Almost 10 years ago, I flipped my first house. I had been looking to buy a house for a few years but everything was way out of budget – Until I found this dilapidated split level on a half lot. It took 1 year to renovate (down to the studs and back up again), and I lived there for 4 more years.

The second house I flipped was my then-boyfriend’s now-husband’s rental property. It was right at the beginning of covid and we were afraid to be holding a second mortgage in case things got really bad – but the market was way down so we needed to put some work into it to help him break even (if only we had waited a few more months for the market to skyrocket… darn.).

Flipping brought me a ton of joy. I loved giving an old home new life, and honouring the character of unique properties sustainably. When flipping houses, budgets are usually smaller, and so are timelines – so cosmetic redesigns are usually the best for ROI. While it can be tempting to start asking about ‘support beams’ and how we can make everything ‘open concept’, you very quickly realize that it’s the smaller changes that have the biggest impact. 

And you know what? I am constantly amazed at the transformations we achieve through cosmetic-only interior design in older homes. So amazed, in fact, that I have based my whole business on it.

And lucky you, I’m sharing my favourite redesign tips. I’ll even share some of my favourite vendors with you–just don’t forget to tell them Unshelf sent you 🙂

Find out the interior design trends of 2024!

11 Cosmetic Interior Design Tips for Old Home Renovations

When it comes to old home renovations, these tips are what’s going to make all the difference. 

kitchen door handles cabinet furniture interior style steel shiny

(They’re also in order from least to most expensive, generally speaking—you’re welcome).

Tip #1: Replace Handles

One of the simplest, most effective, and cheapest updates you can make during an old home renovation is updating hardware. Replacing outdated kitchen and bathroom cabinet handles has the power to rejuvenate the entire room. This change requires minimal effort and expense but delivers on visual impact.

Pro tip: Before you rush out to buy new hardware, measure the distance between the holes of your current handles (center to center) to make sure the new handles will fit without the need for drilling. It’s a small step that saves a ton of time and preserves the integrity of your cabinets.

Tip #2: Update Fixtures & Hardware

After handles, turning your attention to the fixtures throughout your home can further modernize your space. Upgrading bathroom and kitchen faucets, along with old outlet and switch cover plates, door handles, and knobs, is an easy, transformative step. These elements might seem like no big deal on their own, but combined, they contribute significantly to the overall aesthetic of your home.

Double bowl kitchen island sink with black faucet against cooktop and cabinets. The double basin undermount sink is made of stainless steel.

There’s practical benefits here too—newer fixtures usually mean improved functionality and efficiency. Win-win.

Tip #3: Paint!

I’ve always referred to paint as gold in a can because it has the power to make an old home feel almost brand new. But, it’s not just about the colour you choose—undertone can make or break a paint job. 

If you’re unsure how to spot an undertone or select a colour that complements your existing (or planned) finishes, contact us for a colour consultation.

While paint might be one of the first updates you think of, it should ideally be one of the last steps in your old home renovation process. This ensures that your new wall colours don’t clash with any other updates you’ve decided on along the way, and paint has the most variety to adapt with. 

Pro tip: For those dealing with dated elements like orange oak, choosing paint with a green undertone can help neutralize the orange without needing to replace or extensively remodel.

Tip #4: Scrape Popcorn Ceilings

Why were popcorn ceilings ever a thing? They hold onto dust, discolour over time, and make even the most beautifully renovated homes feel dated. Removing them instantly modernizes and visually expands your space. 

For those dealing with painted popcorn ceilings, don’t despair. While it might require more effort—sometimes grinding down the texture—it’s worth it. Many contractors have straightforward solutions for getting rid of popcorn ceilings to achieve a smoother, more contemporary ceiling finish. I even have a friend who’s had great success removing it herself in her old home renovation (she says the secret is to wet it and recommends this tutorial if you’re brave enough to DIY this one)

***IMPORTANT: Popcorn ceilings in older homes may contain asbestos. If you feel that there is any chance that your ceiling has asbestos (for homes built before 1980), get it tested and hire an asbestos abatement professional to remove it. 

Tip #5: Replace Thin Baseboards & Casings

Upgrading the baseboards and casings in your home can make a dated interior do a 180 with minimal effort. If your home is “adorned” with thin (especially oak) baseboards and casings, consider replacing them with larger trims. Here’s my two cents: 

lighting
  • A minimum of three inches for baseboards.
  • Even though four-inch, no-profile baseboards are the most modern, the most important thing is to match the new installations to the character of your home.
  • Paint new baseboards white to brighten the space, but be careful—the shade of white chosen should correspond with your wall colour. (Don’t underestimate the power of a good colour consultation to get this detail right.)

Tip #6: Update Light Fixtures

I am absolutely looking at you, weird, outdated boob lights—girl, BYE. Ditch those and replace them with sleek LEDs or potlights for main areas. I also love adding feature chandeliers and statement lighting fixtures to spice up a space. It’s such a great way to show off your style and create a dramatic focal point. 

