Bay window dining nook, Sherwin Williams SW9165 Gossamer Veil

The Best Light Gray Paint Colors for Walls

This post was originally published in March 2015. It was updated in February 2020 to reflect my new favorite light gray paint colors for a fresh and updated interior.

The gray paint trend is still going strong, and I am often asked about my favorite light gray paint colors for walls. In this post, I’ve rounded up some of my top choices from both Benjamin Moore and Sherwin Williams.

It’s very important to read through the descriptions so that you can understand the undertone of each color and how it might work in your home. The other day I did a consult with a client to select paint colors for her open living room / dining room / kitchen. The home had been a builder spec home in a new development, and the client had re-painted when they moved in but felt the color, which was a very cool blue-gray, wasn’t quite right.

Her instincts were right, and I could definitely see how she’d had trouble selecting the right paint color. The builder had used a pretty stone on the fireplace with warm gray undertones, tan carpeting, medium dark wood floors (not too red, which was good), espresso colored cabinets, and then granite countertops that were mostly gold with flecks of burgundy. The fixed finishes were all over the place, and the gray they’d picked was too cool to coordinate with any of them.

I brought my Sherwin-Williams and Benjamin Moore paint decks along with loose swatches of some of my favorite colors. I also brought drafting tape and a piece of white foam core. I like to tape the loose swatches to the foam core and then move the foam core around the room. Plus, the white of the foam keeps the existing wall color from distorting the color of the swatches.

We eventually settled on three options for the living area that were all warm grays and then three options for blue-greens in the kitchen and dining area. We discussed painting the cabinets ivory to better coordinate with the cottage style the client prefers.

These are my go-to, warm, light gray paint colors and my starting point in just about any room where I know I’m not doing a color or a beige.

Keep reading for my favorite light gray paint colors for walls…

Sherwin Williams Agreeable Gray SW7029

Agreeable Gray by Sherwin Williams is definitely one of my top favorite colors for walls. It’s a warm stony color right in between true gray and beige. The undertone of the color leans more towards yellow-orange than toward green.

Patterned tile floor, master bathroom walk-in shower, Sherwin Williams Agreeable Gray
Bathroom design by Jillian Lare

Benjamin Moore Revere Pewter HC-172

I know that everyone (on Pinterest) is loving Revere Pewter these days and with good reason. It has a little more pigment in it than the Sherwin-Williams light grays (second swatch down on the strip) and has a more yellow-green undertone

Light stacked stone fireplace with Samsung Frame TV
Living room design by Jillian Lare

I used Revere Pewter on the board and batten wainscot in my modern farmhouse bathroom remodel and paired it with Benjamin Moore Balboa Mist on the drywall above.

corner bathroom vanity with wall cabinet asymmetrical vanity caesarstone vanilla noir
Bathroom remodel in progress by Jillian Lare

Sherwin Williams Worldly Gray SW7043

Worldly Gray is cooler than Agreeable Gray with more green in the undertone. It’s a beautiful color that looks lovely with natural wood.

Since so many of you have asked, the print in the photo below is actually a tea towel. You can purchase one online.

Sherwin Williams Worldly Gray Jillian Lare Des Moines Interior Designer
Kitchen remodel by Jillian Lare

Sherwin Williams Gossamer Veil SW9165

Without a doubt, Sherwin Williams Gossamer Veil is my new favorite go-to light gray paint color. I feel like it’s a well-kept secret, and I have been shamelessly using it on repeat for the last several months.

I love this particular shade of gray with slightly creamy white trim for creating a fresh and light space that isn’t all white. It has no strong undertone that I can perceive, but is probably a green gray. It’s stunning with natural wood tones.

Modern marble fireplace with built ins on each side, linear fireplace with Samsung Frame TV by Jillian Lare Des Moines Interior Designer
Living room design by Jillian Lare

Benjamin Moore Classic Gray 1548

Classic Gray has become another staple of mine lately. It’s lighter than Revere Pewter and doesn’t tend to go as green. It’s a warmer light gray with a touch more pigment in it than Gossamer Veil.

Dining Nook Benjamin Moore Classic Gray
Kitchen Remodel by Jillian Lare
interior designer des moines south of grand bathroom remodel
Bathroom remodel by Jillian Lare

Benjamin Moore Edgecomb Gray HC-173

Edgecomb Gray is right below Revere Pewter in the Benjamin Moore paint deck, but Edgecomb Gray has more yellow in it than Revere Pewter and less pigment. It’s a wonderful alternative to beige and much more versatile.

Sherwin Williams Useful Gray SW7050

Useful Gray has a yellow-green undertone to it and also looks great with natural wood. It’s light and fresh feeling.

Sherwin Williams Repose Gray SW7050

Repose Gray is another versatile gray that is slightly deeper than some of the other grays on this list. It has a warm stoney undertone to it, and I particularly love it for bedrooms.

Sherwin Williams Drift of Mist SW9166

Drift of Mist is another new favorite of mine. It’s on the same strip as Gossamer Veil in the Sherwin Williams paint deck, but the two colors are not variations on the same hue. Drift of Mist is ever so slightly cooler.

