gold line svg


Design Mistakes: 5 Lessons From the Portland Project (i.e. How We Could Have Saved A LOT OF MONEY)


The Portland project, which we recently wrapped all the reveals for, was meant to be an investment property (okay fine, a “flip”) that we would renovate, design, sell and then, well, I didn’t go to business school but I think the idea was to profit. There is good news and bad news. The good news is that my brother and I loved working together and are even still speaking! The other good news is that I learned SO MUCH. So many lessons. All day, every day I would say “okay, well that’s a new lesson” but a lot of them were very expensive lessons to learn. I cost us a lot by making big mistakes and choosing to do some more custom (and therefore expensive) things to the house that no one would EVER do in a flip. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it over and over until I die: this is not your typical flip, it was a show house for me and never meant to be “budget”. It simply couldn’t be for the neighborhood it was in. So do I regret doing any of those extra custom things? NO! But I could have saved my brother some money by 1. Being more careful with my mistakes and 2. Knowing some pretty important things about major renovation costs.

So this post is talking about the things we could have done differently to save money and the general lessons that I learned about renovation that I think you should all know to help save you in your renovations.

1. “Cutting” is your real cost.

Emily Henderson Portland Traditional Exterior 13 1
photo by sara ligorria-tramp for ehd

It almost rarely matters what your materials are, but rather how custom you make them that affects labor and labor is the real cost of a renovation. Every single cut that a subcontractor makes costs you money. Let’s talk about the tile in the patio (above). It’s GORGEOUS and, of course, if I were moving in here I wouldn’t change a thing. But for an investment property, I cost us SO much time by choosing to herringbone it instead of a stack or stagger. Why? That front patio was huge and the border around the entire thing had to be cut perfectly at an angle. Hundreds of tiles had to be cut to make the border flush. (and every time you cut, you risk breaking tile, too, which just means another cut and, of course, waste). This patio took WEEKS to tile. WEEKS. We could have saved so much money in labor had we just stacked it—or hell, built a wood deck. Now, am I suggesting to stack or stagger instead of herringbone always and forever? Not necessarily, I love how it looks very much, just know that it can drastically change the cost of the labor so just make sure it’s worth it to you and be prepared for what it will cost. (I did however just see a herringbone floor tile recently where the right angles mimic the square shape of the patio, essentially eliminating the angled cuts around the border if it’s in the shape of a rectangle, so just know this does exist as an option if you like the look but don’t want to/can’t allocate the budget to it).

Need another example? All the moulding and paneling costs. There is a reason why less expensive new builds or a lot of flips don’t have crown moulding—it’s not the material that is expensive, it’s the—YEP—cost of cutting it. We chose to double stack the baseboard in here to give it an extra 10″ step and be thicker and BOY did it look stunning. But that’s double labor time. Every time they had to cut something they have to measure, go outside, grab the wood, cut it, bring it in, realize it’s slightly off (maybe) go back outside, re-cut, bring it back in, etc. MAYBE they are doing this inside if there is space, but for tile it’s always outside due to mess so just the back and forth is such a time suck.

Emily Henderson Portland Traditional Master Entry5
photo by sara ligorria-tramp for ehd | from: the portland entry and foyer reveal

I didn’t just stop there with the paneling and the special baseboard…

Emily Henderson Portland Traditional Media Room6
photo by sara ligorria-tramp for ehd | from: the portland media room reveal

We did a special treatment to the ceiling of the media room and the walls of the rumpus room because I LOVE wasting money, evidently.

Emily Henderson Portland Traditional Playroom Saturated 9
photo by sara ligorria-tramp for ehd | from: the portland rumpus room reveal

Would I have done it differently if it were my home? NO. I LOVE IT. But for an investment property/flip it certainly cut into the potential to profit. (Again, the intent of this house for me wasn’t to make a ton of money. It was a portfolio project so I’m very glad it looks the way it does, but I now know where all the profits disappeared to: custom cuts, at my request). Do I think that doing these things helped the overall price of the house and helped create more of an emotional sale? Not as much as I had hoped.

2. Smooth coat walls cost a fortune.

If I could go back in time, I ABSOLUTELY would have saved money on this. If only I knew then what I know now: that there are more options than just smooth coat and texture spray. Okay, let me explain. Get yourself some coffee because this is about to get really boring unless you are about to renovate.

Dry wall is installed in panels over framing that then have to be mudded and taped next to each other, which is messy and has seams, etc. You either need to mask the imperfections (plaster, spray texture) or smooth them out and make them perfect. Making it smooth is EXTREMELY LABORIOUS WHICH MEANS EXPENSIVE. I can’t boldly capitalize that enough. Plastering can be expensive and is also a particular look that we weren’t going for (although it’s so trendy right now). So I fought HARD with NO room for negotiation to smooth coat the main level, the master bedroom and all the bathrooms. I let the media room and the guest bedrooms be sprayed with texture. So was it worth it?

This is the smooth coat of the living room:

Emily Henderson Portland Traditional Living Room11
photo by sara ligorria-tramp for ehd | from: the portland living room reveal

This is the orange peel in the downstairs bedroom:

Emily Henderson Portland Traditional Guest Bedroom11
photo by sara ligorria-tramp for ehd | from: 14 rules for how we style the perfect bedroom

They look mostly IDENTICAL in photos. In person, there is a difference and yeah, I’m glad the main level isn’t orange peel texture but I wish I had known that we could do what we did in the mountain house (a light hand-applied plaster over rolled paint).

This isn’t something we knew before and our contractor up at the mountain house was like “there’s not really a name for it, it’s just kinda messy paint and plaster together.” They tape, mud and clean up as much as they can then roll the paint and then go back afterward with the slightest big of plaster with a trowel and just kinda mess up the wall to make everything more forgiving. It’s like putting on thicker primer and foundation on your face, instead of getting a facelift. You still see the wrinkles but it actually looks good, and it’s FAR less expensive.

WHY AGAIN IS IT SO EXPENSIVE? Because it has to be professionally done. EVERY SINGLE TIME you have to alter anything, you have to bring in a drywall team to fix it, rather than just a painter or project manager touching it up. If you decide to move an outlet? You have to call them. If you decide to change the location of a sconce? Them again.

