Home | Splurge or Save?

Experts advise on when spending more makes sense

 By Molly Fellin Spence

Up until about 20 or 30 years ago, splurging on a special, hand-knotted rug or a large, expensive bedroom set for your home was the norm. The idea was that these items would last through your lifetime and beyond, passed down through generations. But times have changed and so have tastes and expectations when it comes to home furnishings and home renovations. 

 “It used to be that people were taught to buy the best they could buy and then hand it on. But what we have learned is that children do not want their parents’ possessions,” said Carolyn Gaughan, who until recently owned Classic Interiors on Main Street in Ellicott City. (Gaughan chose to retire after the May flood damaged inventory and disrupted her business.)

These days, the rules of engagement about when to splurge on a high-priced item or when to save your money are much different than they were 40 years ago, when Gaughan first opened her business in The Mall in Columbia.

Now, she says, the trend is simplicity, with soft, neutral palettes and an eye toward personal style—not spending a month’s salary on a piece intended to last a lifetime and beyond.

Access to a bevy of home decorating shows, websites and apps have taught the average consumer about home decorating trends and trained them to understand their own likes and dislikes, Gaughan says. As a result, homeowners know what they want and that’s almost always something new and fresh, not their grandmother’s dining room table.

Changing tastes aside, it can be difficult for the average homeowner to figure out what items or spaces in the home it’s best to splurge on, and where and when they can feel comfortable saving some money.

We asked a range of business owners in Howard County, including an architect, an interior designer, a landscape designer, a Real Estate professional and an experienced home builder, to share their expertise and preferences about where to spend and when to save in planning their dream spaces.

Floors and Doors

‘Nothing compares to natural light’

Laurie Gift’s new home in Fulton is positioned to maximize natural light.  Photo by Walter Rowe

For Laurie Gift, the fourth time is the charm. Gift recently moved into the fourth home she has helped design and build for her family in Fulton and she truly believes this space is the best one yet.

Gift chose the lot in Fulton carefully, with the idea that she could position the house with the windows facing south so sunlight would pour into the space throughout the day. 

“There’s nothing that compares to natural light,” Gift says. “I designed each of my homes with the windows in mind.”

For Gift, who owns Laurie Gift Interiors, splurging on windows and lighting is always a good idea.

“It’s important to buy really good windows,” she says. “Spending more gives you the ability to choose sash color and frame color.” Grilles—the horizontal and vertical bars that separate the panes of glass—are also an important consideration, Gift says. “Windows with grills outside the glass set a different tone for the home and give a feeling of integrity.”

Laurie Gift mixed unusual pieces, like the locally made twig table, and thrift shop finds for a cosy corner in the family room. Photo courtesy of Laurie Gift.

Gift also recommends spending on high-quality doors. “Solid-core doors make a difference; you can feel it when you close it,” she says.

Over the years, Gift has learned about the many areas where homeowners can easily save money without sacrificing quality or style.

If you love area rugs, she advises, it isn’t necessary to spend a lot on flooring. “You can get away with a basic hardwood or even an interesting vinyl if you’re just going to put a rug on top of it,” she advises. 

Many homeowners think they must spend extra on countertops, but Gift disagrees. Granite and marble can be pricy, she points out. “Meanwhile, the Formica industry has been hitting it out of the park lately.” She installed basic black Formica in her new laundry room, she says. “It sets a beautiful backdrop that doesn’t have to be the star.”

Interior Fixtures

It’s true: you get what you pay for

About two years ago, Howard County-based interior designer and Her Mind columnist April Force Pardoe was helping a Glenwood homeowner redecorate and redesign the entire first floor of her home, from the flooring up to the architectural molding. The project included the dining room, powder room, family room and kitchen. Looking at all the options and playing with the numbers, Pardoe knew that she’d need to save money in some areas in order to splurge in others.

“We went into the project redesigning the entire kitchen, including new cabinetry, flooring and more,” Pardoe explained, “but when we realized the client liked the layout of the (existing) kitchen and the cabinets were in good shape, we decided to hire a professional to repaint the cabinets instead of replacing them.”

That decision saved at least $20,000, Pardoe estimates—money that could be reallocated to splurging on high-quality hardwood flooring throughout the first floor.

“The clients were considering vinyl flooring to save on costs,” Pardoe says, and though she agrees vinyl can be a solid option for many spaces, she advised her clients to spend a little more to fit the character of their home.

 “It was well worth it to spend more on installing wood flooring,” she says. And even though the homeowners weren’t looking to sell anytime soon, “The vinyl flooring would have brought the value of the home down in the long run.”

For Pardoe, “The bottom line is, you do always get what you pay for, so you just need to know what’s important to you, and spend your money there.” 

Another unexpected place to spend some serious cash? Your faucets.

“I always tell clients that faucets are a really good place to spend money,” Pardoe says, explaining that a quality faucet is constructed with metal interior parts instead of plastic, which makes all the difference in how it works.

