The experts: interior designers on 20 brilliant, bargain ways to improve your home

Don’t be afraid of reupholstering, use paint to transform everything, and collect affordable accessories to take from rental to rental. Designers on the home improvements they have made and loved themselves

Your home is your castle, but how can you make it look like one on a budget? Interior designers share the bargain renovation hacks they are most proud of in their own homes.

Source everything for free or very cheaply


“My favourite price is free, and my second favourite price is cheap,” says Banjo Beale, interior designer, author and the 2022 winner of the BBC’s Interior Design Masters. Originally from Australia, he has lived on the Isle of Mull for 10 years after he ended up there while backpacking. He sources a lot on the island: “People are really conscious of throwing anything out, so there is a lovely circular culture. Charity shops are my best friend. I am Marie Kondo’s worst nightmare: we are always keeping things that might just spark joy one day.”

Create a window nook

If you have a big window that lends itself to this, it can be converted into a cosy reading seat in a weekend for a couple of hundred pounds, as Beale did. “We built a simple frame with ply around the window to create a seat and shelving,” he says. A comfortable backrest was fashioned using MDF tongue-and-groove panelling. “For the day bed, I had some posts from an old bed I found at the tip and I made them the legs. I emptied out a few old cushion inners from a charity shop to make the bench seat on there.” Clearly a fan of lounging, Beale has turned a fishing net into a hammock elsewhere in the house.

Fake a sense of history

“We live in a new-build, which are my achilles heel,” says Beale. “So I’ve done what I can to make it feel like an old home.” He has painted his kitchen ochre and used church benches, which he says are a “dime a dozen”, to create old-looking shelves. Tongue-and-groove panelling and a chimney around the extractor fan add to the cottagey vibe. The house features a secret door made out of reclaimed cheese boards – handily he lives on a dairy farm so there is no shortage, but they can be easily sourced at a salvage yard – and a copper benchtop made out of an old water tank. A culinary blowtorch can give wood a more aged effect, he says.

Instant art

Molly Coath lives in her family home of 20 years in Bedfordshire and is an interior designer. As her mother is an artist, there is a big focus on art in their house. If you don’t have an artist at hand, Coath suggests framing wallpaper, “and before you know it, you’ve got a beautiful statement piece that can really transform a room”. Coath makes her own frames by glueing MDF strips together and likes to decorate pre-made frames with bobbins that she sticks on and paints.

Don’t be afraid of reupholstering

The idea may be terrifying, but “re-covering stuff is really nowhere near as scary as it sounds”, says Coath reassuringly. Do it yourself by sourcing “footstools, chairs, anything that you can find – just shove a bit of fabric over the top, pull it really tight, then staple-gun it underneath”.

Upcycle with a splash of colour

“When it comes to upcycling, paint is so powerful,” says Coath. Painting a piece of furniture can bring a dramatic change, as suddenly “you’ve got a pop of colour in the corner. It might be a funny side table that you picked up from a flea market. If you paint that in a bright, interesting colour, it will change your space.” Coath sanded down an old wardrobe and spray-painted it gold to give an air of opulence to her bedroom.

Find your painting mojo

Lonika Chande lives in Wandsworth, south London, in a house that she is renovating, but she has three children under five and her own interior design practice so it isn’t happening overnight. Chande agrees that paint is “transformative” and advises on starting small by painting furniture: she bought a nondescript bookshelf for her kids that looks fancier for a lick of eggshell. Build up to doing a bathroom in a bright colour, she advises – Chande’s downstairs loo is yellow with black-and-white framed artworks – before tackling a more substantial project.

Consider an area rug

“Go large with rugs,” says Chande, “so at least the front part of your main furniture sits on it. A rug grounds furniture and makes it look more cohesive and thought through. And it crucially does the job of covering an ugly floor. In our house at the moment we have a horrible orangey pine floor and we haven’t got round to sanding it down or staining it but we have got a big rug, which really helps.” Chande says jute rugs such as Ikea’s Lohals are inexpensive and durable, “so it doesn’t matter if they get trashed”.

Layer your lighting

“Consider some low-level lighting in every corner of the room,” says Chande. “That could be a table lamp, floor lamps or wall lights.” Rather than paying an electrician to install things, opt for plug-in lamps. “We add them to bookshelves, or place them by a sofa or bed to provide a good reading light or a lovely glow in the evening.” She has sourced linen or card lampshades and applied “embroidery tape from Etsy to the base to create something original and unique”.

