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Our Top 10 Renovation AND Decoration Mistakes To Avoid

This is a fun piece I wrote for Cup of Jo to promote my book before it came out. Naturally (and to no one’s surprise), I overwrote it. Ha. So this is the extended version with a bunch of beautiful photos from the book. Enjoy!

After years of documenting my design projects on the internet for the world to watch, criticize, and hopefully enjoy, in 2018 I found myself once again crying in the shower (as working moms do), extremely frustrated with the home renovation/remodeling process. I wished so badly that there was a book full of beautiful rooms and real life anecdotes to help educate and support me through this inevitably very stressful process. I was so sick of feeling dumb, being mansplained by my contractor, and doubting my every decision. I had so much of the information and had been writing about it for years on the blog, but I wanted it all (plus more) to be in ONE BOOK. I pitched the book the next day and four short (!!) years later it’s here now, in the world. While the world changed dramatically since that tearful shower day (2020 was like, “HA I’ll give you something to cry about”) the information in this book has become even more and more relevant as so many people, trapped indoors, wanted to make their homes a little bit better. The New Design Rules, is a guidebook through the renovation and decoration process, from my perspective, with my personal mistakes and anecdotes and filled with 330 pages of gorgeous photos from 28 different creative homes in every style. It’s full of everything from “kitchen design rules”, “bathroom makes to avoid”, “how high should you really hang art” to “how do you make a builder grade home have charm?” My goal was to help people learn the rules of design so they can creatively break them, thus making a choice, not a mistake. So that’s my pitch for the book and it’s not just for those of us privileged enough to be able to remodel – it’s for those who love to decorate, style, or DIY (or just stare at pretty photos like what you’ll see in this post). I hope you enjoy and more importantly learn something to help you in your next design project and shed less shower tears 🙂

Avoid “Builder Grade” Everything (Here’s How To Add Some Charm)

design by corre marine | styled by velinda hellen | photo by sara ligorria-tramp

You are NOT alone if you live in a builder-grade house. Have hope that there are ways to add the charm that might be missing. This kitchen by Corre Marie (which I don’t think was builder-grade), shows great examples of what you could to do add charm with simple materials and some high-impact choices. The lines of it are simple – U-shaped shaker cabinetry with butcher block top, painted in a bold color that packs a huge punch (and is totally doable to do in an affordable way). The subway tile is affordable and classic but adds so much old-world character. The shelf brackets, pendants, and rug are design elements that are easy ways to swap out for more one-of-a-kind antique pieces like these. Heck, how she hung a painting and leaned that mirror on the tile creates so much interest. And interest = charm, even if it is added after the house is built.

Avoid The “Too Small Rug”

design by dee murphy | styled by velinda hellen | photo by sara ligorria-tramp

The “too small rug” is such a common mistake to make – you aren’t alone. But it’s very noticeable and can throw off the whole room. In this living room, Dee Murphy not only followed the rules (by having at least the front two legs of all the furniture on the rug) but she layered the vintage rug OVER a simpler sisal rug to ground the conversation area even more. Good move. We wrote more about living room rules here and I also did a super dated but still fun video about rug size here.

Don’t Chase Every Trend When It Comes To Permanent Finishes

design by ben medansky | styled by velinda hellen and erik kenneth staalberg | photo by sara ligorria-tramp

You can absolutely still follow new stylish design ideas and bring them into your home, but it’s safest to do what Ben Mendansky did with the light fixtures here. Y’all, he ombre’d the yellow from light to dark. Yes, take risks! Just be really, really careful leaning hard into trends in your permanent finishes like tile, flooring, windows, or architectural details. If you feel nervous as I often do, then think about taking your risks in lighting, furniture, and decor (elements that don’t require demo and hiring out to change).

Don’t Have Too Much Furniture, Even If You Have The Space

design by rosa beltran | styled by velinda hellen | photo by sara ligorria-tramp

It’s easy to clutter up a space (I used to have hoarding tendencies so I get it) but remember that there is something really lovely about negative space and having less. YES, you want enough furniture for a space to function and to seat everyone properly, but a room like Rosa Beltran‘s gorgeous den has enough with the sofa – and having less really showed off the other elements she DID have – i.e. that incredible floral pattern and that herringbone brick floor.

