Design Mistakes Home Buyers Make


Home Mistakes New Home Buyers Make
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I’ve been in business since 2002 and as you might imagine, I’ve spoken with many new homeowners who are looking to have their new space decorated. I’ve had a front row seat to many of the mistakes home buyers make when they don’t consider their interiors when selecting their new home. Now, this presumes that said buyers are interested in having beautiful interiors; some people don’t care, which is their right and they aren’t calling me anyway!

The very first person who wrote me a check for my services was such a case. At that time, I was marketing my business via snail mail to new home buyers. Sales transactions were published in local newspapers so I knew how much people had paid for their homes and I targeted my marketing efforts to homes of certain price points. Massachusetts has high property values, which is important to keep in mind.  The house was a new build, 4,100 sq. ft., with statement kitchen open to a great room with vaulted ceilings. The master suite included a large bedroom, ensuite bathroom and walk-in closets.  The purchase price was just under $850,000.00.

I met with Mrs. Client and she walked me around talking about all the things she wanted to do with the house. They had moved up from a smaller house and needed lots of new furniture and some furniture upgrades. As a new structure, there were no window coverings and so most of the windows would need something for privacy, light and temperature control and simple beauty. There are over twenty windows on the front of the house alone.

What was the mistake this home buyer made? Their budget was $20,000.00 – for a brand new, large home. And worse, before she called me, she’d already spend nearly half the budget on furniture and rugs from a local low/mid-budget furniture store. $20,000.00 wouldn’t cover the price of window coverings for the whole house. Additionally, the windows were all different shapes and sizes – builders seem to think this is good design – so off-the-rack window coverings weren’t a good option either.


kitchen great room Mistakes home buyers make
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Mistakes Home Buyers Make #1 – Not looking beyond the purchase price

So, the #1 mistake home buyers make is not having a clear idea of what the furnishings and decorations will actually cost for the home they are buying. Now, let me make it clear – this is not to be critical of a $20,000.00 budget. It’s a lot of money. But if you’re looking to nearly fully furnish a 4,100 sq. ft. home, it’s not going to get the job done. In the end, this lovely client said she wished she had called me sooner (if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that!) but they couldn’t move forward with hiring me, so she paid for my hour consultation and that was that.

My personal rule of thumb for estimating a furnishings budget (furniture, lighting, window coverings, painting, but no heavy construction) should be 15-20% of the purchase price of the house. Where do I get this number from? Window treatments alone average $1,000.00 per window (some will be less, some will be more, it’s an average for estimating purposes). So, in the case of this new homeowner, the windows on the front of the house alone (24) would cost probably between $15,000.00 and $24,000.00 to cover. This includes a mix of custom soft treatments and hard treatments (woven woods, for example). Okay, now multiply that by every window that might need something on it. A decent quality rug runs between $1,500.00 and $10,000.00, depending on quality and size. Now add up how many rugs are needed. It’s not difficult, it just takes a little time.

So, please, when house hunting, consider your decorating budget as part of the purchase price. So, if what your interiors look like matters to you, maybe you should buy a smaller house and have more money to decorate it! You can always implement your designs over time, but have a realistic idea before you commit. Look at the windows, look at the room configurations, ceiling heights – all those oddly shaped spaces will cost more to decorate than a simpler style home.

dining room wallpaper mistakes home buyers make

 Mistakes Home Buyers Make #2 – Form Over Function

In my mind, the #2 mistake is not considering function over form. We can get so wrapped up in how pretty things are, or conversely if we don’t like something, we forget to think if the space works for us.  If you’re house hunting – pay no attention to wall colors or the existence of wall paper and other similar materials. They are easily and relatively cheaply replaced. But, does the room work? Is it the right size for your needs? This room above was my parent’s dining room for thirty years on Cape Cod. After my mom passed away in 2013, I got the house ready for sale and put it on the market in 2014.

More than one real estate agent suggested that I remove the wallpaper and the window treatments. I did remove the sheers on the windows which brightened and refreshed the room a bit, but otherwise, I just didn’t see the need to turn this room into a model of neutral blah. This room was decorated in the 1980’s and the furniture was purchased in the 1950’s. The rug (which is now in my bedroom) was originally owned by my grandparents. Clearly, this room isn’t to everyone’s taste – it’s not particularly mine. But, the modest size and traditional shape, the brightness and view of the back yard, made it a nice dining room space that easily fit dinners with 10 people. It functioned well and wouldn’t cost a bundle to furnish. That’s what we should be thinking about when we’re house hunting – how will this space work? (BTW, the house sold on the first day it was on the market to the first people who saw it.)

