My first house was a gem straight out of the 1980s. Laminate butcher block countertops, orange-ish kitchen cabinets, emerald green fireplace tiles… you get the idea.
But being the thrifty (read: cash-strapped) 20-something-year-old that I am, I wasn’t about to spend a fortune to upgrade my home.
A year-and-a-half after purchasing the home — and renovating it in strategic ways that I believe saved me thousands of dollars — I got a new appraisal.
The value of my house had increased 30%.
Though some of that can be attributed to inflation and a super hot housing market in the Denver metro area, a good chunk of it was because of the changes I’d made. You can learn how to do your home repairs for free or cheap, too.
Here are my seven picks for do-it-yourself renovations that are both cheap and effective.
1. Use “Oops” Paint
Never underestimate the power of a little paint.
Walk into a home and see bright pink paint everywhere? Don’t freak out. You can fix that with a little elbow grease and some vigilance at your local home improvement store.
Every time I walk into Home Depot, Lowes or Ace Hardware, I scour the paint department for “oops” paint, or paint that’s been returned to the store because the original buyer didn’t end up liking the color.
This paint is deeply discounted — often at least 50% off — and it might be just the color you’re looking for. You can frequently find it in large quantities, too, which helps if you’re trying to paint a large room or several rooms the same color.
Painting requires a fairly sizeable time commitment, but it’s not difficult and it saves you hundreds of dollars you’d be spending to hire professionals. If you’re in this for the long haul, you won’t mind painting a room or two at a time.
2. Take Advantage of Contractors’ Castaways
Contractors buy items in bulk. They build dozens of houses at a time and often overestimate how much material they’ll need.
Their cast-offs can be your treasures.
Places like ReStore, run by Habitat for Humanity volunteers, are full of valuable items like sinks, cabinets, doors, light fixtures, wood flooring and more.
If you aren’t looking for a specific type of tile, for example, there’s typically an ample supply of neutral bathroom and kitchen tiles at my local ReStore at a fraction of the price I’d pay at the store.
Again, you’ve got to be vigilant and visit the store frequently to find what you want, but that time and effort is totally worth it — and kinda fun, to be honest — when you’re renovating on a budget.
My go-to item at ReStore? Doors.
Its selection of doors, both interior and exterior, is massive and you can get them for cheap — sometimes as low as $10. If you buy an older home, chances are the doors don’t match or they date the home.
A brand new batch of crisp, white doors can make the place look and feel totally different with minimal effort and cost.
3. Update Little Details
Some of a home’s most overlooked details are fixtures — light fixtures, ceiling fans, door knobs, hinges and drawer pulls.
With a can of metallic or black spray paint, which will cost you between $3 and $7, you can transform these types of items.
These are all subtle cues to a buyer that your home is modern and fresh, not outdated and needing hours of work.
Instead of buying new ceiling fan kits, I spray-painted the existing fan blades and metal components and hung them back up — good as new.
I also spray painted all the door handles and door hinges — they were bright gold before — which helped modernize the house instantly. Same with my fireplace frame, which was mostly black but had bright gold accents.
This trick works on the exterior of the home as well. I freshened up the dated light fixtures that hung on either side of the garage with a bit of black spray paint in one afternoon.
If you can’t afford to paint or replace your cabinets, consider investing in new handles and knobs instead.
In my two-story home, the prominent stair railings and banisters were the same orange-ish color as the kitchen cabinets.
It took a while, but rather than buy new, I sanded, restained and sealed the original oak railings and banisters with a darker color. Now, my stairs are a focal point, not an eyesore.
4. Scrape Your Ceilings
Remember when people thought “popcorn” ceilings were cool? Yeah, me neither.
This is an easy — though admittedly labor-intensive — update that will give your home more “wow factor” when a potential buyer walks through the door. It’s one less negative thing on their list.
To start, I advise taking it one room at a time.
Remove all furniture, then completely cover — and I mean completely — every surface in the room that you don’t want to be coated in fine white dust at the end of the day. I recommend using plastic sheeting and tape.
With a squirt bottle or a clean landscape sprayer, lightly mist a square section of the ceiling. After a few minutes, use a putty knife to gently scrape the “popcorn” off the ceiling. Repeat until the entire ceiling is smooth and flat.
Sand using a slightly damp sponge before applying a fresh coat of paint.
5. Replace the Builder’s Mirrors
No matter which home you walk into, the mirrors in the bathrooms are likely original to the house. They’re probably big, boxy, unframed beasts.
A quick way to make your bathrooms look and feel more polished is to replace the builder’s mirrors.
Measure the space above the sink first, then head out to find an inexpensive, framed mirror to hang.
Your replacement mirrors don’t have to be brand-new — I’ve found some amazing mirrors at thrift shops and garage sales that added tons of character to the bathroom. With a little luck, you can probably find some mirrors for free, too.
Here’s where your trusty can of spray paint can come into play again — if the mirror has a unique and interesting frame, but it’s the wrong color, don’t let that discourage you.
6. Make Raised Garden Beds Out of Recycled Materials
Don’t have the money to pay for landscaping? I’ve got you covered.
Scour the sale wood pile at the home improvement store, visit ReStore or nab a wood pallet someone else threw away. Then build a raised garden bed or two.
Raised garden beds keep out rabbits, moles and other hungry backyard pests, plus you can control the soil. They make gardening easier because you can walk around all four sides to pick weeds and pluck ripe vegetables.
They’ll also get a buyer thinking about the home’s potential — “What would I want to plant here next summer?”
Instead of focusing on your home’s patchy grass or complete lack of landscaping, they’ll be impressed by the clean lines and practicality of your garden boxes.
7. Change Your Countertops
Though I splurged and updated my kitchen countertops to granite, I wasn’t ready to spend that kind of money on my home’s four bathroom sinks.
Start by taping off or removing your bathroom sink. Then, tape off any areas where the countertop connects to the wall.
Scuff and sand your existing countertop, and then wipe it clean. Mix a small amount of the cement powder with water and use a putty knife to apply it to the countertop in a thin, smooth layer.
Once that first layer dries, lightly sand away any bumps or divots. Add additional layers until the countertop is entirely covered and smooth. Seal your new cement countertop with heavy-duty concrete sealer.
You can also replace the entire countertop in your kitchen or bathroom with concrete by making a mold and pouring the concrete in.
Your Turn: What are some ways you’ve upgraded your home on the cheap?
Sarah Kuta is an education reporter in Boulder, Colorado, with a penchant for weekend thrifting, furniture refurbishment and good deals. Find her on Twitter: @sarahkuta.