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. Emily says

    Wow, thank you for this post. I really needed it! I tend to get ahead of myself and want things done NOW. Which drives my husband crazy. I’ve been dreaming about remodeling the kitchen, but the bathroom still isn’t done and we really don’t have the money to start a big project like that, so thank you for the reality check. I’ll just have to make small changes for now!

  2. Laurie says

    Did you do anything to the fireplace interior between the last and fourth from last pics, or just throw in the candles? It looks better but maybe it is just the light and reflections?
    I need to do something about mine, I thought about painting it black with the high heat resistant (grill) paint, and getting an iron back but then thought maybe just a more modern screen…
    any insights would be appreciated.

    • says

      Hey Laurie,

      We gave the inside of the fireplace a good scrub and threw the candles in there, but high heat spray paint is another easy way to freshen up the inside of your firebox. Hope it helps!


  3. says

    Great walk-through of the process. We just moved a few weeks ago and are going through the same thing the email writer is experiencing….lots of projects on the to-do list and not enough time to do them. We’ve at least narrowed them down to short vs. long-term, but it is still daunting.

    One thing we’re having issues with is flooring. We have hardwood in the foyer and dining room, linoleum in the hall past the foyer, kitchen and bathroom, and carpet in the living room (just off the foyer). We want continuity but can’t decide between hardwood throughout or a mix of hardwood in the living & dining rooms and tile everywhere else. So we’re waiting until inspiration (or a good deal) strikes us.

  4. says

    I happen to not be patient, and I always want to do everything, right now. BUT I also appreciate the time and effort of waiting and seeing how you like certain things, and slowly figuring out what other pieces to incorporate. Money is always a big driving factor, and I am taking the decorating of our new loft one bit at a time. Or at least trying to.

  5. says

    Hi! I just wanted to say…really good post! I think I needed to hear it! It’s so easy to get a surge of inspiration and want to get it all done yesterday, but that can just set you back further when you realize you luv something else better or when you don’t have the money to start with! Taking it slow and evolving your home a step at a time is reality! I always get caught in this feeling like I have to apologize for my house not looking perfectly decorated. And I don’t need to! No one else cares and I’m not on any deadlines! Thanks for keeping it real!

  6. jbhat says

    This really was a great post. I am currently dissatisfied with the state of things in my living room and in my dining room…but have lots of ideas that are just going to take time to implelement due to budget constraints. It’s comforting to know that I am not the only one living with a room that is “in progress”…but it’s also frustrating to not be able to immediately show off/ enjoy what’s in my mind.

  7. says

    Great post! I would love to get a design tip about how to style a room if you want to use a zebra print rug? You see them in magazines all the time, but how do I know if it will look good in my living room?

    • says

      To use a zebra print rug in a room you have to let it be the star. Bring in clean-lined pieces in more subdued colors without much contrast so you don’t have other loud pieces and patterns that compete with your gorgeous zebra rug! Oh and seek out inspiration images with a zebra rugs in them. That’s always a huge help! Good luck…


  8. says

    What a great post… so helpful to remember that working on your home is an ongoing process that takes time! I enjoyed seeing the steps of your living room transformation- especially the change in paint. We recently painted our L-shaped living/dining room with Freshaire paint and the color choices are limited. We ended up with a yellowy green color and although it’s an improvement –I’m not sure about it. Not loving the color has me stuck on how to proceed with other rooms in our home. So, thanks for the reminder that it takes time. You have a beautiful home and I love your paint choices!

  9. says

    This is a great post. Such a relief to see that your beautiful living room once was sparse and mismatched as mine was when I first moved in. I’m moving this fall and this was a good reminder to not get ahead of myself (haven’t even found a rental yet and am already redecorating!)


  10. says

    I’m so glad you revisited this transformation. Those blinds you have are EXACTLY what I need. I’ve never seen them so light either. Most people seem to have the dark blinds. Every single window in our house is huge like that and we’ve never replaced the ugly aluminum blinds that are up because I’m too cheap to buy custom ones. Thank you for showing that again!

    Its also nice for people to see that changes in a home don’t happen overnight!

  11. Dana Miller says

    Thanks J & S for addressing my slew of questions. I know they aren’t the pictures you are most proud of, but the transition pics you post are VERY helpful to us newbies. All great designers will tell you that a home is collected/decorated ‘over time’. You did a wonderful job portraying that in this post. I’ve said it several times and I’ll say it probably a bazillion more… Your DIYing, financial responsibility and eye for design are truly inspirational to me. When taking on any project now, I seriously think to myself “WWJSD?” (What would John & Sherry do?) Yeah, laugh, but it gets me focused every time!!!!!

  12. says

    I *loved* this post, guys! Loved it! :) I think it would be great to know the dates for each of those living room photos, too, just to give us an idea of your timeline. It look so fabulous now. You’ve really done such a beautiful job of making your house a home :)


  13. grace says

    This is completely off topic but I have been reading for a while now and yet to comment but have this burning question. What do you do when you have made a bigger ticket item purchase that a year later you do not like? I bought a chocolate brown couch (corona sofa from macy’s, a ‘petrie’ knock off of Crate and Barrels) and now I do not like it. Main reason is the dark chocolate color. But, so as to not get lost in the details – my question is – what to do when your style/ home evolves and you realize something you spent considerable bank on no longer fits with your vision? Do you try to make it work or try to sell it and recoup your costs?


    • says

      Hey Grace,

      Hmm, that’s a toughie! I think for a gorgeous chocolate brown sofa I would design the room around that, especially if I saved up for it and had no hope of replacing it in the near future. I think the reason you might not like it is because it looks extra dark and high-contrast in your space (which is probably light and soft by comparison). But by embracing the rich color and tossing some warm throw pillows down to accent it (maybe some yummy apricot or tangerine colored ones) and painting the walls a rich and delicious caramel or mocha color, all of a sudden the sofa won’t stand out like a big dark heavy piece and will feel more integrated and yummy in your warm and rich room that complements it. Of course using a glass coffee table and maybe even some round honey-toned side tables will soften things up with curves and lighter colors that will work with your existing sofa without making the entire room a big dark black hole. Hope it helps!


  14. grace says

    Yes that is so very helpful! Thank you! I tend to like the exact palette you have described as your preference: creams, beiges and cool blue-greys. But I think I can work with this idea you have gifted me with to make it work. Thank you for your rapid response, and if I do paint I’ll share pictures!

    Thanks again!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *