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. Nicole says

    Thank you for this post! We’re moving in two weeks into a house that only needs paint in some rooms, but a major reno in others – but those are 5 or so years down the road for us. Love the idea of freshening up a space on the cheap to make it livable and will definitely be doing lots of that in our new kitchen and bath!

  2. Crystal says

    Do you have a tutorial somewhere about painting cabinets? I’d like to paint the cabinets in our bathrooms and eventually the kitchen, and not exactly sure where to start.

  3. Lindsey says

    We have a couple phase-1 bathrooms to work with, and I feel that with paint and accessories, we can live with them for our 5-year redo. The tile is all in good shape, so we’ll be living and enjoying it for a while and dream of what’s to come. Thanks for giving me ideas with your master bathroom – do you plan to poly your floors after painting?

    • says

      Yes, I think since we have some Safecoat on hand already (it’s prego-friendly since it’s eco and free since we have it on hand) we’ll slap some on for added protection in there!


  4. Kiera says

    Great Post- thanks! we moved into a ‘phase 2’ house but spent way too much doing a partial phase 1 and now I feel paralyzed. Of course a leaky pipe discovered this week might just throw us into phase 2 after all. At some point I’d love to see a post on overcoming the fear of accessorizing (and maybe you have already done this!). My mantle is bare because I just can seem to ‘get er done’. Homegoods is overwhelming– everything looks like tchotchke in there and I can’t picture it in the house! (Can you tell I work in spreadsheets for a living!– creative muscle is sadly underused)

    • Christy says

      Haha….I know what you mean. My advice is to just grab a few things that you might like and try them out. You can return them if it’s not right! I brought home four different tries at drapes before choosing the right ones. Of course, my credit card company called to make sure it was really ME making all those returns! A bit embarrassing, but it beats being frozen with indecision. :)

  5. Heidi says

    I completely agree with the phased approach! We bought our house two years ago and our bathrooms got a coat of paint, new knobs, and new light fixtures to hold us over until we do bigger gut jobs someday. I’m actually having trouble with the argument for why NOT to make them pretty for cheap while you save for the big job!

  6. says

    For me, phase 1 is whatever it takes to make it feel like your own and not someone else’s house. In some rooms that may mean just throwing some art up on the wall and in others new paint.

    When we moved into our house there were several rooms that I insisted be painted before moving in. (Eggplant purple and sunshine yellow are just not colors I can live with day to day!) It allowed me to live in the space and a few years later we were able to re-do our bathroom and repaint a previously re-painted room. I didn’t feel like it was a waste of time. It had made the room liveable for the time being.

  7. Michelle says

    I’ve had that same question about the “phase 1” approach, but I think I’m now beginning to see the beauty of it. In addition to all the benefits you listed, there just isn’t the time to go “full reno” with every room when you first move into a house (especially an old fixer upper). My husband and I recently bought our first house a few months ago and has been quite the project. We’ve been slowly making progress since we moved in, making some “temporary” updates and some “final” ones. It’s nice to be able to make the space our own with these “first phase approaches” while also being able to focus our time and money on the rooms undergoing more intense construction.

    • says

      Yes! We have learned that it usually takes us years just to paint every room, let alone really “redo” them, so sometimes doing a little bit more to make a space that you use/see a lot a little special while you slowly work your way through an it’ll-take-us-years renovation is so nice!


  8. says

    Different strokes for different folks. I agree that sometimes it’s worth investing in your happiness. I’m the type that is very bothered by ugly or non-functional design. I can’t settle down and focus on other things (like working to save money for a BIG project) if something else is bugging me. I’ve done a few band-aid projects as well just so I can feel happy while I work toward the bigger goal.

  9. Lesley says

    I’ve left far too many rooms on hold waiting until we could afford the full gut jobs we wanted to do. We lived in a completely nonfunctional kitchen for EIGHT YEARS, I literally went in there without turning on the light for the most part because I couldn’t bare to look at it. Then when the liquor cabinet door fell off in my hand one day, I lost it!

    I spent 8 years breaking nails on knobless cabinets when a quick coat of paint on the wood trim and some knobs would have cost less than $100 and a 1/2 day of work ages in advance.

    We have live here now for 12 years and I still peer up at our partially patched light blue ceiling… (it looks like a faux cloudy sky in a baby’s room) I already have the paint even for “post reno”, but no budget to reno. I think this weekend the paint is going down, or should I say up?

    • Lesley says

      Oops, forgot to comment about furniture. That is NOT something I do a phase 1 of. When my parents were retiring and moving out of their last family home (of 18 years) my mom was ditching a whole bunch of their furniture. When my sister and I asked about a few of the pieces she replied emphatically, “DO NOT spend a penny on ‘just for now’ furniture, wait it out and invest in quality. That entire side of the garage is full of furniture we were ‘just going to have until we found what we wanted’ but once you put a book on the shelf or something in the drawer is ends up staying… for 25 years.”

