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Designers' Top Tips for Using $50,000 in Home Equity

Form, Function, Financially Fit and Fabulous

Oregon designers spill the smartest ways to use $50,000 in home equity

written by Melissa Dalton

In the past year, our homes have taken on new significance. We relish the comfort they provide, while pondering possibilities for making them even better. We asked three Oregon designers to weigh in on how they’d recommend homeowners spend $50,000 in home equity. Turns out, a little can go a long way, if you know where to use it.

Sarah Westhusing, HOUSE OF MILO, BEND | Remodel a kitchen or bathroom

People tend to look at the question of remodeling in two ways, said Sarah Westhusing, interior designer and founder of House of Milo, a Bendbased studio which tackles everything from new builds to renovations. “The first are the people that really focus on return on investment,” she said. They only want to invest an amount in updates that they’ll recoup when they sell the house. For that group, Westhusing suggested remodeling the kitchen or a bathroom.

Regarding the kitchen, several factors, such as the size of the room and the quality of finishes will affect project cost, and high-end kitchen remodels can easily soar past $100,000, so the designer offered tips for getting a custom look for less. For example, since bespoke cabinetry can easily eat up $40,000, Westhusing proposed researching prefab options, such as those from IKEA. These can be paired with semi-custom fronts in an array of styles and finishes, such as those from the Oregon-based Kokeena. For a built-in look, buy a cabinet-depth refrigerator that’s flush with the cabinets, hide appliances such as the dishwasher behind a cabinet front, or carry cabinetry up to the ceiling.

In the bathroom, replace an outdated vanity, update the faucet, and change light fixtures for a big impact. Costs rise significantly when moving plumbing, and a bathroom overhaul can clock in just as much as a kitchen refresh. “I’ll tell you, a bathroom and a kitchen are close,” said Westhusing. “Bathrooms always blow people away, how expensive they are, because there’s a lot of plumbing.”

Westhusing grew up visiting the job site of her family’s commercial construction business and was trained from a young age to appreciate the details that compose a room. If return on investment isn’t a primary concern, the designer recommended thinking about the things that will inject personality. “Between Pinterest and HGTV, we’re all moving towards this really homogenous look,” said Westhusing. “So, I’ve been pushing people to think about, how do you make your home feel more special, or what are ways to add character?”

For example, an accent treatment that incorporates texture, like wall paneling or applying tongue-and-groove to the ceiling “is really an affordable update that adds a little soul,” said Westhusing. Or, fit flexible solutions to rooms with multiple uses, such as installing a folddown Murphy bed in an office, to create a workspace that can be readied into a guest room.

Textured bathroom walls can add soul to a bathroom without spending too much money.

Textured bathroom walls can add soul to a bathroom without spending too much money.

Sarah’s Top Tips

1) Westhusing is seeing a lot of “living finishes,” such as unlacquered brass that will patina over time, handmade tiles with an old-world feel, and woodgrain in kitchens. People are moving “away from this man-made, made in a factory, mass-produced look, to things with subtle imperfections, color variation, and that connect more to human beings,” said Westhusing.

2) Layer the lighting in a bathroom, including under-cabinet lighting for a soft, nighttime glow, and ensure the mirror has proper illumination for good grooming.

Matt White, NEIL KELLY COMPANY, EUGENE | New paint, light fixtures, flooring and entry door

“The first question I’ll ask is, how long does a homeowner plan on staying in the home,” said Matt White, a design consultant and general manager at Neil Kelly in Eugene who has been in the business for about thirty years. “If someone is planning on selling that home within two years, then usually we’re talking about a much different project than if they’re planning on staying there forever.”

For those that know they’ll be moving soon, White proposed that they first address anything that needs to be fixed, such as what might be singled out by a home inspector during inspection, so that you don’t run into issues during the selling process. (This could vary, depending on the homeowner’s strategy. Largeticket items that are not as visible could be a concession off the sale price, as long as leaving them as-is doesn’t create a bigger maintenance problem.)