All of these grays work really well for rooms with lighter hardwood floors and for rooms with wood trim. If you prefer darker colored walls or just a little more pigment than these light grays, you can always use the third swatch down on the Sherwin-Williams paint strip or the fourth or fifth swatch on the Benjamin Moore strip (for the non HC colors). I like to use the lightest color on the strip for the ceiling instead of stark white.

If you’d like a free printable PDF download with all of the paint colors I shared in this post with their respective numbers, click the button below. It’s a handy reference to take with you the next time you are headed to the paint store.

If you’d like to learn more about how I choose colors for my interior design clients, I’ve written an ebook with my best tips. These are the exact steps I use to reduce mistakes and do-overs when choosing paint colors for both interiors and exteriors.

budget friendly guest room tips

Twelve Ideas to Update Your Guest Room before the Holidays

budget friendly guest room tips

Twelve easy budget friendly ideas to update your guest room before the holidays. - Jillian Lare

It’s the last week of October, which means the holidays are right around the corner! If you’re expecting overnight guests this holiday season, now would be a great time to spruce up your guest bedroom to ensure that they experience a comfortable and cozy visit. It doesn’t have to be time-consuming or cost a lot of money to add those extra little touches that show your guests you care.

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which means that if you click on one of the product links, I may receive a small commission. This helps me to support my blog and allows me to continue to make free content. I only recommend products that I have used and loved or would purchase myself. Thank you so much for your support!

I like to think about my favorite hotels and how they create a standout experience. It rarely has anything to do with how expensive or luxurious the hotel is. Often, it’s those thoughtful little touches like a free bottle of water, a soft duvet cover, or a place to charge my phone by the bed that stick in my mind after we’ve gone home. So, here are twelve ideas for your guest bedroom that you can tackle over the next several weeks to create a memorable stay for your guests.

Upgrade your bedding

My goal for my guest bed is for it to be as comfortable (if not more so) than my guest’s bed at home. Comfy bedding does not have to break the bank. My favorite place to purchase sheets and blankets is actually Target. They are high quality and come in super cute patterns, which often go on sale.

The key to comfortable bedding is in the mix. Different people like different types of bedding. I start with a padded mattress cover and add super soft sheets and pillowcases. Then I layer on a light cotton blanket for summer. In winter, I might swap it out for a cozy fleece blanket. I add a light quilt to top it off and drape a folded duvet with cover to the end of the bed. If my guest gets hot, she can kick off the duvet, but she has plenty of options in case she gets cold.

Pull the bed away from the wall

Amber Interiors

This is not college, and your guest bed should not be pushed up against the wall unless there is literally no other option. It’s definitely not fun for the person who has to sleep along the wall (usually me), especially if the bed is only a full size. You need a scant 24″ between the bed and wall, but even 18″ would do in a pinch.

Once you’ve moved the bed, make sure to add a surface and a light on each side. This could be as simple as a wall-mount shelf paired with a sconce in a tight space. Ideally, each side of the bed should have a light source and a surface for a glass of water.

Add a chair or bench

Brady Tolbert Bedroom Makeover

Brady Tolbert via Emily Henderson

Consider adding a chair to a corner or bench at the foot of the bed if you have room. It’s the perfect spot to toss clothes at the end of the day, set down a purse or bag, or put on shoes. You can also place fresh towels or a welcome basket on the bench for your guests prior to their arrival.

Make space in the closet

I use my guest room closet for overflow storage too, but I like to keep a little room with empty hangers so my guests can hang up clothes that are easily wrinkled as well as their outerwear. Leave the closet door a little ajar before they arrive, so they can see you’ve thought ahead.

Clean out a dresser drawer

If your guests are going to be staying for longer than a couple days, it’s nice for them to have a place to unpack their clothes. I like to pull everything out of my suitcase and repack it with dirty clothes as I wear them.

Provide a charging station

Have you ever stayed in someone’s guest room and not been able to find a single outlet to charge your phone? Or forgotten your phone charger at home? Both situations are totally frustrating. Make sure an outlet is visible for your guests and pick up a couple of cheap charging cords – one for Apple products and one for Android. If the most convenient outlet by the bed is behind the bed, run an extension cord to each nightstand. They are incredibly inexpensive, and your guests will really appreciate this small gesture.

This Conway Electric extension cord with USB ports is a splurge that I’m considering for my bedroom, but its cool design means it can sit out on a table vs. being tucked under or behind furniture. Plus it comes in several fun color combos.

Hang blackout curtains

If your guest room currently lacks any sort of window treatment or the current shades are hard to operate or looking kind of sad, consider hanging some blackout draperies. IKEA sells inexpensive curtain rods and blackout panels that you can hem with the included ironing tape. This is a quick weekend project that will make a world of difference for your guests’ ability to sleep well. Install the rod so that there are about six inches on either side of the window for the curtains to stack back and at a height where the bottom of the curtains just kiss the ground.

