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. Tara says

    I definitely see the value of doing a few cosmetic updates to tide you over until you can do the big reno. Our favorite room in our house is this awesome sun room/TV room just off the kitchen. It was built in the old garage of the house and has huge windows on two walls and beautiful handmade tiles on the floor. But the walls are old paneling that was painted once in 1986 or so and now is dingy, grey, and full of pockmarks and stains. We plan on completely gutting the kitchen and opening it up into the TV room. We will replace the horrible panels with drywall and raise the ceiling. But I don’t know if I can stand one more day looking at these dirty walls!!!! I really want to paint them and I let myself be talked into waiting but now I think I am going to move forward and just buy some cheap paint and clean these walls up until we can afford the major updates. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • says

      Paint IS cheap! And such a quick, easy fix. I LOVE the ‘paint and primer combined’ stuff – I’ve found it covers so much better. It costs more per gallon, but if it takes two coats instead of three it actually ends up costing less overall. There is something really satisfying about covering up dingy or ugg-colored walls with fresh pretty paint!

  2. says

    I totally agree! But I haven’t seen added yet – I think it also depends on the person, how much they enjoy/don’t mind doing projects vs. how much they enjoy the payoff. For me the renovating is an enjoyable hobby and I *hugely* enjoy the improvements (fun eye candy in your post, all the before & afters!). But for some people each phase might require a lot of effort/time/energy/planning…so I could see for some people it could be better to save up the energy/effort etc for one go. :)

    • says

      I completely agree! I have friends who don’t care at all what their room/house looks like, and to them it would totally not be worth the effort. Meanwhile we did this stuff for fun years before it became our living, so for us it’s still in that “wahoo, so excited to stencil the floor!” category. I have a few friends who question our sanity though, haha!


  3. Lisa says

    As someone who usually skips Phase 1 to hold out for Phase 2, I am now in agreement with you. You allude to the psychological value – looking at the drab, old space will bring you down. Waiting left me with a growing disinterest in doing anything about the ugly space, which made saving up to redecorate more difficult. If you can spend a small amount of money and a small amount of time to transform the space, you will also gain a pickup in how that space makes you feel when you look at it. You’ll be happier in that space while you are making final decorating plans and want to finish the transformation.

  4. Kimberly says

    And while many people don’t (or shouldn’t!) renovate based on resell, it’s good to not leave small phase 1 type updates off your list just in case you get a job offer in another town or the house you’ve been admiring finally went on the market and you suddenly need to sell your own house.

  5. LynetteK says

    I needed to read this post today!! We are in the process of getting quotes on re-doing our kitchen and are getting pretty discouraged at the price tag. This post made me rethink the complete overhaul and start thinking of smaller budget updates we could do until we save up the $ to do the whole thing.

    Thank you!! :)

  6. donna says

    I am slowly learning to do things in phases too, which is hard sometimes. When I bought my bungalow it was a time capsule so there were some things that HAD to be done before moving in-hardwood floors, paint and of course serious cleaning! I have done things without “phasing” and some decisions I end up wishing I had done something different. I have to agree with the comment about “paralysis by analysis” I sometimes overthink some choices and get “stuck” and do nothing!!

  7. says

    I completely agree with you that you should take it slow and do renovations in phases. I think this is especially true of kitchens where you really have to spend time using the room to get a feel for how the space is used.

  8. says

    I’m glad you covered this. My husband and I bought our first house 2 years ago (which is 163 years old! and stuck in the 70s) and we’ve yet to do anything to it. We hate most of the style of it, but every time we think of changing something, it becomes like a “if you give a mouse of cookie” book … if we want to paint the room, we have to pull down the paneling, if we pull down the paneling, we’ll have to remove the flowered wallpapered horsehair and plaster underneath, if we’re going to remove the walls, we should add more than one outlet to the room, etc, etc, etc.

    After living here 2 years, it still feels like someone else’s house. It’s all our stuff, but even the curtains belonged to the previous owners. We’ve fallen into the mindset that if you’re going to do anything, you have to do it all. While our house is in pretty good shape for it’s age, it is a fixer-upper and it will take quite a while more of saving before we can get started on some renovations.

    So, thank you for showing us a new perspective. I might still not be sold on painting the paneling, but I may try my hand at making some curtains at least.

    • says

      Aw, good luck Amanda! You’ll be amazed how much of a difference just some new curtains can make! And painted paneling is one of those giant changes for the cost of some primer and paint, so I hope you LOVE that too! Gets me all excited just thinking about it. (Gosh I’m weird).


    • says

      Something about a 163 year old house (‘born’ in 1850!!) being stuck in the 70s just struck me as hilarious. I mean, I can hear the house now: “Hey! I made it to 1974! Whaddya want from me?!?! Kids these days…sheesh..” Maybe it’s just me. I bet you find some cool stuff when the time comes to start pulling down paneling!!