White advised using the $50,000 to spruce up dated features. That amount could cover a range of items, from faucets to new hardware: “Floor coverings, paint and light fixtures, those things are almost always going to be worth it,” said White. Also, take a hard look at the home’s curb appeal, such as the landscaping and front door. “Entry doors can make a really big difference in a first impression,” said White. “Put a brand-new entry door on an older home and it looks like a new home.”

Light fixtures are cost effective for creating a pleasing ambiance.

Light fixtures are cost effective for creating a pleasing ambiance.

And if “return on enjoyment” is more important, feel free to go bold with the choices: pick a favorite paint color or make a statement with light fixtures, which can utterly transform a room, White said. “If you’re staying long-term, put quality items in that are going to last a long time, so that you’re not going to have to remodel again.”

The front door and landscaping makes the first impression, making them a worthy upgrade.

The front door and landscaping makes the first impression, making them a worthy upgrade.

Matt’s Top Tips

1) Lead times can be long, especially now, with supply chains compromised by the pandemic.

2) “The truth is it always costs a little more than you think, and it always takes a little longer than you think,” said White.

3) Don’t rip out perfectly good materials to replace them with poor quality materials, or “the latest shiny thing on the shelf,” said White.

4) Avoid putting new, expensive counters on kitchen cabinets that will need to be replaced shortly.

Melody Emerick, EMERICK ARCHITECTS, PORTLAND | Personalize

Portland-based architect Melody Emerick, loved the question of the smartest way to spend $50,000 on your home because she had to answer it in her own home remodel. “I think everybody thinks about the big projects, like doing a kitchen, or bathroom or adding on,” said Emerick, co-founder of Emerick Architects. “But $50,000 doesn’t always get you as much as you’d hope, and those [types of projects] are more daunting. So, I’m looking for the biggest bang for the buck.”

Emerick recommended a suite of changes that eke out more personal enjoyment from your home. For White, this included new paint and statement lighting. “Whenever I feel like I need a pick-me-up, I will paint rooms in my house,” said Emerick. “I love it, and it feels like a whole new room.” Emerick also advocated for creating a connection to the outdoors, possibly through new windows or French doors. This will bring in more natural light and frame views to the garden. Add on a patio or a deck, and you have the makings of an outdoor room that “feels like a little escape, and makes your house feel bigger,” said Emerick.

Whenever I feel like I need a pick-me-up, I will paint rooms in my house. I love it, and it feels like a whole new room.

Another handy tactic with a big payoff is to identify architectural elements that you touch on a daily basis, such as the front door knob or the kitchen faucet, and swap out the flimsy for more substantial, higher-end pieces that look right for your house, and have a pleasing feel to them. “You’re touching them a hundred times in a week,” said Emerick. “Have it be an experience that you find beautiful and functional—that’s a great investment.”

Lastly, consider hiring a local craftsperson to customize storage solutions, such as building a good-looking cabinet for a vinyl collection, or outfitting the pantry with top-notch shelving, or fashioning a gorgeous vanity that holds all of the odds and ends.

As far as worrying whether such projects are too personal to be appreciated in resale, Emerick had some advice: “I’m a huge believer in always doing it for you. If you do, there’s somebody else out there who’s also going to value it. So, take a stand. Do whatever gives you beauty and meaning. This is your home.”

French doors open a room to create a more spacious feel, refreshing it with natural light.

French doors open a room to create a more spacious feel, refreshing it with natural light.

Melody’s Top Tips

1) Hire local craftspeople to make beautiful goods that last.

2) “The world of TV shows has made it seem like you can have things done in no time for hardly any money, and that’s a false world,” said Emerick.

3) If remodeling the entire house over a longer period of time, consider working with a design professional to create a master plan, so as not to waste money, or have to redo past work. “Even if it’s over five years or more, you know what you can chip away at,” said Emerick. Additionally, hiring a designer will bring in fresh eyes and can help to pinpoint what really needs to be tackled—and the solutions that they suggest may be entirely different than what you’ve identified.