Are “Phase 1” Projects Just A Waste Of Money & Time?

Q:  You’re putting time and energy into this “temporary” job for the master bathroom (not to mention some money), so why not just go ahead and do the full gut job? I know you guys watch money really well, but isn’t this not the most cost-effective in the long-run? :) – Karen

A: This is a great question, and we thought it would be fun to elaborate on the subject. Because it’s safe to say that we love saving a buck, but we also like showing an old house some love and making it feel like home, so here’s our take. First of all, I think a lot of people think like Karen does – in fact we had that same exact instinct when we moved into our first house. It was so tempting to just to freeze a room until we had the budget to completely redo it.

But we slowly learned that sometimes a small “sweat investment” in the form of a few upgrades to tide you over for a year or two until you can save up the loot to fully redo a room (and really think it through) is completely worth the Phase 1 effort and the small amount of money you might sink into that interim upgrade. And sometimes doing a few small things to improve a space before diving into a bigger redo can actually save you money because they give you a chance to (inexpensively!) figure out what you like and what you don’t like as you go. It can definitely cost you more if you don’t discover those things until the middle of a big gut job when time is money and the stakes are a lot higher.

Let’s take our current master bathroom makeover, where we’re aiming to spend around $100-200 on a Phase 1 makeover.

We got to the point where we just couldn’t live with the old carpet in there for another day, so to us, showing the room some interim love just made a lot more sense than living with things that made us groan for a few more years. Especially since inexpensive updates like a few cans of paint and a new mirror (which can always be used in another room down the line) can easily make it a lot more pleasant in there. Note: this is just a photoshopped rendering of our plans, but next week we hope to have the floors stenciled!

Why not just get to gutting things right away? Well, we learned all the way back in our first house (even before we started blogging) that doing a full renovation when you only live somewhere a few months means you might not have time to think everything through. For example, it took us over a year of living with our first kitchen to realize that if we closed off a door we’d gain 70% more counter space. Had we rushed into a renovation, we never would have come up with that plan – so we’d have new counters and cabinets – but the same cramped layout that we started with.

Soon after moving in we did a Phase 1 makeover while we saved up for a more major reno down the line. Just some paint on the cabinets and peel and stick tile on the floors (along with updating a few appliances that we reused when we fully redid the room). Let me just tell you, it was so worth enjoying a somewhat updated kitchen for that time (during which we got married in the backyard and had 75 of our friends and family over). Sure, we spent a weekend painting the cabinets, another weekend updating the floor, and dug into our savings for about $150 just for Phase 1 (that’s a guess at the total cost for the primer, paint, and the peel & stick tile) but the “return” on that money & time investment was that for over a year we got to walk into a room that felt fresher, cleaner, and more like us, instead of feeling stuck or frozen in the before shot for over a year.

When we had finally saved up the money – and had fully thought it through – we got to renovate that kitchen and ended up loving the outcome. It was completely worth the small time/effort up front for a Phase 1 update while we saved our pennies, and the fact that we ended up with a completely redone space that we adored (with a lot more function than anything we could have slapped together right away after moving in) definitely confirmed that this phase-by-phase, over-time method just seems to work for us.

The same thing happened in our full bathroom at that first house of ours. We started with this carpeted and crocheted space…

… and we did some simple updates like pulling up the carpeting, re-caulking things, adding some paint, and bringing in some sweet art, new lighting, and accessories to tide us over for a few years.

But up close both the floor and wall tile was cracked and damaged, so although we loved it, we sadly couldn’t salvage it.

So when we finally had the money and time to tackle a full gut-job a few years later, we were excited to dive in. And thanks to spending a lot of time planning every step, we only spent around $1800 on a full bathroom renovation, including rebuilding this room from the studs (new walls, new trim) along with a new marble tile floor, new fixtures, a tub/shower that we tiled to the ceiling, a new custom vanity, etc.

But it was certainly nice not to spend years living with this carpeted bathroom with a duck curtain, and do that Phase 1 update – even though we couldn’t fly out of the gate with a full renovation immediately.

So this method has been serving us well for a while now (holy cow, over seven years!) and we expect that nearly every room of our current house will have a multi-phase progression since we’re planning to be in this house for a nice long time. We don’t want to rush into anything without fully thinking it through and we’d like to save up for things that we truly will love for the long haul. But that doesn’t mean we have to live with old carpeting and wallpaper – and that we can’t toss up a little paint up, hang some art, update some light fixtures or faucets, and generally make the place feel fresher and more like us as we plan those larger scale undertakings and squirrel away some money.

