap-o Ikea coffee table to a cheap-o thrift store find (that we still covet today) and switched out the small wooden bookshelves for inexpensive floating shelves from Ikea for more of a built-in feeling. We also were gifted two slipper chairs from Target that were on our wedding registry (hooray for free much-needed furniture) and switched out the too-small frames on the mantel for one large dark hand-me-down mirror that we painted white.

Soon enough we found ourselves repainting those green walls a soft sandy tan tone (Glidden’s Sand White) and then we were popping a pendant light above the table and extending the doorway that led into the kitchen to create a bona fide dining space. Our windows were still bare but we were able to snag an affordable wool rug to define the seating area and two side tables from Target with matching Nate Berkus for Linens N Things lamps (also from our wedding registry). We also finally found a sofa that we loved (and could afford!) so we sprung for it (and saved $400 more than we did when we got our Pottery Barn one in the den). Then I secretly arranged for a handyman to install crown molding around the room (as a gift to my very-sore-from-other-projects hubby), which really added a more polished feeling to the whole space.

And that brings us to the final after pictures. You can see that we hung our favorite bamboo blinds & white curtains to finish off the picture window and add height and softness to the whole space. Also in the softness department, we tossed a $19 Ikea sheepskin on the bench in the dining area to break up all those dark tones and add inviting ambiance. We also got a killer deal on the yellow moorish tile rug from Pottery Barn (it was a floor model) which brought a lot of life and interest into the entire room. It just feels happier now, right?

Oh and we had the existing wood flooring that runs all the way into the bedrooms stained deeper to match the new hardwood in the kitchen and adjoining den so all of those rooms finally feel truly open and seamless.

So that’s the sort of progression we’re talking about when we say that we live with things for a while, save our pennies, take things one do-able project at a time, and inch towards the finish line. As for the nursery project for John’s sister, we knew we needed to:

  • Settle on bedding for the crib and create a coordinating but not matchy-matchy crib skirt for concealed storage (we actually found the crib sheet first and it served as our color palette inspiration for the whole room, so it was definitely our starting point)
  • Paint the room (with our crib-sheet-established color palette in mind, we worked with Emily to settle on a color that would fit in with the rest of her house and still felt perfect for a little boy’s room)
  • Meet certain must-have requirements like a place for the baby to sleep, a chair for nursing, somewhere to change the baby, and a piece for storing toys (Emily already had a thrift store chair, a hand-me-down crib and an armoire that we would be bringing in so we just needed something that could function as a changing table so we selected an affordable piece that worked with the existing items we would be bringing in for a cohesive feeling)
  • Add some modern fun and whimsy to really make it come alive (hence the vertical striping idea)
  • Make it a lot lighter and brighter since it’s a windowless space (so we brought in mirrors to bounce around light, and added more task lighting to keep things ambient and inviting)
  • Add some finishing touches that are functional and easy on the eyes (we didn’t have specific objects in mind but knew we’d need some hooks, baskets, art, and sheles so we just played it by ear as we shopped and kept our color scheme- and the overall function of the space- in mind).

And of course we remembered to have lots of pickle & ice-cream breaks with Emily to keep things fun and to keep from burning out. We basically spent about a day per week for around 5 weeks piecing together the new nursery (which left us with enough time away from it to stay motivated and really think things through). And we’ll be revealing more project and ultimately the “after pics” pretty soon, so stick around for that.

If you ever feel like you’re moving too fast on something (which can make for a less than functional or practical end product) it’s always smart to take a big step back and impose a much-needed break. Go see a movie, go out to dinner, take the dog for a walk- do whatever it takes to give yourself a mental and physical break. It’s sort of what we did when we felt like our wedding was getting out of hand (too expensive and not the intimate event that we pictured). We took a step back, regrouped, and planned the day we always imagined. Sometimes you just need a time-out to see what you really want and slowly figure out how to get there.

