Mad About . . .

Top Tips for Revamping Your Interiors on a Budget

9th January 2020
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To kick off the new series of the podcast (new series, new year, new decade) we thought we’d do a Budget Interiors Special with lots of tips to help you get the most out of your money for every room in the house.

We discuss (you can listen here or just keep reading for the highlights) where you should spend and where you can save, suggest some useful ideas for leftovers and finally we interview Annie Sloan, the inventor of chalk paint, who suggests that painted furniture is a great way to create something bespoke from something cheap, something new from something old and even something special from nothing fancy.

Kate Watson-Smyth seeks out her top ten vintage shops and top tips for buying vintage. Her wooden kitchen chairs were found on eBay and fit her wooden dining table perfectly. #vintage #madaboutthehouse.com #dining

vintage ebay chairs at madaboutthehouse.com

Now it has to be said when it comes to a big home renovation, the boring truth is that you need to spend first on the bones of the building; the roof, the windows, the electrics and plumbing. Those are things that are a pain to do later (and may even  cause internal damage to all the pretty stuff if not done first) so it’s best to make an assessment of what needs doing and bite the bullet.

That said, necessity is, as they say, the mother of invention, and I guarantee you will come up with more creative ideas if you don’t have much money left for the rest.

After moving into The Mad House and converting it back from two tatty rental flats to one house and extending the kitchen, replacing all the doors and windows and reuniting the plumbing and electrics we had very little left for the kitchen.

So we went to Ikea and spend £700 on cupboards, we found a stainless steel worktop for around £1500 and bought leather handles for around £150. The whole kitchen cost around £3,000 (ten years ago) but it felt like we had created something that was uniquely ours as we shopped around for all the elements – more on that coming later.

internal crittal window and parquet floor by blakes london

internal crittal window and parquet floor by blakes london

So once you have done the basics, the next place it’s worth investing in is  FLOORING. Simply because it’s a massive pain to change later. Not so much carpet which can usually be changed in a day, but laying floorboards, engineered wood or tiles is a much bigger job and once you’re in and settled on your new sofa you are not going to want the upheaval.

We sanded and painted our original floorboards and spend money on rugs. Sophie opted for engineered wood – a thin layer of solid wood over a composite or soft wood base which means it’s cheaper than new floorboards. That said, if you are going to paint them you can buy cheap pine boards for the most budget option.

Don’t forget to factor in the labour costs. Floor sanding, if you aren’t doing it yourself, will probably be charged on a day rate. We saved money in one room by sanding and painting just the edges and buying a huge piece of carpet that we hemmed to make it into a large rug to cover the rest. That probably saved us a day or two of labour which paid for the rug, which we would have wanted anyway.

pink by @nottoostudio

When it comes to PAINT, you can save here. Yes, expensive paint is lovely and there is a depth of colour and movement to it that you won’t get from the cheaper varieties, but it’s expensive stuff and perhaps a luxury if you are doing whole house or room. Also, if you aren’t sure what colours you might want long term then don’t spend lots of money on expensive shades. We painted the whole house white when we moved in just to make it feel clean and bright. The colour came later. See my Do Less Harm Directory for environmentally friendly paints.

The same is true of wallpaper. I love a bit of Fornasetti but it can be £200 a roll and there are literally thousands of gorgeous designs that are much cheaper. Have a look at Wallpaper Direct, which also has a nifty tool to help you visualise the pattern in a room. This is key as what looks cool close up can sometimes morph into something bitty or weird when spread over a whole wall and seen from a distance.

va va frome wallpaper by pearl lowe at woodchip and magnolia

va va frome wallpaper by pearl lowe at woodchip and magnolia

One of the key points to note when decorating on a budget is that it’s often about the time. You need time to rummage though Wallpaper Direct, time to search on eBay and time to hunt out those bargains. Research takes time but you will be rewarded with satisfaction of knowing you have created something bespoke, something uniquely you and that you have saved money (and possibly landfill space) at the same time.

Now that you have made the building watertight and sorted out the walls and floors you need more time to plan the lighting. This is another thing that’s a nightmare to retrofit so you need to decide where the lighting is going so that any plasterwork can be done once and for all. This will also involve a floor plan so you can decide where the sofa is going to go and therefore where you need the lighting to be.

kws kitchen with rooflight

kws kitchen with stools from ebay

Sophie bought her spots from All Square Lighting and the bulb is recessed deep into the ceiling so they give off a much better light. Basically if the bulb is too low you are aware of it shining down, whereas if it is recessed into the ceiling you are simply aware that there is light.

I would say you can save money on side lamps and floor lamps which might be more trend led and more easily replaceable/changeable.

However, if you are unsure about how to plan your lighting then the lighting company John Cullen runs workshops for £35 which will teach you how to select the best LEDs and where to put them for the best effect. The next one is on 28 January and costs £35. If you can’t make it to London then Salley Storey, the creative director and I collaborated on a series of posts which might help you get started and that is, of course, free. The series was called How To Get The Lighting Right and you can find it here.

styling by Sophie Robinson for Hillarys: curtains eclipse denim, binds caprice paradise

When it comes to fabrics you can buy vintage or remnants – look for upholstery grade – for cushions and curtains and even to upholster an old eBay chair for example. Another way round it is to splurge on small amounts of fabric for cushions and use something cheap like mattress ticking for the chair itself. The Haines Collection, sells fabric surpluses from interior design projects, manufacturers and seconds. Check her site for fabric, cushions and wallpapers at really good prices and see how much is available in each design. There is also a list of what you can do with the material and it’s always worth contacting them if you want more of a specific pattern.

styling for Hillarys by Kate Watson-Smyth: blinds Clarence Blush

Curtains are always expensive as everyone has different size windows so many of us have to go bespoke. However, Sophie’s tip is to buy two pairs for each window and sew them together to create two luxurious curtains from four. You can also cut the eyelet holes off the top (often looks cheaper and more readymade) and ask your local sewing company to add pleats or ruffle tape. Just make sure you will still have the required length if you cut them down like that. You can also add thermal or blackout lining too if the budget permits.