I literally just wrote 860 words about “smooth coating your drywall” and I’m sure most of you have fallen asleep at your laptop/with smartphone in hand, but I hope this PSA saved some of you the $20k that we could have saved by not smooth coating this house.

Yes. We think the difference would have been roughly $20k due to changes and patching (plus, Ken reminded me that we did smooth coat under all the paneling in the lower level because we didn’t know at the time we were going to do pretty wood work on the walls at the time, so that doesn’t help). So that’s cool. Sorry Ken/Katie.

3. Order windows first.

photo by sara ligorria-tramp for ehd | from: the portland master bedroom reveal

In my next book, we are outlining the order in which to think about and order things (again, writing the book I wish I had during these renovations) but please just know that windows typically have a very long lead time and will hold up your entire project.

Why can’t the other projects keep going without the windows in? Because while you have them planned out and framed, there are likely some tweaks and therefore installing them before you close up the walls is easier, cleaner and just more ideal to make the frames of them clean, right, perfect, etc.

4. Do a walkthrough with your contractor before you close up all walls.

Again, not being there was a real bummer because junction boxes for sconces got placed that were totally wrong and strange, outlets and light switches got installed not knowing that we had already ordered a 5″ door casing (and thus almost all of them had to be moved), plumbing for our wall-mounted faucets was wrong (not centered over the sinks!). But drywall went up anyway. So, over the course of those months, we realized that so many things had to be moved, and it’s much easier to move them pre-drywall than after (also if I haven’t told you the story yet about how expensive it is to repair smooth coat drywall????).

Also hot tip: take photos and video of the inside of your walls before you close them up. You will want to know the guts of the house, what lies behind the walls and, if you can, even take measurements and draw things out on a photo of the inside of the walls so you know where everything is after you forget years later.

5. Let your expert subs give advice…and TAKE IT.

Emily Henderson Portland Traditional Living Room17
photo by sara ligorria-tramp for ehd | from: the portland living room reveal

For example: The electricians recommended where to put the sconces early on, but the project manager we had on the project at the start had a different plan and insisted on the placement. Well, guess what? We had to end up moving almost all of them (hello smooth coating labor costs). Sometimes, you think you know best in the name of “style” but if this is your first(ish) rodeo, keep your ears open and humble yourself enough to listen.

Here’s a follow-up tip: allow for extra electrical wire in case you have to move anything, this way you don’t have to rewire anything, move the junction boxes, etc.

Honestly, I could probably keep going, but outlining the key takeaways and mistakes that might help you or apply to a renovation you guys might be doing or have on the horizon was the focus here. I could tell you about the mistake windows in the kitchen, or the fireplace in the master bedroom that could have been designed much more simply (hence saved money), but I’ll stop here for now and turn it over to you.

You guys seem to be knowledgeable and experienced in so many different home areas so tell me: what else have you learned the hard (read: expensive) way that you’d want to share with your pre-renovation self to save time, money, frustrations, tears, relationships?

Fin Mark


Never miss a single post and get a little something extra on Saturdays.

Comments are closed.
newest oldest most voted
Notify of

I feel like decision fatigue cost me a ton! There were so many decisions to make, I didn’t spend enough time thinking of creative ways to achieve the look I wanted more affordably, shopping for a better deal or what I could potentially even do myself (or finish up later down the road). I wish I had spent more time thinking through what was actually needed versus what I just wanted and what I was being told should be done.


Yes this!!! You do the work to make 1,000 decisions. But you don’t realize you actually need to make 2,000 decisions…. it’s feels impossible to truly prep for everything that is going to come your way.

Paula Carr

We spent well over a year thinking, re-thinking, and thinking again. And we still had a few things I’d have done differently or ended up as change orders that cost more money. But that initial year of thinking was critical. I don’t think our renovation would have made me half as happy without it.


Oh Joy is doing a new-build house right now (designed by an architect, built by a contractor) and I believe her planning phase was super long – it really stuck out to me how many iterations they did at the paper/computer design stage.


This is great. Thank you for this! I completely agree with all of this. It’s not the materials that drives up the cost of a renovation–it’s the labor! And change orders! I’ve definitely realized that it’s imperative to have a good plan because problems WILL come up and you’ll have to make decisions ON THE SPOT, while the contractor is there. It they have to come back,, start throwing more dollars at it!


THINK THROUGH LIGHTING. I was so tired at the end of my kitchen renovation, and my lighting is awful. I’m getting it redone and adding more lights. Hello, cost of electrician and repatching drywall! Ugh!!! So mad at myself!


I had an opposite comment to add about lighting. We were moving from a 130 year old Victorian house which had had piecemeal renos through the years and suffered from lots of dark spaces throughout. So when we designed our new home I went really overkill with lighting, I didn’t want those dark spots we’d had before. In almost every room I revised my architect’s plans to add a sconce here, pot light there, etc. I didn’t want to have to do what you’re doing now. HOWEVER, we could’ve cut back on a lot of the lighting that we do have and while I’ll never have to pay more to add lights, we spent at least 10,000 in lighting that we would’ve been fine without. Guess my advice would be HIRE A LIGHTING EXPERT.


Lighting was such a big one for me. I spent weeks and months over analyzing it. Overall I am happy with the outcome but I asked my contractor to cut out so many canned lights and we still have too many. I wish I had less can lights and spent that money on a few nice scones or pendants instead.


I would love to see a post that specifically addresses lighting. It’s really hard to plan and expensive to change!


I agree … would love some rules of thumb for lighting. Or just some common scenarios.


Lighting nerd here! ??‍♀️ To start you need to look at the area you are in and determine how many foot candles you need. A foot candle is the amount of light one candle casts a foot away. It sounds complicated but it’s not. A living room needs about 20, a kitchen sink needs about 70. There are charts online to tell you exactly what you need. Next, multiply the number of foot candles by square feet to get your lumens. So if your living room is 200 square feet and you want 20 foot candles than you need 4000 lumens. Next, look at the specs of your light fixture and see how many lumens it’s rated for.
If you’re intimidated by this process you have three options: you could hire a lighting designer or engineer to run photometics (they have a computer program), or you could get a trusted electrician who has the gut instinct, or you can always just install dimmers. ?