If we hadn’t taken our time with our house, we’re certain we never would have come up with using bamboo blinds instead of pricey cabinet doors in our laundry nook or bringing in Ikea wardrobes to create curtained closets that flank our bed. Even things like widening doorways and adding the dining area to the living room weren’t ideas that came overnight at all- so although every bone in your body may want to be done done done, it’s always nice to live with things for a bit and slowly evolve your home so it’s customized and perfect for the way you live when the decorating dust does finally clear. We hope it helps! Happy renovating…


  1. East End says

    Wow, great transformation! Glad you got rid of the green paint. I still love that crazy divider at the entrance though……

  2. says

    It’s so nice to see that your house didn’t look perfect after one try. Sometimes it’s hard to read shelter mags and blogs by creative folks like you guys because I’m left thinking “When will my house ever look like that??” I bought too many things that I now regret in an effort to just “get it done” and feel crappy that it doesn’t look quite right. So you’ve given me hope, and made me feel less crappy. :)

  3. Jenny says

    We just bought our first house on Saturday! We can’t wait to move in and make it our own. It’s an older home that will need some work. Thank you so much for the great post that really puts all of the bazillion projects into perspective. You guys are a great inspiration and we look forward to your posts to keep us motivated through our work-in-progess!

  4. Jen Z. says

    Great post! Great ideas too. For me I need to sit back down with my list and check things off or delete things we changed our mind on or add things. But in the end I feel better that I took the time to sit down and rethink things. We have owned our house for 2 years and I’m sort of glad everything isn’t done, because I have changed my mind on some things. Gotta love DIY. We wouldn’t have it any other way. ;-) I love this blog guys!

  5. says

    I live in Richmond, and stumbled upon your blog when reading a magazine one day. I just love all the attention and love you have put into your house and love you ideas, and the fact that you share all the details here.

    I can’t wait for my faince’ and I to buy our first place.

  6. says

    That was really neat to see the process of how your living room came to be. A room’s evolution is definitely a slow process. I think we have talked about our future kitchen remodel 1,000 times, and we are finally getting close to a beautiful, unique room that won’t blow the budget.

    On another note, that old room divider in your living room makes me laugh every time. We had something like that in our living room, only ours had mirrors on it!

    Words On Wendhurst

  7. Abby says

    So nice to see the in-between. We’re in the in-between now in a lot of areas. We got it “livable” so the 70’s didn’t make us cringe everytime we came home, but now we’re on to making it more our style and fine tuning it. I’m also happy to see that others don’t always get it right the first try.

  8. Kathy says

    I love how you mentioned going from one room to the next. My fiance and I just purchased our first home, and I was all about painting everywhere first! But I’ve decided that’s just craziness on our part. We’ll work the one room at a time angle and see how it goes. Thanks so much for your inpiration! I love you site!

  9. David W says

    I love this post. Where to start and how to start are always my big sticking points. Thanks for your continued great work S & J.

  10. Christin says

    Thanks so much for sharing the evolution of your living room. It’s encouraging to read how much time it takes for a room to really become what you have envisioned and that it really doesn’t happen over night! I also want to commend you for living within your means. I think it’s FANTASTIC advise to plan, and scrimp and save for each project. Kudos to you! That’s how my husband and I live and really think it’s the best. It’s not instant gratification – but I truly believe it’s worth it in the end. :) Keep up the great posts!

  11. says

    That was a great post!! I loved seeing the evolution of your rooms and how they weren’t so perfect looking all at once. Thanks! And keep showing us some of the things that didn’t work out at first.

  12. Megan says

    Great post! It’s interesting (and refreshing) to learn about the process behind one of your makeovers. When designing a room, what are your thoughts on rugs (5×8 and larger)? I have been eyeing a Pottery Barn one that would look awesome in our front room, but the price makes me squirm. Do you think rugs are important investment pieces, or do you think they should be bought more affordably? And do you prefer a neutral timeless look in your rugs, or something more distinctive? (Btw, I think I spotted your yellow rug on sale at Pottery Barn a couple weeks ago – love it!)

    • says

      Meg- We don’t remember the original paint color but it’s very similar to Benjamin Moore’s Sweet Caroline.

      Megan- Here’s a post all about rugs:

      As for spending or splurging on rugs, it really just depends on your available budget and what you find. We have found great rugs on sale but have also paid full price for rugs that we love when we can afford them. Hope it helps!


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