The secret of how to spend wisely
If you've just bought a house, or are planning to redecorate, how can you make your budget stretch further? Fran Power asks the experts where to spend - and where to cut corners without losing your style edge. Photos: Ruth Maria Murphy
You've scrimped and saved for the deposit on your house, paid out your inheritance in surveyors' reports, endured the horrors of contract delays and taken your relationship to the very edge. But finally, finally, you are in possession of a home.
There's just one problem. You haven't got two cents left to kit it out.
Happily, there are clever ways to make your budget stretch further. And there are some things worth paying a premium for; pieces of furniture you will probably own for longer than your average car.
Knowing where to spend and where to save is the key.
Architect Colm Doyle of award-winning firm DMVF knows all about decorating on a budget.
Three years ago, he and his partner bought two derelict Georgian houses on Camden Street in Dublin and poured money into the black hole that always appears when restoring a period property.
When the time came to move in, the pair had virtually nothing left over to spend on the décor.
"The restoration ate up our budget," he says. "We sat there in Georgian splendour on the one sofa. We were faced with all those dilemmas about budget."
Luckily, he had spent years helping clients through this stage of designing their own home, and knew exactly what to do.
"Start with the essentials," he says. "Most people only need one sofa, a dining table, four chairs and a bed. If you have those key pieces, you'll live well, you'll be comfortable. Then you can take your time. It's not just about money, but it is helpful from a cashflow perspective."
Arlene McIntyre of Ventura Design, a one-stop-shop interior design service that also manufactures its own products, is responsible for many of the more upmarket new home-scheme fit-outs.
"The go-to list when you first move into a new house," says Arlene, who opens her third showroom next week, a studio in Kinsale, "is to invest in a good sofa, definitely. A good bed, definitely. A good dining table and chairs. They are the three points in your life that you spend most time in, that are downright necessities."
In fact, if pushed, she would narrow that list down to a sofa and a bed. "If you have to eat your dinner in your lap until you can afford a nice dining table, do."
Once you've sorted the essentials, put anything left over into the bathroom and some clever storage, she advises.
Well-known interior architect Roisin Lafferty, MD of Kingston Lafferty Design, puts it a little differently.
"Think in terms of impact rather than cost," she says. "If you have a restricted budget, plan out your key areas because it won't always stretch to the whole house."
The key areas are usually the kitchen and living room - where you will spend most time.
"Do what you're doing well and have a plan for the other areas to follow when funds allow - rather than diluting your design so much that you risk losing impact," she continues. "The more you break down what is required for each room, the clearer you can be with your budget.
"Look at who and what the space is being used for. If you have a young family, for example, there is little point in spending thousands on a sofa, so choose something cheaper for now and trade up later."
While investing in the basics is important, it is also important to surround yourself with things you love, things that give you pleasure. For Roisin, that means artwork - which can transform a space, especially if you go for oversized prints.
"One of my design secrets is Shutterstock.com. It sells really high-res images of pretty much anything, and they can make the perfect artwork. Add a frame you've found in a market or jumble sale and you have a great way of adding personality.
"The good news," says Roisin, "is you don't need to spend a fortune to get maximum impact."
If the kitchen is the heart of the home, then the dining table is its soul. Splurge here is the consensus.
"If you have a very small apartment," says Arlene McIntyre, " we'd recommend a table that has really good, extendible ends, that's very flexible, multi-functional, that ticked all those boxes and was also hardwearing and of good quality.
"If you're in a house, though," she says, "I would recommend a good, solid dining table. Go for a good investment and if you can't afford fine upholstered dining chairs, have some done in a low-cost fabric. In two or three years, re-upholster them in a nicer one."
Roisin Lafferty takes a different tack. Commissioning your own design for a table might seem very pricy, she says, but can actually be as cost-effective as buying one - and it means the result is built exactly to your specifications.
"Simplicity is key in design. If you're going for a butcher-block, more rustic style of table, then it tends to be a little more forgiving. If you're trying to get a delicate, fine-legged table, that requires more skill and you're getting into more detail. Zelouf + Bell are fantastic," she says of the Laois-based duo who create one-off pieces, "but they are very high end."
Think beyond wood for your table and you can shave money off the price tag. "You could go for a marble top," suggests Roisin. "CA Design [Dublin] do reproductions in the style of the Saarinen table which are very popular. Or you could buy a slab of marble from a stone merchant and get table legs made - it would be something totally original. If you're going with timber kitchen units, you don't want a timber table too. It could end up looking too rustic."
A fourth option is to check out antique shops, auction houses or vintage stores such as The Cross Gallery in the Liberties, or the Vintage Hub in north county Dublin, for fine pieces of Victorian, Georgian or mid-century furniture that are often relative bargains. "That kind of craftsmanship isn't too popular anymore," says Roisin, "so it's great to see it - and it works with really contemporary tables and other pieces. They stand out."