      We have both lived with partially empty rooms until we found what we really wanted and it has been so worth it. Even with that philosophy I have pieces that I grew out of but I have been able to resell (in one case back to the antique store I bought it at), for the same as or more than our purchase price.

    • says

      I think you’re really smart about that Lesley! There were lots of hand-me-downs and stuff in our first house (and even in our second and our current house, actually) but there is beauty to just leaving a corner empty until you find the perfect thing that you LOVE. Nate Berkus always says to guard your threshold and be choosy about what you bring into your space, and I think there’s so much truth to that. I’m all for small improvements with paint and fixtures and accessories (when you find a few that you LOVE) while you work with what you have, but filling a room with cheap “eh” stuff in the meantime can cloud your vision down the line for sure!


    • says

      On the “just for now” furniture, I agree in some senses. I have spent any $$ on my just for now stuff. It’s all hand-me-downs from friends, coworkers, etc. I’ve never even paid for a TV in my life despite owning plenty. While you’re right that the furniture sticks around for longer than you realize, I still like the bridge (given that I didn’t drop cash) to knowing what I want. We’d had three hand-me-down couches, and each one reminds me of what I’d really like eventually. Now, it’s just saving up pennies to get that just-right couch finally into my living room. In the meantime, at least we have something to sit on.

      The key is being willing to give up the good-enough but not great furniture. If you spend too much on it, I think it’s hard to let go. Since ours was all free, I don’t have a problem passing it on to someone else when we find something that fits better.

    • Jen. says

      At least it was the door to the liquor cabinet, so you could more easily drown your sorrows! ;)

  10. says

    You know, you guys are so right!!! Major renos take time and if you really are unhappy with how things are now it can really bring you down. How your home feels can shape a day! :) I’m all for the Phase 1 stuff. Over the years, I have been able to learn so much from those type of projects.

  11. Lee Ann says

    Right now, I’m debating the same thing with my 80s kitchen. It needs lots of TLC, but every time I find the perfect idea for the renovation, I tell myself to wait a little while. Inevitably, I come across another photo, another H.GTV show, or another blog idea that makes me think: “Oo, maybe that’s better.” So I’ve done nothing. I think the phrase that fits me is: “Paralysis by analysis.”

    • Mel says

      Yep I suffer badly from this, I just don’t know where to start. I have been writing out the to-do list and it terrifies me :) I am going to start by working for 2 hours a couple times a week. My problem is really old carpet :)

      I have also been trying to find the post where you talk about cleaning floor tiles but cannot find it, can you help me?

      Mel :)

  12. says

    I totally agree! When we bought our 100-plus-year-old farmhouse and jumped right into gutting the entire first floor, I bought some paint and gave everything that was staying (bathroom and bedrooms) a facelift. All it involved was a little primer & paint, a new shower rod & curtain, and some window curtains. It makes a huge difference living in someone else’s mess or living in your own mess, as I like to put it. So even if we have been living with only stud walls downstairs for a year, at least when we go upstairs it feels like us, not someplace we inherited. :)

  13. says

    I haven’t read the post yet because I want to give my perspective before I read someone else’s. My answer to the question is that “phase 1” investments can be cost-effective, but they can be more than that – they can be relieving. It all depends on your timeline, the type of funds your investing, and your own values. What might be worth it to one person may not be worth it to another – this is because we all have varying importance of different values.

    For us personally, “phase 1” type fixes cost very little but have done a lot for us. Even though we knew we were building an addition and gutting the entire original house, we painted the interior. First, this helped with our appraisal. Second, it helped with sanity. We bought the house over six years ago, and only a year and a half ago did we start the addition (we had plenty of other things to do in the mean time – including building a garage, a barn, a garden, a retaining wall…you get the point – we were busy). We are quickly moving towards gutting the entire interior. I wouldn’t change spending some money on paint for anything. For our values, it was worth every cent and hour spent.

  14. says

    I completely agree with your train of thought on Phase 1 projects! There are so many awesome possible outcomes that I feel like it’s almost crazy not to do them…at least that has been my experience. I also feel like the whole phase 1/living with what you don’t LOVE is a right of passage. At our age, we’re just getting into the swing of homeownership and careers…you have to work for what you want!

  15. Elizabeth K. says

    At first, I didn’t agree with the Phase approach – I’m kind of lazy, and my thought was to just hold out until we could do what we really wanted. However, I changed my tune when dealing with the horrible outdoor carpet that was in our kitchen. My in-laws kept on us about just switching it for some cheap peel and stick tile (they found some for a great deal at an outlet). And since we did not have the money to build the subfloor and get the tile we really wanted, my husband and I finally decided to take their suggestion… and you know what? It was the best decision. Now I don’t dread one of my kids spilling a large container of yogurt on the floor (totally happened and cleaning that off the carpet was a nightmare!).

    • says

      Aw, I love hearing that Elizabeth! I totally agree that at first it feels like an alien mindset! I wanted to save every last penny for “the main event” at first too!


Leave a Reply

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