In fact I think moving forward and experimenting within a certain space (not just in your head or while staring at a picture in a magazine) is a really helpful step when it comes to getting it right down the road with your major renovation. This was our first attempt at our first house’s bathroom. Scary, eh? But it turns out we had to paint the windowsill black and toss up a blue pashmina to learn that it was NOT what we liked (I thought it would be “so Domino magazine” and it was so… bad).

So we course corrected as we went, and ended up with a room that we could really enjoy in the interim, which then led to a brand new bathroom that we loved even more down the road. I guess one way to look at it would be that those small updates over time are like stairs. They build to a better result, and they bridge the gap between your before to your after. Without Phase 1 in here, we might never have arrived at that “love it” Phase 2 result, which might now have led us to a “love it even more!” Phase 3 outcome. So expecting to freeze at “before” and then skip right to “after” might not happen for everyone. But for us, that step-by-step approach over time just seems to get us from point A to point C without as much stress as attempting to skip right from what we hate to what we love in one fell swoop.

And sometimes it’s amazing to see how a few updates like paint, art, a window treatment, and a few accessories can bring an old room back from the brink without a major makeover down the line. Yes, in some cases a Phase 1 update can help you see that you don’t need to gut something at all (hello, money savings!) – and realizing that you can actually work with what you have can be the equivalent of finding a thousand dollar bill in your couch cushion. Take our $51 guest bathroom mini makeover, for example. We had pretty much planned to work with this tile from the start (it was in great shape and we thought the vintage yellow tone was charming) so we hoped this bathroom just needed a few cosmetic fixes…  but others who came over couldn’t see how it would ever work without bringing in the sledgehammer.

All we did was paint, add a window treatment, hang some art, and remove some bad elements (like the mirror that reflected every guest’s full body while they sat on the toilet) but when the decorating dust cleared, even my mom was saying “you’ve made a believer out of me.”

So you might think a room needs a full gut job, but experimenting with some affordable for-now fixes might just prove otherwise and save you a whole lot of money and effort down the line. And the only way to find that out sometimes is by diving into Phase 1. So if you wait and skip right to Gut Job, you might never know how charming a room can be with just a few wallet-saving fixes. Our hall bathroom was a slightly more involved update than our guest room (we framed out the mirror and added a built-in shelf), but the tile was still in great shape, so we got to work with almost everything that was there already. Note: pardon the yellow cast on this picture, it was move-in day and I was rushing around shooting in the wrong mode.

After spending just $168, we had a completely fresh looking room.

The cool thing about this method is that if Phase 1 does the trick, you’re done! And you’re probably thanking your lucky stars you didn’t go straight to full-reno mode. And if Phase 1 only serves to “tide you over” instead of majorly saving you from a bigger renovation, it’s still a win because you get to smile more as you save up and percolate on Phase 2 plans down the line. Plus going through the thought process of Phase 1 can better help you pinpoint what you still don’t love about a room (the layout, damaged tile, missing counter space, etc) and you get this bonus “learning experience” before jumping into any major construction down the road.

What about you guys. How do you balance your desire for a space that feels fresh and homey without blowing a bunch of cash you don’t quite have? I’m sure it’s different for everyone, so I’d love to hear what works for you. Do you do the ol’ freeze thing and just try not to think about all the things that bug you? Or do you sprinkle in some inexpensive updates along the way? Don’t get me wrong, we still have a bunch of rooms that we’ve been ignoring for months (can’t do ’em all at once!) but I like to think that those “we just can’t take this anymore” moments are what help us decide what needs a Phase 1 intervention most of all, and then we can dive right into that with some gusto.


  1. Liz says

    Totally off-topic but, whatever happened with your stair runner? Did you ever receive and install the one you spoke about recently?

    I’m all for living in a space – I hate to spend money on something that will only be ripped out in the near future. That being said, are there inexpensive updates that you can make to the bathroom that will be there for the long haul – after you do the full remodel? Aesthetically, a new sink could be really inexpensive but make a huge impact. A painted subfloor could visually be a cool interim solution but seems like a lot of work to only cover up soon. Our master bath is hideous too but I’m fighting the urge to make any changes (other than paint the walls) until we can gut it.