But ask yourself, do you really need vaulted ceilings? What of the heating and cooling bills, how will you paint it or decorate it? How big a chandelier do you need in a double-height foyer and can you afford it? Do you need a professional kitchen when take-out is your go-to meal?

Rachel hair do

Mistakes Home Buyers Make #3 – Don’t be a slave to trends

Don’t be blinded by what you see on Pinterest or Instagram. Not every trend is meant to go together, not every trend works in every home. It’s a lot like hair – not every hair style works on every person.

The “Rachel” was a signature look from the ’90’s. And you know what? Even Jennifer Aniston hated it – she said the only reason it worked was because her hair dresser was ready off camera between takes to fluff it. A good hair dresser can wrestle any style onto pretty much any head of hair, but how long will that last once we’re on our own? Usually only to the next time we wash our hair, if we’re lucky. And, even if you can wield a hair dryer and curling iron like a pro, will it complement your face? A good hair style both looks good AND works for the lifestyle of the owner.

This is the same with decorating – not every color, not every Mexican tile pattern, not every barn door, not every faux-rustic-cum-industrial light fixture is right for every house. And, they don’t all go together either.

I haven’t read the book, but from the images I’ve seen online, I’m not impressed. Also, $$$$.

Another thought – sometimes people will say “If you love it, there will be a place for it”. Not really. Maybe for art. I guess it depends on the why. Are you enamored with a trend or does the item actually speak to your soul? Trends are fun, but they come and go and it’s so easy for us to get caught up with something that’s “in” (gray walls, for instance) that we forget to ask if it’s the right choice. You may love a specific quartz or granite for your counter, and you may love a specific back splash tile – but do they actually go together? Do they complement each other and the cabinets? Are they easy to clean and maintain?

Linda Merril Design Duxbury mistakes home buyers make
Design by Linda Merrill | Photo by Michael J. Lee

Mistakes Home Buyers Make #4 – Don’t Crowd Source Your Decorating

If you’re in a position to hire a design professional, do it. Pick someone whose work you love and whose personality you like. It’s a close, intimate relationship while the work is ongoing. And then, listen to what they have to say. Trust your designer or decorator. Trust yourself. Be honest with them about what you like, be clear and be present.  But, too often today, homeowners are hiring designers and then working around them, asking others for their opinion, scouring the advice boards on Houzz and sending images from Pinterest at all hours asking for opinions, even if decisions have already been made.

Also, bring in your chosen design professional as early as possible. Even if you’re not going to be buying anything right away, just having a professional opinion will set you in the right direction. You might even hire a designer just to help with establishing a “to-do” list and budget – even if you then go about the work yourself.

If you don’t want to hire a designer, it’s fine. But tackle your project as a designer would. Make a list of everything you want to do. Do some preliminary research on pricing, ask questions of professionals. If you’re buying a house, share the real estate photos with a painter or contractor to get an idea of painting costs, or visit a store that sells window treatments and ask them for rough pricing. No one can give you definitive pricing at this stage (and you shouldn’t take advantage of someone’s time if you don’t plan on hiring them) but you’ll have a range to work with. But what you shouldn’t do is ask your painter to suggest colors and then post photos all over Houzz and other design boards asking for input. Because if you ask five different people their opinion, you will get five different answers. And likely none of them is a professional. If you don’t ask a professional, you won’t likely get a professional quality response.

Mistakes Home Buyers Make #5 – If it does not fit, you must chuck it!

bedroom mistakes home buyers make
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Most people aren’t in the position of buying a new home and furnishing it completely new. That’s totally ok. But, as William Morris said:

Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

Don’t keep things that aren’t truly useful or beautiful out of sentimentality or a misguided feeling that you should be thrifty. If something isn’t functional – and I would argue a sofa next to a bed blocking a door is neither useful nor beautiful – then it’s a waste to keep it. Donate, sell on consignment if it’s good enough, leave on your curb – someone is sure to want it and put it to good use. In the end, our things are just that – things. They serve a purpose and should have function or be pleasing to the eye – preferably both.

