Affordable Update for a 90s Townhome

First-time home buyer, Kaitlyn, bought her two-bedroom townhome in August of 2021, because it was in a great location and had “good bones”. Not only was it an end unit with windows on two sides, but it also had a grand, two-story entry with an open staircase and a bonus loft area that was perfect for her home office. The problem was that it still had finishes and fixtures that reflected its late 90s origin. These are the before pictures of the main level living spaces from the original walk- through of the property. 

Like many new homeowners, she didn’t have a lot of extra money left over for a complete overhaul. It was decided that the flooring would remain the same and the second bedroom, main bathroom, and powder room renovations would wait until the following spring. Luckily, the furniture from her previous apartment was a great fit for her new townhome. 

The home had a mix of several different wall colors, but it’s generally a good idea to keep a uniform wall color in a smaller home. This allows the eye to move smoothly from one space to another and makes it feel larger. Using light colors visually expands walls, while darker colors visually pull walls inward. There were three different flooring finishes in the home as well. Golden-brown acacia wood laminate was used in the living room and dinette, which transitioned to a dark charcoal tile laminate with white marble streaks in the kitchen, powder room, and back hallway. The open stairway and the upstairs were carpeted in a dual tone “greige” color. If the budget had allowed, we would have chosen luxury vinyl plank flooring (LVP) for the entire main level, but that’s something the homeowner plans to do in the future as her budget allows. Flooring that flows from one space to another helps create a cohesive design flow throughout, especially in an open floor plan. We chose Sherwin Williams (SW) Agreeable Gray for all walls, a pale “greige” with a brown undertone that feels warmer than a true gray. The warm undertone allowed it to work perfectly with both floor finishes, the greige carpeting, as well as the tile around the fireplace. In addition, the wood trim and cabinets were painted in SW Pure White, with strategic trim areas like the mantel, banister, and the wood trim on top of the upper-level half-walls painted in SW Tricorn Black. The shiny brass accent metal on the fireplace was also painted black to modernize its look. The homeowner and some of her family members took on this job themselves, in order to save money. Sweat equity is a great way for new homeowners to make improvements that won’t break the bank. Just make sure you’re following professional advice and do it right the first time!

Check out these links for tips on painting walls, wood trim, and cabinetry. 

Interestingly, the homeowner’s dog is a tricolor Pomeranian with mostly black and white fur and small amounts of golden brown. A coincidence maybe? We jokingly referred to her as our “design muse.” A mood board of the color scheme can be seen below. 


In the kitchen, the breakfast bar was dropped from bar height to counter height, to make a continuous counter space that allowed the homeowner more room for serving food. It also visually opened up the space between the dining area and the kitchen. On the wall above that area, where there used to be a large, blank wall next to the cabinets, we hung two heavy-duty floating shelves from Target, which looked like they’ve always belonged there. They’re the perfect spot for cookbooks, plate chargers, and a mortar & pestle (in acacia wood to tie in with the floors), along with some fun accessories. A classic but inexpensive white subway tile backsplash was added along with undercabinet lighting. The only splurge the homeowner made was for quartz countertops in the kitchen. 

New contemporary light fixtures were added in a black and brushed nickel finish throughout the home. Properly sized fixtures and layers of lighting are crucial in a good design plan. A black faucet and soap dispenser, along with black cabinet hardware completed the look. By repeating black and white elements in the design, along with some accessories in an acacia wood finish, it helped to create a cohesive design throughout. To warm things up, we added more accessories in a warm golden-brown color (often referred to as cognac) and faux greenery for another pop of color in the mostly neutral palette. If you have a green thumb, real plants are a bonus for their air-purifying quality. Bringing the outdoors inside with the colors and textures found in nature is a growing trend known as “biophilic design.” 

Here are some after photos of the kitchen and dinette areas.

To ground the seating area in the living room, we added a large area rug in pale greige with charcoal and golden-brown accents. Area rugs should be large enough so that at least the front feet of all seating pieces are on the rug. Additional design elements in black (curtain rods, coffee, and end table bases, lamps), golden brown (pillows and accessories), and greenery were added for warmth and interest. Textural throws were included for warmth and visual interest. If you’re designing primarily with neutrals, adding contrast and texture will prevent your design from looking bland. Pale greige drapes with charcoal trim flank the windows for more texture and warmth. By hanging drapes closer to the ceiling and wider than the window frame, both the windows and the room itself will feel larger.

Luckily, the homeowner’s apartment-size furniture was a perfect fit for her new home, so that saved some money in the budget. People who are downsizing need to be aware that furniture from their former home rarely works when they trade it in for a smaller townhome or condo. They’re better off selling or donating their old furniture and buying new, multifunctional furniture that fits well and provides good storage options whenever possible. Furniture that doesn’t fit or function well will only cause frustration!

Here’s what the living room looked like after the redesign. 


This shallow cabinet from IKEA (to the left of the open stairwell) is an example of why functional storage pieces are so valuable in a small space.


The bottom “drawers” are actually storage bins that can hold up to 22 pairs of shoes, while the top drawer contains miscellaneous items like stamps, envelopes, a flashlight, and small tools. Its handy location eliminates those messy piles of shoes near the front door. We topped it with some accessories that reflected our color palette, along with a mirror for “checking one’s appearance before heading out the door.” Adding a mirror is another way of making a small space seem larger, because it reflects space and light.

A cosmetic makeover is often more affordable for first-time homebuyers, especially if they’re prepared to invest some sweat equity in the process. It’s important to do some research before starting out and to create a design plan that incorporates any existing finishes that will be staying (at least for the present), while updating other finishes wherever possible. Hiring a designer to create a long-term design plan is a wise investment, because a plan allows homeowners to implement it in stages, as their budget allows.

Sticking to a well-thought-out plan will assure that everything has a cohesive feel when it’s all completed, instead of ending up with a “hodgepodge” result. A plan also acts as a road map for homeowners, showing them what design elements are needed and in what order they should be done. This allows them to move forward with confidence, knowing they’re on the right path to creating a home they’ll love and that reflects their personal style.