The whole smooth coat thing is so strange to me. I’m in Chicago and it’s the norm to smooth coat. My current awesome 70s home has a sort of plaster finish that would be expensive to replicate, so in the basement and bathrooms we’ve renovated we just went with a smooth coat finish to save money (and I’m too picky and would have hated their attempts to replicate the plaster look.)

Emily R

Drywall finishing is very regional in the US. In the northeast smooth is the norm (not a full skim coat, just the joints, and screw heads) so there is no markup, but in much of west and southwest texture is much more the norm.

I’m very thankful for smooth walls, makes patching so much easier, and I think it looks much nicer.


Aha, regional! Interior designer from NYC here, and I have been perplexed by this whole theme from lots of different bloggers from the West coast over the years, and your comment finally clarified for me. It’s normal in other areas to coat every wall surface, entirely??? That’s SO MUCH WORK! Drywall is already so smooth! In ten years and four different firms I’ve never addressed the wall texture, because it’s just assumed that you’ll mud over the tape and then paint. Smooth walls with minimal labor.

Will someone from another region clarify if they find a functional difference between the seam-mudded drywall I’m used to and this far fancier whole-wall-coating? Occasionally we’ll get cracks running along areas of the tape, which is obnoxious to patch, but that’s usually like one 12″ section in an entire house, only on a ceiling. Does the coating stop that? Does it make everything look like venetian plaster? Or is it super expensive and gives essentially the same thing as plain drywall? Cause if so, y’all should try the lazy approach. It’s GREAT.


I’m Midwest and the only place you see orange peel walls is cheap apartments. Otherwise it’s joint seems only and always smooth. I have an old 1940 house with plaster walls. I love the plaster, it’s beautiful but it is a pain. I’m afraid to even put a nail in it.


Well, here’s one benefit to a plaster wall- you can remove wallpaper from a plaster wall without ruining it. If you try to remove wallpaper from a drywall wall, the top layer of paper of the drywall board will rip off and your drywall is ruined.


priming naked drywall before wall papering will allegedly allow you to put up and take down wallpaper without damage


I live in Seattle area and am a realtor. I have seen quite a few houses here. I have never heard of people or seen people skim coating the entire wall when doing drywall. Only the seams. I do see a lot of texture here though. Not sure the reasoning. People even textured over plaster (like my own 1908 Foursquare which I hate!) I think it’s like a lot of other little things. The west-coast just wanted to be different then everywhere else! I would personally take the houses on the East-coast/south any day before the ones here. Like the saying goes. They just don’t make them like they used too!


Same! Interior Designer from Toronto here, so same temp as NYC with all 4 seasons…i have never heard of this technique before and reading this post i was like what is she talking about? Plastering your WHOLE WALL SURFACE?! OMG WHY? just tape it, mud it, and move on.


I was thinking it must be a regional thing.. I am in the Northeast and you would never expect to see anything other than smooth drywall… (Just tape and mud) and if it’s done right, you’ll never see a seam.


I didn’t realize it was a regional thing but it makes sense – I live in the northeast and all of our walls are smooth (of course, our house was built in the 1950’s so I’m guessing that was the norm back then?) We recently reno’d our kitchen and it was easy to patch the drywall that was there. As long as you have patience and use thin coats, the walls will be very smooth.
I don’t like textured walls usually but in the right setting they look beautiful. In upstate NY, we tend to have textured ceilings in the living areas – no, not the popcorn texture (ick!) but the smooth, cloud-like, swirly ceilings. Maybe that is a regional thing too?


I was going to say the same. Midwest here and everything (new) is smooth coat. For what it’s worth, I think you guys made the right call smooth coating the main living spaces. My mom’s 1930’s tudor has textured plaster and it’s such a pain.


Yep, I’m in Atlanta and have never even seen textured walls in person I don’t think. Smooth Coat is all I’ve ever known and the cheapest option (I think? Orange peel is just not done here so it never even comes up as an option). It’s definitely the easiest to patch because you just spackle, sand and paint. A trained monkey can do it (i.e. college kids who have to patch their own walls or lose their deposit). This conversation about how expensive smooth coat walls are was very confusing to me. Must be regional.


Strange how regional this is. I’m in Texas and have never seen a smooth finish on a wall. ALL we have is orange peel. I didn’t even know smooth coat drywall was a thing until I started following design blogs!

Jamie Kirk

Jessica – here in Texas as well (Dallas)! Same for orange peel.


My thoughts exactly – from Houston.


Same Jessica. Same! Orange peel
Is all we have in Texas ?


Yes! This is so odd. Also in Chicago and I’d assume having a texture would cost more b/c you’d have to apply it. We do all kinds of DIY and my husband just muds the drywall over, sometimes with tape if it is a bigger hole and we sand then paint. No big deal. Having a hard time understanding why it is so different!


Ah, I couldn’t figure out why anyone would consider orange peel texture in any way the standard finish. Here in Philadelphia we have mostly old imperfectly smooth plaster walls (with various patches over the years, in most cases) or smooth drywall new houses or major renovations of old houses. I think any decent contractor here is used to fixing old walls so I guess it’s not treated as a huge deal.


I’m in Portland, and orange peel is the norm here, with other textures or smooth coat as a somewhat costly upgrade, as Emily describes.

I think it comes down to the fact that what the norm is varies regionally, and the norm is almost always the least expensive because it’s what the tradespeople get very, very good at and can do quickly. Asking them to deviate from that norm takes extra time. It doesn’t mean that either way is inherently easier or harder, just that it’s hard to do what you don’t do as often.

Isn’t smooth coat a LOT harder to keep looking nice? My mom has it in some parts of her house, and I feel like EVERY bit of wear is highlighted.

Kate Jenks

That really has so much to do with the quality of the paint. Our builder grade paint shows everything, but with quality paint, that is not really an issue.