When it came time to clean out my parent’s home, after my family and I took what we wanted, I had an estate sale. I contemplating keeping the dining room set, for while it’s not really my taste, it was functional, beautiful, and free. I thought about painting it. But, in the end, I decided that while I had a lifetime of memories of sitting around that table, it was simply too big for my needs and if someone else could make use of it, then they could start their own memories. The entire set (table, chairs and buffet) sold at the estate sale for $150.00 – which was less than I hoped, but it wasn’t sent to the dump and someone was able to make use of it. And I am not stuck with a too large dining room set that’s not really “me”.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on mistakes you’ve made, or avoided, when buying a new home!


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13 thoughts on “Design Mistakes Home Buyers Make”

  1. Thank you for your genuine honesty! I wish I had had this 3 years ago – heard this before? Anyway – you have a new fan and I would LOVE to connect with you!!

  2. I have to say, I totally agree about the Diane Keaton house. She overdid every single material, light fixture, you name it. Plus, I did not care for the name of the book. Very misleading.

  3. Linda – what a great post! I don’t even know where to begin, but my favorite piece of advice you’ve given in this post is the estimate for what it actually costs to furnish a home (between 15% to 20% of the home’s value) and to think about buying *smaller*, so more budget is left over to have a home that is actually comfortable and beautifully designed – IF that’s important to the homeowner.

    On a 500K home, that would mean between 75,000 – 100,000 dollars for furnishings, but if bathroom(s) or a kitchen makeover would be needed, too, how much would you advise they add to their budget?

    • Hi Leslie – thanks for your kind comment! Re: kitchens and baths – I think it so depends on the market and property values. For instance, in Massachusetts, the median house price is currently around $430,000.00, which of course means half the houses are more, half are less. In certain towns, it’s a small, outdated, ranch size house on a fairly small lot and in other towns it’s a decent 8 room Colonial style on an acre lot. So, the question to ask is – does the house and the neighborhood/town support an expensive kitchen remodel, or is it better to do an attractive facelift with new appliances for $20,000 or $30,000 versus a high-end gut remodel for $75,000-$100,000? There are so many variables, such as the specific town’s overall property values. I would think a more desirable town with good schools is always a good investment, but it never makes sense to price a house out of its market with renovations. But, all that said, a good quality kitchen remodel in a medium size kitchen would be probably at least $50,000 on a $500,000 house – it also totally depends on whether plumbing needs moving, electrical needs upgrades, etc, etc.

  4. Preach it, Linda! These are all spot on! trends? If i see one more house with newly painted gray walls I may scream…it’s not that gray is bad, and it’s even perfect sometimes, but painting everything gray just because it is considered ‘on trend’ makes me crazy!

  5. I once decorated a bathroom in a fairly newly constructed home. There was no window and no ceiling fan!!! I couldn’t believe it. The owner said she had no idea about anything when they sat down with the builder. Obviously!

  6. Linda

    Yet another informative, thought-provoking and truly useful post.

    Where to begin? Well, the beginning:

    1. Not looking beyond the purchase price

    Yep. Done this more than once.

    My current apartment (a 1965 conversion of an 1879 house), benefits from its 1965 conversion, because a more recent conversion would have squeezed two apartments out of my one. But I live alone, and have a three bed apartment over three floors (four if you count my cellar) and did not budget for 148 square metres of flooring. Simply never entered my head. It entered my head when I got a nearly £10k flooring bill, and not a hardwood floor in sight…deep sigh.

    Those six-foot tall arched windows which start just below the beautiful cornice plasterwork (crown moulding I think you call it)? Can’t (a) work out what would work without obscuring the arch, the arched decorative brickwork outside and damaging or blocking that gorgeous cornice; and (b) find the damn money to pay for it anyway!

    Luckily, my sitting-dining room and my bedroom overlook the garden, so I don’t care about curtains. Just as well really: see (b) above!

    My final offering under this heading: even if your structural survey gives the property a clean bill of health, think about all the areas which they tell you they haven’t examined. Consider whether those areas could hide problems. The biggie in England is under the floorboards: sellers don’t consent to having flooring lifted, floorboards lifted and an inspection carried out. ALL my problems were hidden under those floorboards. Reason for including it here: take £150k out of savings, a mortgage and a small inheritance and see what THAT does to the design budget!! (And my retirement plans…deep sigh.)

    2. Form over function

    Yippee dippee: where to begin with this?? My bed: gloriously comfortable when I bought it, but I did not think through the implications of a mattress stuffed with wool. Guess what? It sags. Of course it does: it’s wool. Springs and padding: good. Wool: not so much. Two years and a few thousand pounds later – it’s not comfortable at allllll.

