You would never spend thousands of dollars on a car without researching the type of vehicle you need, selecting the features you want, and haggling with the salesperson for a fair price. Nor should you embark on a remodeling or decorating project without doing the same sort of legwork.
Here are 25 tips that are sure to keep your budget on track.
1. Brake for garage sales. One person's junk can be a do-it-yourselfer's treasure. Never pass a garage sale or antiques store without stopping, especially when you're on vacation or passing through a neighborhood other than your own. Keep an eye on neighbors' curbside trash piles for great castoffs.
2. Look for local outlet stores or wholesalers. They can be sources for buying plumbing supplies, kitchen goods, tile or stone, and other specialty items at huge discounts.
3. Utilize the Internet. Auction sites can help you comparison-shop for the best price on used furniture and other goodies, as well as bid on the items of your dreams. Some sites also offer free design advice and Q&A forums that allow you to post a question about a decorating or remodeling dilemma and read others' responses.
4. Scout out unwanted items. Snag overstocked or misordered items for a fraction of retail. Ask builders what they do with leftover materials, such as windows and flooring. Many local Habitat for Humanity chapters have ReStore retail locations, which sell supplies, materials, fixtures, appliances, and more.
5. Seek cheaper alternatives. If your heart is set on granite countertops, opt for tiles instead of a slab. If you plan on painting your new molding, choose urethane over stainable wood. Rather than costly hardwood wainscoting or paneling, search for wallpaper that mimics the look of wood.
6. Don't be afraid to bargain. Appliances with scratches or dents can be had at huge savings. Discontinued items, such as fabric, are often marked down dramatically, as are display models of sinks, faucets, and cabinetry. Offer to purchase them, and you might get a discount. Make sure to ask about the return policy before you buy.
7. Barter for materials or labor. Offer your skills in return for someone else's. For instance, pitch in during your brother's painting project in exchange for his assistance with yours.
8. Stick with standard sizes and models. Custom kitchen cabinets, for example, are very expensive. Save money by choosing stock ones, then attaching molding, corbels, or wood carvings for flair.
9. Seek out free advice. Take advantage of design services—through computer-aided design (CAD) programs or from on-staff professionals—at local boutiques, garden centers, and home improvement stores.
10. Rent or borrow what you don't have. Check with neighbors and friends for miter saws and power drills. Home centers rent heavy-duty tools, such as tile cutters, power washers, and nailers, for a weekend fee (usually about $50).
11. Stay put. When redoing the kitchen or bath, keep the fixtures and appliances where they are and work around them. Not having to move plumbing or gas lines will keep costs down.
12. Refresh, don't replace. Touch up scratches on sinks, tubs, and appliances with spray paints specially formulated for appliances. Or, check the Yellow Pages under "Bathroom Remodeling" for companies that resurface tubs and sinks for less than the cost of new models. You can also cover a dated refrigerator or dishwasher with wood or stainless-steel panels; some companies, such as Frigo Design, stock standard sizes in kits.
13. Refurbish when possible. Update kitchen and bathroom cabinets or a piece of furniture, such as a hutch, by replacing the door panels with glass, fabric, or chicken wire. This option is less expensive than buying new cabinets or new doors.
14. Use expensive materials sparingly. Install stone tiles as a border around less costly ceramic. Upgrade the range in your new kitchen but opt for a cheaper refrigerator and sink.
15. Consider unconventional fabric. Sheets make great tablecloths, shower curtains, window treatments, and other fabric projects. Sheets are wider than most decorator fabrics, so they're ideal for tall or wide windows, and they come already hemmed. Or, consider burlap or terry cloth: Both lend a room texture and don't cost much.
16. Purchase plain, then embellish. Instead of splurging on expensive, patterned fabric for pillows or window treatments, purchase less costly solid-color fabric and dress it up with iron-on transfers, easy-sew appliques, or fabric paint.
17. Update the details without spending a fortune. Instead of buying a new dresser or kitchen cabinets, replace just the hardware. Pillows in trendy fabrics will refresh a tired sofa; fluffy new towels will liven up an old bath.
18. Paint can cover a multitude of sins. Revive furniture, flooring, and walls with a fresh coat of paint. Just be sure to prepare the surface by cleaning, patching, and priming before painting.
19. Find new uses for conventional things. Take a leisurely stroll through a hardware store or antiques shop and envision plumbing pipe as a curtain rod, old spoons as drawer pulls, vintage windows as screens or wall hangings, and an ottoman as a table.
20. Pull the furniture off the walls. Don't line the sofa, end table, and wing chairs along the perimeter of the room. Turning them on the diagonal is a free way to put a new perspective on a room -- and lets you visualize what items you need to complete the scheme.
21. Light it up. Strategic lighting is an easy—and inexpensive—way to change the look of a room. Use a floor lamp to illuminate a dark corner or to spotlight a colorful piece of wall art. A simple way to alter the mood is to replace your bulbs with lower-wattage models to create a dimly lit, intimate setting.
22. Deck the walls. You don't need pricey artwork. Frame inexpensive items, such as family photographs (especially in black and white), posters, pages from an old calendar, pressed flowers, a quilt, or vintage clothing.
23. Look outside for inspiration. Indoor-outdoor slate tiles, for example, are cheaper than the type used exclusively inside and are still attractive and durable. Pickets for fences make whimsical wainscoting, headboards, or mantel decoration. A wooden or metal trellis, when placed in a container of soil, laced with a climbing vine, and set on a sunny windowsill, stands in as a privacy-giving "curtain."
24. Cover up. Instead of reupholstering an entire sofa or chair, simply re-cover the cushions in coordinating fabric.
25. Work with what you have. Dishware inherited from your grandmother might make a dazzling display in a glass-front hutch. Lively quilts layered on a bed are a striking focal point to a bedroom.