Don’t Make this Common Mistake When Buying a House

Tricia Firmaniuk, my senior colour designer was in Los Angeles with me last weekend along with Irene Hill my senior copywriter. I was presenting my system to a large corporation and they were so great to have as resources in the room.  I am so lucky to work with both of these amazing women!

Tricia, Maria and Irene in Huntington Beach

Tricia is also an artist and my resident colour scientist who understands my System for Specifying Colour like no one else.

She is also a great writer, this post is an important lesson for everyone, read on:


It was clear from an early age that I was an artist and a decorator. When I was nine years old, I desperately wanted a mint green and peach room with a canopy bed and pillows with ruffled trim. It was the early 80’s. I went on and on about it, but my parents, being practical and hardworking, could see no good reason to indulge me.


My childhood room remained builders beige with a painted plywood floor and sheets tacked over the windows for curtains because I couldn’t convince my dad that a can of paint and some fabric were that important.

I loved drawing and writing as a kid, so I carried a journal where I would write stories and draw pictures. I thought I was a failure as a writer because my desire to continue the story dried up once I finished the opening bit of setting the scene in detail. I realize now, that was the point. I was filling my need to create pretty spaces without any physical resources to do so.

There is certainly nothing wrong with having to make do, but I think back to my family home, from the perspective of an adult and a decorator, with some sadness, because while I appreciate that my parents certainly worked very hard to give us what we needed, I recognize that they made the very common mistake of buying a house bigger than they could afford, and certainly bigger than they could furnish, essentially making us house poor.

A well decorated room is richly layered with contrast, texture and interest Design by Monica Bhargava Source

It was a split level house with largely unfurnished rooms on the two lower levels that tended to collect toys, piles of laundry and hockey equipment. The living room was very basically furnished with a sofa, chair and coffee table, and not a decorative element in sight. It was spartan to say the least.

The house was built in 1979 and had chocolate brown carpet, busy brown and gold lino, dark wood trim, cabinets and countertops, and cream walls. To be honest, it was a bit bleak.

My mom managed to put a pretty metallic wallpaper in the main bathroom with elegantly arched reeds and flowers, that I loved to look at. But overall, I was desperately under stimulated visually. The house only had a warm and inviting feel at Christmas, the only time of year it was deemed important to do some decorating.

Don’t forget to budget for details that create interest like wallpaper  Source

So in the end, that my dad had made the all too common mistake of choosing the biggest, most impressive house the bank would allow him, meant that it was never a cozy and inviting home.

I see people making this mistake all the time. They buy a house at the top end of their budget, investing all they have in the shell and leaving nothing for the content. It’s like blowing your budget on the gift box and not being able to buy the gift.

And I think creating an inviting and beautiful home is an important gift to give yourself and your family. I’ve long overcome any received notions that decorating and caring what my space looks like is somehow wasteful or self indulgent.

Plan and budget for pretty details like mood lighting Source

We have a tiny house, my husband, daughter and I, but it is chock full of pretty things, and lots of art (below).  I never hesitate to invest in that can of paint or pretty pillow I need to pull it all together. And guess what? My house is the one everyone wants to hang out in all the time.

My husband who was admittedly a bit alarmed by my propensity to paint a room or redecorate on a whim, has come around to admit that our house now feels like a home.

My casual dining room with painting by Violet Owen (paint colour BM Indian White)

The bottom line for me is that I would never buy a large house that I couldn’t afford to decorate well. And it’s a value I’d like to share. If you read this blog, chances are, you get that it’s important to decorate, but I’ll bet you have friends or family who don’t.

Good quality furnishings, window coverings, lighting, art, decor and all the little details that make a space a home don’t come cheap, even if you are very clever and thrifty.

Beautiful drapery gives this kitchen polish


It amazes me how often people are willing to invest in extra renovation details like fancy mouldings and expensive tile but don’t give a thought to, or reserve any kind of budget for, actually furnishing, decorating or styling their home.

Styling, art and lighting create a look and feel. Source

As a general rule, you need to reserve at least ten percent of the value of your home to invest in furniture and decor. And that’s really the bare minimum. If you can’t comfortably make that amount available for the actual contents of your new home, you are spending too much on your mortgage.

I am no financial advisor, but what’s the point of a pretty house with nothing in it? No comfort, no beauty, no look and feel? It’s a waste.

My daughter’s small room is modestly furnished, but I bought her a bright green shag rug that she uses as “grass” for her horse stable games, a grown up bold multi colored floral bedding set with a pile of colourful throw pillows and curtains to match in in her favorite deep teal blue. She recently said to me, “Mom, I love my room, it feels so real, like I have real, pretty pillows and things to look at.” So there you have it, my childhood dream fulfilled.

Thanks Tricia for this great advice!

PS. Now is the time to find a Specify Colour with Confidence workshop near you this Spring. In the Fall of 2018 my schedule will only allow for 2 events and the price will be going up.

Related post:

6 Ways to Choose the Perfect Neutral Paint Colour

Danger: The First 24 Hours After you Take Possession

10 Ways to Save Money NOW By Creating a Focal Point

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  1. Such a thoughtful, relatable and so very useful write – this is so true. Thank you.

