How To Plan Your Decorating Budget

I’m excited to bring you the first in a new series on The Mad House today. When I asked you what you wanted from the blog a few of you said that you would like to see other voices from time to time to bring a change of pace. I have already started with my guest bloggers (earlier this month Daniel Hopwood, the presenter of BBC 2’s Great Interior Design Challenge, told us what he had learnt from decorating his own home) and today sees the start of the Decorating Dilemmas page.

Many of you ask questions in the comments and it can be hard to go into detail in a reply or without seeing a picture so I have decided that the last Tuesday of every month will be our problem page. I have assembled a crack team of experts who will help solve your issues and bring a different perspective to the problem so that it’s not just my opinion but also thoughts from clever people who are all really strong in their field so that should give you lots of ideas.

by Karen Knox
by Karen Knox

To start us off – and to give you a chance to submit your own decorating dilemmas in the comments below – I am going to share a post by Karen Knox, an interior designer from Leeds, who runs the Making Spaces blog who has a brilliant eye, a practical hand and a head full of ideas. This is a post she wrote a couple of weeks ago on Where to Start when you are planning a new Project. And it seemed like a good place for us to start this new series. Over to you Karen:


With any project you HAVE to deal with the boring, practical stuff first. And this stuff can eat into your budget and the results are invisible, so there’s no real sense of satisfaction. But, if you’ve got damp, deal with it. Plastering and painting over it is literally a waste of your money. If your window frames are a wreck, or your glass is blown, invest invest invest. No matter how gorgeous your room is, if it’s cold and draughty, you ain’t gonna want to sit in there. The bones of your room are key.

Think of it like this:

You’ve bought the most beautiful dress – some expensive designer number – and it’s going to make you look and feel a million dollars. But in the flurry of excitement and in an attempt to pull back some extra pennies, you’ve failed to invest in a decent pair of knickers and a good bra to wear underneath. So you have to wear your old baggy undies and a bra that lost its elastic back in 2008. Damn it. It goes without saying, the dress, although still beautiful on the hanger, now looks pretty rubbish once you’ve slipped it on. Waste. Of. Money.

inside Karen's home
inside Karen’s home

The same applies to your home, anything in fact. Don’t get sucked in by online images of the finished result and rush to get there. Don’t just buy beautiful things and think that will transform your home, as the fireplace you hate and the tired skirting boards with the chunks taken out by your son’s hallway car races are still there. Ruining everything.

And the good thing is, once you’ve got the bones sorted, you can be much more savvy with what goes in the room. Take Kate Moss; she has good bones, like literally. She can wear what she wants and it looks awesome. Put a £10 t-shirt on her, looks great. You’ve got to give your home the biggest chance of reaching its good bones potential and this way, whatever you put in it, will look a million dollars. Have I convinced you yet? So here’s where I think your money should go before you get anywhere near a paint brush.


Yes I know you think they’re expensive to sort and a faff and confusing but here’s the thing: We sit in front of them most of the time so stop agonising over which picture to hang over it because no amount of fiddling is going to stop you hating that fireplace. Deal with it and move on to the fun stuff.

get rid of an ugly fireplace at the start of the project image by karen knox
get rid of an ugly fireplace at the start of the project image by karen knox


Another financial burden but fix them before you start. Especially if you are planning on wallpapering because you don’t want to have to start that again if the windows have to come out. And there’s no point spending all that money on wallpaper if you have to sit in a draughty room with ugly window frames.

the panelling needed to be replaced before the room could be decorated image by Karen Knox
the panelling needed to be replaced before the room could be decorated image by Karen Knox


Upgrade those ugly radiators to something more efficient and more attractive. We’ve been doing our house one room at a time to make it more affordable. The difference it makes is amazing. But if you can’t afford new ones then paint them the same colour as the walls – make them disappear. Please.

consider replacing ugly radiators room by room or painting them to match the walls
consider replacing ugly radiators room by room or painting them to match the walls image by Karen Knox


If you have floorboards then save them. They will last and love your for ever in return. Walls, especially in period properties, will look better for a light skim and accept any new paint or paper much better.

paint your radiators the same colour as your walls image by karen knox
paint your radiators the same colour as your walls image by karen knox


You don’t have to buy fancy designer light switches and sockets but make sure they are in keeping with the rest of the room; from the right period at least. Then try to be consistent. This is on my to do list for 2017. Also ceiling lights – you have literally NOTHING to put on the ceiling apart from a light. Invest in one that draws your eye upwards for all the right reasons and don’t just stick a drum shade up there and hope for the best.

navy blue and gold wallpaper set off this pendant light perfectly image by Karen Knox
navy blue and gold wallpaper set off this pendant light perfectly image by Karen Knox


A house is NEVER finished. It ages and weathers, moans and groans and is affected by the seasons just like us. Think of it as an additional member of the family. Definitely worth looking after the bones me thinks.

Thank you Karen. So now that you have the practical stuff sorted, send over your questions and, we’ll either pick the best one to deal with next month or, if there are short answers, we may pick the best three or five and look at more than one. I look forward to hearing from you in the comments below.

And Karen also runs an interior design studio so if you like these pictures or want to go and check out her blog and portfolio then head over Making Spaces.

All images by Karen Knox 

Kate Watson-Smyth

The author Kate Watson-Smyth

I’m a journalist who writes about interiors mainly for The Financial Times but I have also written regularly for The Independent and The Daily Mail. My house has been in Living Etc, HeartHome and featured in The Wall Street Journal & Corriere della Sera. I also run an interior styling consultancy Mad About Your House. Welcome to my Mad House.