I was just going to comment the exact same thing! You almost NEVER see a house around the Chicago area with textured walls, at least not one built anytime since the 70s. It really can’t be that hard to do because they do it on even the cheapest homes here, but it must be a specialized skill. Orange peel walls would be such a turn off for me, especially in a home that’s so fine-tuned and high end otherwise.


This is making things so much clearer to me. I’d always lived on the East Coast (NYC and Philly) and everything was always plaster or smooth coat, depending on age (and as far as I know, just coated over the seams). We just moved to Denver and our rental has the most obnoxious orange peel everywhere which I HATE and could not figure out why it was done! A piece of the coating just fell off in the living room and I’m wondering how to fix since I can’t replicate the texture. In previous homes spackling was so easy – have no idea what to do now!


Also in Denver (current owner of an orange peel home) but born and raised in Chicago (smooth walls for the win). I hate orange peel texture and think it cheapens the look and feel of the home.


HI there! To patch an orange peel wall, you will need to buy the orange peel texture, which comes in an aerosol can, like spray paint. It’s located in the paint section of the hardware store. You spray it on after you’ve patched the hole and might have to use a spackling knife to make it match/ smooth out. After it dries, you paint to match your wall. Hope this is clear. Hated that texture and never figured out how to wallpaper over it. Grrrr….


I hated the idea of orange peel walls, but didn’t want to pay for the CA version of smooth coat (the quote was outrageous). My dad is retired from the Midwestern construction industry and came out to teach us how to do it ourselves. 4 days of DIY labor and we have smooth walls, with $0 in labor cost.


I live in Northern CA (wine country) and we re-textured our new home as part of its renovation. We definitely didn’t want orange peel (which is what we were replacing) but didn’t want totally smooth either. We settled on what our guy called “country smooth”. It’s mostly smooth with just a touch of the plaster feel? I love it….soo much better then orange peel (ick!) Orange peel to me screams contractor grade track home. But again, that’s probably because we live in CA.


It must be a regional thing. I live in Southwest Florida and my husband is a general contractor. He insists on Level 5 drywall (smooth) in our home, which is far more expensive in our area than an orange peel finish. Orange peel is standard in residential and in lower end homes, you may even find a knock down wall finish. Both of those finishes hide imperfections in the drywall installation and finish. In our area, smooth level 5 finish walls means that the entire wall is skim coated and then sanded to a perfectly smooth finish – not just the seams.


I think it has to do with the labor to actually make the seems in drywall look good. If you tape, mud, and sand you have to be pretty skilled to do that well and quickly. If you tape, mud, and then just roll on a texture, you don’t have to worry about the seams. That’s why so many ceilings have the spray on texture.


I had plaster walls with orange peel texture in my house in PA, and it was awful. There was no such thing as a quick patch. Every spackling job had to be followed with a texturizing step. Over the 7 years we lived there, I fixed and painted the walls in every room, and it always took forever. By the end, we finally figured out that mixing texturizing sand (which you can buy at HD or Lowes) with the first coat of primer or paint gave the best approximation of the texture. And was less messy than the spray orange peel.

Ever since that house, I’ve ached for smooth walls. Of course, my house in Idaho had knock-down texture. I can’t imagine trying to replicate it. We have plans to skim coat everything (ourselves; haha… I should say, my husband will do this, not me!) as we work through the rooms.

Melody P

I wonder if it might have something to do with soil and seismic activity? For example, I know basements are really standard for a lot of people on the East Coast, but we don’t really have them in Texas because the soil settles so much. I’ve seen houses built in the 70’s that have settled so much the bottom of the wall is several inches off the floor. It seems like we would be much more likely to get vertical cracks with the shifting, and so the orange peel may hide it better.


Lived in CA all my life and there was definitely a mix of wall texture depending on the age and style of the house. Our last house was 118 years old and all the walls were smooth. It was lovely.

We now live in Southern Washington in a farmhouse style built in 1981. Every single room has texture, and almost all of them are different. We did pay to skim coat one bathroom and our kitchen/dining area because that was so thick it was actually sharp to touch. I’m going to be spending the rest of my life smoothing out these walls..


Arizona reader here – textured walls are definitely the norm. Orange peel would be the subtle example of texture and many houses get MUCH chunkier than that! Ha!


Arizona as well. Everything is spray textured here. You can see every patch job the previous homeowner did to try and mimic the texture. And where they used the expensive spray texture in a can to try and match. We’re currently skim coating each room little by little. It’s really not hard or expensive to do yourself, just time consuming.

Kate Jenks

Ontario, Canada here! Like the readers from the Midwest, I have never heard of anyone mudding the whole wall! You occasionally see textured walls here, but mostly in lower end /dated homes. You see a lot of homes with textured ceilings, because they are cheeper for all the reasons stated. When we built our forever home, we ended up with what you call orange peel ceilings, which here are called California ceilings. Flat ceilings we’re going to cost $4000 extra, and they were going to delay our closing. I wish we had spring for them. They are my number one greatest regret, and I feel a bit grumpy everytime I look up 🙁


So what I’m hearing is that drywallers from the midwest and east coast could make a KILLING going out to the west coast to take smooth coat jobs! Seriously, I DIY-ed some pretty major patch work on my smooth coated drywall after we took a wall out in the basement, and it’s totally do-able. I think someone mentioned that the drywall out there has a canvas texture to it though? Ours is pretty smooth, like the texture of kids construction paper. You end up with a tad bit of texture from rolling on paint (we call this “orange peel” texture in the midwest, but it’s much more subtle than the orange peel texture that you see on texture finished drywall). Out here though, you almost always see some texture on ceilings (mostly the dreaded popcorn, but when not that, a plaster knockdown texture or orange peel) because ceilings are a pain to mud and sand. From my experience, patching the textured ceilings is way more difficult than patching the smooth coat on the walls because you have to match the existing texture when you’re applying without building up the texture around your patch too much, whereas the smooth coat patches… Read more »

Karen Baruth

I decided to live by our reno project for two months during the process in order to be on top of every decision. Even then mistakes were made, but they were small and easily resolved. I saw the project at least once a day and took photos daily.