I like Target and World Market for inexpensive curtain panels, but they don’t have a great selection of blackouts. If you have a little more room in the budget, West Elm makes great blackout curtains. Not a fan of curtains in general? You can purchase woven wood shades with a blackout liner at Lowe’s that can be cut to size. We used one in the guest room of our last house with a set of simple IKEA curtain panels. It looked great and was super functional for both privacy and light control.


West Elm Belgian Flax Linen Curtain

Add a mirror (or two)

Hang a full-length mirror on the back of the door or in an inconspicuous spot, so your guest can check her outfit without having to leave the room. It doesn’t need to be fancy. You should also add a wall mirror over the dresser or another surface so she can do her makeup without having to tie up the bathroom. This is critical if you only have one bathroom or your guests share a bathroom with your kids. Bonus points for adding an outlet or extension cord so she can dry her hair.

Update the lighting

If your guest room suffers from poor lighting or even no lighting, consider adding some additional lamps. For example, you could place a small lamp on the dresser or a floor lamp in a corner.

If the ceiling lighting is particularly harsh, it’s usually fairly easy to install a dimmer switch. Make sure all of the lightbulbs in the room are 2700 kelvins for a warm inviting glow (you can find the kelvins on the back of the box). The higher the kelvins the cooler the light, and cooler light is less flattering and more disruptive to sleep.

Install a row of hooks

It drives me nuts when my husband throws his clothes on the floor at night. Hooks are an easy storage solution especially in smaller rooms that might not have room for a dresser or lack a true closet. Install a Shaker style peg rack or a row of hooks so that your guests can easily hang up their clothes and jackets.

Provide those little extras

Nord Architecture

Finally, assemble a small box or basket of items that your guests may have forgotten like toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors, q-tips, shaving cream, etc. This is a great way to make use of sample size products you’ve snagged from hotels or received as a gift with purchase. Include a couple of bottles of water in case they forget to bring a glass to bed with them. You might also add little packets of Tylenol and Tums in case everyone stayed up a little too late having cocktails. Place at least one box of tissues in the room and stash a small wastebasket somewhere. Print out a little card with the name of your wifi network and password for easy reference and place it on the dresser or nightstand.

Going Above and Beyond

  • Create a little coffee station with an inexpensive pod coffee maker and a pitcher of water. Or an electric kettle with an assortment of tea including decaf varieties.
  • Arrange fresh flowers in a pretty vase on the dresser before they arrive.
  • Stock a drawer or basket with a folder full of takeout brochures for local attractions. Include a copy of the free local magazine so they can read up on what’s happening in your city.
  • Print up a list of nearby conveniences like gas stations, Starbucks, the grocery store, etc. If your guests get up early and want a snack or a latté, they won’t have to wait around for you to wake up.

By following even some of these tips, you can upgrade your guest bedroom and provide your guests with a comfortable and relaxing space to retire or escape during their visit with you. The best part is that most of them are inexpensive fixes that you can tackle over time.

Do you have a favorite friend or family member that you love to visit because they have an awesome guest room? What is it about that room that makes it feel special? My guess is that it’s nothing fancy or expensive, but the considerate little touches that make you feel at home.

PS. You can use all of these ideas to upgrade your master bedroom as well!

Twelve easy budget friendly ideas to update your guest room before the holidays. - Jillian Lare
marble fireplace with built-ins

Design Dilemmas: How to Design a Great Room Fireplace Wall with Built-Ins and Television

Today I want to talk about a challenge that I encounter frequently – designing a living room fireplace with built ins on each side, specifically the fireplace with TV above it on in cabinetry beside it.

This feature wall may seem like a straightforward solution to the issue of multiple focal points (TV vs. fireplace), but many times it isn’t. These walls can be super tricky! Often the fireplace wall is adjacent to a wall with large two-story windows, and that complicates the living room layout even further.

If you are building a new home and still in framing or hopefully haven’t broken ground yet, this article is for you. Stop what you are doing and insist that your builder, architect, or designer draws a floor plan with furniture of your living room that shows the depth of the fireplace wall.

You will also want to see an elevation of the fireplace wall that indicates the height of the television if you are planning to hang it above the fireplace. And, you will need an elevation of the window wall to understand how the fireplace and built-ins affect your perception of the windows and how they are balanced in the space.


Coastal white living room design by Blackband Design
Blackband Design

In two new construction homes I’ve worked on recently, the person who created the house plans (not me!) designed the window wall to be symmetrical with equal amounts of drywall on either side. Great!

Actually, it’s not great. In the first house, the plans didn’t account for the depth of the fireplace or built-ins on the fireplace wall. So, once the fireplace was framed out and the built-in cabinetry installed, we had two feet of drywall on the left side of the windows and about 6″ visible on the right. If you are a highly symmetrical person like me, this will drive you crazy.

fireplace wall ideas, chief architect rendering transitional stone fireplace with tv above
Conceptual Rendering by JLID

This house was more transitional, and the clients didn’t want a ton of built-ins or a completely built-in cabinetry look on their fireplace wall. They wanted something more simple and modern. I designed the wall with two smaller niches for some built-in storage and display, but we left the drywall exposed so the paint color continues back into the niche.