By Anna Shelswell White
A recent survey carried out by UK property website Zoopla.co.uk revealed we can take three times longer to choose our sofa than our new home - with the average house-hunter deciding to buy in only 27 minutes as opposed to 88 minutes for a new sofa.
Obviously, this is a big-ticket purchase, and a good starting point for choosing other complementary pieces and your décor. As your sofa is something you will no doubt use a lot - and for years to come - spending a little extra on quality and the perfect size is a no-brainer. Now is not the time to scrimp.
"Before you start looking, measure the space you have," advises Lorraine Stevens of Lomi (lomi.ie). "Allow 100cm depth for the sofa then see what width you can accommodate. Sofas take up a surprisingly large amount of space, so this will focus your mind on what will work for you," she says. There are so many styles, finishes, shapes and colours to choose from that it can be hard to know where to start your search, and this makes it even easier to sacrifice function for looks.
"Though the look of a sofa is very important - particularly if you are going for a traditional or contemporary theme - your focus should be on comfort," says Paul Byrne of bespoke sofa company, Jaybee Sofaworks (jaybeesofaworks.com). "Posture and seating position should be your primary concern. The height and depth of the seat and the density and composition of the cushions, are something that should be checked in a showroom. A sofa is too important a purchase to buy without trying it first. Buying from a picture is a sure way to waste money," he says
Once you've been made aware of the comfort level and material you want, think about longevity. "The most important feature for a quality sofa is the construction of the frame," says Paul. "Sit and move it around in the showroom. If it feels light, it probably has inferior quality frame and fillings," he says. "A rough rule of thumb is that heavy means good quality fillings and lighter means cheaper, so it's not likely to last.''
Lorraine agrees, adding: "Build quality is very important when buying a sofa. If you want your sofa to last you must buy the best you can afford. Look for solid wood frames with high-quality springing, or elasticated banding with high-quality fillings."
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If you plan to buy an expensive sofa and have young children, opt for a durable, commercial-grade fabric. Or choose a model from Ikea or DFS, both of which offer good guarantees. If so, says Roisin, have a bit more fun with the chairs, mix different armchairs so it's not all one suite - which can look dated quickly - and if you get tired of it, you at least have more flexibility to move furniture around.
It's not the bed you should splurge on but the mattress. Spend upwards of €600, advises Arlene, whose company always works with Irish supplier Respa. Do not, however, buy without testing your mattress. "It's like artwork," she says, "you can't in a million years decide or imagine what someone else will like."
Roisin agrees, "A mattress is something to spend on, 100pc. Get a good, proper mattress.
If you have a really good mattress you can get away with a cheaper bed base, such as from Ikea's Stockholm range."
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As for the rest of the bedroom, says Roisin, "you don't need to spend much money to make a bedroom look good. It's about creating atmosphere and an environment, so colour and texture are good here.
"H&M and Sostrene Grene are amazing for lovely homeware products. Incorporate some nice prints, keep it nice and soft. Curtains can be a really expensive item, so if you don't want to splurge, go with readymade from Ikea, Zara Home or Next Home."
We obsess about our kitchens - the cabinets, the island and the latest must, the pantry. As a result, the kitchen tends to swallow a huge chunk of the budget. Architect Colm Doyle cautions against spending the earth on a fancy fitted kitchen. "The function is the most important thing. You don't need to spend a lot on the actual fittings, but do spend time on the layout. That's what you'll love in your kitchen, whether it costs €5,000 or €50,000. If the function is right, it will give you plenty of payback."
Arlene McIntyre agrees, "There are endless ways you can cut back spending on your kitchen, but that's where you need good advice before shopping around. Get more than one quote, because really you can learn a lot. Don't buy impulsively in sales - take your time, decide what you want, and then go shop."
Don't overlook the cut-price chic of suppliers such as Ikea or other high-street stores, says Roisin Lafferty. "If you're buying painted kitchen units and looking for carcases, absolutely use Ikea. There's such a good range."
However, she says, customise cheaper units with handles from Zara Home, add some interesting tiles for a splashback and maybe a marble countertop: "All of a sudden, it looks like a designer kitchen for a fraction of the cost."
She also believes a good countertop is worth spending money on: "Choose a material such as Silestone, which is man-made but has lots of natural attributes, lasts a long time, is heat resistant and stain resistant. Marble, too, has so much character. It can stain, but I like that because it will develop and change the longer you have it. Melamine might peel over time, so it can be a false economy."
If the budget can't run to stone or Silestone, says Colm, buy formica and replace it when you can.