Has the house sold yet?




I don’t know that if I’ve seen if you’ve sold this home?


I just looked at the property history. It was listed in July at $2.6 million and sold at the end of October for just a hair under $2.4 million.


Great post!!! When is your book due out bc I’m planning a renovation and realllllly need your advice!!!

One thing I’m doing this go around that I haven’t in the past: hiring an architect/designer who will do complete plans before we even get it quoted out, and then project manage during construction. Yes it will be an extra expense but I think in the long run it will save me money in mistakes like you mention as well as efficiency overall (ie getting things ordered in time to keep on schedule).


I feel exhausted reflecting on mistakes made because I’m mid-renovation and can feel the future mistakes looming. Smooth coating a previously stippled ceiling has taken me for a ride. Initially, I got a (totally reasonable) quote from an ace of a drywall fella. A friend had recommended him after he did several jobs for her. But, I was going to do it for less. So, from 5:30 – 8a, for 3 weeks, I woke up, soaked and scraped the stippling off of my ceiling. Once I had completed that, I was given 3 estimates telling me that it was going to be cheaper to hang all new drywall over the existing ceiling. Humble pie. So, I hire someone off of thumbtack (app) based on the lowest price. It is hung and done, but the installer had some serious attitude/emotional stuff surface in the process. But, it was done, so good riddance… Then the bulges at the seams began. Gah! He doesn’t return calls, etc, etc. You get it. Handfuls of humble pie. So, I learned to 1) go with the installer with a living, breathing person making the recommendation for them. It is so easy to falsify reviews 2) Don’t… Read more »


We ordered our windows nearly a year out, chose level 4 dry wall instead of level 5. What was a surprise was discovering we needed piers – $20K. Which led to another $20K for gravel and excavation and another $15K for additional concrete. Both Portland and your mountain home are insanely gorgeous and showcase your talent. You have absolutely inspired my entire custom home! XOXO


Ugh. We’re currently building a house, and had a similar experience. We have (so far) avoided most of the pitfalls Emily describes, but you can’t do much about extra excavation and concrete costs. And don’t even get me started on steel (and other) tariffs affect on the budget for steel beams, rebar, and appliances.


Light switches- once your house is framed walk in and out of rooms and put your hand where you would instinctively go to turn on a light. Put a switch there. Then when you walk across the room to another entry/exit way do the same thing. Think about going from your living area to bedroom at night and wanting to turn out the lights without havign to walk across a room in the dark. (Hope this makes sense. You need to have switches in multiple locations to turn off the same light.). Also, if you have fans in a room put the switches in the same order everywhere- first switch turns on the light, second switch turns on the fan.)


Yes! My house is an older house from 1920 and it only has one light switch per room and none of them are conveniently placed! If the house is dark at night, walking to the kitchen from the bedroom means walking through rooms in the dark because the switches are on the other side!


And one outlet per room is so much fun with the extension cords!


Yes, I feel your pain! Live in older ’48 Cape Cod. Two outlets in each bedroom, l/r and d/r. Don’t get me started on kitchen. lol….

We had plaster walls redone in ’06, that is, Marmorino. Took a week and few K but can only imagine what it would cost today. I’ll never tire of our lovely, coved ceilings, too.
Our foyer is really a vestibule.We are considering enlarging front entry, but, first a quote.
I am absolutely amazed how much more labor is here (PNW) than other parts of the country, Expensive!!

HA same. If I walk front to back of the apartment, it’s typically okay, but back to front…I have to walk through dark rooms, stumbling to get to the light switch on the other side. It’s REALLY fun, as are all the extension chords (specifically in my bedroom that has two outlets).


We live in an old home and all walls, including interior, are brick (as most homes in Australia are) so knocking out walls is a HUGE decision and even changing outlets is a BIG decision compared to wooden framed homes with drywall.

We added a few extra outlets when we restored our home (3 months with me as project manager, living a few foors down) but…we have some of those battery movement sensor lights in the darkest of dark corridors for night time treks and they are fabulous! Plus, the lighrs are LED, so the batteries last for aeons! 🙂


And door swing! (Where will the real-life laundry piles be in the laundry room and is the door going to always swing INTO them or away from them? ;-))

Or in a bathroom, will the door swing open and the first view of an accidental walk-in is someone sitting on the potty? YIKES!


I got Alexa enabled smart light switches (Lutron Caseta) installed in the Kitchen/Dining/Living/Foyer just last night. Resisted a long time hooking up the house to the internet (still have some misgivings) but the convenience of being able to turn lights on/off with your voice is nothing less than extraordinary! I can see how this would be really helpful in the walking through the light layout situation.


This is such a great article- thank you for sharing! I am a ‘flipper’ /investment designer in Washington state and I can’t agree more with what you mentioned. The two things I stress to clients and investors wanting to break into the industry or take on a remodel is the importance of a plan, project punch list and product spec sheet. The biding process (what I call the open bid process) is where you can cut your renovation cost in a third, possible half. It always amazes me to see how bids come in all over the place even when you’re comparing apples to apples. We just got a siding bid on a project and the bids came in at 9k,16k and 33k. All subs were reputable and skilled but I think the big determining factor on the bids is how hungry they are. In this industry with it being a sellers market and clients staying put because they can’t afford to move(but suddenly they have a ton of equity!) we are finding all of our bids are increasing by about 30% because the industry has a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude. If you have a set of drawings… Read more »

Katie Stephenson

Agreed! i just got 3 bids to remove 2 trees. They came in at 5K, 11K and 15K all for the same thing! Crazy. It takes time to get bids but it is so worth it!


My advice is to just include everything in the design/architectural plan and resulting contractor quote up front if you can. Do not take things out in the name of saving money, because if you add them back in during the project it’s going to end up costing you WAY more.

I agree with the other poster that the smooth-coat thing seems to be the norm elsewhere. I’m in the northeast, and there was never a discussion around an alternative on smoothcoat. My SIL lives in Portland though, and it seems you can’t find a house WITH it; everything is the bumpy plaster.


