Tuesday, March 16, 2010

More pointers for first-time home-owners...

Following my previous post about the importance of sorting out the financing and legal aspects of home purchasing, this is the second in what has turned out to be a series of blog-posts about becoming a first time home owner. My own concluding comment in my previous post reminded me of the need to speak about furniture budgets as well before going onto the actual interior design tips. So please bear with me for one more post on the so-called boring stuff (but actually I promise you it gets more interesting as the post goes on)...

In this particular post I want to talk about the importance of home budgeting. It is a topic that doesn't just require a head for figures but more importantly, durable shoe leather and a thickness of skin when it comes to negotiating prices. So without further ado:

1. Set up a spreadsheet of your home budget and decide on your dream, big-ticket items for each room in the flat/house.

In all likelihood, if you've been doing your homework on apartment prices, mortgage plans and associated financial products, like I said any serious first-time home buyers should in my last post, then you would already have stored different financing option configurations into some form of a spreadsheet, so that you can compare at a glance that, given different levels of deposits you can afford to pay, and the different mortgage options available, what price levels of housing you can afford (and what it will mean in terms of your monthly outgoings once you do take on a mortgage). This ensures that you can keep a clear head and that you won't be easily swayed by the pitches of both mortgage brokers/bank managers/most importantly, estate agents (or what you'd call "realtors" in the States)/home-owners who want to sell you their property.

The home budget here is an extension of the above. You add a new spreadsheet for each of the key rooms/areas in the apartment/house, viz. kitchen, bathroom, main bedroom, living room, dining room, study/second bedroom, etc. Then enumerate the key items that you will likely NEED to get for each room/area (i.e. unlikely to be included with the property's sale price and/or unlikely to get a hand-me-down from your family and friends, or those you are simply unwilling to use second hand).

So for instance, for the main bedroom, I listed a double bed (queen/king size depending on price) as the big-ticket item for me to buy, and listed "good" built-in wardrobes (I have quite definite ideas about its storage capacity as well as its look) as something that MUST COME WITH my ideal apartment, whilst items like chests, night-stands, curtains, dressing table, etc. are items that are negotiable (i.e. I will get if both price and style are right, otherwise I will make do).

Similarly, for the living room, I listed an armchair - specifically, a wing-back armchair - as my big-ticket dream item around which I built the rest of my living room furniture budget around, above even that of the sofa, which I was willing to get cheap; in fact, bookshelves / bookcase come before the sofa, and BEFORE the TV, the specific make of which I don't mind as long as it is HD-ready and does NOT overwhelm the room with its size. In fact, beautiful wall-paper/paint (again I have quite specific ideas about my requirements there, more on these later) comes ABOVE the telly in terms of my interiors priority, although I understand this would not be the case for the vast majority of people.

And so on and so forth. You get the idea. For each room/area of your flat, list the items you need to get in terms of priority, with the first item being the DREAM item that you've always, always, hankered after. The big-ticket item is the ONE thing that always comes to mind when you day-dream about your ideal flat, whether that is leisurely reading a book in a wing-back armchair besides floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, or lazing over a book and a cuppa in a big beautiful bed on a Sunday morning, etc. etc. If you want to create a dream home, you must hold on to these images in your head and remember what's the most important bits that you need to get to make those dream sequences come true.

One rule of deciding on whether something is really a big-ticket item (to curb all our innate greediness to want to get all our dream things in one go!): ask yourself, would I be happy to spend hours in the room if there is not a stick of other furniture around EXCEPT for my designated dream item? That is the key for me to determine that I cherish a proper armchair way more than having bookshelves, even though the latter comes quite close to my heart also. I can pile my books on the floor and I can spend ages in my living room just in my armchair with nothing else around, and I know I will be happy. That is the litmus test.

Remember: you're buying a home FOR YOURSELF. Not for anyone else, and not because it is fashionable. Go for the items you truly want, rather than because it may look respectable to others. Spend all your money on a baby grand piano if that's what would set your heart aflutter day after day, but don't waste money on a baby grand even if you have loads of cash to spare if you're only buying it for ostentatious display of your so-called taste. Your lack of taste will still show through in your home d├ęcor if you spend your money mimicking other people's tastes rather than get something that you would truly enjoy. Yes, even if that something happens to be a mah-jongg set - it would be more honest and your home would be genuinely characterful if you invest in having the space and various accoutrements for a delightful mah-jongg game if that's what you and your friends enjoy, than investing in a baby grand and letting it gather dust because you got a tin-ear for piano music. Nothing would be more tragic - for both that baby grand and yourself.

2. Hit. The. Shops. (With notepad and pens and your camera-phone)
Now that you have figured out what your big-ticket items are for each room, as well as having a realistic idea of the kinds of furniture you'd need to get, go out and hit the shops. WITH notepad, pens and camera-phone in tow.

Trawl through all the different furniture stores for the big-ticket items first. Note the style, and GO AND TRY THEM OUT. There is no alternative to just sitting on different sofas and seeing how you feel about having it foam-filled versus feather-filled; there is no alternative to actually deciding if you are okay with a double or a queen-size or a king-sized bed than going to see for yourself. Images on a screen are NO substitute to seeing and trying out the real thing.

More importantly, note the prices AND dimensions AND delivery costs AND storage costs (if applicable). Ask the shop assistants when they would usually have their sales in the year (in Ireland, there's always pre-Christmas sale, but the REAL sales happen in January and February, which are much better value than the summer sales, so if you can try to time your apartment purchase to the sales time-frames you will save a bundle, or else factor in the extra costs - whether in terms of normal prices or storage costs - into your budget).