    • says

      Oh yeah the runner finally came! We actually mentioned that in yesterday’s wallpaper removal post (among those bullets of all the things I hope to tackle soon). We just have to paint the walls/ceiling over the stairs (don’t want to do that afterwards and risk dripping on our new runner) and then we’re ready to go! As for your thoughts on a new sink vs. a painted subfloor, to us, investing in a new sink that fits our current vanity (which is tricky to find since it’s a non-standard size and could run us around $100) feels like a lot when we’ll be adding a double vanity down the line anyway. Meanwhile, stenciling those floors will only take us a few hours (we have a new stenciling method that we discovered for our book that’s much faster/easier) and it’ll only cost us a $12 quart or two of paint. So in our heads it’s just the way to go in Phase 1, but I’m sure it’s different for everyone!


    • Judy says

      Seems to me Phase 1 makes even more sense for you guys (in instances where it might not for others) since we get twice the number of makeovers to read about!

    • says

      Haha! It’s true. It’s so funny that this has been our method since even before we blogged as a hobby (we did Phase 1 of the bathroom and kitchen about a year before starting this blog) but it turns out it works for blogging too! We get to learn (and share) more lessons, try out new projects, and generally just take our time getting to the “after” – usually takes us a bunch of tries to get things right anyway!


    • Felicia says

      This is meant as a general comment and not a reply to a specific post but..

      I love Phase 1! We all deserve to live in a beautiful space, now, instead of years from now, and that can happen on any budget with an open imagination. Beautiful spaces inspire (look at your blog!) and put you in such a wonderful mood. One of my favorite places to visit was the home of my friend who was a single mom, managing a fast food restaurant. She decorated her home with things you would find at family dollar, kmart etc and painted her walls, changed lighting. It was so chic and minimalist before it was in.

  2. says

    Phase 1 seems a bit like appetizers or sampling in stores. Sometimes you’re hungry, you just want to try something, or you’re not sure what you totally want to eat but you need to eat something.

    You eat a bit, maybe you like it, maybe you don’t, but it fills the spot (hopefully). You learn from it and then when you sit down for a meal, you know what you want and you truly and deeply enjoy it.

    We’re currently doing a bit of Phase 1 work on our house and if we were to dive into everything I might just explode. Even full on with one room.

    The sampling/Phase 1 approach is helping us to stay calm and really explore what’s best for each room and yard space.

  3. says

    I totally agree with the phased approach – we’ve been in our house 10 years now and are still deciding exactly what we want to do when we gut our kitchen and one of our bathrooms but we spent a little money on each of them in the first few years to make them bearable. Hopefully, at least one of those phase 2’s is coming soon :)

    • Pam the Goatherd says

      Same here. We’ve been in our house for 16 years now and are still working on phase 1 in some of the rooms. We were forced to do a half-gut on our master bath (and ONLY bathroom) when the fiberglass tub cracked around the drain and the water was rotting out the floor underneath. We rebuilt the tub area, put down peel-and-stick flooring, painted the walls, towel racks & switchplates, and cabinets. Eventually (if we stay in this house) we will replace the cabinets, sink and toilet, and put down a nicer vinyl floor.

      Three years ago we finally did the full gut of our kitchen – took out a peninsula cabinet that was a huge space waster and replaced it with a stainless steel work table with storage underneath. Ripped out the “pantry” cabinets that wrapped around the fridge that were so deep and dark that I literally had to use a flashlight to find things that were stored in them. Replaced them with two hutches that I build using plans from Ana White. That move alone doubled our counter space and put things right in plain view without needing a flashlight!

      When we first moved in, our three kids were in elementary school, so we did a phase 1 paint job in their room and let them put up posters and pictures and shelves as they wanted. Now that they are grown and have their own places I have been slowly working on changing their room into my sewing room. I’ve been saving up pictures of what I like for many years and I think I finally have put together a plan for gutting and remodeling that room that will work well for me.
      I am one of those people who want to do a remodel/redecorate that will last for years and years (because I don’t have the money to keep doing it over and over until I get it right), so doing things in phases assures that I will really like the results.

    • Pat says

      So glad to hear we are not the only ones in a 10 year holding pattern on a house. We will be in our house 10 years next year. In the first couple of years we did a bunch of phase I improvements to make the main living areas bearable too. We originally planned to save for phase II improvements but things changed for us financially and we will have to live with phase I for a longer time than we planned. I am glad we at least did the phase I improvements:)

  4. says

    This is such an interesting take on DIY home updates! I love how honest you always are, J+S – you help your readers to think honestly about what would work for us, too!

