Moving Into Our First Home: Where We Saved, Where We Splurged

Behold the transformations we chose as budget-minded, first-time homeowners of a 1936 Spanish house in Los Angeles

We closed on our first home last spring without a ton of cash to spare. With a strict budget in mind, here's what we chose to splurge on to make it every inch our own, and where we saved cash for the endless other necessities of homeownership.  

Kitchen Cabinets
Where We Splurged: Because our home is old, it has a tiny kitchen. We knew it could suit our needs, however, if we could maximize the cabinet space, so we splurged on custom cabinets and added tons of space in the process. In the adjoining breakfast room, we even built corner cabinets from floor almost to ceiling, and a storage bench under the front windows.

Where We Saved: We only did fully custom cabinets where absolutely necessary, and refaced the ones that were salvageable. And while I’d been eyeing more expensive hardware for the drawer and cabinet pulls (sigh, Restoration Hardware), we shopped online and found similar vintage reproduction pieces for a fraction of the price (hello, House of Antique Hardware).

Kitchen Accessories
Where We Splurged: Because we built a custom bench in a unique shape under our front windows, we needed to splurge a bit on an upholstered seat in just the right shape. We picked a cheery ultrasuede that we hoped would be cat-proof (so far so good!).

Where We Saved: Instead of topping the bench with all custom pillows, we bought most of them off the shelf from chain retailers like Z Gallerie and online flash sites like One Kings Lane. And for our kitchen wall clock? We spray painted an old Target clock matte black to match our black and white bistro-style kitchen, and it looks better than its previous red incarnation.

Kitchen Tile
Where We Splurged: This part of the kitchen project was definitely a splurge. I adore Carrara marble and selected it in a subway tile-style backsplash. I love the brightness and even the sense of luxury it adds to the room.

Where We Saved: The tile we chose for our floor is a basic, relatively inexpensive hexagonal shape. It comes in black and white, and we chose mostly white tiles with a pattern of sparing black flowers that totally completed the vintage bistro look I was going for. For an even more affordable option, places like Home Depot offer the black and white tiles already laid out together on sheets (though you’d have less flexibility to pick your pattern). 

Kitchen Counter
Where We Splurged: We opted for a smart-looking black Caesarstone, which I suppose was a splurge in itself because the existing countertop was adequate and inoffensive.

Where We Saved: We were able to complete our whole project with just one slab of Caesarstone -- the upside of having such a small space! We used the single piece as our main countertop, as well as for a small additional countertop in the adjacent service porch, and to create a built-in look on either side of the range, which makes the appliance itself look brand new and more upscale.

Kitchen Fixtures
Where We Splurged: We added recessed lighting in the kitchen and adjoining service porch and breakfast room. We also picked two fixtures from Rejuvenation, the amazing vintage reproduction retailer for fixtures and house parts now owned by Williams-Sonoma. The recessed lights were about $100 each, and the two vintage-reproduction fixtures totalled a few hundred dollars.

Where We Saved: This may sound like an elaborate justification, but here goes anyway: I think we actually saved here by not going for cheaper fixtures that we might have had to replace sooner. I believe we have well-crafted, made-in-the-U.S.A. fixtures that will last for the long haul in both quality and style (given that they’re done in keeping with the home’s original period). And we get compliments all the time to boot.

Heating and Cooling
Where We Splurged: My husband’s a Mac guy through and through, so we sprung for the Nest, the Apple-compatible thermostat that you can control with your iPhone or iPad. It’s got a really cool look, and it’s educable, so it knows about your home and your preferences and reacts accordingly. The brand just released a new version, so the price of ours dropped to under $200 if you’re in the market.

Where We Saved: We opted against insulation -- at first. We live in Los Angeles, where it rarely gets especially cold (or even oppressively hot), and we figured we’d hold off on shelling out the cash until we saw what our first L.A. winter held. (In December, we did add spray insulation in the attic, which was surprisingly affordable and came with a quick rebate from the gas company.)

Where We Splurged: We put an amazing bay window in our kitchen, which lets in so much light and literally enlarges the room. We also replaced some of the home’s jalousies with new windows, which we considered to be a necessary investment for security purposes. (Also, who put those mid-century-ish windows in a ‘30s-era house?!) We were lucky that we didn’t have to touch the biggest window in the house: a lovely arched leaded glass window bearing a stained glass crest, which serves as the centerpiece of the living room.

Where We Saved: We left alone some of the home’s older windows -- and not because we didn’t want to change them, but because they’re expensive and we decided to hold out. Down the road, we’d like to expand the house from the back, so it seems silly to replace windows now that may soon become obsolete because of our expansion. We went so far as to nail a window with a broken cable shut as a stopgap measure, since the top pane had a tendency to fall on unsuspecting fingers -- ouch!

Where We Splurged: We paid our gardener and his small crew a few hundred dollars to lay out perfectly green and company-ready sod. I walked to 7-Eleven to buy the guys some Gatorade on the hot day, and by the time I came back, it was practically done. We didn’t have to stay off of it while seeds grew, and we didn’t have to wait weeks -- as with every other darn project -- for it to come to fruition. Instant gratification!

Where We Saved: We have employed certainly the most affordable gardener on the block, the kind of outfit I heard someone refer to once as a “mow and blow” service. He doesn’t weed, and he doesn’t do much beside basic maintenance. But that’s all the help we need while we putz around in our own garden -- which, in my assessment so far, is half the fun of owning this sweet little house.

Alesandra Dubin is a Los Angeles-based writer and the founder of home and travel blog Homebody in Motion. Follow her on Twitter: @alicedubin.

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