This is the part 2 of the Where to Spend/ Where to Save, and these are the things that I feel are worth spending money on when you're building or renovating. Part 1, Where to Save is here


Lighting always makes a real impact and gives a designer feel to any house, so allow a decent amount in your budget for some really good feature lights. Not just feature pendants/ chandeliers, but up lighters, art lights in walls, wall sconces, outside lighting - these really personalise a home and give a lot of wow compared to other things. 


Most people cut their lighting significantly as it's the last thing that is purchased and generally building costs overrun by the stage you get to lighting. Putting aside a decent amount, or purchasing your lights at the start before starting construction will ensure you have a really polished feel in your renovation. A perfect example of underwhelming lighting can be seen below - this pendant is a little insipid design-wise, it's under scaled for the size of the room and table, and to me looks like an afterthought and a totally missed opportunity to put something in with impact that would anchor the table and create a focal point. 


Don't do masses of downlights in the ceiling - it makes it look like swiss cheese, and you'll likely use lamps more as you'll want light at your height rather than overhead (overhead is less flattering, and much harsher). If your living area has sofas that are away from the wall, get some floor boxes put in under the sofas - these have power points in them so you can put your lamp cords into that rather than having cords running across the floor. We have no overhead lighting in our casual living area, so it's all wall lights and lamps. The lamps are connected to the floor boxes and then switched on and off from the wall light switch, just like in a hotel. Doesn't cost a lot extra when you're already wiring up a new house, but it makes life much easier. 



Taps are worth spending money on. Anything you touch and use every day should be the best quality you can afford, as you'll really appreciate it. Taps are also something you really notice in a bathroom or kitchen from a visual standpoint too, so are definitely worth spending money on as they're part of the overall design impact. You should not purchase your taps directly from overseas where they are usually a lot cheaper - we have very high plumbing standards in Australia for water conservation and other regulatory reasons, and plumbers are unable to offer warranty and certification on overseas taps, so you may find it hard to get the installed at any rate. The cost of sanitary ware (toilets/ hand basins etc) can be in the bargain sector (I do think you can get high quality no name sanitary ware for low prices), but the taps are worth spending money on.


Allow enough money for wallpaper or feature finishes. There is a massive variety out there from subtle to bold, but it will give your home more of a finished look if you use it in a couple of rooms. Even using it on the back of built in bookshelves is fabulous (like grasscloth) and makes a big impact. 


Natural light is an excellent thing to spend money on - skylights such as the Velux ones are invaluable to bring it into dark hall ways or rooms and these are the ones you can see sky through (sky windows). They make a huge difference compared to the solar tubes with those plastic diffusers you can't see through (although if you have to use them due to your roof line profile, that's better than nothing). I use them extensively in bathrooms - in our ensuite bathroom we have an openable one with a remote, the powder room has a fixed glass one. Our living area has the ceiling lantern which brings in masses of light and ventilates the rear extension effectively, and a friend recently put one into her dark Victorian hall, and it made an enormous difference to the whole feel of the house by bringing light into a previously gloomy space. 




Choose a standout feature in your project and spend the money on it. For me this was our steel windows. It could be you make a special feature out of a staircase by having a special handrail made…. it could be a fireplace, a wall of natural stone, built in wall panelling or library shelves, or a really special feature light. But if you balance out the special feature by being more restrained in other places you'll highlight the feature, and save money on simplifying elsewhere. It will give your feature maximum impact and distract from other budget saving measures you've employed.


If you put carpet in, choose the best quality underlay possible rather than skimping on it. It makes more of a difference to the way the carpet feels and performs long term than you'd believe. 


I really feel strongly that you should spend money on good insulation. Always put in much more than is recommended - having lived in a house for a year that had terrible insulation in it, I can attest that you will be permanently uncomfortable in your home if you skimp. There's no joy in staring at acres of 2pac joinery and beautiful marble while you shiver, and are then hit by astronomical electricity/gas bills after running your heating and cooling 24/7. It's invisible, but completely worth it. The recommended r value in South Australia for your ceiling is 3.2. I don't feel this is adequate at all… I'd suggest an r value of 4 at a minimum (the higher the r value the better the rate of insulation), and if you can put in double layers of insulation to get to 6 you'll be very happy in the long term. 


Finally, the most obvious is that it's always with spending money on an Architect. It is always tempting to cut out the fee you'd be spending on a designer when looking at a tight renovation budget… but Architects will give your renovation all the intangible things that you won't get through using a builder or draftsperson alone. Good design does not come about from building a large physical space to maximise the floor area that you can get for your budget - it is a strange truth that you can have a much smaller space that will in fact feel larger because of the way the space and light is manipulated by ceiling height/ window choice etc …. this was something I touched on in a blog post about the Modern Australian renovation, and which are all the things that will make a difference to your experience and enjoyment of a renovation. The potential saving you will make from choosing not to use an Architect or Interior Designer can wind up costing you added light/ space/ overall experience and the elusive x factor. 

