The Baltimore Sun

When Marilyn Weisman decided to stay in her four-bedroom Mount Washington home instead of selling it, she needed a fresh start.

In preparation for a move that didn't work out, Weisman had given away everything except the kitchen sink. Furniture, accessories and even her dinner plates were gone.

She had planned to buy all new furniture, but faced with an empty house, Weisman worked with Steve Appel, co-owner of Whitehead & Appel Design Studio, to help her with the transition. After applying new paint, rearranging rooms and buying new furniture, she saw the house she shared with her husband, Bernie, in a totally different light.

"It's gorgeous," said Weisman. "I guess we could have done all these things while I was in there. I never thought about it until I moved out, then moved back in."

Many homeowners are looking for ways to rediscover their living space the way Weisman did. But with the slumping housing market, home equity lines of credit harder to come by and big- ticket renovations fetching less return on the dollar, most are trying to do it on a tight budget.

Call it spring fever or call it just plain smart, savvy homeowners are finding inspired ways to re-create their space without breaking the bank.

Baltimore interior designers point out it doesn't have to cost a fortune. Color, de-cluttering and rearranging -- without purchasing all new furniture and the trimmings -- can help transform any home.

"A lot of people are concerned about fees and budget. We look for people to trust us and we encourage them to do things in small layers," said Appel.

Appel and business partner Lee Whitehead opened the design studio after moving their furniture and accessory store, Nouveau Contemporary Goods, to Belvedere Square last year. Housed in the same building as the furniture store, the interior design service grew from customers asking for help that went further than just picking out items for their homes.

"You really have to go beyond traditional interior design. You have to listen to the customer," said Appel.

For $125 an hour, Appel and Whitehead designers work with clients on jobs as small as one-room color consultations and up. New services such as retrofitting have been added. This service involves designing a plan to reuse what furniture, window treatments, art and accessories people already have when moving or downsizing, all the while saving money.

Appel said in light of the challenges in today's housing market, "people are even more energized to fix up their places instead of moving from big home to bigger home."

For Weisman, the changes, which included making the former den into a bedroom for her disabled husband, have made a world of difference.

"I feel like I have a whole new house," she said.

Nicolas Retsinas, director of Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies, said homeowners are opting for smaller projects, replacements and upkeep tasks as opposed to large remodeling jobs. The trend can be traced to the downturn in the housing market.

"Some money for remodeling came from refinancing homes. That's more difficult to access these days," said Retsinas.

Homeowners who thought the money spent on big-ticket renovations would be reflected in higher home appraisals and sales prices, also drove motivation for expensive projects. But that too has become more difficult to recoup.

"This has left homeowners somewhat weary and reluctant to engage in those large projects," he added.

Many designers say they are ready to help homeowners who are looking to give their homes a bright new look and have plenty of tips for decorating on the cheap.

"In today's world almost anything goes," said Stephanie Gamble, owner of the House Downtown.

Fresh accessories

Gamble, whose retail stores are located in Havre de Grace and Belvedere Square, suggests new pillows, throw rugs, lamp shades and a fresh coat of paint to brighten up a room on any budget. Punchy, colorful silk lampshades start at about $85, while a 6x9-foot Dash & Albert rug will cost about $195. She suggests icy blues, yellows and shades of grays as the "in" colors to go with.

If someone is confused on where to start, she offers her design services for $125 per hour, she says. "We always say if you really don't know, it's $125 worth of insurance," said Gamble.

Lee Raia, owner of Re/Create Your Space and Real Estate Styling in Baltimore said more people are scaling down the size of projects and opting to work with what they have.

"Two years ago, everyone was remodeling their kitchens. Now people are looking for more affordable updates," she said.

The right color paint on the wall and rearranging furniture are two sure bets when it comes to sprucing up a home. She also suggests what she calls "editing" or paring down items such as heavy, layered window treatments. "We move things into our home and continue to add more and more. There's a lot to be said for subtracting," said Raia, who charges $100 an hour for her redesign services.

For color consultations, she said it's important to take into account other colors found throughout the house and to find just the right hue to pull a room together.

Re/Create Your Space grew out of her business of staging homes for real estate agents, who would then ask her to make design changes to their own homes. "We tend to place a sofa in one spot and it never moves," she said. "Just moving things around can make a real difference."

Wise decisions

Laura Kimball, owner of LCK Interiors, said she finds more people thinking long-term about changes they are making to their houses.

"I think that's what the difference is," said Kimball, incoming president of the American Society of Interior Designers Maryland Chapter. "They are at the point they don't want to make a mistake, but need some guidance. It's the do-it-yourselfer meets the professional opinion."

Kimball taught a class recently on design secrets that produce the biggest bang for your buck. Her advice in sprucing up a home on a budget is to first spend a small amount of money up front to get a professional opinion in developing a design plan.

"If someone's working on a budget and they don't mind doing things themselves, that's where they can save money. But make those decisions wisely," said Kimball.

She offers an hourly rate of about $75 for services that include color consults and room redesigns as well as traditional interior design services.

John and Sarah Roderus first hired Kimball in 2004 when it was time to paint the walls of their Ellicott City home. For an initial investment of about $150, she suggested wall colors and rearranged furniture. Those small, economical revisions pulled the room together in a way they couldn't have without the help of a pro.

"She works with what you have," said Sarah Roderus. "With what I wanted our house to be like, it has exponentially magnified it. Our home is beautiful." She has since turned her friends and family onto Kimball's services and worked with her for many other projects around her house.

For homeowners who aren't ready to invite an interior designer into their homes, there's a company in California that lets them work with designers via the Internet.

For $250 per room, Designer provides an online interior design service aimed at streamlining the process while still offering top-of-the-line decorating. A short questionnaire, along with photos and measurements of the room are sent in. In about three weeks, a color board is sent with layout plans, custom paint colors, fabric, flooring suggestions and furniture options.


Area interior designers suggest these budget-conscious ways to rejuvenate tired rooms:

Open the drapery and wash windows to let more light in.

Pare down heavy or layered curtains for a lighter touch.

Add bright seasonal accent pillows, throw rugs or lampshades.

Add lamps for better light.

Try rearranging furniture to create a completely new look. Mix things up by taking furnishings from one room and using them in another.

Add live plants or fresh flowers. There are also many silk trees and plants on the market that look exactly like the real thing.

Clean and de-clutter rooms by taking out needless accessories. Try removing one or two pieces of furniture from each room to create a spacious look.

Don't be afraid of color on the walls. Find a shade to enhance what you already have. Many designers offer color consultations that can pull a room together for a professional look at a fraction of the cost. Wallpaper is also a great way to add color and now comes in finishes that resemble faux finishes.

Relax with the sound of an indoor fountain.

[ Nancy Jones-Bonbrest]

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