The hot trend for splashbacks - the area of wall space from countertop to wall unit - is a large slab of very expensive Carrara marble. "There is a cheap way of using Carrara," says Colm, "just put it behind the hob and use a plain white countertop. It is more cost-effective because the vertical slab of stone is the one you see."
In fact the splashback, says Colm, is the perfect spot to go mad with colour, or an expensive finish: "Make the most of the space because it is probably only going to take, say, 2-3sqm of materials. A cheap tile is €20, an expensive one is €100, in total you're only going to save about €150 in the difference."
"Don't worry about your budget on this one: be a bit creative - or have fun."
Twenty years ago, a family typically shared one bathroom and possibly had a guest WC downstairs. These days, some houses have equal numbers of bathrooms and bedrooms. "So a lot of people now like to invest more in the master ensuite or the WC used by guests," says Roisin.
If you want to splash out on sanitaryware, then the Drummond range, stocked by Versatile Bathrooms in Navan, is the place to head, she says. "They are of exquisite craftsmanship, almost a work of art in themselves."
For more contemporary fittings, she recommends the German Alape range, made from steel rather than ceramic. "Not only are they very durable, but they come in really clear, crisp lines you can't get with ceramic basins, and they are at a good price point."
Top of the range for taps and shower heads has to be German company Dornbracht, which boasts Cyprum, an 18-carat gold and copper tap (pictured below left) among its offerings.
For fun, contemporary fittings in 20 different colours from pink to light green try Vola, a Scandinavian company - the first Vola tap was designed by Arne Jacobsen - which is less expensive.
Otherwise, look out for black, rose gold, nickel, and the latest hot colour, antique gold.
Spend on sanitaryware and fittings and you might want to claw some money back on your tiling. For example, Arlene recommends opting for a porcelain tile, rather than stone.
"You can cut back by only tiling the shower area and the floors. Paint all the other walls - and this is a common mistake - the ceiling. You only need to tile the wet areas."
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Use cheap tiles in a clever way, advises Colm. Buy an ordinary type of tile and use it to make a pattern such as a herringbone or brick or grid pattern. It means that with something like an inexpensive subway tile, you can get a designer effect on the walls of your bathroom. Try it with colour for extra oomph.
One of the things people most regret, says Roisin, is not adding more natural light to their house when carrying out a refurb: it's worth spending on. But if it is too late to glaze your walls from floor to ceiling, use mirrors to bounce light around. "They are a scrimp item in terms of cost," says Roisin, "but a splurge in terms of quantity."
Then think carefully about your lighting. "You don't need spotlighting around the entire house," points out Arlene, "no one wants to live in the Aviva Stadium. Just have task lighting where required, in the kitchen and the bathroom."
These days many high-street stores are competing with designer brands to provide high-end looks at a much more affordable price, so invest some time in online research before you buy.
At the top end of the market, Roisin recommends Bert Frank and Atelier Areti [both London], which makes pieces she describes as "like a piece of jewellery".
At the lower end of the price range, she opts for designs from made.com.
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If you have a young family, don't spend a fortune on rugs. Instead, buy cheapish rugs and change them if they get stained. It'll update your look too. Check out stores like made.com and rockettstgeorge.co.uk, which are cost-effective and good quality.
'Not having enough storage is always the biggest complaint people make," says Roisin. "Storage eats into the budget a lot, but will last for a long time."
The question is whether to go for the expensive option of built-ins, or cut costs with freestanding wardrobes. In his period house Colm chose the latter, but put a good deal of time into designing the Ikea modules to fit the room - almost: "It stands a bit shy of the room but looks like a fitted wardrobe..."
For Arlene, the choice always depends on the style of interior.
"If it's a classic look, then opt for a classic freestanding wardrobe, which can be painted in another colour and made into a feature. If it's a modern contemporary house, you might want a very seamless look, as if it's just melted into the wall and streamlined. This is where good design advice really kicks in."
Whether you choose free-standing or built-in, you can save on bedroom storage by buying the carcases and getting doors specially-made just as you might do for a kitchen, or pay more to commission bespoke doors painted to suit your room.
Finally, Roisin admits to a pet hate: the gap between the top of a freestanding wardrobe and the ceiling. "It's typically a 150mm gap. Get a carpenter to come in and put a bulkhead in so it looks like it's meant to be there.
"Otherwise it's a dust gatherer and looks ill-considered. Have it built up to the ceiling so it looks purpose-built."
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When it comes to wardrobes in children's rooms, says Colm, always opt for free-standing.
"Children's needs will change: when they're small they want a big play-space in the middle of their room; as a teen they need a study desk, and as they get older still they need more wardrobe space. Having flexibility around their furniture, and therefore going cheaper, is a good idea. Use Ikea - it's fabulous, good fun, cheap, wears well for what it is and if you're worried about the assembly, pay the extra. It's still really cheap."