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. Angela says

    I completely agree with you guys. I have been living with my kitchen for 7 years! I hate it but if I had jumped in right away and had done a full reno, I would not have the awesome kitchen makeover that we are about to embark on. Living in the space, especially now that we have children, has helped me get a better vision for the space and how it might flow better with the chaos that ensues everyday in there now that we are a family of 4.

  2. Steph says

    Phase 1-style projects seem to be an exercise in patience and being “intentional” with your home. Kind of like keeping your car clean shouldn’t affect how it runs but it somehow does. . .? I guess there are examples of bad phasing (this is now a term). I once put nice new countertops on cabinets whose layout/condition would never be right and I wished I had waited. . .Totally agreeing with moderate spending on “temporary” fixes. Great topic!

  3. says

    I completely agree. Our 51 year old house needed an update in every. single. room. 2 1/2 years in, we have touched every room but still have a lot of work to do. Some rooms are completely done (bedrooms, living room, family room), but others are still in the process of being completed. And of course, our initial timeline got railroaded by a foundation problem. 6 weeks after moving in, severe drought caused the foundation to crack and our kitchen remodel funds went to the nice guys at the foundation repair company. :( Our kitchen remodel was put on hold for another year, but we never would have gone the direction we eventually did if we hadn’t lived with that horrible kitchen for 18 months before tearing into it!

  4. says

    I hated my master bath. I debated whether to do a phase 1 since I haven’t ruled out a larger remodel in there. Well, I did make some changes. They’ve taken some time, and not too much money, and I love it so much better now! To the point that I could totally live with it. I read about some people who buy a house and redo the kitchen immediately before they move in. I look at what they did and love it, but it just usually takes me a little time to figure things out – even if I have the money.

  5. Katie O says

    I’m all about the phases as well. Currently, we only have one bathroom in our entire house, and that’s on the first level (all our bedrooms are upstairs though). A “longish” term goal is to do an addition upstairs, turning our “1 1/2 story house” into a true “2 story house”. I’m trying to make our smaller (only) bathroom work for now, and my husband is kind of fighting me on it, stating it will be completely redone once the addition comes in (we’re planning to take out the full tub and just have a shower in the bath on the main floor once the addition is done). It doesn’t make sense to me not to update it to work for us now (such as ripping out the too small closet for something that actually will fit towels), while we’re saving for the addition. PLUS, I enjoy doing it! If you like to stencil and are looking forward to doing it (which I would be!), then it’s not a waste of time or money!

    • says

      Amen! We get excited about taking little risks we might not take in a big expensive reno, like the floor stencil, so we’re so excited for $12 quarts of paint we can dive in and have some fun!


  6. Bonnie says

    We have lived in our house for 23 years and are on Phases 3 or 4 at least. Phase I was just so we could live in it without hating every minute (ie: glossy green paint). Phase II was great, until my taste and sense of color changed. I think a house has to grow and change with you, otherwise when you sell, you’ll have to market it as a “dated” . . . oh wait, that’s what you bought. I guess it works out sometimes.

  7. says

    We are having this same situation right now! We moved into our house about a year ago, and it is a total fixer upper! We are planning on doing a full kitchen gut job, but not for another 8-12 months. I’m trying to figure out if it’s worth taking down all of the ugly plastic tile and painting the cabinets just for my happiness, or leave them be for another year! You’re giving me motivation to just do it!

  8. says

    I agree, you definitely need phase 1’s. We live in a 200 year old farmhouse and we are into year 6 with renovations, and sometimes people get impatient with us and want us to hurry up and do big renovations. But sometimes the money isn’t there yet and we don’t want to go into debt. I dreamed for 3 years about my dream kitchen, and if we had done the job right away it would have looked nothing like that-it would have been terrible. We decorated, painted and bought new appliances to make it bearable in the meantime. Not to mention in year 3 we had a huge power surge go through our house and destroy most of our electrical and appliances. My husband is quite handy and did a lot of the work himself, so we were able to make that money go very far, giving us much more money than we ever dreamed to create our dream space. Stick to what is right for your family, I think you are doing it the smart way!! :)

  9. says

    I love this post! I love your thoughts on Phase 1 projects and your examples. I love what a difference a little paint and artwork can make. We discovered that when we did our Master Bedroom Makeover-

    We are about to get into our new house and I can’t wait to see what we can do with some Phase 1 projects while saving a dreaming for the Phase 3 projects (if need be). I have big dreams for my master bathroom.


  10. says

    I LOVE this post. Seriously, that yellow bathroom is one of my favorite ‘upgrades’ EVER from you guys! I think that is what a lot of us need to see and keep in mind. There are so many people that just instantly think: “rip it out! Tear it down! build something new!” but I’m totally on the work-with-what-you’ve-got train. Old can be beautiful, and your reno on that sweet yellow bathroom maybe, just maybe, proved to all of us out there that sometimes newer and bigger isn’t always better. :)

  11. Lia says

    This is a great post and why I love your blog. I sometimes get frustrated that we don’t have the money to do Phase II projects and then realize that sweat + a bit of cash can make a huge difference. I think it’s absolutely worth it to spend a little money to be comfortable in a space.

  12. Stacey says

    When we first bought our house I was under the impression that a room had to go from before to after quickly and was frozen/paralysed by that notion. Since I started reading your blog (around the same time we moved in) I’ve realised that a home evolves with you. I now skip from room to room updating what I can when I can and it has given me far more pleasure than waiting until I have the cash to do the gut jobs. With your help, I think I’ve learned to really LIVE in my home – so thank you for that, Sherry & John.

  13. says

    We are HUGE fans of the Phase 1!! Our master bath really needs a full gut reno, but we were recently quoted $35-$45K for that job (seriously? This isn’t Palo Alto — we’re in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama!!) In any event, that is not happening any time soon. Meanwhile, we’ve painted the cabinets white (they were an oak color); painted the walls; framed out our ginormous builder-grade mirrors with trim; changed out the hardware; and took down a door blocking off the toilet/tub/shower room (like your master bath, ours is crazy chopped up). It’s still not our dream bath, but it no longer gives me a panic attack whenever I walk into it. I can definitely live with our Phase 1 bathroom for a good long time.

    • Chelsea in Richmond says

      WOW, really? Have you considered doing it yourself (and hiring a plumber and electrician)? We completely gutted a bathroom ourselves and spent under $2000! My husband did the plumbing for us though (his dad is a master plumber so he had help).

  14. Kristy says

    I really LOVED this post! Our master bathroom in the house we bought a few months ago is kind of my arch nemesis at this point. On one hand, it’s very large, has two sinks, a big linen closet, and some awesome light fixtures, but on the other hand, it has some outdated cabinets, a tiny shower stall with a hand-held shower that hits you about at the nipples and has one of those vinyl bath-fitter inserts. I know a total bathroom overhaul isn’t in the cards for us any time soon, so now I’m thinking of temporary and inexpensive fixes I can focus on until we can afford it. Thanks!!

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