“It’s worth splurging on an expensive faucet because it will last much longer,” Pardoe says. “I often recommend clients spend more on things that you can’t obviously see—it’s how it is built inside.” Quality construction can often make a big difference in home improvement projects, she points out. Because faucets are such workhorses, handled continuously day in and day out, Pardoe says, splurge. At the same time, she says, you can save on something such as your tile backsplash or a hanging pendant fixture.

The light fixture isn’t subjected to heavy use, she points out. “Maybe the material is less expensive, but it can still have a lot of style,” Pardoe says. “You can cut some corners and still have a kitchen that looks amazing.”

Designer April Force Pardoe encouraged her clients to splurge on the flooring, while saving on light fixtures.

The Great Outdoors

‘Splurge on the areas where you want to spend the most time’

When a Clarksville family called Lauren Turner looking for help with a large unusable side yard that was a wet, weedy mess, they told the landscape designer and horticulturalist that they wanted a space to spend time outdoors as a family.

“If you know you are staying in your home for a while, I recommend splurging on the areas you would like to spend the most time in,” says Turner, owner of Lauren’s Garden Service in Glenwood.

For the Clarksville family, Turner designed a modern patio surrounded by trees, flowering shrubs and native perennials and also incorporated a “treatment train” of storm water solutions closer to the house that included a rain garden, a dry riverbed/swale and a French drain to help reduce the flow of water to the side yard.

“A wet, unusable space became a place for them to spend time together,” Turner says. This family intended to remain in the home for a long time, so the splurge was worth it.

“I always advise clients who know they are going to sell their home soon to focus on a good landscape clean-up, with an addition of a few shrubs and perennials in bare areas,” Turner says. At the same time, she points out, you can feel good about splurging on unique garden accents that fit your style.

Some homeowners try to save on outdoor projects by asking the person who cuts their lawn to plant shrubs or plants around the yard without a larger plan or strategy in mind. Or they may head out to a big box store for a seasonal sale to buy an assortment of plants that don’t necessarily work harmoniously, or may look lovely at the store, but won’t thrive in the sun or shade of your yard.

Turner advises selecting plants carefully to work with the specific conditions of their property. “What I see a lot is homeowners who really want a particular plant, but it may not be suited to their amount of sun exposure. People can be mistaken about how much sun a particular area gets.”

Turner says one recent client really wanted a crape myrtle in her yard, but the location for the planting would only get four hours of sun each day. The tree, she says, “would likely do okay for the first two years or so, but would then start to look leggy and bloom-less.” So she advised against it.

Save money by planting the proper things in the correct spaces, she says. And whenever possible, consult with a professional to develop an overall vision for your space.

Building a Foundation

‘Setting a reasonable budget is the first step’


Karen Pitsley, principal architect of Transforming Architecture of Howard County, knows that it can be challenging to create a home that reflects your wants and needs, but stays within your budget.

“Setting a reasonable budget is the first step,” Pitsley says, advising that you work with a designer, architect or contractor to make sure your funds match what you would like to accomplish.

Once your budget is set the challenge is to stick with it. “If you blow your tile budget because you must have a certain backsplash, you have to concede in other areas,” she points out. “Maybe you’ll go for a drop-in tub versus a standalone tub.”

Pitsley says investing in the kitchen or master bath often yield strong returns when it comes time to sell. 

Where Howard County homeowners can splurge and see a definite return on investment, Pitsley says, is with the addition of a first-floor master suite. It’s a rare feature that many buyers are looking for. “The current generation is raising children while at the same time taking care of their aging parents,” Pitsley points out. Creating a space where mom and dad can age in place comfortably pays off now, and will be of value later when it’s time to sell—or age in place yourself. 

A first-floor master suite can be a wise investment, says architect Karen Pitsley.

Spend Wisely

‘Go with updates that will last and last’

Experts agree that when thinking about spending money on your home, it is best to focus on the areas that get used most often, such as the kitchen, family room and bathrooms. 

Such fixes will help maximize resale value, according to Suzi Padgett, vice president and branch manager of the Columbia Office of Long and Foster Real Estate, Inc.  However, she recommends, “Keep things neutral and go with classic rather than trendy.”

Padgett cautions homeowners to be careful with spending on updates lest they risk pricing themselves out of the market when it comes time to sell. She agrees with the commonly held belief: “It is not always a good thing to have the most expensive house in the neighborhood.” 

Splurge on kitchens or landscaping, where you get the most bang for your buck, Padgett says, but don’t invest in a big ticket item like a pool if  you think it will add value. Pool season is less than half the year, she points out, even in the optimum weather. “And the additional costs are substantial,” she points out. Of course, there can be exceptions, Padgett says, “for example with homes over $1.5 million, with very large lots and well-landscaped areas around the pool.”

Like the other experts we talked to, Padgett urged homeowners not to make all their home updates just before selling, a strategy, she says, that isn’t likely to maximize value. Rather, she says, “Each year homeowners should have a list of that year’s priorities.”

Padgett advises that homeowners periodically ask a real estate agent to review the value of their home.

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