Blog by Beebe Cline

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How to Decorate When You're Starting Out or Starting Over

Few things in life are as daunting as decorating your first home. With so many options available and so many decisions to make, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed. Many of us just retreat into the familiar or the expected, leaving a trail of disappointment (and Linen White paint) in our wake.

That condition isn’t limited to the young. These days it’s not unusual for people to find themselves starting over in middle age, with the ending of a relationship or a move precipitated by a new job.

Whether you’re starting out or starting over, these steps can help you navigate the difficult process of decorating a home for the first time.
Decide what you like. A lot of people don’t know what decorating styles they like. It’s not that they don’t have opinions — they just don’t know how to articulate their preferences.

The easiest way to figure out what appeals to you is by looking at photos of other homes. And at the risk of sounding self-serving, the easiest way to do that is by perusing the photos on Houzz. Save your favorite ones in an ideabook. You can also scour design books or clip pictures from magazines. After you’ve collected at least a dozen images, sit down and compare them. What are the common denominators, in terms of color, furniture style, pattern and density of objects in the room?

Keep in mind the architecture of the space you’re living in and the limitations that might impose. High Victorian will generally not work in a cracker-box condo.
Create a budget. Figure out how much you can spend. If you can't afford to decorate the whole place at once, pick the room where you spend most of your time and make that your priority. That way when the rest of your home is in a state of upheaval, you’ll have at least one finished place to which you can retreat.
Sketch out a floor plan. I know this sounds like a drag, and something a schoolteacher would advise you to do. (“Make sure you prepare a floor plan before you start your assignment.”) But the Internet has made this step truly fun. You’ll find free floor plan programs all over the Web. My personal favorite is the room planner offered by Jordan’s Furniture in Boston. It is relatively easy to use, is flexible, offers a good selection of furniture templates and doesn’t limit you to proprietary furniture brands.

If you want to see how your floor plan translates to real life, put those moving boxes to use and “build” furniture out of them, or make footprints of each piece out of newspaper, towels or blankets.
Pick a color palette. Some people say you should pull your color palette from the flooring. Others recommend starting with a piece of art. I suggest starting with the item you’re most in love with. If that’s a rug, pull the color palette from that. If it’s an artwork you own or an outfit you adore, let that dictate the decor. If you’re madly in love with the color yellow, start there.

Once you have your palette established, let the rest of the decor spring from that. Use neutral colors for investment pieces, like the sofa and dining table, and put the color in paint or accent pieces like pillows, lamps and art. That way you can change the color palette if you feel like it without spending a lot of money.

More tips for picking a color palette

Houzz guides to every color in the color wheel
Paint. Please paint. It’s the cheapest way to personalize a space, and it will give you the most bang for your buck. Even if you prefer white, find a wonderful white that lends atmosphere.

If you’re reluctant to paint the whole place, just paint an accent wall. If you’re afraid of committing to a bold hue, choose an in-between color. I promise you it’ll look more interesting than Linen White.

Pro tips for painting walls
Invest in the right furniture pieces. A sofa is going to stay with you for a long time, so get a good one. Even if you think you’ll have it just temporarily, it’ll end up moving from the living room to the family room to the basement to the college dorm. So don’t skimp. The same holds true for a dining table.

I also think it’s worth investing in one good, supercomfortable reading chair. Choose neutral upholstery, like white, taupe or gray, for your investment pieces.
Measure everything. Measure your space before you go shopping (as well as the doorways, stairs and elevator openings leading to your domicile), and bring those measurements when you shop.

Furniture will look smaller in a showroom with 20-foot ceilings than it will look in your living room. And don’t buy matching sets of furniture, unless you want your home to look like the sales floor at Sofa City.
Where to skimp. If you need to cut costs, do it with accessories: Look for mirrors, pillows and lamps at places like Ikea, Target, T.J.Maxx and Marshall's. The dirty little secret of decorating is that if you mix in a few cheap things among the more expensive items, no one will notice.
Include something old with your something new. Don’t buy everything new. Go to an antiques store, or if you can’t afford that, visit garage sales, flea markets or auctions, and pick up a few accessories that don’t look like you bought them off the shelf at the import store.

Pieces with history give a room personality and depth, and are what distinguish a home from a furniture showroom.
Consider "temporary" furniture. Lots of experts advise against buying “temporary” furniture. Well, I’m here to tell you that I don’t necessarily subscribe to that theory.

It can take a long time to find just the right pieces for a home. And nobody likes camping out for six to 12 months, waiting for the perfect item to show up.

If you don't have family members you can borrow pieces from, and the satisfaction of having something filling that spot outweighs the cost of it, then go right ahead and buy it.

Garage sales are a great place to find filler pieces, as is Ikea (the source of this chandelier). I just paid $75 for a dining table and two chairs from the Swedish behemoth. Are they the best I could afford? Will they last forever? No and no. But they give something to sit in and dine at until I find the exact pieces I want. Afterward, I can give them to charity and not feel like I’ve sacrificed much.
Hire a pro. If you’re still unsure about all of this, you can always seek the services of a professional decorator or interior designer. (You’ll find nearly 50,000 of them listed on Houzz.)

If you can’t afford a soup-to-nuts decorating job, then just ask for an hourly consultation. The designer will help you clarify your style, steer you toward the right furnishings and assist in the development of a long-term plan.
Chill. Your first home probably will not be your last home. So don’t feel like you’ll be living with every decision for the rest of your life. Sure, it makes sense financially and environmentally to acquire foundation pieces that will transition from your first home to your second, third and fourth. But that throw pillow is going to be around for only a few years. Same with those sheets and towels, and that table lamp. So have fun.