  9. Marcia says

    Great post! We bought our first house 4 years ago and renovated the bathroom before we moved in. While it was needed (the beam below the bathroom was rotted), I wish we had more time to figure out exactly what we wanted. There are things I would have tweaked and spent more time on. When we got around to the kitchen, I was much better prepared!

  10. says

    This one is a 50/50 for me. I def share your “live with it awhile” mentality until you figure out how that space is going to work for you and what may make it better…then pull the trigger, take it to the studs.

    Having 3 small children painting cabinets (sooo much work!!) isn’t gonna happen. I can barely get a room painted…While they look great, the time isn’t well spent..IN MY WORLD! So it makes more sense for me to just save the money (while I may have the paint, primer etc on just takes away from other “quick jobs”)until I can buy new cabinets or start the actual demo. I actually don’t even like painting the walls until I know they are all staying…but I do realize that is a little extreme.

    But any CHEAP little purchases that you know you can use in the future (example: mirrors/light fixtures) is def a worthwhile spend.

  11. Ashley S says

    I personally love the multi-phase approach that you guys have developed because it reminds me that homes (and home updates) are a process and layered overtime. We live in an apartment and there are a lot of rules about what we can and can not change, but we get through it by bringing in small things like curtains, art and furtniture with personality and continue saving for a house that we can really do work on. But the interum its nice coming home to a space that feels like us.

  12. Emily says

    My husband and I are completely into phased projects. At our old house, we had the 1950s pink tile like your yellow guest bath, and when we first moved in I thought that I would have to rip it all out, but after reglazing the white tub, getting a white shower curtain, new white window curtains, new paint and eventually a new pedestal sink, we realized that it wasn’t so bad after all. Adding in a fresh paint color and more white balanced out all of the pink-ness and we were happy with it!

    • Jenny says

      We did the same thing with our pink-tiled bathroom, and now we don’t mind it a bit! Some people actually think it’s kinda charming.

  13. Teenio says

    From my experience the best thing to do is live in your house for a little bit and get the feel for what the rooms are meant for. My husband and I are first time home owners and we were really convinced that our fourth bedroom would be the perfect office. I pinned tens of pictures of offices and planned on spending thousands of dollars to bring my vision to life. We both work full time and are not that handy so we never got around to executing my vision and that turned out to be a good thing.

    We never used the office as an actual office, we are not “office people”. I actually ended up getting dressed in that room a lot and slowly moved my clothes in there. It has become ridiculously clear to us now, after a year, that the room is meant to be a dressing room. Now if we could just get on that.

    With that being said, and with all due respect, I think stenciling the sub floor is probably going to be a waste of phase 1 effort and money. How will that tide you over for a year or two? I hope to be made a believer.

    • says

      Oh yeah, I’m sure not everyone would stencil their subfloor as an interim step, but in our heads we have a few reasons for being so darn excited about it:

      1. it should only take us about 5 hours (we learned a much faster/easier stenciling method when we wrote our book)
      2. it should cost us around $12-$24 for two quarts of paint (in our minds, that’s a drop in the bucket to gain a fun and fresh looking floor instead of living with a chalky old subfloor for a year or two)
      3. it’s something we’re excited to do (I know it sounds crazy to some people, but DIY has always been a hobby/for-fun thing for us, and if there are ten projects that sound annoying but one that gets you excited, I say go for it!)

      Of course those “what you do for Phase 1” decisions are going to be different for everyone though! If stenciling the floor sounds like a nightmare and you’d rather spend $24 on new art or something else, I’d be all for that too!


    • Ashley says

      I think sometimes the Phase 1 stuff like stenciling a floor is a way to try something fun and a little more “design risk” that you might not otherwise. It’s like purple streaks in your hair- you do it for a summer, but for most people- not for life. I’m excited to see how it turns out!

    • says

      Haha, it’s true! It’s not like choosing a super bold tile or counter that you might tire of… so to us it’s sort of the low pressure (and low expense) way to do something bold!


  14. says

    I’m totally for phase 1 but I think my husband is a just wait until we can do the full thing. Last year we were under contract on a house (which we ultimately lost because my husband’s job was eliminated) and I was planing some updates. The main bath needed a major overhaul but I knew we couldn’t afford it. It had the 50’s pink and black tile on the lower half of the walls and floral wallpaper on the upper part. My plan was to take down the wallpaper and paint the upper half. Then I wanted to try one of the tile painting kits for refinishing tile and paint all the tile white. I’m thinking the whole phase 1 would have been under $100 but Andrew thought it was a waste of money if we were going to redo the whole thing down the road. I know I would have ultimately won because I probably would have just gone out and bought the stuff on my own one day. Hehe :) Sadly we’ll just have to wait until we find a different house now.

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