Playing House for the First Time - Priorities for New Homeowners

By Nancy A. Herrick 

consumer-top-story-6-08RISMEDIA, June 8, 2009-(MCT)-Home prices have moderated, interest rates are reasonable, supply is abundant-and then there’s that $8,000 tax credit. Yes, it’s a great time to buy your first house.

If you do, you’ll have to furnish it, and that can be a challenge, especially if you have put much of your disposable income into a down payment. But you’re a grown-up now, and your first real home is no place for that grungy old futon or bookcases constructed with bricks and boards. It deserves better.

So what’s the best way to go about furnishing your new home? We’ve asked a variety of experts for their ideas on what to do after your offer has been accepted. Here are their ideas:

“Before you get carried away, take some time to determine what you have, what you need and what you want,” says Milwaukee-area interior designer Susan Michalek of Desumi Design Inc. “Deal with what you need first. That should be your highest priority.”

Wanda M. Colon, a designer who can be seen as host of TLC’s “Home Made Simple” and HGTV’s “24-Hour Design,” suggests that any assessment should include the amount of money you have to spend.

“It’s easy to overspend or make impulse purchases if you don’t have a budget,” she says. If you watch what you spend and stay within your limits, “as a bonus you might have money left over to purchase some extra goodies.”

Evaluate each room, says interior designer Jane Klein of Fox Point, Wis., and figure out how you plan to live in the house, considering: “Where you will spend most of your time, what you will do in each room? Will you want a table in the family room for work space, for example, or a comfortable chair and good lighting in the bedroom for relaxing and reading?

“Also think about the size of each room and the appropriate scale for the furniture,” Klein says. “You might fall in love with a sectional, but the reality is that it might not fit in a small room.”

Gary Steinhafel, president of Steinhafels Furniture, with six locations in Wisconsin, agrees.

“Not long ago, manufacturers were producing furniture designed to fill oversize great rooms,” he says. “Now many manufacturers are offering furniture on a smaller scale than ever for smaller homes and for people who are downsizing. Be aware that there are choices and figure out what works best for your home.”

Go Shopping, But Leave the Plastic Behind

Your early shopping trips should be a way to gather ideas, not furniture. As you walk up and down the store aisles and view furniture groupings, pay attention to colors, furniture styles, wood choices and more.

If you’re shopping with your significant other, have some discussions about what you like and don’t like, and what you think works well together and with the style of your home.

“You don’t have to choose strictly contemporary or strictly traditional,” Steinhafel says. “More likely the choice will be made based on whether you are going for a casual or more formal look.”

But remember that while an “eclectic” look works, that doesn’t mean anything goes. There should be some continuity or unifying elements so that the result isn’t a hodgepodge.

Colon suggests that you visit a variety of stores to see what’s available.

“Don’t buy everything in one place,” she says. “This allows you to compare styles and prices.”

It also gives you the opportunity to ask questions and to learn what goes into a quality piece of furniture.

As you peruse what’s available, take pictures of what you like, Klein says. “If you think it might work, take a picture, at stores, consignment shops, wherever you go. Then look at the pictures when you get home to remind you of the choices and to see which pieces work together.”

Get to Work

It’s easier to paint a house when it’s empty and to refinish or replace flooring or knock down walls when you’re not living there. So if there’s work to be done, allow time for that after closing but before you move in.

“The biggest change you can make for a minimal amount of money is with color on the walls,” Michalek says. “Buy good quality paint with no VOCs (volatile organic compounds), and if you do the job right you won’t have to paint again for a while.”

The colors you choose should coordinate with what you plan to buy and what you already have, of course, so take along strips of paint samples from the paint store or home center. Often furniture stores will allow you to take a fabric sample or sleeve cap home to help match colors. Make sure to look at them in a variety of lighting situations and at different times of the day to get a true idea of how well the colors coordinate.

Make Major Purchases

At minimum you will need: a good mattress and box spring and a bed or headboard to give the room a polished look; a quality sofa and chairs; a console unit for the television; and a table and chairs for dining (either for the kitchen or dining room).

Bette Kahn, spokeswoman for Crate & Barrel and CB2 stores, says microfibers are a good fabric choice for sofas because they’re so durable.

“They take cleaning or washing well and never show wear,” she says. “If you’re getting another fabric, make sure it’s fabric-protected. Solid colors are classic, but not as interesting as tweeds with small touches of color.”

She suggests going with neutrals for big pieces, “but if that’s too basic, they can always be made more interesting with pops of color through pillows, which can be changed.”

Steinhafel is a fan of leather for sofas.

“It wears three times longer, and prices have come down significantly because the tanning process is more sophisticated,” he says. “There’s a ton of variety in color, but shades of brown are very popular. It’s the new neutral and works well with other colors and with wood floors.”

“Make sure the frame of your sofa or chairs is high quality,” says Kahn, adding that if the piece wears out or looks outdated, it can be slip-covered or reupholstered if necessary.

If you buy high-quality pieces, you can build a room around them for years to come.

Fill in Creatively

After you’ve found the big pieces that serve as the foundation for a room, it’s time to fill in with smaller pieces. This is where you can have some fun, save money and add a touch of personal style.

Consignment stores, estate sales, resale shops and even Grandma’s attic are great places to find furniture, especially if you’re willing to fix it up.

For example, if you’ve purchased a bed but need a dresser or two, you might be able to find used pieces with similar lines. You can refinish or paint the dressers to match (assuming they aren’t valuable antiques, in which case the original finish should be preserved) and change the hardware for a coordinated look.

In the dining room, a horizontal dresser also can work as a server; the drawers can hold flatware and table linens. Antique chairs, even if they’re mismatched, add interest around a dining room table.

An odd-shaped table can find a new home in the corner of a living room or a foyer; add an oversize vase for visual interest. Don’t be afraid to rough up the surface and paint it so that it coordinates with the colors you’ve chosen in the room.

“America tends to be wasteful and often will replace a perfectly good piece with something that’s new,” Michalek says. “But you can find all kinds of new uses for older pieces of furniture that are built well.”

Area rugs, artwork and accent pieces are fun to shop for and also add personality to a room.

“Sometimes people spend a lot of time shopping for the big pieces but don’t do much to make the space their own,” Klein says. “A piece of art can do that, or an art furniture piece. They don’t have to be expensive but can wind up being a special focal point for a room.”

Be Patient

It probably took awhile to find the right house. It stands to reason it won’t be furnished in a week, a month or perhaps even a year.

“Many purchases can be put off, especially the decorative pieces,” Kahn says. “Besides, you’ll have more fun collecting those as you go through life.”

Colon warns first-time homeowners to take their time. “Don’t impulse-buy and end up feeling stuck because you acted too hastily,” she says.

Klein says: “Give yourself a little time. When you make a decision, use your head and your heart. Look at different options, ask lots of questions.

“When you see it, you’ll know when it is right.”