The second house didn’t account for the built-in cabinetry depth either. It was the same problem but much worse. There were only 20″ from the fireplace wall to the first window opening. When the trim was completed, there was no wall space between the built-in cabinetry and the window trim.

I bring this issue up because clients often have a vision of how a room will look based on the floor plans and the inspiration images they’ve gathered. If the floor plans aren’t fully developed with all of the elements before construction starts, they might be disappointed when it doesn’t look the way they pictured it in their head.

Issue #2: Television Height

I have been surprised at how passionate people are about incorporating a raised hearth into their fireplace design. I am not a huge fan because they jut out into the room and make furniture placement difficult. I’m also a clumsy person and often bang my shin on their sharp corners, so maybe I am just biased.

M. Architecture Group, neutral living room stone fireplace place shiplap beams
Markalunas Architecture Group

My lack of grace aside, a hearth creates a fresh set of problems for mounting the TV over the fireplace, as if there weren’t already enough (more on that another time).

A seat-height hearth, which seems to be what most clients are after for the “cozy” factor, is around 18″ high. Then the fireplace sits on top of the hearth. A large fireplace box is 42″ high. I like to have the same amount of stone (or other fire retardant material) around the top of the fireplace as the sides if possible, so that’s another 6″ at least. If you are keeping track, we are already at 66″ from the ground.

Once we add the mantel, which is probably another 6″ high, and some space from the mantel to the bottom of the TV, we’ve gained another foot. So, the bottom of our TV is now at 6’6″ from the ground, and the top is around 9’6″. That is pretty high considering the optimal TV viewing height is eye level when seated – around 30-36″.

If you are going to mount your TV above the fireplace, making it the focal point of the room, consider buying one that looks fabulous all the time, like the Samsung Frame.

Issue #3: The Two-Story Great room Ceiling

Scott Christopher Homes Stone Fireplace with built ins on one side
Scott Christopher Homes

I am also not a huge fan of the two-story ceiling in the living room. I love tall ceilings, but 18′ is really high and can often feel cavernous depending on the room proportions. In the context of the fireplace wall, it creates another conundrum – what do I do with all that space above the fireplace?

Depending on the roof design and second-floor layout, you may need to run the fireplace framing to the ceiling so the fireplace can vent through the roof. So, do you run stone 18′ high? Do you combine stone and paneling? Paneling and drywall? There are several options but my main objective is always to keep the room feeling balanced and not top-heavy.

Then there are the built-ins. If you have a two-story room, how tall should the built-ins be? I personally dislike built-in cabinetry that results in a shelf for dust to collect especially if it can be viewed from the second floor. But, sometimes this is the best solution and can’t be avoided.


fireplace wall ideas, two options for fireplace wall built ins
Conceptual renderings for a fireplace with TV above

In the pair of images above, I’m showing two options that I created for a client’s living room fireplace wall. In the top version, we eliminated the shelf and styled the wall above the base cabinets with art. In the bottom version, the shelf remains and is visible from the second floor landing. Here’s another look…

Living Room Built In Wall Units Fireplace with TV above
Conceptual fireplace rendering

In the living room below, you can also look down into the living room from the catwalk above. Luckily, this living room was designed properly by the architect. He or she incorporated space to recess the built-ins, avoiding the shelf issue, and maintaining symmetry on the window wall. Win-win.

Modern marble fireplace with built ins on each side, linear fireplace with Samsung Frame TV by Jillian Lare Des Moines Interior Designer
Living Room Design by JLID

We chose to extend the marble surround high enough to feel proportional in the space but not all the way to the 18′ ceiling. 

Issue #4: Symmetry around the fireplace

Like I mentioned earlier, I love symmetry. I’m a huge fan. But, in the end, symmetry is not the only way to achieve balance. Asymmetrical balance is definitely an option, but it needs to be considerate of the room proportion to actually feel balanced. Asymmetrical balance is more challenging to create than symmetrical balance.

So, why is this an issue? If you don’t want your TV over the fireplace, then it will need to be off to the side, hanging on a wall or mounted inside a cabinet. Today’s televisions are fairly wide and require more horizontal hanging space. If your room isn’t very wide, then you will need to offset your fireplace to one side to provide the appropriate amount of space for the TV.

If you don’t think this through carefully before your foundation is poured, it might not even be possible to shift the fireplace left or right in the room. This is yet another reason why it is SO important to take your time when building a house and think through all the details.

fireplace with built ins on one side House of Jade Interiors
House of Jade

I love this asymmetrical design by House of Jade Interiors, especially the bench seat detail. By using the same white on the entire wall, they created a strong sense of unity even with the varying materials.

white brick fireplace with built-ins on one side by Studio McGee
Studio McGee

This is another asymmetrical design by Studio McGee that solves the TV issue beautifully. The television is at the optimal viewing height, and the built-in cabinetry below has mesh fronts so that the remote can talk to the components. It’s functional and beautiful.