I have written above about creating your own kitchen. If you don’t want the bother of building your own cabinets (an Ikea requirement) or don’t want to factor in more builders’ day rates to do this for you then try Howdens whose cabinets come readymade which will save you labour costs.

black ikea kitchen in the home of lucy st george of rockett st george

black ikea kitchen in the home of lucy st george of rockett st george

The other tip is to look on eBay for A Grade Appliances. These are products that have been fully tested and are unused but may have minor scratches – often at the back and sides – or damaged packaging and therefore can’t be sold at full price.

When it comes to the bathroom, it can be tricky to save money here. I have written a full post on this before but in brief – try not to move any plumbing, paint as much as you can, use simple metro tiles  (maybe splurge on a small splashback area) and spend money on the parts that move – taps, shower fittings etc.

white metro tiles from topps

white metro tiles from topps tiles cost £19.75 per m2

For the big ticket furniture items – sofas and beds – shop in the sales but they aren’t just in January – there is often another sale in May. Ask for credit deals and money off – you never know. And the simplest rule here it to buy the best you can afford. Cheap sofas will lose their plumpness faster.

If you are shopping vintage be very specific about your search terms. How many, what style, and tick used in the tool bar to rule out the hundreds of “vintage style” items that invariably pop up.

Transport can be arranged via Shiply or Anyvan both of whom wait until they have filled a van with items before setting off which a) brings the price down and is b) more environmentally friendly as you aren’t paying for one truck to bring you one chair from 200 miles away.

Kate Watson-Smyth and Sophie Robinson takes a house tour with Supper Club host Laura Jackson for the Great Indoors Podcast. Laura jackson vintage cabinet she found in a Belgian market

Laura Jackson bought this vintage cabinet on ebay

Other places to hunt include Facebook Marketplace, Gumtree, Freecyle and Preloved. Not forgetting charity shops like the British Heart Foundation, which will also take your unwanted items.

Lastly, upcycling furniture isn’t just about reupholstering old chairs. You can buy a cheap table from Ikea and create something completely suited to you and your home by painting it. I have written about Annie Sloan and the Do’s and Don’t of Painting Furniture here. But you can also buy her bookazine, The Colourist, which is full of tips on painting furniture as well as lots of ideas. Annie hates prep so her paint can be slapped straight onto anything and you can mix the colours as you wish. It’s a great idea if you want to customise your cheap kitchen cabinets as well.

Right that’s enough tips to be going on with. I hope that is helpful, do follow the links for more information and have a listen to the podcast to learn Annie’s tips for painting your own furniture as well as finding out how she created a paint for Oxfam and raised £250,000.

With huge thanks and a welcome back to our series six sponsors Topps Tiles, who have a range of “Get The Look for Less” which includes faux marble and limestone tiles as well as the classic subway for 65p a tile.



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  • Jenny 16th January 2020 at 9:23 pm

    Thanks for these tips – also loved the podcast! I’d add that if you’re able to make it to London, each year Designers Guild has a warehouse sale just off the A4, for about 3 days. The bargains are superb – I bought 2.5m of gorgeous teal velvet for £22 which would have been at least £100 normally.

  • Gill Nono 10th January 2020 at 8:44 pm

    Love the podcast Kate…think its worth mentioning if you are going to use mattress ticking on a chair make sure its FR or theres a barrier FR interliner….
    Top Tips!

  • Moy Lewis-Logie 10th January 2020 at 8:33 am

    Another excellent post.
    We had a Howdens Shaker style kitchen installed 8 years ago and it looks like new – v good quality

  • Anna 9th January 2020 at 6:25 pm

    An outstandingly useful post, packed full of good advice except…………”Annie hates prep so her paint can be slapped straight onto anything”
    This simply is not true. There are pieces of medium to dark wood where a yellowish stain will seep through if you don’t seal the wood first. An IKEA wooden coffee table became a nightmare for example. In the end we used another paint. So from painful experience, I would advise sealing modern pine furniture, with for example with Bullseye 123, which is a water based paint. It is not runny as long as you stir the paint in the tin really well.
    An excellent inexpensive kitchen supplier is Wren, especially at sale time and you can haggle with them.
    For the bathroom take a look at Clickbasin who are brilliant at customer care.
    Finally a good source for furnishing fabric is clarke-clarke.com

  • Lindsay 9th January 2020 at 4:59 pm

    You’re so right about the lighting, the existing arrangement in my flat is abysmal. I changed a spotlight bulb the other day & must have twisted it slightly, my son walked in and claimed he felt he was about to be interrogated !
    Anyway you reminded me that I have a wonderful book by Sally Storey, “lighting by design” it’s an old one but still so relevant & I’m going to look in there for inspiration. Thanks!

  • Marianne 9th January 2020 at 2:01 pm

    What a wonderful post. Just what I needed to read today. We have embarked on a renovation project in France and all your advice corresponds to what my gut was telling me to do. Will pore over each recommendation. All best.

  • Home improvement contractors 9th January 2020 at 6:52 am

    Thanks for the excellent blog post! I am glad I found your blog and I look forward to reading the other posts you have! As I am just getting started in the blogging arena, your site is going to be a great resource for me!

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