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Earlier this year, I was given a chance for a home reno do-over. Here's what we changed to make the process faster, easier, and more budget-friendly. IMAGE: UNSPLASH/BRETT JORDAN

After Doing Home Renovations Twice In Two Years, Here’s What I’m Doing Differently

Due to a change in circumstances, I’ve had to move twice in less than two years, which also meant going through the home renovation process a second time. Strapped finances aside, I’m thankful that our first experience was recent enough for us to remember the process, while at the same time, long ago enough for us to accumulate some home reno regrets.

Two years in, here’s how we’re changing our approach:


This time, we didn’t hire an interior designer

Look up “should I hire an ID or a contractor?” and you’ll get hundreds of results on both search engines and social media. As someone who has worked with both, here’s my take: if you have a certain aesthetic in mind, but don’t know how to make it work, then an interior designer can certainly help you bring it to life. An interior designer can also help you marry whimsy with practicality by designing your built-ins in a way that accommodates your lifestyle without compromising your home’s visual appeal - for instance, if you have a small kitchen, but love cooking, they can help you design the right cabinetry for your equipment and workflow.

Basically, if you’ve never renovated a house before, an interior designer can guide you on the project management, the materials, and of course, the overall appearance of your space.

We hired one for our first house because we were clueless and didn’t know how to make our Pinterest-inspired home design budget-friendly and applicable to the layout of a small Singapore flat. But two years and another house in, we decided to forgo hiring an ID in favour of working with a contractor, for three reasons:

Firstly, the process of home reno was fresh enough in our minds that we were confident to take on the bulk of the project management - choosing our own tiles, figuring out lighting points, and working with the contractor to schedule all of the work.

Secondly, doing home renovations twice in two years took a toll on our bank accounts. Since the contractor we worked with didn’t charge a design fee, working with him was faster and more affordable since we didn’t have to go through mockup after mockup of 3D designs.

Thirdly, our renovations this time around were relatively simple. We didn’t need to hack any walls, build new rooms, or even redo the bathroom and kitchen. All we did was replace a couple of sinks, fix a few loose hinges, and re-tile one corner of our master toilet. We didn't need to work with the contractor at all when we did our floors since we approached the vendor directly. 

Need someone to oversee spatial planning, design aesthetic, and project manage? An interior designer would be your best bet. But if your renovations are minimal or you’re confident enough to dictate design directions by yourself, then hiring a contractor could be a more wallet-friendly option.


This time, we opted for vinyl flooring

Our first home used a combination of parquet flooring and ceramic tiles. As much as I prefer sticking to honest materials - real hardwood, real marble, real granite - we have a child on the way and a rapidly shrinking budget. So we chose vinyl flooring for its hardiness and affordability.

I'll admit that I felt a bit sian - our former wooden floors felt and looked better than vinyl ones. But truth be told, they were hard to maintain even with just two adult residents in the house. As soon-to-be-parents, we need something less prone to scratching and scuffing. So vinyl it is, at least until we either move out again (which will only happen once our child is past the staining-and-scuffing phase), or until we decide to redo the house.

Point is, I’ve learnt to prioritise future-proofing and functionality. Certain design elements might be pretty, but if they won’t serve our lifestyle in the long run, then I’ll probably end up hating them later. Which brings me to our next design decision…


This time, we avoided things that are pretty but hard to clean (ahem - shaker cabinets)

As someone who loves rustic mansions and cottagecore aesthetics, I went all-in the shaker style cabinets in our first home. But as someone who also hates cleaning, I said a hard no to them for our second. Wiping dust, fingerprints, and food stains off of all those little crevices gets real old, real fast.

In order to make a shaker cabinet look more premium, you’ll also need to buy hardware (knobs, handles, and the like) to complete the look. As much as I loved my burnished bronze handles from a small boutique in Joo Chiat, polishing them whenever they oxidised isn’t something I ever want to do again.


This time, we bought more furniture secondhand

My first dining set, from a furniture franchise in Singapore, cost almost $2000. While it served us well, my second dining table, which we bought only after moving into our new place, cost only $300, from a Carouseller who found it at a wood shop overseas.

Not only is this new table super budget-friendly, but it has a much more interesting story behind it and looks far less generic than our previous table, which a number of my friends own as well.

If you’re looking to save money while doing home renovations, consider swapping out built-ins for loose pieces. That way, you’ll have the freedom to replace them when you change design styles while doing away with the cost of carpentry. Sure, it might take a bit longer to source for pre-loved pieces instead of buying a full set at IKEA or Castlery, but you’ll be surprised at how much you can acquire from a moving sale. My advice: Search for Facebook groups using the keywords “expat classifieds” or “expats leaving Singapore”. You’ll find an abundance of well-priced treasures from sellers who are dying to be rid of their furniture before moving back home. Shiok!


This time, we didn’t stick to a theme

Two years ago, I would’ve thought that a theme-less house would look chapalang and bland. But now, I realise that being too rigid with a theme - be it farmhouse, Japandi (see above), or industrial - can also make a space look a little contrived and artificial, as if it were a showroom and not a space that people actually live in.

Then again, if that’s what you’re aiming for, then you do you. But maybe you’re like me and want your house to feel like a home, not a cafe or a hotel. Consider mixing your design styles and buying furnishings from different places rather than from one store. If you’ve decided to forgo an interior designer, let your furniture and knick knacks do the heavy lifting. If you’re doing major works, however, consider asking your interior designer how to make the home look visually consistent without being too matchy-matchy.

Truth be told, my space does look a little slapdash. But I’m okay with it because…


This time, we don’t feel pressured to finish everything at once

It’s best to move in only after flooring, lights, electrical works, plumbing, painting, and carpentry have been done. But window grilles, insect screens, and even curtains can wait a couple of weeks. The same goes for furniture - I’ve been living without a couch for the past two months since mine is still en route from China. I’ve made do with sitting on my bed or in the ergonomic chair I bought for WFH days.

During the first round of renovations, we were so ready to be done with the process that we bought everything quickly without doing proper research, which led to us overpaying for items we ended up not maximising - case in point, our built-in dishwasher, which we used only a handful of times. It also led to me buying a bunch of decor from just one or two stores, which again, made my house look more like a showroom than a home.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I moved in, but we’re holding off on expensive blackout curtains until we decide whether we really need them to sleep. We also took our time to research the different types of digital door locks (we bought our previous one simply because my in-laws have the same one, but psych, it could almost never recognise my thumbprint).

The truth is, unless you have boundless time and an army of home stylists at your disposal, your house won’t look “done” overnight. Figuring out our ideal aesthetic, and making it compatible with your lifestyle, takes time. Curation takes even longer. So don't stress out about the extent to which your home looks "ready" or Instagram-worthy. It's also okay to change your mind about lighting or electrical points. No matter how much you plan, you'll wish you had an extra socket here or an extra track light there. You can always call the vendors to come back and install what you need.

Best of luck, and enjoy the process!

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