If you are a symmetrical person, you may HATE it if your fireplace isn’t centered in the room. In that case, you can buy a smaller TV or you can mount it over the fireplace.

fireplace with built ins on each side, fireplace with tv above
Symmetrical Fireplace Wall Conceptual Rendering

I created this design concept for the house with only 20″ to the window opening on one side. The fireplace wall has symmetrical built ins on both sides which are wrapped with drywall, solving the dust-collecting shelf issue.

great room fireplace wall with asymmetrical built-ins on one side for flat screen TV
Asymmetrical Fireplace Wall Conceptual Rendering

An asymmetrical option for the same room is shown above. If I were designing another iteration for this fireplace wall, I might bring the drywall down to the tops of the built-ins. In this version, the hearth is at seat height and the TV is at the optimal viewing height. For a strongly symmetrical person, this fireplace wall idea probably wouldn’t work. It didn’t for my clients.

So What Should You do?


Study lots of inspiration images of fireplace walls and identify what you like about them. It may turn out that you really love built-ins encased in drywall. You need to know this at the earliest stages of planning – it’s very difficult to add later on and sometimes impossible.


Analyze your personal preferences to determine if you are a person who prefers (maybe even needs symmetry) to feel like a room is balanced.


Decide if you can live with or even prefer to mount your TV over the fireplace.


Determine if you absolutely need that hearth.


Pick a fireplace box. If your style leans modern, maybe you would prefer a linear fireplace style, which helps with the height of the mantel.


Insist on interior elevation drawings and furniture floor plans before you break ground. Read more about why this important in this post.


Understand your technology needs. If your TV components have to live near the TV versus a remote location, the built-in cabinetry will need to accommodate them appropriately.


Settle on an aesthetic vision. Do you like some stone or all stone? Do you like the paneled look or shiplap? Is it a formal room or casual? Is it modern and spare or traditional and maximalist? Your designer can provide drawings to help you understand how material placement and color affect the balance and proportion of the wall.

Do you have one of these fireplace feature walls in your home? Do you struggle with any of these issues or have any regrets? Are there other tips I should incorporate into this article?

Let me know in the comments!

Martha Vineyards Interiors

Twelve Must Read Tips for Building Your New House

Are you thinking about building a new house? Read this post first! I’ve compiled my best tips for building a house so that you can avoid costly and time consuming mistakes and get the home of you’ve been dreaming of.

I love working on new construction homes. It is incredibly gratifying to be involved in the design of a client’s dream home from the very beginning and see it through to completion. My favorite part is the space planning because that is when we figure out how the house is going to live. 

From there, I really enjoy the cabinetry design, selecting finishes, and choosing lighting fixtures, which are the jewelry of the home. In the end, all of the hard work and decision making comes together beautifully, but there are always bumps in the road along the way.

I’ve consulted on several new homes in the Des Moines area over the past few years and have noticed similar issues crop up in almost every project. If you’re thinking about building a new house in the next year or so, this post is for you!

Establish a Vision

white modern farmhouse metal roof
Newport Heights Modern Farmhouse by Blackband Design

Close your eyes and picture yourself living in your dream home. What can you see? How do you feel? Who is with you? How are you spending your time?

For example, you’re cleaning up after breakfast and rinsing the dishes before you head out to start your day. Are you standing in front of a wide farmhouse sink staring out the window into a copse of trees while watching birds flutter around the bird feeder? Are you impressed with the efficiency and neatness of your compact kitchen design? Are you anticipating enjoying one last cup of coffee in your snug dining nook with the morning paper?

Or, you’re at home for the evening, dinner is over, and it’s time to relax. Are you curled up in front of the fire reading a book while your spouse catches up on the evening news? Are you watching a movie with your children snuggled up beside you on a large comfy sectional? Are you browsing the web on your laptop while your kids watch a show?

How do you start your day? What is the first thing you see when you open your eyes? Do you enjoy a long steamy shower in a light bright bathroom? Are your clothes perfectly organized and displayed in a large walk-in closet?

What are the holidays like in your new home? Are you thrilled because you can finally fit your whole family around the dinner table?

Write a journal entry about the experience of living in the different rooms or areas of your new home. Start at the front door (or back door) and picture coming home and moving through each space in your house like you would on most days. Don’t get hung up on small details but rather focus on the emotion – like how satisfying it feels to know your coat, shoes, and bag have their very own spot in your well-organized mudroom.

Once you know how you want it to feel, then and only then, should you start collecting inspiration images. You can do a gut check against each image by asking yourself if it feels the way you want your house to feel. If you don’t get clear on how you want the house to feel first, you will probably gather dozens of images, most of which are completely unrelated to each other. Then your builder and designer will have to play detective to try to figure out what kind of house you really want.