Lanterns, banker’s lights, and sconces are also popular lighting trends for 2024, which can all be found at one of the best lighting stores in Calgary, Signature Lighting.

Tip #7: Modernize Tile

The tile in bathrooms, kitchens, and around fireplaces can date a house more than any other element. While some areas may benefit from a bold statement tile, it’s generally wise to opt for neutral choices in others to avoid your space feeling outdated too soon.

When selecting tile, consider the balance between current trends, timeless design, and cleanability. For example, you might want to showcase a fun backsplash behind your bathroom sink, while your kitchen tile might call for something more durable to withstand stains and splashes. And I can’t forget to mention the brown stacked stone fireplaces that were a popular design choice in lots of older homes. If you have that, it’s really time for a tile makeover. So outdated. So hard to clean. 

My favourite modern tiles always come from Ames Tile & Stone, Stone Tile West, Tile Stone Source, Saltillo Tile, and Daltile in Calgary.

tile before
(before)
tile after
(after)

Tip #8: Paint Kitchen Cabinets

Refreshing your kitchen cabinets with a new coat of paint is a great way to breathe new life into one of the most frequently used spaces in your home without the high costs of installing new cabinetry. 

When choosing paint colours, consider thinking outside the white-on-white-on-white palette (unless you’re really into that of course). Classic white kitchens have their place, but bringing in warm woods or splashes of colour can give your kitchen a new warmth and personality. For those looking to keep their kitchens feeling open and bright but aren’t into a monochromatic look, try a two-tone approach. This could mean painting upper cabinets in a lighter shade while grounding lower cabinets with a darker or more vibrant colour to create visual interest and give the illusion of a larger space.

kitchen cabinets before
(before)
kitchen cabinets after
(after)

Pro tip: When choosing cabinet colours, always consider the overall colour scheme of your kitchen, including countertops, backsplashes, and flooring. This keeps everything cohesive and makes sure all elements of your kitchen are working together. 

Pro tip: Consider the style of your cabinets before painting. If they have that arch swoosh detail at the top, rather than a standard shaker, paint won’t save them (lipstick on a pig, type thing). There are a number of great companies out there that make new door fronts for existing cabinets to modernize them before painting.

Tip #9: Update Kitchen Countertops

Gone are the days when dark, busy quartz or granite countertops were the standard. While durable, these materials usually need regular sealing to maintain their appearance. Plus, they just tend to look dirty all the time, regardless of how often you clean them. 

New countertop solutions, like engineered stone, are lighter and way easier to maintain. They do a really good job at mimicking the look of natural stone without the associated upkeep, making them a great, low-stress option for living and an attractive resale feature. 

modern kitchen countertop

Those who know me know that Cambria and Cosentino are my all-time fave brand for high-end countertop slabs. If you’re a Calgary local like me, make sure you check out Pacific Stone Fabrication (they have a great showroom too) and Granite Guys!

Tip #10: Refinish Oak Flooring

There’s nothing quite as transformative as refinishing oak hardwood floors in an old home renovation. Original oak floors, which are often hidden under carpets or layers of nasty, sticky finish in older homes, hold huge potential to revamp a space completely. By sanding down these floors and applying a modern stain, you can neutralize the yellow or orange undertones that date your home and bring them closer to the sought-after aesthetic of white oak.

Not only does this process update the look of your floors but it also enhances the natural beauty of the wood. Given that it preserves the original materials, it’s a sustainable choice too. 

Tip #11: Update Window Treatments

The final touch in any old home renovation is updating the window treatments. Old homes often come with bad, outdated vertical or horizontal blinds that do absolutely nothing for aesthetics or function in terms of temperature control and privacy. 

These days, modern window treatments like heavy curtains or drapes, fabric shades, and sleek roller or Roman shades can dramatically change the feel of a room, provide control over light, enhance privacy, and improve energy efficiency–all while adding a style element. 

While the cost can vary, investing in quality window treatments is worth considering for the long-term benefits. It’s safe to budget around $1000 per window for high-end treatments, but there are plenty of less expensive options that can still make a significant impact without compromising quality. Make sure to check out Sonata for the best window treatment options!

In the world of old home renovation, it’s clear that the devil really is in the details. From simple hardware swaps to refinished floors and modern window treatments, each one of these tips blends aesthetic appeal with practical functionality. In my experience, it’s these changes that breathe new life into space without breaking the bank.

An old home renovation doesn’t have to be overwhelming. With the right approach, a bit of creativity, and a willingness to spend time in the details, you can transform any aged property into a comfortable, modern living home that hugs you every time you step inside.

Looking to start your own old home renovation? Don’t go it alone! Contact Unshelf Design today and get the expert touch you’ve been looking for.