It’s interesting to hear that your drywall costs were so high. In the areas where I’ve lived (Northwest/Midwest) the cost to install, mud and smooth drywall is cheap. Maybe it’s geographic — I get the impression that textured walls are more common the West, so maybe there aren’t as many skilled drywall laborers? My husband and I have both taken the time to learn drywall mudding so we can do our own repairs at home, but if we were doing a large renovation it would definitely be more cost effective to hire it out.

Thanks for sharing this, it’s interesting to hear about the flip process. I hope you’ll share more details on how it worked out from an investment perspective. I’m dying to know if you and your brother would try this again!


This is great and SO TRUE! BUT I will ALWAYS pay extra for smooth walls! Maybe not that noticeable in photos but obviously in person!


In regards to the smooth coating vs textured for the walls… in Canada, we drywall, mud and tape the joints (which is a lengthy process requireing 3 coats that need time to dry in between, fan and smooth out the mud, and lots of sanding to finish it off…. and then we paint it for a smooth finish. We have all smooth walls everywhere. That’s a standard unless, you want to add a texture to them, which would likely be an upcharge. But I have never heard of or seen these other options as part of a standard finish. Just curious and find it interesting, wondering if there is another reason why the extra step needs to be taken. I am all for smooth walls and no texture on the ceiling!! Ussually I get some push back on that one. Standard here is a textured stippled ceiling.


You must be out west in Canada because I live in the Maritimes and used to live in QC and stippled ceilings are seen as a ghost from the 80’s. However, when I went to AB to visit a friend who lives in a new build, there were popcorn/textured ceiling EVERYWHERE it was so odd! It looks so dated. But yes, drywall smooth walls everywhere here, and most people (in my experience) just DIY it because it’s not that difficult.


I install FFE in senior living communities. I don’t typically step foot in the community until it’s time for furniture so one of my biggest things is getting the appliances in before final punch. So many times things don’t fit because the contractor didn’t look at the specifications/elevations or a soffit is put in, but the architect forgets to adjust the cabinet height. I can come up with about 1,000 other things, but this one bugs me the most.


Just reading this post makes me super excited for your next book! Can’t wait!


Can we ask how much money you made/lost? I know that is a really personal question so feel free to ignore. 😀


I don’t think this is personal on a blog like this. I have been asking this question over and over every time she posts about Portland without a response. So, I am thinking that possibly no money was made or it might shared. The question is probably, “did they break even?” Her brother is still speaking to her so something was made…this blog is popular and making money so there’s that. But on the actual money in vs sale–what was the profit?

PLEASE SHARE! Many of us are wondering if we should flip houses and your mistakes are very helpful. Please share the profit/loss with us.


Agree! I asked a similar question as I’m sure her brother was looking for a profit, not a portfolio piece. I think being honest about renovation and construction costs is really important as blogs/TV shows give an awfully skewed impression of reality. I hope we get a bit more detail here.


Thanks so much for going into detail, especially on smoothing drywall. It seems boring but saving money is awesome, so I want to know all the nitty gritty! Really excited to hear more about proper sequencing, because that remains a complete mystery to me.


This post was fascinating! I always appreciate when you take a look back at a project and discuss what you’d do differently, now that you know what you know.

Also, I really, really hope your brother made at least some profit on the house!


Keep the reno info coming! About to start on a whole house reno and I’ve never done any renos in my life! Exciting and scary! Your blog/insta has been so helpful!

Andrea Surette

Thank you for sharing your sage advice! I’ve constantly referenced your blog throughout my full home gut and renovation. In true DIY fashion, my husband and I are doing 90% of the labor ourselves (we are leaving the plumbing, electric, and structural changes to professionals). I estimate that we have saved at least $80,000 doing the demo, framing new walls, drywalling, simple electric work, painting, and more.

Learning how to mud drywall into a smooth texture wasn’t so hard…after renovating 6 rooms we are now drywall experts! I would recommend doing drywall yourself if you don’t have furniture in your home already, and it’s better if you don’t have dogs or children around (for their own safety). Luckily my husband has been able to move outlet or lightswitch boxes by a few inches when we need to–it’s not very hard to do!

You can follow along all our DIY home renovation adventures on my blog:

Jamie Kirk

Cute blog name!!

Taryn Emerson

Everything you’ve said is spot on Emily. In my renovations I practically check in daily to minimize mistakes (and still there are mistakes!) I can only imagine how hard it was not being in the same state even! We never stop learning and you made so many more right decisions than wrong ones ❤️


Oh my gosh, I appreciate this post SO MUCH. We are in the early stages of designing a home so this is super helpful. PLEASE KEEP GOING. What other mistakes did you make that we can learn from? I would totally be all ears for more posts like this.


Boring? Are you kidding me? I LIVE for the details. Bring it, girl. More, please.

ps No news here: everyone makes mistakes : ) It looks great.


Loved this post–would like a part 2. Also, really looking forward to your book about renovating–I think there’s a big hole in the market on this.


As someone who has orange peel walls in one room, I appreciate the money you spent on smooth coating (I think we have the unsmooth plaster in the rest of our house). The orange peel is bothers me everyday, it is ugly, but mostly because it reflects color in a completely different way than smooth walls. Color does not look as pretty on orange peel!

Julie S

Exactly so! Orange peel adds a surprising amount of shadow to a wall, shifting the paint tone and darkening the feel of the room…even with light or white paint! We reno’d the main living spaces before moving into our house (we’re in SoCal) and had the existing knockdown texture, which is sort of an enlarged flattened orange peel, primed and covered with a fresh coat of mud in I think it was called light skip trowel texture. When I check Google images there is a wide variety, mostly ugly, of skip trowel so check your guy’s work before starting… but ours has large patches of practically smooth with just small scatterings of divots or recessed textural bits… like plaster IMO. I like it a lot.


