Design Choices That Make Your Home Look Cheap

One of the most important goals of a home seller is to sell the property for as much money as the market will bear. To appeal to the widest possible buying audience, sellers and their agents should set the stage: Repairs should be made, and furniture and decor should be edited and staged.

However, sometimes cheap renovation choices or tacky decorating can turn off potential buyers, causing an otherwise great property to languish on the market and eventually sell for less than it should.

Even if a few smart buyers can see through bad taste, most buyers don’t have a ton of imagination. Furthermore, they’ll quickly realize that redoing a cheap (or strange) renovation in rooms like the kitchen and bathrooms can prove costly, time-consuming or both.

Here are a few renovation and decorating mistakes that can make your home look or seem cheap, and how to avoid them:

— Cutting the wrong corners when renovating.

— Poor paint quality.

— Unflattering lighting.

— Skipped window treatments.

— Wrong-size rugs.

— Maximalist decor while marketing the home.

[Read: How to Perfect Your Living Room Furniture Layout.]

Cutting the Wrong Corners When Renovating

As anyone who has ever renovated a home knows, the costs add up quickly, and every choice has a price tag, whether selecting subway tiles versus slabs of imported marble, white oak flooring versus engineered wood, or recessed lighting versus tracks. But sometimes choosing the cheap option upfront isn’t the most cost-effective in the end, especially when selecting materials.

“There are artificial products like MDF (medium-density fiberboard) composites that can be used as wood substitutes for moldings or other millwork around the home, and these are much less expensive than solid wood,” says Sam Brill, a builder and real estate developer in Pennsylvania and Florida, and president of Classic Homes of South Florida. “But over time, with changing humidity levels in the air or possible leaks in the home, these composites expand instantly from the moisture and can then fall apart. The initial savings for the homeowner may turn into expensive repairs and replacements down the road. MDF looks great, but you have to be vigilant.”

Dana Raines, director of business development at Highline Construction Group in New York City, notes that “clients are often keen to use wood as opposed to plaster crown molding to save, but what they fail to realize is that the ‘wood’ used is usually MDF, and it easily separates, warps and cracks as temperature and moisture fluctuate, especially in more humid climates. Clients are better off springing for a material like plaster at the onset, as it is a material that will endure. With cheaper MDF options, it’s just a matter of time before the contractor will need to return to repair the fractures that may arise. In the long run, the client may wind up paying more for a series of service calls.”

When choosing which corners to cut when renovating and decorating, nicer doorknobs and drawer pulls can convey an impression of bespoke instead of one-size-fits-all. Most buyers gravitate toward homes that seem like they were thoughtfully renovated and well-maintained unless they’re looking for a fixer-upper.

“Nice-looking hardware matters more than you’d think,” says Melody Weir, president of Melody Weir Design in New York. “When people install cheap drapery bars and drawer pulls, it shows. If a little creativity and expense are allocated to cabinet hardware choices, for example, it subtly but notably elevates the whole look of a kitchen. It really gives the immediate visual impression that some thought and care was put into the renovation.”

Poor Paint Quality

Bold colors are trending again, but these may not be the best for resale. A bad paint job in bolder colors can look even more shabby, especially around the edges. Lighter colors can be more forgiving of a bad paint job, and it’s generally easier for potential buyers to imagine their own furniture in a room with white walls versus turquoise, eggplant or salmon.

A home that feels clean and bright is an easier sell than a property that’s been painted in very specific colors. “The walls are a canvas for the home,” Weir says. “I like using color in furniture or throw pillows, but the walls should look fresh and clean. If you’re painting with white, the most important thing is that it doesn’t have blue in it. Go more creamy and less cool.”

Furthermore, “builder-grade paints age better over time,” Brill says. “Upgrading to a higher quality paint holds up better against fingerprints, scratches and chips, too — that’s a smart place to put your money when making these choices.”

Unflattering Lighting

Good light is one of the top priorities that buyers list when they begin their home search. If a home doesn’t enjoy abundant natural light, properly lighting dark rooms is that much more important, both for the enjoyment of living in the space and also to create an inviting vibe for potential buyers who come for a showing.

Contrary to popular belief, overhead lighting is not the best way to light a room. “Most people feel they need a lot of overhead lighting,” says Francis Toumbakaris, owner and principal designer at Francis Interiors in New York. “But downlighting really shouldn’t ever be the only source of lighting in a space. There are so many other ways of lighting a home, creating a warmer, more elegant ambiance.”