Pre-loved bathrooms

Interior designer Temi Johnson lives in a two-bedroom Victorian terrace in Hertfordshire that, when she moved in five years ago, needed completely redoing. One way of saving money when renovating, she says, is by going for vintage items wherever possible, including in the bathroom. “I don’t think many people consider the idea of a secondhand bathroom suite,” she says, “but my sink and my bath were secondhand. It was £100 for the two on eBay.” The plumbing will have to be new and functional whatever you do, Johnson says, so you might as well source the freestanding clawfoot tub of your dreams.

Posh up with a powder coat

Johnson is a believer in saving money where possible to make the pennies go further for a project. “I wanted to change the shower rail in the bathroom but was on a budget,” she says, “so I took the original chrome rail and got it powder-coated matt black for £45, rather than paying £250 for a new one.” Johnson spent what she had saved on a mirror.

Upgrade sockets and switches

Changing plug sockets and light switches is an inexpensive and effective way to make a living space look more stylish, says Johnson. “You can get them with a brushed finish really cheaply and it immediately elevates the space.” Don’t bother with any that are hidden away behind furniture, she adds.

If you can’t paint …

Jermaine Gallacher, an interior designer and columnist for Vogue, has rented his Peabody flat in Borough, south London, for almost 15 years. Surprisingly for a rental, he is allowed to put his own stamp on it, “although it has to be returned to its original state”, he says. “If you are renting and you are prohibited from painting, you can paint on calico fabric and pin it on to the wall, which is what I did in my bedroom in a peachy colour.” If you can paint, introduce blocks of colour to a door or wall panel rather than the whole room, so that it can be easily changed back, he advises.

Make a secret floor

In his office, Gallacher has laid a temporary floor on top of the laminate one that was there, using 2mm plywood stuck down with industrial double-sided sticky tape. He painted this in acid yellow then swirled black gloss on top to form interesting patterns, which are inspired by Jocasta Innes. “Hand-painted floors are another good way of adding character,” he says.

You can take it with you

“Things that you can take with you are always good,” says Gallacher, “because landlords do the laminate floor thing and put in those rubbishy kitchens and it all just looks the same. So we’ve got to find ways of adding character to these horrible, boring rented places.” One way of doing this is through hardware, such as door handles, which you can remove when you leave. “You could change all of the handles on your kitchen cabinets if you are allowed,” he suggests. These can be sourced from hardware shops or repurposed from old furniture. You could even commission a local blacksmith to make a special handle, which is a fairly inexpensive investment for something you can hang on to for life, Gallacher says.

Be bold

“Colour can bring a lot of joy,” says maximalist interior designer and stylist Amanda Davies. She moved from Glasgow to Margate six months ago and is renting a flat she isn’t allowed to do anything to. “For someone who does interiors this is quite stressful,” she admits. Though she can’t paint at the moment herself, she says colour “is such an easy tool to use to play with things, even if it is painting furniture or painting a mural on your wall. It is so transient and easy to change.” Her favourite shade is “the Pantone colour of the year: peach fuzz. It is such a lovely colour when it is used in the right way, especially when you’ve got a south-facing window. It can make the room so warm and calming at the same time.” She says yellow and powder blue can make a kitchen feel “fresh and vibrant”, and she can relate to the “unexpected red theory” on TikTok: “When you add a pop of red to a room with no other red in it. Our kitchen in Scotland was pink, blue, lilac and green with a red lobster clock.”

Add your own features

In her old place, Davies put a chair rail in her living room to divide the wall space, and painted the upper and lower sections in different colours. In the bedroom, she added panelling, which she bought from a hardware shop and secured to the wall with industrial glue. “They are still there, nearly three years later,” she says.

Style your shelves

“Decorate without decorating,” advises Davies. “Styling the room will make such a big impact. Style your shelves using things you have already, or go to car boots or thrift shops for vases and candles.” What is the best bargain she has ever found? “At an estate sale in Scotland, they were selling a vintage rose quartz shell-shaped sink with gold swan taps for £120 – they go on eBay for £13,000.”

Find a theme

“Find the thing you really love and use it throughout,” says Joanne Thelwell, who lives in Didsbury, Manchester, and works for a CGI company, which she says involves “designing interiors that aren’t real”, while running an interior design and styling business as a sideline. This theme could be a colour or style of furniture. Thelwell likes industrial aesthetics and has “lots of black legs” around her semi-detached Victorian home, along with red, blue and rust tones, creating a common thread. A Pinterest moodboard is a good place to establish your theme, she says.

Play furniture Jenga

For a very quick and easy refresh, just switch things about, says Thelwell. She regularly moves around the furniture in her home. “There was a sideboard that lived in the hallway for a long time, and we’ve moved it upstairs to our office – immediately it’s given a whole different feel to the space. Even just moving where the bed is can make a room feel different,” she says. “I was always changing my bedroom around when I was a little girl. You move one piece, make a hole, then move something else there. It’s like playing Jenga.”