Build a Smaller Better House

I am a huge fan of Sarah Susanka who wrote The Not So Big House. I fell in love with it when I lived in Phoenix and all our friends were building five-bedroom homes they couldn’t afford to furnish or finish properly. It’s a must-read for anyone considering building a new house.

The basic premise is to keep your budget the same while reducing the size of the house you want to build. Unless you have six kids, do you really need all of those extra bedrooms? 

If you are soon-to-be empty nesters, do you need a formal living room and a family room and a media room? If you entertain a large group once or twice per year, do you need a formal dining room that seats ten? Probably not. Build a smaller house and use the extra room in your budget for thoughtful details like trim work, built-ins, and all those little touches that make a house feel special.

Trim Details in a Not So Big House by Architect Ross Chapin
Exquisite trim details in a Not So Big house by architect Ross Chapin

Hire a Designer First

This point might sound self-serving, but it is completely in your best interest to hire an independent designer who works for you and not for the builder. I plan to write a whole other post on how an interior designer can benefit you during the construction process.

First and foremost, your designer is your advocate. He or she will approach the project with the end goal in mind and keep everyone on track to the vision, even when it isn’t the popular thing to do.

White painted house rectangular pool night view
Stunning white brick home by Dixon Kirby

If you hire your designer first, she can help you refine your vision, choose your house plan (or better yet, hire an architect), establish a realistic budget, and meet with builders to determine which one is the best fit for your project.

Take Your Time

Home Office Paneled Ceiling Black Doors Revere Pewter
Applied Molding Ceiling Detail in Our Winston Circle Project

I can’t emphasize this point enough. Take your time!!! Take a year, even two. Do not rush the process. I promise you will regret it in the end.

There are so many details and decisions – large and small – that are involved in building a house. You need time to mull them over. Do not break ground unless you are 100% committed to 90% of the design decisions. You do not want to be in the middle of framing and mulling over the size of the rooms or debating the placement of doors and windows. This type of indecision will cost you time and money.

Don't Break Ground Until Your plans are FInalized

Once you break ground, the clock starts ticking, and the rush to get the house done is on. You will feel pressure to make decisions quickly to keep everyone on track to the schedule. 

This is when you will inevitably compromise on what you really want to keep your contractor happy – or the cabinet vendor, or your spouse, or the electrician. That perfect faucet or the countertop or whatever will be delayed or back-ordered, and you won’t be able to wait for it to come in. 

Get all of your decisions and selections lined up well in advance, check stock, and place holds.

True story. A client hired me last Spring to help them with their new build. They told me they were breaking ground in July. In June, I started to worry because we hadn’t even started planning the cabinetry design yet, and I knew the cabinet lead time would be 6-8 weeks. They felt like I was rushing them, got upset, and decided to go it on their own. 

In early August, they called me in a panic because the builder was ready for the cabinets. And, guess what? They didn’t have a design for them yet, let alone have them ordered, built and waiting in the garage for installation.

This probably set construction back two months. Luckily they had a house to live in and their builder was a patient man, but this could have been a disaster.

Don't Finalize Your Floor Plan without a Furniture Plan

Martha Vineyards Interiors
Light-filled breakfast nook by Martha Vineyard Interiors + Sullivan & Associates

A few years ago, I was helping a woman select furniture and finishes for her new home that was already well into construction. She told me all about how she wanted to have her two grown children and their spouses all in the living room together for family gatherings on a regular basis. She also anticipated the family would grow with the addition of grandchildren and pictured everyone being together in her home.

When I drew the furniture plan for her living room (she had built a smaller better house, by the way), we discovered that it was too small by about three feet. It could barely fit enough seating for six people let alone eight or more. If I added more furniture, it would have crowded the kitchen island. There was no way around it.

If she had hired us before the plans were finalized, we could have recommended increasing the width of the living room to accommodate more furniture. Or, we could have designed the kitchen differently. But, at this late stage, there was nothing we could do. She was very disappointed.

Don't Build With Some Big Event in Mind

Do not plan for your new house to be ready for your daughter’s wedding or your son’s graduation or some other big event unless you plan to start the process two to three years ahead of time.

There is no guarantee it will be ready in time. 

This piggybacks on the point above – you do not want to rush to get things done. You want it done right. Even if construction is completed on time, there are myriad little details to work out before a home is truly done.

Prepare to be Brutally Honest

Most of us are raised to be very polite and avoid hurting others’ feelings. Building a home is a very personal experience. It’s also an act of creation and expression of creativity for the architect, designer, builder, and craftspeople involved.

But, it’s your house, not theirs. You have to live there for the next ten, twenty, thirty years. As a designer, I may propose an idea to you that I’m really excited about, but if you don’t love it, I need you to tell me – and tell me right away so we can all move on and find a different solution.

One of my clients wanted a very clean-lined house – transitional leaning modern. The builder was a master trim carpenter and wanted to install elaborate trim details throughout the house. It was difficult to tell him no, but if they had given in to avoid hurting his feelings, they wouldn’t have gotten the house they wanted.

