HOUSE BEAUTIFUL Decorating your first home -- with or without professional help

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"When we got back from our honeymoon, we didn't have to sleep on the floor exactly. But our living room was totally empty."

The recollection of Silver Spring newlywed Heidi Ingram, 22, describes a situation that many young married couples confront.

With wedding plans so all-consuming, details such as decorating a first home together often don't get attended to until after the honeymoon.

To help prospective brides and grooms get a head start on designing their new home, we asked decorating pros for some tips on making the job easier.

Setting a budget

First you need to decide how much you're willing to spend, immediately and then over the next few years. In addition to allotting money for such things as furniture, floor coverings, and painting and wallpaper, you may want to budget some for professional design advice. Keep in mind, however, that many retail furniture stores will offer consultation with decorators for free. For couples who want more personal attention, hiring a decorator for a one-time consultation or longer-term advice might be worth the money.

It was for Scott and Mary Carol Flewelling, a young Rodgers Forge couple in their first home.

The Flewellings, both 31, had all the basic furniture pieces. "But I knew we needed something to tie [them] all in together," says Ms. Flewelling, an accountant with Legg Mason. "Rather than spend a lot of money with a hit-or-miss approach, I decided to hire someone professional. Since I don't have to run around to a million different stores, I figured this way I'd actually save time and money."

Starting out

Most interior designers recommend that whether you're getting professional help or taking the do-it-yourself approach, you should make a list of what you have and what you need before you start shopping.

"Get a picture in your mind of what you'd like [your first home] to look like. Cut out photos of styles that you like," says Susan Dixon, a designer for Ikea.

Similarly, Joan Rush, a design consultant for Ethan Allen Home Interiors, recommends that couples plan ahead. "That's what's great about a game plan. There might be minor changes but it's something you're working toward," she says.

Armed with lists, color swatches and perhaps a room diagram sketched out on a napkin, let your vision of the perfect home guide you to a furniture store.

But don't forget to measure before you go. You need room dimensions and should also have measurements for windows, doors and stairs.

Recalling her own mistakes, Ms. Dixon says, "We bought a sectional couch that didn't fit down the stairs. Fortunately, my dad was in construction. We actually had them cut down the wall and take off doors."

Furniture investments

If you don't have anything except a tight budget, you'll want to determine what pieces you really want to invest in and what things you can get inexpensively.

"Always buy quality upholstery," says Stuart Rehr, vice president for interior design for George Vaeth Associates, a Columbia-based decorating firm.

He also points out that your first living room couch could be used in a family room or recreation room years later if it's a quality piece.

Helga Willemain, a design consultant for Ethan Allen Home Interiors, suggests purchasing a quality bedroom suite "because it's something not replaced too often. It's redone and redecorated over the years with the fabrics [not furniture]."

As for furniture style, Ms. Willemain recommends buying pieces with clean, straight lines because they match almost any other style. She also says, "Especially at the beginning, stay with the neutrals and add colors with pillows, throws, flowers -- things that can be replaced. . . . You can always pick up a print or plaid or stripe later."

Storage systems that can be extended are an especially good bet for newlyeds, says Mr. Rehr. "Look at places like Ikea and Scan. You can start small and add pieces later."

Backyard bargains

For extremely tight budgets, the used-furniture market is the practical solution to an empty room, Mr. Rehr says.

Picking up minor seating elements and small tables for less money is smart, he adds. But pay attention to the difference between quality and cost. "Older things are often higher quality," he says.

He suggests making an adventure out of shopping at second-hand and antique shops, church bazaars and yard sales. "You really can find things in unusual places. . . . The experience of buying [such] a piece can add value to it -- sentimental value."

When shopping at antique and second-hand shops, you especially may want to consider buying at least one versatile piece, such as an armoire, which can be used in the bedroom to store clothing or in the family room to hold the TV and other entertaining equipment.

Mr. Rehr praises the versatility of the two-seat settee, another staple of the used-furniture business. "They can go almost anywhere -- an eat-in kitchen, for example," he says.

Phil Behrens, manager of Caplan's Refinishing and Upholstery in Ellicott City, makes several suggestions for buying used or antique furnishings. "Look for pieces with a good, distinct grain that aren't missing a lot of veneer. . . . Tap along the top to see if the veneer is bubbling or loose. . . . The first thing you should do with a used wood piece is make sure the joints are glued and tightened up. If they are loose, clean up the joints and re-glue [with wood glue]. You can use electrical tape as brackets or tie with rope [to keep the joint in place while the glue dries]."

Mr. Behrens warns against buying used furniture that has been painted if you plan to do the refinishing yourself. Paint is hard to strip and is costly to have removed professionally.

White-washing, faux-marble and granite-finish kits and painting techniques are options for do-it-yourself refinishing.

Be creative

Being flexible about how you use what you do have can compensate for what you don't have. For example, "Chairs meant to go around a table, if upholstered, can go elsewhere, like in a study," says Mr. Rehr of George Vaeth Associates.

Ms. Ingram, the Silver Spring newlywed, says, "Our TV is on an antique chest in the living room . . . and our stereo and speakers take up as much room as possible."

Ms. Rush of Ethan Allen shares several tricks for decorating in a large room with little furniture: "Sort of float the furniture in the middle of the room. A big vase put on the floor or large house plants fill in space very well."

Accessorize

The lessons of furnishing a home also apply to accessorizing one: Buy used pieces or low-cost items when necessary. Start out with flexible pieces and build from there.

"The used market is a fertile source for lighting," says Mr. Rehr. "A new lamp might cost $100. At a garage sale, it will cost about $10. . . . Track lighting is also great for starting out. You can always add more later."

For windows, Ms. Dixon of Ikea considers mini-blinds to be a standard for anyone starting out. "You can build upon them later with valances and other treatments."

"In the bedroom, we made sheets into swags," says Ms. Ingram.

Fabric can be used in several ways to add stylish touches. It can be draped across rods for window treatments or tacked on the wall for color -- a technique Mr. Rehr recommends for people unable to paint their walls because of lease agreements.

Borders are another option for renters. "They're easy to put up and you don't have to glue them entirely," says Ethan Allen's Ms. Willemain. "You may want to glue the ends and a few places in the middle. Or use double-sided adhesive or tacks."

If you can paint, Mr. Rehr says, "doing walls in different colors is an extremely cheap and great way to add some personality to a room."

For art, most decorators agree that framed posters are perfect for couples starting out. They add color and personality to a room quickly and they're the least expensive way of getting rid of those bare walls.

Though accessorizing is often the last step in the decorating process, there's no need for it to be an afterthought.

Curtis Cummings, a senior designer at Papier Interiors Inc. and the Flewellings' decorator, concentrated his efforts on accessorizing the living and dining rooms. Small touches like a new area rug, reupholstered chairs, custom-made window treatments and pillows, some floral arrangements and a bit of carpentry gave the couple's home a totally new look.

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