Overhead lighting not only casts downward shadows but ceilings were often lowered in the 1980s and 1990s to accommodate high-hats, which can make rooms feel claustrophobic. Undoing a bad lighting plan can be costly, but luckily today’s downlighting consists of smaller lights than in previous eras. Savvy contractors can create smart recessed lighting plans around the edge of the ceiling or along beams and rafters.

If a naturally dark property only has overhead lighting, buyers may remark that the home feels depressing, uninviting, or as one seller remarked about her downstairs bedroom before installing additional lights, “it looks primed for a murder scene.” Experienced real estate agents know that adding light sources, especially floor lamps that shoot light toward the ceiling, can help with this. Conversely, bad lighting can make any room look not only depressing but cheap.

[See: The Best Free Interior Design Apps.]

Skipped Window Treatments

Sometimes people overlook the importance of window treatments, leaving the home looking naked or underdone. These don’t have to be expensive, but they should be installed thoughtfully to avoid looking tacky.

“Although custom window treatments are an investment, the right window treatments have the power to transform and soften a room, highlight beautiful windows, as well as serve practical purposes regarding privacy and light control,” says Davina Ogilvie, founder of Wovn Home, an online source for custom window treatments. “Most windows are not a standard size, and being able to customize your dimensions, fabric, lining and other details is important to creating a functional and beautiful design for the long term,” Ogilvie says.

Toumbakaris adds: “Drapery can add elegance and soften the look of any home. There are ways to do this that aren’t too pricey, but most of the time store-purchased drapery is not installed correctly. If these are too short, it looks tacky. Drapery should always be just caressing the floor. And if you’re looking for something more simple, we opt for Romans or roller-shades instead of blinds, which tend to look cheap and ‘office-y.'”

Wrong-Size Rugs

As anyone who has ever gone shopping for a rug knows, the options seem endless. It’s true that a room doesn’t need an expensive rug to look great, but the wrong rug, especially if it’s too small, can detract from the overall look of a room. It can be tough to wrap your head around spending a ton of money on something you walk all over, especially with kids and pets in the house, but the scale and proportion are often the most important thing.

As a rule of thumb, in the dining room “make sure the rug is large enough so that when you pull the dining chairs away from the table to sit, the chairs are always still on the rug,” Toumbakaris says. “If not, it’s too small. And small rugs, unless masterfully done, can look awkward.”

Maximalist Decor While Marketing the Home

Maximalist decor, which is often featured in design magazines, can be an eclectic celebration of color, texture, art and intriguing objects. If done well, it can be a feast for the eyes, and in the world of home decor, it can proudly display the personality of the homeowner.

While living among beloved art and collectibles can spark joy for a homeowner, it can create a challenge for a successful sale if the seller’s personality overwhelms the property’s natural attributes and makes it feel cluttered.

“When you display too much collectible decor, each of the items begins to lose individuality and value,” says Harriet Brownstein, a retired amateur decorator.

Since today’s buyers have become accustomed to seeing properties that are extensively staged and edited, a maximalist aesthetic can become a real hindrance to collecting good offers. “Overdecorating can be worse than under-decorating,” Brownstein says. “You should carefully select the things you use to enhance the home. Even if every piece might be expensive and visually interesting, it’s just too much.”

“Sometimes people get carried away with drapes that are too heavy or wallpaper that’s too busy,” Weir says. “How can you focus on the space and the bones of the home if there is so much visual stimulation that you don’t know where to look first?”

If you love what you have, consider keeping your collection as an ever-changing display at home. “Serious art collectors often rotate their pieces, putting some on display and others in storage,” Brownstein says. “They don’t junk up the wall with too much art or so many tchotchkes on the mantel that then none of them matter. It’s tacky.”

[See: 10 Interior Design Trends for 2021]

Today’s agents and stagers make a point of minimizing clutter and depersonalizing, so buyers can imagine their own stuff and their life’s next chapter in the home.

If you’re a buyer, take note that all tacky decor will leave with the seller. If you can see through a bad paint job, depressing lighting, a botanist’s jungle or a hoarder’s clutter, you’ve already got a head start.

More from U.S. News

How to Start an Herb Garden

House Renovation Costs You Can Cut — and a Few You Can’t

How to Take Real Estate Photos When Selling Your House

Design Choices That Make Your Home Look Cheap originally appeared on

Related Categories:

Latest News

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up