A Sky-Inspired Renovation

Virginia designer Sara Hillery set her creative sights on her own family home renovation, with an eye toward a light and airy space with a palette of blue, white, and neutral colors.

What is your background when it comes to design? I majored in art as an undergrad at the University of Virginia and worked for a local design firm in Richmond. I enjoyed the work that I did there enough to go back to school and get my master of fine arts in interior environments from Virginia Commonwealth University. I worked for Lucas/Eilers in Houston for seven years doing large-scale residential projects and then started my own business after having my first child.

Where did you grow up? How does that experience inform the way you design? I grew up largely in Richmond, but I spent time in Pennsylvania and Texas. The East Coast’s love of English and Early American history taught me to love brown furniture, especially antiques and classics, like Duncan Phyfe and Sheraton. Texas loves a little more French influence and a more casual environment, so I possess a deep appreciation for a crusty old paint finish and an atelier style. Texas doesn’t have the same history as the East Coast, and there’s a much more modern philosophy of building new history. I think this melting pot of locations forged my love of eclectic environments that aren’t all one style and that tell the story of the clients’ varied interests.

What is your earliest memory of looking at a room and wanting to redesign it? My mom always let me have input in my room; she even let me choose a cat theme at one point. She has always been crafty and enjoyed a love of homemaking, so design was encouraged in our house.

What traits make you well-suited to be a designer? What have you had to adjust about yourself in this business? I love being creative, and I look at design as a fun form of problem-solving. I like the challenge of taking a space and making it better. I also really enjoy getting to know people. I’ve had to learn how to be organized so that I can be creative and still run a business.

What types of design feed your creativity on a daily basis? I am definitely inspired by fashion. I also love seeing other designers’ work, especially designers who are working on projects that are very different than my own. There’s always something to learn from seeing how others design a space.

If you could have a design superpower, what would it be? The ability to read people’s minds about what they really would like their space to be and look like.

How would you describe your design style? No matter how modern, casual, or formal my designs are, I always incorporate an element of elegance. At the same time, my style is also practical and flexible.

Tell us about this project. What were you looking to accomplish? I wanted the design to be affordable and incorporate much of our existing furniture, be child-friendly for our three kids, and have open sight lines for windows and doors so that the house would feel more spacious and flowing and be a place where we could entertain both kids and adults formally and more casually.

What were your first steps in conceptualizing the design of the house? The first thing we did was line up all the sight lines for natural light. We let that determine the arrangement of the furniture and cabinetry.

Will you talk about the reorientation of the furniture in the family room? We wanted the cooking fireplace, which is such a unique piece, to serve as the nucleus of the room. We made it into a conversation area and gathering space that purposely doesn’t include a television. I wanted to encourage the art of conversation in this tech-obsessed age.

Where did the inspiration for your color palette originate? The whole house incorporates a lot of blue, white, and neutral colors so that the design flows from one room to the next. I was inspired by the Texas sky: big, blue, light, airy, and sunny.

What was the biggest challenge? Light is really important to me, so the low ceiling height, boxy architecture, and small windows were a challenge. We opened up walls to get more light in. I often tend toward light fixtures that incorporate a lot of height, but the ceilings aren’t high enough, so I had to get creative.

The original space had wood paneling in the family room and bedroom. Why did you decide to keep it? How do you feel about the trend of painting over it? Originally, I thought I was going to paint over it, but I realized that reversing it would be timely and costly. On top of that, the paneling is old heart pine—you can’t get that particular grain anymore, so I felt like there was no going back. I’ve found that stains are more forgiving than paint and are lower maintenance. The paneling is warm and inviting, plus it’s brown, so it acts as a neutral.

What wasn’t working for you in the kitchen, and what were you able to salvage? We ended up gutting the kitchen: we ripped out all the cabinets, took down walls, and completely changed the layout. The original kitchen had an old, peninsula-style counter and didn’t really work—there was no circular flow. We designed the kitchen with the idea that multiple hands, including little ones, are often preparing meals these days. The modern island design with multizone cooking suits us much better and is more welcoming when we are entertaining. We did salvage the white dishwasher. And we put in pine floors to make the room match with the others and not appear disjointed from the rest of the house.

Is it easier or harder to design your own space versus someone else’s? Harder! When I work on someone else’s space, I am setting aside the time and really devoting myself to the design process because it’s my job. For my own space, it’s more of an experimental playground. I’m grabbing fifteen minutes here or there and trying to make the design come together.

