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. Kara says

    Totally on board with this approach. We did a full gut of our bathroom before we moved in (because I couldn’t be in the room with gagging), and I have regrets.

    For one, the tile. It’s polished porcelain that looks like crema marfil marble and we got a great price on it, but my dad and husband installed it and, uh, made some mistakes. Several of the tiles are cracked, and now the price has more than quadrupled so it will cost a fortune to replace them (if we even can? Please guide me on this issue), and the tiles run all the way under the vanity so we can’t easily replace the entire floor. Ugh.

    Also? We bought a fiberglass tub and shower surround in spite of my gut instinct to splurge on a nice tub and tile the surround. I hate hate hate it.

    Those are two painful and expensive lessons. Not sure I could have learned them any other way though.

  2. Joanne says

    Such a great post! Thanks for this! We’ve been in our house for 5 years now and have been doing our share of both phase 1 and bigger, for-the-long-term projects, but we still haven’t saved the dough to renovate our nasty, 1960s oak kitchen. BUT, I think you’ve finally convince me to paint the darn cabinets already! In reality, that big kitchen reno won’t be happening for another 5 years. It’s actually a fun challenge seeing how much change you can make with very little $, kind of like closet shopping when you can’t afford a new fall wardrobe! :-)

  3. Laura says

    I’ve learned to try to keep in mind to not let *the perfect be the enemy of the good* whenever I want to do something. In our first house (a big ol’ Victorian with tons of work in every room!) we had a living room with ugly blue walls and 70s wall-to-wall carpeting. The walls were livable but we held off on even changing the ugly blue color because the sheet rock was installed poorly, needed repairs, etc. and we thought we should *do it right* the first time. Ten years later we moved out and left ugly blue walls behind. I learned right then that I should have just spent $40 on paint and had a color I enjoyed despite the need to do repairs later.

  4. Jordan says

    This is exactly what we our doing in our home right now! We see the logic of spending (wisely and very little) on smaller upgrades to make our home feel better until we have saved enough to do the entire reno! It is very important in our home since we bought it as a foreclosure, there are many things needing facelifts!

  5. JR says

    Thanks for this post Sherry, just the nudge we needed. We are totally in that stage now, where we think that Phase 1 is just a waste of time and money, but who knows when we will save up money for the full reno. We might as well enjoy an updated and more pleasant looking home in the interim.

    • says

      JR, you might find that phase 1 might nudge you towards what you really love – or don’t. I thought I loved bright colors on the walls/ceilings because of blogs I had seen that did it. As a test I painted the ceiling of our bathroom a yellow color that I loved.

      Let me tell you – it turns out that I HATE painted ceilings in my house, and I absolutely do not like bright colors on the walls. I am so incredibly thankful I didn’t just go all out and paint a completely finished room a bright color that would take forever to repaint. The bathroom I painted is getting completely gutted within the next year. For $6.00 of paint it was a great lesson learned and in the end, a huuuuggee time saver.

  6. Laurie says

    I’m all for a stage 1 makeover. Sometimes the space is just so hideous you need to do something, especially when you are just moving in to a new house. We had the ugliest counters in the kitchen and we replaced those immediately, even though we knew we were going to gut the kitchen, but I think its important to get a feel for your space before making any major decisions.

  7. Johanna P says

    I think small phase one projects are really important. You can do crazy stuff like add a pop of colour that you normally wouldn’t with a small lick of paint or some accessories. You can see how the room can breathe by just stripping some wallpaper. A simple update of a door handle can make a door feel new and transformed. By doing a small phase one project
    it can help you define what direction you will take with the room.

  8. Christa Mae says

    I’m SO grateful for this post and it couldn’t have come at a better time! After nearly a year in our first house and no major changes to the terrible interiors, I’m getting antsy to make a few cost-effective improvements. Working in phases definitely seems like an appropriate way to go – and that peel and stick tile in your first kitchen is actually pretty cute! Definitely an option I’ll be looking into. Thanks!

  9. says

    This is exactly where we are with our 1969 fixer! I am in the process of painting and glazing the existing cabinets. It’s less than a $100 redo..but will tide us over for awhile until we can afford a complete remodel of the kitchen.

  10. Laurea says

    I am currently using the phasing approach as a way to help customize our apartment. Realistically, all we can do is small cosmetic changes (which we are lucky to be able to do as renters) so its nice to see a post about these small changes and how valuable they are.
    I just semi-redid our bathroom, which started with teal sponge-painted walls. My sister wrote a blog post about it on her new blog: which has some pictures. I took more before shots but I somehow lost them, but you can see some of the teal action going on above the sink. In any case, it was gross. Its not quite there yet, but it feels WORLDS better than it did before.

  11. Britt Fisher says

    This seriously is the single greatest thing I’ve learned from you guys since becoming a “youngster,” lol. I used to be a “no-patience,” gut from the start kind of girl… and now I’m perfectly fine with taking my time in a space… and have learned that when I do, I love the space all the more because I really let it evolve rather than trying to make every decision at once!

    After almost 2 years of living in our house (and just sewing a few pillows and tossing up some art along with our old furniture, standard paint, etc.) we are finally getting ready to start in on the main living space and really make it something we swoon over. (Hint: our wall color is going to be “moonshine” – thanks for that too!) :)

  12. Karen in VA says

    I’m with you guys. I have to live in a house at least 6 months before it tells me what it wants. My BF thinks I’m a bit nuts, but I have to experience the space before changing it. With the house I just bought in the summer, I’ve been very fortunate – the guys I bought from had great taste and had done quite a few high end upgrades (i.e. beautiful glass bowl sinks in 2 of the bathrooms and great landscaping), so I am probably only going to change paint colors at a later date.

  13. says

    I think if you have a space in your home that you are 100% embarrased of when visitors come over – then you MUST do something to remedy the situation temporarily. If you can update the room for less than the cost of your monthly cell phone bill – JUST DO IT!! At least you won’t hang your head in shame everytime you walk into that room.
    Tons of great advice in this post. Thank you!

  14. Embeth says

    We don’t do phase 1 projects (for the most part), but we also take our time to make changes. We lived with our 30-year old kitchen (which was a bad renovation of a much older kitchen) for two years before deciding on what we wanted and beginning work. The new kitchen has changed our experience of the house and is much lovelier, but we could deal with the old kitchen just fine.

    We are about half-way through our house (an 1880 house that could use major work in every house.) For us, the unrenovated rooms are still liveable, and we can always go to the renovated rooms to remind ourselves what we have to look forward to and why the wait is worth it.

    I think the key to any approach is taking your time.

  15. Wendy says

    I *still* love that first kitchen. It was actually the inspiration for my kitchen reno last year! (But your granite is no longer available so we went with “Silver Cloud.”) :-)

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