    However, I did do better on my kitchen. I made a mental list of what I had kept after decluttering (it was all in storage for the wholly-unwanted and unexpected refurb), and then I allocated a space for it. If there wasn’t a way to accommodate an item, then either it had to go, or something else did, to make way for it. That’s why there’s an internal drawer behind a cupboard door which is big enough to accommodate my bread making machine, but I gave my food processor away.

    3. Don’t be a slave to trends

    Generally, I’m not too bad in this area, but I had an enlightening conversation with a friend after she painted (as in, she did the actual work, not paying a decorator) her sitting room a pale to mid grey colour. She said that it “just didn’t work for her”. I said that I had been surprised that she had chosen a colour with blue undertones, when her skin has yellow undertones, and she dresses with colours which are yellow-undertoned and they look great on her. She looked perplexed, asked me to explain and when I added details, she had a “Eureka!” moment. She had chosen a shade that she would NEVER wear, no matter the occasion, and gone with it because grey was “in fashion”. She repainted with a lovely taupe colour and not only does she feel comfortable with it, it works with her other furnishings.

    4. Don’t crowdsource your decor

    Oh man alive. I had opinions from everyone: family, friends, colleagues, and I still couldn’t make up my mind: what an electrical engineer friend once described to me as “too many inputs”.

    Took me ages to work out what I wanted, just me. I found the choices overwhelming, along with the sense of responsibility. No one to blame but me, if I got it wrong! If I had found your site, and your sage advice, Linda, I might have plucked up the courage to ask a designer to help me…another deep sigh!

    5. If it doesn’t fit, you must chuck it!

    This advice has just stopped me in my tracks. I have a sitting-dining room which is a decent size, but has two doors, diagonally opposite each other, one from the hallway and the other leading only to the kitchen.

    I had almost decided to make an offer on eBay for an antique extendable dining table (“bit too wide, but I can squeeze past it”).

    Now I won’t. It’s too big and it will block flow, light and feel like a dumb decision every time I squeeze past it. So I shall leave it to someone else to enjoy!

    I think that I may need an intervention!

    • Hi Denise – your home sounds fantastic, I must say! Thanks so much for sharing your stories – it’s always great to hear personal stories of what we all go through when buying a home.

      Sounds like you’re making a good decision to wait to find a table that fits your dining room perfectly!

  7. Wonderful ideas! May I ask, how do you feel about a client who would ask you to reuse as much as possible?
    Is that being unfair? Or too restricting? Be honest!

    In my case, I am happy with my window treatments, custom drapes and wood blinds. A sofa, open to recovering, but due to the cost, and its really not been used much, would like to keep it. The hardwood floor and two large wood pieces, I really want to keep too. Otherwise, I am ready for some updates, and (of course) would be fully open to retaining other items. (Chairs, a very nice rug, lamps and basic art.)

    I had worked with a decorator in 2000 who I really liked, think she liked me, and I loved her work. My husband, and I, now feel the room should be used more often, have more comfortable furniture and a few “refreshing” updates. Is it fair to ask a decorator to incorporate some items from a prior decorators idea’s? I do not hate the room, I just want to use the room more frequently, and feel more relaxed it in. It feels too stuffy and formal now. And, as empty nesters, we want to live in the house a bit differently, then when there were young people around.
    I have located the decorator, I had worked with. (the wonders of the internet!) She is now working for a large home furnishings chain, in another state. I’ve had thoughts of reaching out to her, via email, and asking if she has kept in contact with anyone in this/my area, that she feels has the same style she (and I) have. But do not want to come off as a stalker!
    Thoughts? Others thoughts? Thank you!

    • Hi Linda – thanks for your comment and questions. Many designers will not take a job where they need to work with most of what’s there, which simply means that they aren’t the designer for you. Without knowing more, it does seem that you are looking to keep most of what you already own and are just looking for a refresh – in which case hiring a decorator may not be the best use of your money. You might consider one of the online e-design services for a plan that offers just what you’re looking for. Or possibly, your original designer may be willing to work with you remotely – especially since she already knows your home and style. I wouldn’t worry about looking like a stalker – unless an FBI check was necessary to find her – lol. But if her name came up in a simple google search and linked to the store she now works for, then it’s not really stalking! Good luck!


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