Don’t Strip Out Character In Vintage Homes

design by victoria sass of prospect refuge studio | styled by velinda hellen and erik kenneth staalberg | photo by sara ligorria-tramp

For those of us lucky enough to live in older, vintage homes, you might be tempted to start fresh if you are remodeling (and you might not have the gorgeous original paneling that Victoria Sass did – lucky lady). Maybe some elements feel really basic (like a white brick fireplace) or a little awkward (like unnecessary broom closets or niches). But think HARD about removing them. Like people, sometimes those awkward moments, age spots, and quirks are what you’ll come to love about your home because they are unique to YOU. And demo-ing something old and high quality just for the sake of “new” and “better” is hard on the planet, so really think about it before you do 🙂

Know Your Fixtures Before You Chose The Height Placement

design by christa martin | styled by velinda hellen and erik kenneth staalberg | photo by sara ligorria-tramp

Hopefully, you only have to learn this once (or if you read the book – avoid this and other mistakes altogether). If you are doing a larger remodel you might be redoing the electrical and plumbing, and the new plan for what is “inside the walls” happens early on in the process. You might think “two sconces there” and “a wall mount faucet here” is good enough, but the specifics of the fixture often will change the height and location. For instance, if Christa Martin had not wanted a vessel sink in the bathroom above, then her wall mount faucets would have been way too high for an under-mount sink, or if she had wanted sconces where the stems curved up 10 inches then that junction box would have had to move down (or the sconce changed). Even if you don’t have the exact specs, just know the style of the fixture to get as close as possible to avoid breaking through fresh drywall.

Don’t Hang Curtains Too High Off The Floor

design by rosa beltran | styled by velinda hellen | photo by sara ligorria-tramp

High water curtains can make a room look a little silly, but most big box stores only stock certain length readymade curtains (84″ is almost ALWAYS too short, FYI). Always size up (90-96″ usually works for 8-9′ ceilings) so it hangs long enough to touch or almost touch the floor. You can hang the rod near the ceiling (or halfway between window and ceiling like in this case, not at the top of the window), but always try to get as close to the floor as you can. We have a fun graph and more photos in this post. Also, please note THERE IS A BUNNY ON THE BED!!!!!

Don’t Demo Your Room/Home Without A Plan

design by christa martin | styled by velinda hellen and erik kenneth staalberg | photo by sara ligorria-tramp

This is just a general warning that the remodeling process has a lot of moving parts and is full of delays that are out of your control. If you don’t have a team in place, a fairly solid plan, permits, and even materials ordered before you demo you might end up living in construction for much, much longer. Sometimes your contractor will have to do exploratory work to figure out what is load-bearing, etc, but before you make your home or room totally unlivable, have your players in place and a general plan. I’m in the middle of a renovation right now and trust me, your patience will be tried over and over and over 🙂 At the end of it all, you might have a kitchen like this one by Christa Martin, but try to do as much prep work at the beginning as possible.

Vary The Art Configuration On Each Wall

art direction by emily henderson | design and styling assistance by emily bowser and julie rose | photo by sara ligorria-tramp

This is a great styling tip/formula that I’ve used in almost every room (including this one that my EHD team did in Atlanta). What you want to avoid is every wall having one similar piece of art, hung at the same height. Instead think about doing what we did here – mixing a gallery wall, mirror, shelves, leaning art, diptychs, or one large-scale piece of art. Even if you like a more minimal simple design (which I do) you want to vary the mediums or scale of the art so it doesn’t feel redundant and to give each piece its own power and moment.

Don’t Overlook What You May Already Have

design by sara ruffin costello | styled by velinda hellen and erik kenneth staalberg | photo by sara ligorria-tramp

I think in this world of everything at our fingertips (hello, internet shopping) it’s tempting to get rid of something old and replace it with the newer, younger (and likely cheaper) version. But before you do, look at your previously loved pieces with new eyes. If you love the shape and style but not the color or fabric you could do what Sara Ruffin Costello did and reupholster a vintage wingback in that insane statement patterned fabric. If the above room tempts you a bit, know that the rest of her incredible home in New Orleans is peppered through the book and knocks me down every time I see her creativity. That green paint, the floor tile, the door! She is incredible.

Listen, you will make mistakes in the renovation or decoration process, we all do. It’s part of the creative process. But, I hope this book can help you avoid as many as possible and unleash your creativity. And if you love the type of design info in this post and if the photos of these homes sparked joy in your design gut, then I hope you’ll like the book because It’s full of 330 pages of it 🙂

Opening Image Credits: Design by Corbett Tuck | Styled by Velinda HellenErik Kenneth StaalbergEmily Edith Bowser, and Julie Rose | Photo by Sara Ligorria-Tramp

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Erin Dae
2 years ago

It was a rough morning here getting kids out the door, so this post is a nice “inhale, exhale” moment for me to reset. Wishing you all a wonderful weekend! PS – the preorder banner is still showing up on the homepage talking about preordering to receive by May 10. Might want to update the graphic to “buy my book, available now!” or something like that. Mine came in the mail last week and I am LOVING it!

