How to Renovate a Home on a Budget

To renovate a fixer-upper on a budget, a couple rolled up their sleeves and hit the Internet. Here's what they learned

Jess Chamberlain
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The Right Canvas

It started with a FaceTime tour. Anna and Austin Smith, who were living in Washington, D.C., but planning a move out to Colorado, watched as their realtor virtually ushered them through a 1972 ranch house in Denver. “It was dark and cramped, with brown shag carpet everywhere,” says Anna. “But the price was right.”

So without ever seeing the place in person, Anna and Austin put in an offer, moved out West, and got to work. Remodeling on a tight budget, the couple—he’s in finance; she’s an interior stylist—purchased construction materials, tools, furnishings, and even plants secondhand. “Craigslist is our silver bullet,” says Austin.

The Smiths also saved money by tackling most of the work themselves, a two-year-long process that Anna chronicled on her blog, annabode.com. They spent hours on YouTube and Google learning how to do everything from framing doorways to plumbing sinks. At eight months pregnant, Anna even took on the laborious job of tiling the shower, while Austin removed mismatched ceilings.

But for the most part, the couple, now parents to two young children, discovered they make a solid DIY team. “I appreciate working with my hands, and Anna is really design minded,” says Austin. “But she runs the table saw better than I do.”

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Be Resourceful

The dining room table, moved from the couple’s former home, was missing a leaf, so Anna replaced it with leftover marble from their new kitchen counter. Against a muted (and affordable) landscape from online art source Minted, Anna created a dramatic moment over the table with a contemporary brass chandelier in a finish that’s repeated throughout the home.

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Lighten Things Up

“This space had big faux-wood paneling that was really, really dark,” says Anna of the living room. “And the fireplace brick was a horrible orangey color.” In addition to painting the walls and fireplace with Benjamin Moore’s Simply White, the Smiths replaced the shag rug with low-cost engineered pecan wood flooring.

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Save to Splurge

Staying on budget involved a series of compromises and calculations. To save money in the kitchen the couple did without upper cabinetry, instead repurposing shelving from their previous home. And by paying less for a lightly dented refrigerator, they were able to pony up the cash for something else they wanted: “We splurged on a nice, quiet Bosch dishwasher,” says Anna. “It’s worth it with kids.”

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Keep an Open Mind

The home’s original shared spaces were made up of several small rooms. Anna and Austin opened the kitchen, dining room, and living areas into one another for a lighter, friendlier feel. To unify the spaces, they hired a contractor to hang drywall over the mismatched kitchen and dining room ceilings, which Anna then painted white. They also snuck storage into the common areas, including an antique dresser that hides games and Legos in the kitchen.

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Go Custom

Despite her enviable treasure-hunting skills, Anna switched gears to design and build a reclaimed wood bookshelf. Inspired by a version that she spotted on Pinterest, she tracked down a local vendor that sells materials salvaged from old barns.

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Secondhand First

For their bedroom, the couple scored a pair of vintage bedside tables on Craigslist, updating them with mid-century-style knobs. While holding out for thrifted finds requires a fair amount of patience, Anna says this approach helps give a space more character than buying ­everything new. The fig tree was also found on Craiglist for just $60.

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Plan for the Future

When it came to furnishing their 6-year-old son Clinton’s room, Anna looked for durable pieces, like a mid-century-style nightstand and a brass bed frame that can last into his teens.