After you've checked out the price and style ranges of the big-ticket items for EACH of the rooms/areas of the apartment, then check out the price and style ranges for your second tier items on your list, and work your way down until you have an idea of what each of the item in your To-Get List for each of the room would cost in addition to what styles/functions (if electronic appliances) are available.

ALWAYS record these into your spreadsheets for each room after hitting the shops, because pretty soon your head will be overwhelmed by all the different pricing and models available and it would all be a muddle if you don't get it down. It goes without saying then that, in addition to taking your cameraphone, notepad and pen, the easiest is to always ask the sales assistants if they have any brochures/literature/catalogues/handouts on their items. There is no need to bring a tape-measure with you, as 99% of shops will measure the item for you if they don't already have the measurements, but of course there's no harm bringing one along either.

As you do the above, not only will you begin to develop your preferences for what would suit you as you try out the different options available in the shops. More importantly, you will gradually begin to get a general sense of what each room will cost for you to furnish, and can begin to mentally calculate your trade-offs options for the furnishing in each room. That is, you have a real sense of being able to answer for yourself, if I were to get this brand-new desk for my study rather than using an old desk, it will mean that I would likely have to give up on getting a nice chest of drawers for my bedroom, is that what I am prepared to give up?

Doing Steps 1 and 2 would prevent us from spending all our money on second-bests and any impulse-buying we're prone to do as we encounter all the amazing styles and ranges on offer. It also helps us clear our minds of any idle but impractical fantasies we may have about particular furnishing styles, so that you could discover, for example, that perhaps the all white minimalist look is all good in theory but not something you could feel truly comfortable in, or that the idea of of a dressing-table is all very romantic but is not something you'd likely have the space in order to do the piece justice and show it off properly, etc. etc.

3. Supplement the above with desk research.
Of course, in this day and age one doesn't just rely on one's shoe leather for everything. There is the Internet which could and does save us a lot of legwork. There is also tons of interiors magazines with lots of tips and advice about different colour schemes, how-to-bring-a-room together, the latest interiors design trends and styles and so on and so forth. Of course, there are also lots and lots of really informative blogs as well, like the ones I have already recommended to MBBB in a previous comment reply.

The magazines and the blogs are great for giving you inspiration, especially if you start this process with vague ideas about your likes and dislikes when it comes to home furnishings, and/or simply don't know how a given room of a given size might be furnished that makes it liveable as well as practicable. Small apartments and small houses - over 90% of what any one of us could afford as a first-time buyer - pose interior design challenges that particularly require careful planning, which could only happen when one is fully briefed on the furnishing options available out there.

Being inspired is one thing, but deciding what would suit you and a particular flat is another. It is therefore important to keep meticulous track of items that inspire you and sort them by mutating styles. Here, I don't mean so much about keeping note of the general prices and dimensions of the key pieces as mentioned above (we could spend forever just inputting to the spreadsheet then!), but to clip and store images that conform to your ideal home in a systematic, easily-traceable way.

In my computer, I have a folder called "Ideal home images", in which are organised sub-folders for each of the rooms/areas of the apartment ("bedroom", "kitchen", etc.). These room-based folders are for me to store room-based images that inspired me when I come across them on web-sites or blogs. And then I also have a collection of folders that are item-based, e.g. Chairs and Sofas and other Seating, in which I kept all the images clipped from websites of particular furniture items (as opposed to entire room views) that fall under that category (the reason why this is such a broad category is that, as I discovered when I start collecting my images for my mental mood board, there are creations that fall between the stools so to speak, e.g. when a chaise longue became the half-way house between a chair and a sofa, or when a dining chair could work just as well as a desk chair, so I stopped considering what type of seating the particular piece is meant to be for but concentrate instead on identifying its visual form). I arranged these item-based images not by name or date or website address, but by their visual style, so that as I scroll down the folder I can see all the clipped images of all kinds of chairs I have come across that range from the upholstered, country styles to the shiny, leather, modernist look.

In this way, I begin to develop a sense of what is best-in-class for my taste. So that, when I see a particular piece, not only could I place it as belonging to one or other of established interiors design styles, or a particular synthesis or mutation of these, but I also begin to develop a sense of how good that piece is given the design tradition(s) from which it derived its design feature(s); and more importantly, to what extent its design expression is suited to my own preferences, now that I have a sense and a vocabulary of the different design styles out there.

For example, for the wing-back armchair, whilst I know I am automatically looking at country styles given the nature of the piece itself, but through desk research above, I began to appreciate subtle differences between English versus French country styles (to reduce it to a brief and blunt statement: the former is plainer, sturdier, more "honest"; the latter is prettier, more ornate and slender, more feminine). More importantly, I know which of these I personally prefer, having seen enough of these different styles being expressed in different forms.

So when I finally see a piece that fulfils my ideal type of a wing-back armchair (as pictured below, from that most English of retailers, Laura Ashley), and it being my big-ticket item, I had the confidence that I knew I was getting the right piece for me, even though I hesitated over the price and the particular fabric (I waited until the January sale to get it and deliberated for weeks over the final fabric choice!)

So that's another 3 pointers for first-time home-owners, and I haven't yet quite gotten to the meat of the interiors tips yet. I hope the above however are interesting thoughts even if they might just sound like total common sense. I will stop here and pick up this subject again another time!

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At Tue Mar 16, 10:48:00 p.m. GMT, Anonymous Emily said...

I really enjoyed reading your article on decorating for first time home buyers. I especially liked what you said about prioritizing and listing big ticket items by room. Thanks for the informative advice!

At Sun Mar 21, 11:34:00 p.m. GMT, Blogger Snowdrops said...

Thanks Emily :)


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