🥰 Rusty
2 years ago

“demo-ing something old and high quality just for the sake of “new” and “better” is hard on the planet, so really think about it before you do” 💓🌏💓

These photos are gor-g-eous!!!
I used a verrry similar colour paint to the  Sara Ruffin Costello pic, in my back porch area (it gets very artsy out there, lemme tell ya!🤣)


2 years ago

Does the book expand your curtain hanging advice with great looking photos showing creative solutions to work around baseboard heaters, radiators and those pesky 6ft wide, 2-3ft high shoulder-height windows that people often struggle with? Or is it more posh, aspirational eye candy for those with the bucks to replace everything?

2 years ago
Reply to  Sheila

Neither. For my perspective it provides advice for common situations but does not tackle unique reno or decorating challenges.

2 years ago

LOVE THIS!!!! I especially love the part about not removing a home’s original charm. My last house was exactly that. It was a 1925 home that had been fully renovated, sadly, it became builder grade hell with exposed brick, subway tile, and really bad granite.
My current home is a 1933 Tudor and is mostly original. I LOVE it! It’s fulfilling knowing that I own a piece of history and am trusted with keeping it intact.

🥰 Rusty
2 years ago
Reply to  Josh

Yesss!!! Same here😍

2 years ago

Did I miss the announcement of the design consult winner for preordering the book?

2 years ago
Reply to  L

It was announced on Instagram: a Laura, I believe.

2 years ago

Older homes were built by craftsmen and were built with much better quality materials than we typically get with new construction. New construction is often designed around how quickly it can be built (hence the current trend for oversized baseboards – they can cover up a lot of sloppy work). I had a client who wanted to cover all the coved plasterwork around her doorways with 6″ base and case to ‘modernize’ – luckily I was able to explain to her that the plaster work was a sign of a master craftsman that used to be available in any town but now you would need to search for a long time then pay a fortune to find someone capable of that level of detail.
Older homes were built to last for generations. Wood, tile and brick can last for a hundred years if maintained, and if the materials used are original, they are classic. A lot of new stuff has a 10 year warranty, including things like windows. Just some things to consider!

LA Lady
2 years ago
Reply to  Christa

What’s the definition of older? My home is 22 years old. What year did homes go from built to last to crappy?

2 years ago
Reply to  LA Lady

Good question but not sure a blanket date could be specified. Might be helpful to chat with an experienced home inspector in your area and ask what to look for/avoid. I grew up in a late 1950’s tract house that certainly wasn’t top quality in either materials or craftsman. My current 1966 home is a custom build that has really nice details – not a lick of molding anywhere, just a slim reveal of stained framing around doors, etc which required really exacting drywall work that I despair of replicating if I ever want to make changes.

2 years ago
Reply to  LA Lady

Probably post-WWII. In the 50s a ton of housing was needed and new housing tracks went up fast and cheap.

2 years ago
Reply to  LA Lady

I shouldn’t generalize, because of course many new homes are well-built! But there are definitely cases out there where a lot of tracts went up in a hurry, with a 10 year home warranty, and that’s how they were built – to last 10 years.

2 years ago
Reply to  LA Lady

In my area, the Midwest, most brick homes build before 1960s are pretty decent. It also depends on the quality and the level of detail given to begin with and other various features that are for pleasure and not just need. On the other hand, the older siding houses seem less solid, and a bit wonky. I’m not a fan

🥰 Rusty
2 years ago
Reply to  LA Lady

I think the gist of the comment is about tradespeople being craftspeople vs get it done quickly to move onto the next job.
22 years old is young.

blue (formerly anon)
2 years ago

I read this post before having to jump on an early morning call for work. I can’t believe there’s so few comments now that it’s “can I sneak away from work?” Friday afternoon.

I totally noticed the bunny rabbit on the bed even before the text said in “ALL CAPS” to please note the bunny. 🙂 I think a “hot tip” to avoid builder grade anything should be to include your “bunny, cat, dog, bird, lizard, fish, …. ” in any scene. 🙂

One other thing I’d suggest about “height placement” is that not everyone is as tall or short as you are…. so don’t think what works for you will work for all. (Every day when I have to duck to get into the shower and lean down to look in the mirror I wonder just how short were the people who thought this was a good height?!)

2 years ago

The previous owners of our house were short and my husband is 6’3″. The first thing we did when we moved in was replace the 5 ceiling fans with hanging lights in the hallways with shorter fixtures so that he could walk around without worrying about banging his head.

2 years ago
Reply to  Kate

Yes! My son is 6’8” and is currently having his first house’s kitchen and bathroom redone – the conundrum is heights of things all round. It definitely isn’t his forever house, but he doesn’t (obviously) know whether he will be there for 1 year or 5-10. Ten years is a loooong time to be bending unnecessarily over too-low fittings, but he has to go only at the top end of the ‘normal’ range for potential resale in a year or two! 🤷🏻‍♀️

2 years ago

Yeah …Art configuration is an important aspect…it changes the overall look itslef.