    And I feel it is the exact same thing with every part of our life. We decide on doing something, what ever it is (a house, a vacation, a relationship…), which is the ‘gift box/wrapping’ that you mention, but whether or not it lives up to the dream we had about it (how it all feels when you have it), depends upon what we chose to put in it every step of the way. That never ending ‘putting in’ part being the most important. <3

  2. Thank you for the post! Thoughtful spaces makes a place feel more like a home. Our first living room set was dated but it was slightly used quality custom furniture. We bought brand new trendy family room pieces and extensive window treatments for our second and semi custom built home and I regretted it when we moved. Since then we have embraced used goods and lower end decor once more. Why?
    1. I do not feel guilty changing things as we are saving this way. I normally resell my used stuff for what I paid or more and if not that is OK. 2. Basically a necessity with our cross country and nation moves (do not want to pay to transport and sometimes not even sure where we will finally live) 3. What is old is new again… furniture is the right look but wrong wood color? – Paint it! 4. We do not buy new expensive decor pieces but aim for the look (helps this is a middle class neighborhood starter home). 5. Kids and non declawed cats make investing in new difficult. I will NEVER invest in window coverings again. 6. A curated look is better and many times the quality of older goods is greater. 7. This has allowed me and our girls (with their room) to explore style and color. In an ideal world I would like to mix in some new custom pieces 😉

  3. This must be common temptation, to overbuy house, and forget decor and maintenance. We were house-hunting in the early 80’s in a high-end Chicago-area suburb. So many of the listed houses were grand and impressive from the outside but tattered and in need of major work on the inside. The realtor tried to sell us on the idea that the area was so prestigious that wannabe’s like us should mortgage to the hilt, do whatever needed to get in the magical neighborhood (no word on maintenance or decor!). Needless to say we dialed it back and found a find a better choice in a wonderful but less prestigious area. My problem is always the struggle to maintain an overall mindset of less consumerism, but then again, I love so many color, art and decor trends!

  4. Very well said. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. A while back, my daughter’s friend, during her first visit to us, said, “I love your house, I love your house!” I will always remember that compliment from a pre-schooler. She could sense and appreciate the expression, detail and warmth I had created in our home. Now, I help other families create their own well-designed homes. Speaking of children, attached is a link to Margo’s “panda” room that I recently designed. I did decide on the black and yellow scheme before Maria said it would be hot!

  5. My ex-husband and I made that mistake. Now I live in a lovely small house that is furnished with things I l ove.

  6. There is no mistake here financially: Over time houses (generally) go up in value, trendy decor goes down. I agree that thoughtful use of paint, fabric and art can make one’s living space much more pleasant. But 10% of a homes’ value??? I’ll stay with IKEA drapes and retire two years earlier.

  7. What a delight to read how you have made your house a home using your creativity as inspiration, or as I call it ‘playing’, which I think we can sometimes forget to do as we grow older.

  8. I bought not the biggest house, but the best schools and neighborhood. I had to make expensive unexpected repairs. I left my job so my kids weren’t raised in daycare.
    None of this would have been possible if I had saved 10% on my home price.
    I love pretty. Women often don’t have permission that there is value in beauty. So it’s good to be reminded of that.
    But it’s also good to remember parents are doing the best they can.
    My house isn’t decorated but my kid is in a good school.

  9. I think some people are just not visual. I’ve painted a ton in our house and made some changes on a budget, and while my husband is appreciative, he would never had made any of those changes on his own, he doesn’t need things to look nice to make him happy. In fact I’ve changed the artwork on a wall about 5 times and he didn’t even notice. Lol Maybe your parents were the same way, the atmosphere in the house didn’t make any impression on them & so they couldn’t see the point to decorating. Luckily my mom was a tasteful decorator though we were raised in a humble, smaller home. As a teenager we moved into a nicer house & neighbourhood but I never liked it as much as our first house, probably because of the memories.

  10. If you always keep your housing costs (mortgage payment, insurance, property taxes, etc…) at 28% of your income and save 15% every year for retirement, you will never have any financial problems. If you are in a high cost of living area, you either need to move, increase your income or decrease your housing commitment.

  11. My parents also did this, and my father never allocated funds for decorating (per my mother 😉 i had a white canopy bed, with white bedding, white walls, and white bookcases and dresser and nightstand. My first attempt to make my room beautiful on my own was in elementary school… I had ordered a book of cute baby animals and proceeded to tear out the pages and make a “border” around my room of the animal pictures… using a ton of thumbtacks! My mom was so mad at the holes I made in the walls, she made me take them down (I still remember my tears). I also have memories of buying postcards of a historic mansion we toured in Galveston and pouring over every architectural detail in the pictures. College was my first opportunity to decorate to my taste… but could not paint. So the border was put up with ticky tack and I had matching bedspread and towels. When I finally got my first home (early 90’s), I painted the master bedroom a rich burgundy… and loved it! I have loved making a home everywhere we have lived since…