24 comments:

  1. Great post Heidi! The taps point especially got me, as we bought cheaper taps years ago that just leaked like hell until we finally repaired them. My mantra now is buy once and buy well. Insulation is critical. We recently redid our kitchen celing and will hopefully redo the the insulation in the rest of the house. Expensive, but worth it!

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    1. I've had a similar experience in the past in a rental using cheap taps, and hated them so much. You change the washers constantly and they still drip, and they have horrible cheap edges to them that cut into your hand to add insult to injury and remind you that they are horrible taps!!
      In Canada you must be all over the insulation thing due to the snow, but for some reason in Australia even with our extreme heat people don't seem to think it's as necessary.

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  2. It's interesting how many do skimp on an architect and even first timers think they can do it themselves...while I don't like too many down lighters or as we call it here - property developers acne- I have to have it in London!!! Otherwise it's all very wolf hall and it must be the nations collective vit d deficiency that perpetuates it. We insulated the house extra and must say this winter was painless and was soooo worth it! It ain't pretty and you can't see it so it must be hard to convince first time home buyers that they should get insulation instead of a new sofa! ;)

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    1. Insulation is one of those things that people think they can do without - and as our recommendations for the amount of insulation is a little deficient (in my view) most people don't have enough in to actually appreciate the benefit of it.
      As for not using an Architect - it's very common in Australia due to the building, rather than design culture. I think because everyone lives in a house they have opinions about design… which leads to DIYing it too. People with small budgets often look at cutting costs - or think that an architect won't take on a small budget project, but it really makes such a difference!!
      Downlights are a necessary evil in places, but it's become a default in Australia. Electricians are surprised when I say I hate them!

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    2. I hate downlights too. A lot of people were surprised when I said we weren't putting any in our house when we renovate soon. It's so common here in Australia but I'm just not a fan.
      Also as someone who lives in a 1950s house with no insulation (and has done for almost 10 years now) I cannot wait to get good quality insulation and double glazed windows when we do up the house!

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  3. Heidi another great post! So true about the lighting (which I am clueless about), we had our designer tweak the lighting throughout the house and what a difference it has made. She was worth her weight in gold and definitely saved us money by just plain making good decisions (about every little thing), she was also meticulous and made sure all of the trades did their work perfectly. I've already recommended her to my neighbours and she'll be designing a new kitchen for them and re-working the flow of their house as well, I can't wait to see what she does.
    We do take insulation very seriously here in Canada and our window seat addition was insulated to death, the thing is literally stuffed and every good builder goes way beyond the code requirements for insulation. Must be the same in Aus with your extreme temps.
    We're just on the final phase with decorating the living room, having the bench cushion made for the seat and the throw pillows, small things that will make a difference. I was planning to pick fabrics myself but after seeing our designer's work I'm just leaving it up to her. I've realized I tend to be too matchy-matchy and also her understanding of colour is mind-blowing.
    Then the garden work needs doing, which I'm looking forward to, I'll be able to watch the progress from my window seat and see the mess outside not in! ;)

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    1. It's so good you had such a great experience with your Designer Dani! And as you say it's often small tweaks that make such a difference.
      Sadly with the insulation it's not the same as in Canada. For some reason people seem to think extreme heat events don't require insulation in the same way that extreme cold does. For instance double glazing is not really that common, and you can't access triple glazing at all (which is available in Scandanavian countries). Also the insulation is frustrating - I became excited when I saw in a brochure my builder gave me some r6 insulation batts for the ceiling, but they weren't available in Australia! I guess the thought is that you just crank up the air-conditioning and it's only for a period of a couple of months… but really it's no difference to living somewhere really cold, so I don't get it!
      I can't wait to see the finished result at your place - love the progress I've seen so far, it's looking so beautiful and I'll be waiting for it to be featured in a Canadian Design magazine :)

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  4. Thanks for the great post Heidi. We're planning on renovating and will store these away for later. We have been updating a number of rooms house before we undertake a major renovation, and one of the things that has had a major impact was lighting. Funnily enough, its the one thing that most comment on when visiting.

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    1. I'd agree with you that that's been my experience too Ange - the lighting is number one the thing that people comment on when they come over and ask the sources of too. It really has made such an impact on the house. Good luck with your ongoing renovation!

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  5. Wonderful advice. I completely agree, Heidi - especially working with the right architect. It's important for the renovated spaces or additions to be sympathetic to the overall architecture. It doesn't have to match, but should be harmonious and flow. Cheers

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    1. Yes, I do think that's key Loi - getting flow in a house really adds to the feeling of spaciousness too.

