When Carolyn Leonhardt and her husband, Ted, sold their Seattle-based graphic design business more than a decade ago, she had no idea she would find herself in the home design/renovation business. After successfully remodeling three small cottages in the Napa Valley, word got out and she found herself with several clients looking for help with their renovations. Carolyn's remodels are not lavish affairs, but they're sensibly and tastefully refurbished and have taught her where to spend and where to save. How does she pull it off? As she tells us, “I study the space to understand how it does and does not work and try to use what is there when possible. Sometimes cosmetic work is enough—new cabinets, new appliances, etc. Other times, major surgery is required, but careful planning and smart choices can keep costs down.” Read on to learn Carolyn's secrets:
Photography by Douglas Sterling.
Above: One of the small 1920s cottage renovated by Carolyn. Here she opened up the roof and added French doors with transom windows above to let light into the living room.
1. Pay attention to the foundation. If you are buying a house, ask the agent about setbacks and lot coverage. Not every house is expandable. Always examine the foundation before you buy, as replacement is costly and disruptive. Usually it's most cost effective to maintain the footprint and envelope of the existing building.
2. I like to make at least one spectacular change. I think the biggest bang for the buck is to open up a ceiling. If you have an attic or a pitched roof, it's likely that you can open it up. It's not cheap, but it's life changing.
Above: The doors in this small three-bedroom cottage are the standard 7 feet but the ceiling was opened up to 15 feet at the highest point to provide a greater sense of space.
3. Keep the same size windows if possible. That said, you can also make a spectacular change with really big windows or French doors. Increasing natural light is always a good investment. If you have single glass windows—even if they're in decent shape—it may be worth replacing them with insulated windows, which will save money on heating and cooling and also help reduce sound.
4. If possible, use existing plumbing locations. In the UK and Canada, plumbing is on the outside of the building, but in the US it is in the walls, so changing it requires much more work. (Many houses have a crawl space, or a basement, which makes plumbing and wiring more accessible.)
5. Insulate all exterior walls and ceilings. If you open up any internal walls, put in insulation, particularly around bedrooms and bathrooms. It's cheap and it helps reduce sound.
Above: Custom cabinets in the kitchen with a marble countertop. An existing window size was kept above the sink and replaced with double-paned glass.
6. If you can afford it, buy custom cabinets. If you're on a budget, Ikea cabinets are a great buy.
7. A word about countertops—remember resale. Spend a little extra money here. The newest quartz (Caesarstone and Silestone, for example) products include many lovely and discrete options. Also, IKEA still sells great, well-priced Numerar butcher block counters.
8. Unless you are a serious cook, or money is no object, don't buy an expensive commercial-style range and fridge. There are many mid-priced, great-looking appliances out there. Appliances are standard sizes, so start with what you can afford, you can always move up later. Save your money for custom cabinets and countertops.
9. There's a trend now to make kitchens and bathrooms enormous. They are also the most expensive rooms to build. Neither room needs to be huge, but they should be nicely done . A nice touch in a shared bathroom is a separate room for the toilet. It can be pretty small, but include a window if you can, and if not, add an exhaust fan.
10. Buy a good toilet—the new ones are quiet and use less water. Be sure to check reviews, as most showrooms don’t have working models. The Toto Drake ($243 at Amazon) is a favorite of mine. Dual flush models are a good option.
11. Custom glass shower doors cost about $1,500. Great-looking shower curtains cost next to nothing, and you can change them out regularly to get a new look. Plus, you don’t have to squeegee them every time you take a shower.
Above: A small pass through leading to the kitchen was turned into a study painted a dark color to make it feel bigger.
12. I'm a natural light freak and also a big fan of incandescent lighting, though this is no longer P.C. The good news is that CFL's and LED's have come a long way in the last few years. I use dimmers (almost) everywhere. It adds dollars to a project, but lets you completely control the lights. Many CFL's are also dimmable now, as are LED's.
13. Don’t overlook the big hardware stores as a source for materials and inspiration. Home Depot has Velux skylights, Daltile, Kohler cast iron bathtubs and sinks, and a pretty decent selection of kitchen and bathroom faucets.
14. Spend money on door hardware, light fixtures, and faucets. Think of it as jewelry for the home.
15. Last, but not least, never underestimate color. Paint has the power to transform. It is fast (immediate gratification), and even the good stuff is relatively inexpensive, and a careful amateur can do a good job. Hate your house? Try paint first.
Interested in seeing one of Carolyn's houses? Go to Spring Street Cottage in St. Helena.