What is your biggest design pet peeve that you see out in the world or in other people’s houses? Overscale furniture, because it messes up the balance of the space. There’s a certain zen quality when everything is well-proportioned in a room, even if the colors don’t match perfectly. Sometimes people will have me come and look at a space because it feels “off” and they can’t pinpoint why. It’s often an issue of scale. But I truly welcome and am inspired by all types of design.

What is your philosophy on design and life? You only have one life. Design (and life) should make you feel good, it should be livable, and it should inspire you to be your better self. That being said, be yourself!

What are some hobbies or passions you pursue other than design? I love to travel and explore new cultures. I’m also passionate about getting involved with and supporting local parks. And anytime I can support arts causes or other artisans, I’m in.

If you weren’t an interior designer, what would you be? I used to want to be a doctor, so I would have continued to pursue medicine to improve people’s health. Instead, I get to improve their environment.

Your Shopping List for Hard-to-Kill Plants

Not the green thumb type of gardener? Does your foliage tend to droop and die? Then these rugged plants are for you!

So what makes these plants hard to kill? They are considered to be low maintenance because they just need to be in the right light and given the right amount of water once the soil is dry to thrive. Reference the list below to find out how much light each plant requires, and then match them to the appropriate rooms in your house.

Low Light:
Some plants thrive in little to no light, which means that they would be great for rooms with little natural lighting. Perhaps the most well-known of these plants are the Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum) and the tropical Snake Plant (Sansevieria trifasciata). Others hard-to-kill plants in this category include the Chinese Evergreen (Aglaonema) and the Golden Pothos (Epipremnum aureum).

Medium Light:
The second group of plants to consider are ones that are a bit more light flexible, as they work well in a fair amount of natural lighting. One example is the tried and true Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum). The intricately patterned Prayer Plant (Maranta leuconeura) also fits the bill, as does the Rubber Plant (Ficus elastica).

High Light:
Do you have rooms in your house that just pour in the natural lighting? Then load up on these beauties! A great example of a hardy high-light plant is the Aloe Vera plant (Aloe barbadensis), which you can grow and then use the gel from its leaves to sooth burns. Another is the Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla), which adds a touch of outdoor living into your indoor space. The Jade Plant (Crassula ovata), the Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina), and the Zebra Haworthia (Haworthia attenuata) also fall into this group of plants that soak up the sun.

Maintaining beautiful, vibrant plants in your home can be easier than you think, regardless of your gardening skill level. Simply matching the right type of plant with the amount of lighting in your house is a great first step.

Must-Have Phone Numbers for Your New Home

Moving is largely about looking back and looking forward. We make meticulous lists of everything before the move: from what has to be packed up or tossed out from the old house, to the utilities turn-off dates and the moving van’s pickup time. Likewise, we do our best to make sure that everything in the new home is ready to go so that we can seamlessly start our new life.

And an important part of that post-move plan is to be prepared. Sure, you’ll probably have a good idea of what you want to put in each room as you unpack. But what if you suddenly need a dentist? Or your son gets sick? Or a pipe bursts in your basement? Would you be prepared for any of these situations?

You should make a list of of important phone numbers before you move (or, at worst, soon after you move in), and make sure to share it and its location with everyone in your household. Here are some ideas for what numbers to put on your list.

Police department/Fire department.
If you have an emergency, you should call 911. However, it’s always helpful to have the local phone numbers of these personnel handy as well, in case you have a question about ordinances, need to report something, or need other non-emergency help.

Doctor/Hospital.
Be sure to have the phone number of your physician in your new town (as well as the physicians for everybody else in your family) in case there’s a sudden illness and you need a same-day appointment, or if you just need some medical advice.

Dentist.
People don’t usually think of needing a dentist’s number right away, but if a dental disaster occurs—such as a chipped tooth—trust us, you’ll be glad you have it. If your kids have braces, make sure to have the contact info for their orthodontist as well.

Poison control.
Hopefully you won’t be one of the approximately 24 million people who call poison control each year. But with harmful chemicals common in households, it’s a good idea to have the number at the ready, just in case.

Vet.
We can’t speak with our pets, but we can speak with their vets. Keep your local veterinarian’s contact information easily accessible in the event of your four-legged friend needing some expert help—especially since that possibility is enhanced as they explore their new surroundings.

School. 
New school district, new school, new friends. All reasons to have the school’s phone number readily available as you and your family adjust to a new area. The school will have your phone number in case they need to contact you; you should do the same.