YES to all of this…AND I would add: be there for the installs! We were on vacation when a doorwall went in. Despite drawing out and discussing in person, our contractor installed it in the wrong order. So, instead of a centered sliding door flanked on either side by two fixed panes, we ended up with a slider on the left/fixed pane/fixed pane configuration. This threw off everything-not only did it ruin the look of the room (sorry custom window treatments) but also failed to center the dining space as intended -so this mistake threw off the whole flow. We sold that house for many reasons, not the least of which was my inability to live with that flaw, which-at the end of the day-was too costly to fix.


Oh this too – it was so helpful for me to be *right there* when the tile guy was installing our bathroom tile. He had several questions and we consulted together. I ended up taking his advice on all the decisions (he was really good). My in-laws re-did a bathroom in their old house and the tile job was…imprecise, let’s say. Nothing lined up in a pleasing manner and there were a lot of weird cuts. It bothered me every time I saw it.

Kendra Robinson

My biggest advice to anyone doing a remodel/gut rehab is to do a full set of design drawings of every elevation of each room, showing windows, moldings, outlets, lights, sinks, tile layout etc. Review these with your builder and discuss if there are options for reducing costs with minor adjustments. I know this was not exactly an option on this project due to the timing and the many design decisions being made during construction, but for your own project take the time up front for this process you will save $ and possibly settling for something that you don’t love.


Helpful read. More details please. I love when people go in depth. Doing a renovation on a rental home, so nothing nearly as fancy but still I suffered decision paralyze. Especially since money is a big factor, trying to figure out what is durable, attractive, but not too costly was a real brain teaser. Wanted to go more green/renewable too but trying to do everything got to be too much and I had to compromise. I ended up spending a lot of money on “boring” internal stuff like copper pipes and better heating which no one will see but hopefully will improve the life of the building.


Can you show a closeup if the paint texture you reference?


Make as many decisions as possible before work begins.
Consulting a designer at the start of your planning is well worth the money because she will save you from making costly mistakes.
Make a list of must haves vs like to haves so you don’t blow your budget.
Determine your flooring first – get the right material and finish that will endure for 20 years. Once that is set, you can pick colors and materials for the rest.
It’s always possible to plan for a phase 2. For example, new appliances, backsplash, expensive light fixtures are things that can easily be added later.
Listen to your trades but don’t let them design for you.
When you don’t know what to do, wait and do some research.
I like to order materials and fixtures so they are onsite before work starts (side note, check the boxes and make sure the orders are right, everything is included and nothing is broken when they arrive).

Paula Carr

Our GC had design suggestions. Some we took; others we didn’t. I was happy to have the suggestions, as long as he didn’t insist on doing things his way.


While the texture walls are more common in the west, they are not in the east. I live in Nashville and no one uses anything except smooth walls, except for apartments which have the textured walls. The textured walls have a stigma because of this. For the plaster, it went out about ten years ago and has yet to come back. Smooth walls are more expensive, but also have a more luxurious feel. It’s worth the difference.


Thanks for this great resource! I would have known none of this.

sharon Avneri

Gorgeous! May I know where the two accent chairs in the living room are from? as well as the day bed? Thanks so much!

the chairs are room and board and the daybed is katy skelton xx


Taking pics or video of the open walls (and when appropriate noting key measurements) is incredibly valuable for future modifications and renovations. Knowing where I had installed extra backing in my bathrooms made it so much easier when we changes sinks years later and knew right away where we had adequate support for their heavier weight.

I also find it valuable when the budget is tight to know which things can easily be upgraded later when more money might be available? Do I love my current kitchen cabinet hardware? Not really, but for $300 it is fine. The beautiful, I will want to touch it everyday, $200 hardware can be swapped in later.

Finally, we learned to find out what your contractors and subs really excel at doing. We had the contractor make a credenza for an alcove and it costs about $1000 more than if I had gone to my usual cabinet guy simply because cabinet guys makes them all day long and have efficiencies of time and scale. Duh me.

Ali Henrie

Yes to all of this!!! You learn so much from building and sometimes the hard way:)


Smooth coat is totally worth it! ?

Leigh S

Hah! I was going to say the opposite about listening to electrical contractors! I love my electrician but I REALLY wish I would not have listened to his advice about putting multiple fixtures on the same switch (it’s easier and quicker for them and I was paying time and materials, so he thought he was doing me a favor). But now, for example, I have two lights on the same switch in my bedroom and I hate it! Same thing in our dining room and living room. One light = one control. Big mistake. Oh, and always use dimmers. Great post!


I’m in Iowa and orange peel is the norm for all of the newer houses – newer meaning since they started using drywall rather than plaster. My sister did a reno in rural Iowa and wanted smooth walls for her master bedroom and I remember that it cost a little bit more just to make sure it was perfectly smooth – I think it took more time was all. But then she also said it really sucked up the paint a lot more – not sure if she just didn’t prime first or what the issue was there.


Emily, you are totally being ripped off. I’m sorry and it’s not right. I watched with my own eyes to see how this is done. Just bought a new house and had all the walls skim coated because they were textured. Yes, it’s expensive. 9k for my 3300 sq foot home. BUT. We had MANY large patches and even whole walls where drywall was ripped out after skim coating and my handyman fixed it SO fast and SO easily. He got the sheetrock , put it in place and smoothed the seams with mud. A tiny bit of sanding and it was ready for paint. It literally takes 10 minutes to an hour to do. ANYONE WHO TELLS YOU THAT YOU NEED TO SKIMCOAT OVER ENTIRE WALLS AND CEILINGS ON TOP OF DRYWALL IS LYING TO YOU AND STEALING YOUR MONEY. Readers, you should have SMOOTH WALLS for cheap unless you already have textured walls. FFOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY DO NOT SPRAY TEXTURE ON A BRAND NEW HOME. Especially a 1-2 million dollar home!!!! Emily, you should not have had any texture on any walls in that Portland house. I’m SO OVER all these scam artists… Read more »


I agree with this post. This is my understanding of how drywall is done. Where I live, smooth walls are not a luxury. I have always been confused when Emily writes about this…I thought maybe there was a west-coast cultural nuance I was missing. ?


