More For The Money

by Allison Wildermuth

You’ve been planning the ideal family room for months now, saving magazine pictures, scoping out show houses and watching HGTV. Then the economy had the misfortune of turning south, and the prognosis grows ever gloomier.

What do you do? shelve your project for an indefinite amount of time? Forget it altogether? Move full speed ahead, heedless of the financial naysayers?

Or do you proceed carefully and thoughtfully, mindful of a budget and open to alternative means of achieving the same beautiful effect?

Designers, of course, are all for the latter.

“I think everyone is aware of what's going on in the economy,” said Linda Langsam, of Langsam Rubin Interiors in Oyster Bay. “Regardless of your budget you're still thinking about what you're spending."

Everyone has a budget, continued Langsam, whether it's $1,000 or $1 million. Budget need not be a dirty word; it is simply what you are willing to put into a project at a given point in time, considering your resources. And it makes sense for all homeowners to establish a budget before beginning a project and stick as closely as possible to it.

Ellen Baron-Goldstein, of Baron-Goldstein Designs in Roslyn, said that many of her clients can afford to spend money but are choosing not to in this economy. Everyone is watchful, she said.

“My philosophy has always been value-oriented,” said Jeani Ziering of Ziering Interiors in Manhasset. “People don't want to throw money away, no matter how much they have."

This philosophy has kept Ziering happily busy, even in the downturn. But she is familiar with tough economic times, having started her business during the last recession in 1990. “I opened at a time when people were not spending money. The economy was like it is now," she said. “People said I was crazy."

But Ziering persisted, under the belief that people like to live in a nice environment, even when times are bad - perhaps especially when times are bad. A nice place is a nurturing one, and it's not all about square footage, said Ziering, who has renovated studio apartments in Manhattan as well as mansions on Long Islands East End. A small, well thought out space can be lovely while a dirty or neglected behemoth is not.

“Regardless of the economic climate, home is still a haven and needs to be nurturing,” she said.

Ziering recommends focusing on walls, floors and windows.

“Make sure the floor looks nice, make sure you have a nice paint job and make sure you have something nice on your windows. The space itself has to look good. And that's the least expensive thing."

If you can't afford a nice rug, polyurethane your wood floors, Ziering recommended. Consider slipcovering existing furniture. Rather than spend $100 per yard on fabric, Ziering will opt for fabric that costs $30 per yard and still looks great. And there are some great machine-made rugs that rival handknotted ones.

Also consider pre-made, off-the-shelf items instead of custom work.

“There’s much more available that's beautiful at a good price than ever before," Ziering said, an idea echoed by other designers.

Consider lifestyle stores like Pottery Barn and West Elm, or furniture stores such as Ethan Allen. The trick is artfully mixing the store-bought with the custom-made.

We feel we can be more selective about the placement of more costly items, incorporating key items with more moderately-priced choices and still maintain the luxurious, fine look,” said Langsam. Langsam and Rubin suggest well-constructed furniture reproductions rather than original antiques, or glicees and fine prints instead of original pieces of art. As for furniture, “many companies are modifying their product lines to achieve a similar look for less money."

Langsam likened it to designers who have created bridge lines of clothing, such as Escada Sport. “Less expensive items lack the custom aspect, but they are still very nice,” she said.

Baron-Goldstein also makes home decorating on a budget analogous to fashion. “It's kind of like wearing a basic black dress and using the right accessories," she said. “YOU spend where you have to and cheat where you can. That’s really the best of both worlds.”

Baron-Goldstein often sources products directly, so she can get a discount without sacrificing design or quality.

In general, simpler door styles within any brand of kitchen cabinetry are less expensive than those with intricate finish and glaze detailing. Over the past few years, many Bisulk clients have opted for simpler styles because they prefer a slightly more contemporary look, even for a more traditional door, Berkoff said. That they happen to cost less money works in the client's favor.

The stove is one appliance where slight cost cutting is almost imperceptible. Typically, stainless steel range hoods cost less than custom-made wood hoods, according to Berkoff. And an all-gas appliance, for the cooktop as well as the oven, costs less than a dual-fuel appliance.

Small adjustments such as these can reap huge rewards in the long run. Investing wisely in any home decorating project pays dividends over the years, not only financially, but emotionally. Let your home be your haven. May you sit easily and comfortably when a project is done, knowing that your money was well spent. “It's important for the designer to source and give the client as much as possible," she said.

Baron-Goldstein, who works on either a commission basis or with an hourly fee, also recommends spreading a project out over a greater period of time. Lay out the full design, and then take it slowly, perhaps choosing the dining room table and then a few months later, the chandelier. Patience can have its rewards.

Brad Berkoff, a certified kitchen designer for Bisulk Kitchens in Garden City, agreed. A fully functional kitchen can be installed complete, and complementary pieces or areas such as desks or wall units added later.

Ah, the kitchen. The one room everyone wants to improve, to transform into something fantastic. The biggest costs in kitchen renovations lie in the countertops, appliances and cabinetry, areas where most customers do not want to budge. But you can have your cake and eat it too, because even in the most high-end kitchens you can shave off a few dollars here and there without sacrificing style or function.

“People do have options to bring costs down,” Berkoff said. “There is a wide range in cost of product from cabinetry to appliances.”

Bisulk Kitchens carries a full line of custom cabinetry from Rutt Handcrafted Cabinetry. The line includes several different price ranges based on the construction, door style and hardware of the cabinets, among other factors. Often an observer cannot tell by looking at the cabinets which ones are the more expensive models, and many are often pleasantly surprised, Berkoff said. All Rutt products come with the same warranty, but are competitively priced based on the level of detail in the finish work.