Likewise, if you are in the midst of construction and do not like how something is going – the way the tile is laid or the height of a light fixture – say something!! Do not let it go, you will be resentful later, and it will bother you forever.


Avoid Making Decisions for Resale

des moines iowa laundry room remodel interior designer Jillian Lare
Laundry Room in Our Timberline Project

Why are you building this house? If it’s your forever home, then stop worrying about resale unless you are going to do something really crazy that will devalue the home and make it unsaleable. But, the blue tile backsplash you love does not fall into that category.

Give yourself permission to build your house and not some mystical future owner’s. They’ll probably rip everything out anyway. Making decisions based on resale value is the easiest way to end up with a boring house you don’t really like.

Always Refer back to the vision

There are so many options for everything bombarding us in the face all day long – lighting, tile, countertops, you name it. And, if you’re at all like me, you like ALL the things.

When you are building a house or embarking on any design project, you need to be ruthless in your selections and constantly asking yourself – does this fit my vision for the house?

If you want a classic, elegant, traditional house, then maybe a super modern, black tentacle-like chandelier is not the best fit for your formal living room. It’s ok if you like it, but it doesn’t belong in this particular house.

Add $50k to the Builder's Number

This is a ballpark estimate – it could be $30k, it could be $100k, but it’s definitely not zero. My point is that you are going to go over budget.

The builder doesn’t know exactly what you want when he prepares his bid, so he sticks in placeholders for plumbing and allowances for cabinetry, lighting, flooring, etc. He didn’t account for the gold plated faucet, the paneled ceiling in your office, the extra built-ins, or the exotic stone countertop.

Or maybe he did if you planned everything well in advance.

But, let’s say you rushed the process and broke ground without most of the design decisions made. You will have overages, and they will add up, possibly to some astronomical number you couldn’t even dream of.

The only way to avoid this scenario is thorough planning. If you want to get moving without all of the details finalized, then make sure you have lots of cash in your back pocket. There are many elements that can’t be added or changed after the walls are closed up (or would be incredibly costly), and you don’t want to compromise now because you don’t have room in the budget.

I don’t know anyone who wants to remodel their new construction home in five years because they didn’t do it right the first time.

Just Breathe

You are building a house, not ending world hunger. Time, money, and a little creativity can solve just about any problem.

Builders and designers are people too, and if you treat them with respect, they will bend over backward to get you the house you want.  After all, their best source of new business is referrals from happy clients like you!

You might also enjoy my post on the worst bathroom remodeling tips you can possibly make. They totally apply to new construction as well

Modern kitchen, marble backsplash, brass hardware, IKEA kitchen

Five Simple Ways to Make IKEA Cabinets Look Expensive

It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of IKEA kitchen cabinets. I’ve used them in three of my own houses and specified them for several clients over the years.

They are incredibly affordable for what you get, which includes some of the bells and whistles you’ll find in the highest end European cabinets. But, this post isn’t a love letter to IKEA…I’ll save that for another time.

This post is about how you can make IKEA cabinets look expensive with a few simple design tricks.

Add legs to your island

IKEA SEKTION kitchen remodel Fells Point Baltimore Maryland
In my Fells Point IKEA Kitchen Remodel, we used custom island legs and base molding to create a custom look on the large island.

Many of my clients request a “furniture” look for their island. I interpret that to mean they want legs, base molding, or panels – or a combination of all three.

Legs can anchor the countertop overhang, avoiding the floating look and providing balance. They also allow you to create a deeper overhang. The max countertop overhang without legs is 12″, but with legs you can easily extend that to 15″ or deeper. It’s best to check with your stone fabricator on what they recommend.

IKEA doesn’t sell furniture style legs for their islands, but it’s pretty easy to order them online in a variety of styles. You can buy them in person at Lowes or Home Depot or even make your own out of stock plywood and molding pieces. They are available in a variety of woods, and a good painter should be able to finish them to match your doors.

Incorporate custom moldings

IKEA SEKTION kitchen remodel Fells Point Baltimore Maryland
We used a two-part crown in the Fells Point IKEA kitchen remodel.

If you are considering a traditional or transitional style IKEA kitchen, you can make it look more polished and finished by adding stock molding like crown molding, light rail, and baseboard from your local big box store.

Crown or cove molding can help build your cabinetry up to the ceiling for a fully built-in look. It’s important to understand a frameless cabinet box like IKEA SEKTION doesn’t have a place to attach the crown molding, so you actually need a two-part crown. This sounds more complicated than it is.

The first part is a straight or L-shaped piece that is attached to the top of the cabinet, which gives you a vertical surface to attached your angled crown. It also helps when trying to close the gap to the ceiling because ceilings are rarely level. The straight piece allows you to manipulate the crown if needed and avoid unsightly gaps.

Light rail molding is attached to the bottom of the wall cabinet to conceal any under-cabinet lighting. The height will be determined by the style of lighting you choose. I prefer to specify the LED tape lights because they have a very small profile. IKEA sells matching deco strips for their cabinet doors that are meant to be used as light rail molding.