    As for our home, which was built in 2006, I’m doing everything that I can to inject some charm into this newer home. While everything is rather “pretty” looking (nice kitchen cabinets, appliances, vanities in the bathrooms, etc.), it took painting a chalkboard wall in the kitchen (for $15!) and adding $100 worth of photo canvases of our little guy (who is 16 months!) to make our home feel charming. Sure, we want to eventually repaint the walls throughout the home (the previous owners were big beige fans, which isn’t really my taste), but for now, tossing a little cash here and there to make it feel like our home is working for us.

    Thanks for this post!

  5. Elle says

    I love that you addressed this topic! I have found in renovating our 50s ranch, that it is hard to figure out where to begin when you feel like every room needs the sledgehammer treatment. Taking the time to live in our home has allowed us to think through our projects and has made us realize what we really want in the end. I love the idea of phases and appreciate your post today! Thank You!

  6. says

    I was raised on the “ITS ONLY TEMPORARY” principle. I think it took 20 years of buying and swapping out inexpensive furniture, painting and diy for my mother to start realizing exactly what she wanted in her house. It just takes time.

    Now that I have my own home, I completely understand her madness! Sometimes it takes painting a room yellow to realize that you don’t really like yellow. Like we did here:

    I think that most of the time there has to be a Phase 1 and sometimes a phase 2 or 3. Most people don’t get it perfect on the first try. I know I don’t!

  7. Tanya says

    I really really need to show this article to my husband, because your mentality is how I like to work, too, and it’s been hard for me to convince him that sometimes small changes can really transform a space! (Part of why I love your blog is that your before/after pics are always right by each other and they fit on my screen just right ^_^ )
    This is such a well-worded argument for the Phase 1 frame of mind! Thank you!

  8. says

    Agreed, agreed, agreed! We moved into our first home about 2 years ago and had a big imagination about what we would accomplish in this 100 year old house. 2 years later, we’ve painted most of the rooms and are just starting tackling our first major reno with the bathroom. I know personally that my tastes can change from day to day, so I like to give myself a while to mull over a design and if I am still loving the ideas months and months later, then its time to go forward. (This also gives your spouse time to work up the courage to tell you they hate an idea or they don’t think they can handle that project).

    I don’t think “phase 1” projects are a waste at all because there’s more value in a home than just dollar signs. Getting enjoyment out of your home is a different kind of value. (As is not being embarrassed to invite people over because you have a room trapped in a time warp). SO… tally your budget, re-tally your budget, be patient for the perfect sale or deal, learn as much as you can about your DIY, and make sure that you’re not getting in over your head with the tasks involved or the cash involved.

    So in conclusion, it’s not all about money in the end. There’s something to be said for maintaining your sanity.

  9. says

    Until two things happen, we’ll be in phase 1 “make us a bit happier” of work on our house. 1) I can outearn daycare expenses and 2) we quit having to fix things like faulty wiring and cutting down trees. I just couldn’t look at my ugly oak cabinetry one more second, so we recently painted it. It’s not a permanent solution, but it works for now!

  10. audrey m says

    I’m glad y’all answered this question because I’ve been mulling it over in our (old) new house myself. We’d like to do some major renovations (like moving bathrooms to new locations big) but I’ve wondered if it’s worth doing a few updates in the mean time.

  11. says

    Yes! Home improvements in phases are the only way that I can mentally survive living in a fixer upper. We have been here 6 years, and are maybe 1/4 of the way through what we hope to finish. We tore down a wall in our kitchen and after 1 year of living with the dining room color and kitchen color in one room, I splurged and painted the walls all one color. I also ripped down some cabinets and used some of the wood from our torn down wall to make open shelving. I painted a white subway tile backsplash too. It was all under $100. It not only gave me the a fresh look, but I actually really like it and can live with it for a few more years, until we’ve saved up to do the most expensive project in our house. The best part? Knowing that my changes are not permanent allows me to be more creative than I would if I had to live with it for the next 20 years.

    • Mia says

      Kelly, your last sentence is an excellent and freeing perspective on the phase concept. Thanks for that!

  12. Melissa says

    I’m a big believer in phase-one projects. We just moved into a new (old) home that needs a lot of updating. Though the kitchen had been partially updated with granite counters, stainless appliances, and subway backsplash, it still had the original cabinets, an awful white-tile floor, and a not ideal layout. Other projects, like a new roof, take priority over a full redo, so we had the cabinets painted (from pale yellow to a mid-tone blue-gray), put on new hardware, swapped out the lighting, and put down an area rug. It’s far from perfect, but it looks good enough to buy us time – at least a year or two – until we have the money for a complete renovation.

  13. Jessica says

    I agree-we are on our fifth house, and we always do small projects to make the house livable while we save/plan for a bigger reno.

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