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  6. Spot on advice! We spent up on lights, architect and windows. Taps were fairly high too. So true about insulation as well. I guess we sometimes don't think of the hidden stuff. We have underfloor heating which I hope won't bankrupt us, but we intend to only use it for an hour or so in the early morning on those few cold weeks that Sydney has.
    I think your design ethos must have rubbed off on me! Thanks Heidi!

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    1. Ha! My brainwashing has worked :) Sounds like you've done absolutely everything right Ruth - I can't wait to see more of your place, having seen the little glimpses on insta. I'm sure you'll find that you'll be so happy in your new spaces. As for underfloor heating - you're going to LOVE it. It was one of the best decisions we made with our extension, there is no feeling quite like walking out with bare feet in the morning onto a warm floor surface, plus your heating costs are significantly lower overall.

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  7. I have loved these posts! Thank you so much! I'm filing these all away to refer to for when we (eventually) do it all again.

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    1. My pleasure Jane! Hope it helps on your next project and thanks for your comment.

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  8. I loved Part 2, thank you, all good points. How right you are when you write "Anything you touch and use every day should be the best quality you can afford". We purchased our taps (Perrin and Rowe - I believe the same model as your kitchen faucet in a different finish) long before we were ready for our renovation project, but I'm glad I did so, as it seems prices just keep escalating with each year. My fixtures were stored in our basement until we were ready to use them (I think about a year and a half later, along with the kitchen sink!).

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    1. I did a similar thing with quite a few of our taps CD - it's definitely worth investing in quality. The other item are the door handles - we had a couple of repro Victorian handles put on doors that had damaged handles to match the existing… and they're awful - not at all like the original and are slated for replacement. The feel in the hand is quite different from the original and they're very much a poor imitation.

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  9. I say again Heidi, why weren't you blogging when we renovated 10 years ago! Our kitchen/bathroom designer back then loved halogen downlights and persuaded us to pepper the ceilings with them. A great mistake. We've now replaced them all with LEDs, much safer and cheaper to use but I quickly came to realise that, like you, I don't love downlights.
    Your lighting is spectacular - love it all. Though I think a high ceiling is mostly needed and ours are just normal height.
    We did spend up on taps, particularly the kitchen ones. At the time I thought I must be mad because I chose something that cost $1000 - but I still love using it. We also went for the much more expensive dripless washers everywhere so that the taps turn off/on really easily. We've had them now over 10 years and so far none have needed to be replaced (the washers I mean).
    I think door and drawer handles, used all the time, are so important too. Have visited places where they're sharp and hurt poor fingers or catch in clothes. Ours probably cost too much but I chose handles that are smooth and comfortable yet easy to grip and have always been happy with them. They don't have any kind of wow factor, just blend it well and so easy to use. Pammie

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    1. Oh halogens were all the go 10 years ago Pammie! LED's have actually only been worth putting in in the past 3 years. Even when we renovated the old part of the house 5 years ago I spoke to the electrician about it (we have them in the ensuite bathroom and dressing room) and they still weren't good enough. Technology has improved remarkably in 10 years.
      It's always been my experience that cheap taps start dripping very quickly, and they feel horrible in the hand and are hard to control flow from. 10 years is a good run to not have to replace a washer though!

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  10. Loved these posts Heidi. Even though we are not renovating a house at present, I still found all of your tips and experiences really interesting. Also great advice on where to save money e.g cabinet handles!!!

    Fifi x

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    1. Thanks Fifi - I know you'e done a lot of nesting in the past few years, so you never know there might be a renovation in you!

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  11. I think I'm the only person in the world who absolutely loves recessed lighting! Haha maybe it's because I want every room to be brilliantly, blindingly bright. I'm rarely keen on lamps as I don't like the clutter. Obviously I love them some places like a sofa table or next to a bed. But almost anywhere else I'd prefer recessed :) so agree on the importance of a showstopping chandelier!

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    1. You're too funny - you're not the only one Stephen, all the Electricians love down lights too! Do you know, I hadn't pegged you for a minimalist, I'm not one for clutter either, but I do love flattering light from a lamp…maybe you just look more youthful than I! :)

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  12. Hahahaha... old post, I know, however the architects that I've seen the work of in Australia - horrible!
    It either ends up looking like beachside toilet blocks, an expensive Swiss cosmetic surgery clinic, or has 'features' that are a maintenance nightmare for the homeowner.
    They seem to be so enamoured of their 'designs', that they forget that people have to live in it, clean in, and maintain it.
    If I could find an architect to build me a nice Georgian country mansion from stone, with all mod cons, giant scullery/kitchen, and giant laundry room, below stairs (lift and dumbwaiter included!), I might be happy

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Architect & Interior Designer. Mother of three. A sometimes Cook, Baker, Reader, Gardener, Fashion Lover, Renovator, Writer of random things in South Australia email me on anadelaidevilla@bigpond.com
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