Base molding builds up the base of the island to create that furniture look. You can also wrap it around the bottom of the cabinet at the end of a run and return it into the toe kick. You generally want your base molding to be shorter than the height of the toe kick (the recess at the bottom of a base cabinet) so that you can make that return if necessary. IKEA toe kicks are designed to be 4.5″ tall (the 30″ high box plus 4.5″ to bring you to the 34.5″ standard height), which gives you some nice options for molding styles.

If you are doing a “painted” IKEA door like BODBYN, you can bring a drawer front to the paint counter and have it color matched to a semi-gloss paint. Stains are a little trickier, especially if this is a DIY project.

A good painter should be able to stain moldings to match. Be aware that stain grade moldings will be more expensive than paint grade.

Get Creative With Cover Panels

IKEA Cabinets Laundry Room
Laundry Room Makeover with IKEA Cabinets

Cover panels are a must when designing with IKEA cabinets. The boxes are unfinished – white or dark brown – and don’t match the door finish. Cover panels match the door finish and are attached to the side of the cabinet box so everything appears seamless. There are a few ways I use cover panels to make my IKEA kitchens look more expensive.

First, I always cut or purchase my panels at a size so that they will extend past the edge of the box to cover the thickness of the door. The doors are 3/4″ thick (7/8″ when you add the little bumper dot). So, if a wall cabinet is 15″ deep, I specify the panel at 15.75″ wide so that it will hide the door from the side. This little trick instantly gives a more finished, custom look.

Unfortunately, IKEA cover panels only extend 5/8″ so they won’t fully cover the door thickness. I usually instruct my clients to purchase several of the large refrigerator panels and have them cut to size on site instead of purchasing the stock panels.

You can also use cover panels to simulate a cabinet “leg” by adding them to your base and tall cabinets in certain locations. I sometimes add a full-height panel (meaning it touches the ground vs. stopping at the toe kick) to the sides of base cabinets at the end of a run or an island. I almost always add them to full-height pantries on both sides. Sometimes I will use them to define a specific cabinet, like on either side of a sink base. 

Upgrade to Custom Doors

Modern kitchen, marble backsplash, brass hardware, IKEA kitchen
Semihandmade doors by Sarah Sherman Samuel for Design Milk

I so wish this option existed when I installed my own IKEA kitchens in 2006 and 2008. Today there are several companies providing gorgeous custom doors that you can install on your IKEA cabinets. 

IKEA cabinets are completely modular, meaning every piece is purchased separately. You do not have to purchase the IKEA doors, drawer fronts, panels, and toe-kicks.

Instead, you can order your doors, drawer fronts, panels, and toe kicks from another company like Semihandmade for a truly custom look. If you choose this route, no one will ever know that your kitchen is from IKEA. Of course, there will be an up-charge over the standard IKEA doors, but I think it’s worth the cost if it fits in your budget.

Modern IKEA kitchen, custom drawers by Reform, modern kitchen island, colorful kitchen
This modern style by Reform has gold edges, revealed only when the cabinet is open.

Another benefit of using a custom door company is that you can request your cover panels at the right sizes vs. having to cut them down yourself. 

Don't Forget Overlay Fillers

You might be wondering what a filler is let alone an overlay filler. Stock cabinets come in specific widths that are usually in 3″ increments. For example, 12″, 15″, 18″, etc. 

Fillers are needed in certain instances:

  • When a run of cabinetry is not exactly divisible by 3".
  • When a frameless style cabinet (like IKEA) is being placed next to a wall.
  • When a frameless style cabinet (like IKEA) is being placed next to another cabinet or panel that is significantly deeper. For example, a wall cabinet next to a refrigerator panel or a pantry.

IKEA boxes are a little weird in that they don’t sell a 27″ or a 33″ cabinet box, jumping from 24″ to 30″ and 30″ to 36″. Don’t ask me why, but it complicates things even further and requires a little extra creativity when planning your layout.

Fillers help us solve certain problems, but why do we need the overlay filler and what the heck is it anyway? A filler is just a flat strip of material painted or stained to match the cabinetry doors. When it is installed, it is placed in between the box and the wall or the box and the adjacent cabinet creating a seamless transition.

BUT…frameless cabinet doors sit proud (ie. on top of) the cabinet box and are usually 3/4″ thick (7/8″ when you add those little bumper dots). When they are all installed properly, you should not see the front of the cabinet boxes at all.

The overlay filler is installed on top of the filler piece and sits almost flush with the face of the cabinet doors and drawers. Then the fillers aren’t as noticeable because you have a smooth transition from door to wall (or cabinet) and no change in depth, which can create a shadow effect and distracts the eye.

Whew! I feel like I should write a whole post just on fillers and how to deal with them now.

I really hope you enjoyed this post on how you can make IKEA cabinets look expensive with a few simple hacks to create a custom looking kitchen.

If you need help planning your IKEA kitchen, I would be happy to help, and it doesn’t matter where you live. Just send me a quick note, and we’ll schedule a time to talk.

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