I think earlier posters have clarified that it’s probably the difference between Level 4 (seams taped and mudded with the edges feathered, primer/paint over bare drywall – the norm in the Midwest/Northeast and what we have in our 2007 house in the Southeast) and a Level 5 total skim coat, which I have never heard of *except* if you are trying to replicate the look of a plaster wall with drywall in an old-house renovation. That’s the only logical use case to me.


Iowa here again, I forgot to mention that they also do a knock down texture in some homes. From what I gather it is basically just lightly smoothing over the orange peel before it is fully set. No idea why. And for some reason the local builders are really big on the rounded corners which I find terribly annoying.

Jillian Lare

I’m in Iowa too but from Pennsylvania. This whole thing baffled me when I moved here. Of course walls are smooth! What else would they be? But the contractors looked at me like I was insane. And heaven forbid you want a smooth ceiling…they flat out won’t do it. I hate knockdown or orange peel on walls.


Also, let me please add this.. contractors and painters and etc etc will lie to you and upcharge you if they think you’re wealthy. My first bid for skim coating and painting my entire house (interior and exterior) was 30k. I told the guy- no way absolutely not. Absurd number. He immediately dropped his price to 20k and said- you have to understand, you live in Boulder and people automatically think you have millions of dollars. Find a honest hardworking person and never let them go. Our handyman carpenter we eventually found is priceless because he is HONEST, hardworking, and reliable. So many of them lie and cheat and take advantage- especially with women. Most especially women with a little money.


Yes — we live in Colorado Springs (ie: not expensive) but in The Old North End neighborhood (expensive for our city) and I’ve heard the same thing from neighbors here.

Maggie S

My son lived in Cambridge MA and they used to call being up-charged because of living in an expensive area “the Cambridge Discount”


Yes! In Australia, we call it POST CODE-ISM,
We live in an afluent suburb and we are comfortable, not ‘wealthy’, every single time we grt a quote I state to not “load yhe price for the suburb. ”
Post code-ism…it’s a thing!


Our architect forgot to put window sill height on our drawings. We had to have at least three windows reframed because the framing guys just guessed at the window height. It didn’t cost me more money (I caught it early), but reframing did take time.


We recently renovated our bathroom. My husband works in commercial construction and was able to skillfully complete pretty much every aspect of the labor, which was amazing. However, we were on a time crunch to finish, and two years after we substantially “completed” the project, my vanity sconces are still not installed, the space next to the bath/shower combo for the built-in cabinet is still open with exposed framing, and the marble basketweave mosaic floor was never sealed. That floor is BY FAR my biggest regret! It is gorgeous and period-appropriate in our 1930s home, but so impractical!!! It’s impossible to keep clean and was difficult and time consuming to install. We’re fixing to sell our house, and we already plan on replacing that floor. I so wish we would have done a larger format tile that was easier to clean, so we could have enjoyed it ourselves.


Truth! Could not agree with your thoughts on dry walls and painting enough. I put myself through grad and undergrad school by apartment painting in NY and Boston. Spent so much time educating clients, particularly those who had not gone through the process before and wanted to save money. It was excruciating sometimes. Dry walls and skim coating PROPERLY are not easy and take skill and time. Clients often do not realize this or just did not want to accept it. Same with painting for that matter. Cut the edges twice so the paint does not fade out in a year on the edges. At least two coats of paint and it looks even better with more coats, particularly with dark or vibrant colors. Prime, and tint your primer the same coat as the paint. Buy the expensive paint! So worth it: less paint covers more, lasts longer and looks so much better. Buy good quality brushes and rollers. Farrow and Ball is the bomb. Years later and I still walk into apartments and immediatley see lousy paint jobs and poor work more often than you would think possible. Have to stop myself from laughing sometimes. Often new constriction, and… Read more »

Jamie Kirk

Thoughts on Benjamin Moore? Everyone here uses Sherwin Williams and I’m just not impressed by them. I don’t know the cost between Farrow & Ball and Benjamin Moore offhand.


Good general comparison of paint prices


The BM paints (top of the line) I’ve used are wonderful, thick like pudding (about 66$ dollars a gallon).
Also like F&B, beautiful colors (about $110 a gallon). Husband remarked it smelled like clay not paint as I was applying. There is clay in it. Not so washable (equivalent of a flat finish). Colors came off onto rag as I was washing offspring’s vomit off wall. Not all the color, like a tinge.


Benjamin Moore best quality paint is fine. But there is nothing like Farrow and Ball for interiors, just do not get matte finish because that marks up when touched. Farrow and Ball is expensive, no doubt, but aside from the fab colors and the way the light plays off its clay pigment, it took two cans of the most expensive Ben Moore to give my living room two coats. I repainted with one can of Farrow and Ball with another brand of tinted primer underneath, so it ended up being much cheaper and looked so much better than the B. Moore. (Sorry B. Moore, I think you you are swell but… F & B. Behr is just not a brand I would ever personally use. No comparison to the other two brands mentioned.) I tinted the primer myself with a about a cup of cheaper paint I had. In fact, you don’t even need real primer unless you are covering up a very different, bold or dark color. I mix together old white or beige paint and tint it to use as primer. Stick blenders are great for this. Allow as much drying time as possible between coats and before… Read more »


Thank you for all this information J! So helpful!

Anne Davis

I had an electrician/handywoman hang a light fixture over a client’s dining table. The problem was that the electrical box was off center so if the table was centered under it it would be pushed off center of the room. I had other things for her to do as well and thought she’d start on another thing on the checklist before getting to the dining fixture so I showed up about a half hour after she did. And low and behold, the first thing she did was hang the dining fixture to drop where it was which meant the dining table was too close to one wall. She also cut the excess cable so there was no way the change it. We had to purchase another fixture that we could swag over about a foot so the table was centered in the space. Lesson – always be there or always communicate exactly what you need done.


I’m smack in the middle of a renovation and I have the MOST amazing interior designer and general contractor. Between the two of them we have absolutely avoided what could have been miserably expensive mistakes. Granted we aren’t done yet, but I can’t recommend enough to get good pro help. My project isn’t big and fancy at all, but the extra dollars we have spent on good pros has saved us at least thousands of dollars.

that’s amazing!!

Go To Top