  1. Any suggestions please with colour suggestions for quite a dark flat? Very large Victorian basement (sorry, ‘garden flat!’). I’d love to paint the sitting room a colour. It has massive bay window, but looking out into well area/wall, north facing – so lack of direct sun kills a lot of colours. Working with a large purple velvet sofa which can look quite black depending on lighting. Dado rail about a third of the way up from floor. Also, colour for large hall which leads to it? Bad enough picking one colour, let alone two!

    1. Liz

      Hope you don’t mind me replying. I lived in an eco-house for a few years which was on a north-south orientation, although not in a basement.

      Because of the eco design, some walls didn’t meet the ceilings, so whatever I painted my north-facing, low ceilinged dingy kitchen had to be carried through up the stairs, landing and on into my lovely south-facing sitting room.

      I used Farrow & Ball’s Ammonite. My decorator (who has a Fine Arts degree and can do anything you can artistically conceive!) recommended Ammonite because it has a small amount of red in it, which avoids it looking cold, and helps it to look grey in every light, including electric light. It didn’t look the same in the dingy kitchen as it did in the bright sunny upstairs sitting room, but it was always a lovely colour. He paired it with F&B’s All White for kitchen ceilings and woodwork, as he said that the brilliant white looks cream in north facing rooms, with little light.

      I’d make a couple of observations on this point. I had three bedrooms upstairs, all north facing. Two had lots of windows and therefore plenty of light. It is a steady, reliable light when it’s north facing, so I learned that it’s not necessarily bad that a room is north facing- just bad if it’s got low light levels. So, of course, One had OK window size, but was narrow and looonng, so it was dingy. He used the brilliant white everywhere except the kitchen and that miserable third bedroom. I didn’t listen to his advice for that room, and painted it cream, which was dire beyond belief.

      Given that you’re in the low light category, I’d still recommend that you consider Ammonite, as it’s a lovely colour and was warm to live with in the open-plan kitchen diner sitting area downstairs. Maybe go for the bold, darker colour in your hallway, or as an accent where you can create a striking effect, but not have to try to feel cheerful living with it on all four walls, all day on a miserable Sunday in November. I teamed it with Mole’s Breath in a long alcove where the run of kitchen units was located. That was great in the miserable weather -added a cocooning element, but I did find it a bit depressing on bright days, as I’m a real cook and homebody when not at work.

      One friend who used an American interior designer said that she (the designer) said pick your paint last, start with your flooring and curtains, simply because paint is so much easier to match to the curtains and floors.

      My final suggestion: pay Kate to come to you and advise you, if that’s geographically possible.

      I wanted help with my sitting room, but she went around the whole house to get a sense of it all, and made great suggestions for every room, and followed it up in her report too, which was incredibly generous of her with her time.

      Hope some of that helps.


      1. Hi Denise,
        Thanks so much for such a lengthy reply – I will try out the F&B ammonite tester and see how it looks!

  2. All of these things are on my list already, but before you get to these items, make a really critical assessment of your electrics and of the boiler and pipe work which run/connect to those lovely new radiators which you want to buy. Not doing that is as daft as papering over damp walls.

    My “new-to-me” flat is going to require a bionic overhaul – and it may as well be for six million dollars, as the estimates all mount up. I’ve got to work our own to do a simple spreadsheet which adds everything all up.

    Kate – I shall be needing your services again. Have moved from South Woodham Ferrers to South Woodford (E18). Obviously obsessed with having “South Woodxxx” in my address!

    1. And, as a woman whose drainage survey did NOT find the sewer drains, but has been told over the weekend that the garden may need digging up to resolve a problem, I’d also add “drains” to the category of “bones”.

      And the flue for your chimney, so you can light a fire in your lovely new fireplace (that was Thursday’s bad news)…

  3. replace radiators? with what?
    I LOVE everything about my rads

    the heat from them is better than anything except wood
    maybe I’m in the minority here but I wouldn’t trade them for anything

  4. My question is about my entrance hall, the walls are white and I’m thinking about painting them, installing wallpaper or maybe some wood panels but I’m worried about how far to go, the hall never ends it goes all the way to the kitchen and all the way to he stairs. How much do I cover and how do I finish the feature wall?

  5. Thank you Kate (and Karen) for this post – ever so helpful. I was coming to the same conclusion yesterday: we have just moved into a new modern flat, so most of the “bones” we had dealt with during building time – my problem is which lighting to choose? It was already difficult whilst planning electricity but now I have no idea where to start – especially for the bedroom and living room.
    It would be of great help if you could give me some ideas of nice lighting (as you stated yesterday we also are tired of the “naked single bulb” under every Form…)
    Thanks a lot in advance!

  6. Excellent advice. Though on radiators, it depends. Manhattan Nest just did a great job of painting a cast-iron radiator a glossy black, to bring out all the Victorian curlicues, and it looks gorgeous against his white wall. Those really old radiators also work well–they just got too expensive to keep making.
    On windows, go for triple glazing if you can. We did double when we redid our windows years ago, and now, going into a friend’s house where they just had triple glazing installed, the sound and temperature insulation is incredible.

  7. My project this year is decorating the hall, stairs and landings – across 3 floors of Edwardian period house. I would like to replace the stair carpet. The hall tiles are period geometric black and white and the walls are/will be F&B slipper satin and pointing. Any ideas for a stair carpet that compliments and not clashes with the black and white hall tiles. Plus I am confused about if to carpet the landings or prepare the boards and paint them. Thank you.

  8. Good advice there. Our radiators are already painted the same as the wall and it does make them disappear. We have one on a bedroom wall with wallpaper behind and painted it with satin white the same as our woodwork, is that ok or is there another way?

  9. I also love Karen’s blog. I read this piece recently and it was a really good reminder of getting the bones of your house right. Mind you, a little indulgence keeps you going until you can get new floorboards!

Comments are closed.