Plumber.
Researching for a plumber can save you from a ton of headaches, especially if your new home’s in a different area of the state or country. Look at reviews online, ask around, and keep in mind the plumber’s proximity to your new home. Once you decide on one, add his or her number to your list.

Utilities company.
You likely already have the contact information for your new utility company on your new bill or service agreement. Jot it down on your list in case you have an issue such as a blackout.

Babysitter. 
This one is almost second nature for parents. Because of the important role the babysitter plays, you very well may have to plan ahead to find a reliable, trustworthy one in your new neighborhood. When you do, you don’t want to have to root around for her number.

Pizza place.
Yes, this is important, especially when you first move and may not have everything unpacked and set up at your new place (including pots, pans, or silverware). Fortunately, many restaurants send complimentary mailings to the new family on the block, so you can easily transfer the number onto your list.


Click below to get this handy list of important phone numbers, and put it on your fridge or near your phone—any place where you or anyone else in your household can easily access it at any time.

Working 9 to 5 (with a Clean House)

When you dedicate more than 40 hours a week to your job, oftentimes other obligations fall to the wayside—like the upkeep of your home. Although balancing your time is a juggling act, these tips will help you stay ahead of the cleaning throughout the week.

Start small.  
When it comes to cleaning, small efforts can make all the difference. In fact, just simply straightening up before you to go bed—i.e. washing the dishes, folding and putting away laundry, and picking up after your family—will help you start the next morning off on the right foot. Because really, who doesn’t want to wake up to an organized living space?

Ensure that every minute counts.
With a busy schedule, time is of the essence. Since nobody enjoys coming home to a mess, there are a few things that can be done while you’re away at work. Before you leave, consider throwing in a load of laundry, and hanging it to dry once you return. Since most dishwashers have a heated dry feature they can run during the day. Another option is utilizing a robotic vacuum that can run on a set schedule.

Create, and stick to a schedule.  
Like anything else in life, a schedule can help immensely with cleaning. Creating and sticking to a schedule will enable you to chip away at the chores throughout the week, and not feel completely overwhelmed on the weekends. Consider breaking down the tasks into daily, weekly, monthly, and seasonal goals. Download this printable household cleaning schedule to keep your housework running like clockwork.

Make it a game.
If you have children, getting them involved can make a world of difference. To keep them interested, consider making the cleaning process a game. Simple things like hanging a chart on the refrigerator and offering an incentive once they complete a certain number of tasks will keep them entertained. Keeping it fun will help to teach them how to clean up after themselves, all the while making less work for you.

Practicing these tips will help keep your house in tip-top shape, regardless of your work schedule!

Don’t Let Mother Nature Ruin Your Floors

Without always realizing, the conditions from outside can quickly cause damage to your floors—no matter the type. Refer to these tips when a winter storm hits to protect the integrity of the flooring in your home this season!

Utilize floor mats.
Placing a mat in your entryway is the easiest way to ensure clean floors when it snows or rains all day. This encourages your family and guests to wipe their shoes off before entering your home. Don’t be afraid to suggest they take shoes off completely, either!

Invest in a steam mop.
If you’re worried about the damage to your floors, it may be time to invest in a steam mop. The technology in this method effectively gets out tough marks on finishes like linoleum, vinyl, and even hardwood (just make sure your floors are sealed), while being gentle enough to use weekly.

Try to be diligent.
While you can’t be expected to walk around your house with a paper towel roll every time someone forgets to take their shoes off, at least aim to be more attentive to your floors. You don’t want to wait until spring to clean up the spots from snow and sleet, which by then will be harder to deal with.

Cover the carpets and rugs.
Hard flooring may be pesky, but nothing compares to getting stains out of carpets and rugs. On a particularly snowy day, cover your floors with furniture pads. It may seem excessive, but you’ll thank yourself later for not having to do a deep clean of these areas!

Choose cleaners carefully.
The right cleaners (and cleaning methods) can make all the difference to the longevity of your floors. Traditional mopping your hardwood floors is no longer the way to go, and will just add more moisture to the mix. Use a cloth to take care of excess water whenever possible, and be quick about cleaning up areas that are prone to damage.

Follow these cleaning tips to keep your floors looking shiny and brand new this season!

Upgrade Your Home for Little Money

For many, the thought of home improvements can bring about worry. Between costly and lengthy projects, updates can often seem like they’re not worth the hassle. But not to fear! These cost-effective home upgrades can easily be done by yourself and can also increase the overall value of your home—a definite win-win!

Paint the kitchen cabinets.
New cabinets are costly. But a few coats of paint can transform both your cabinets and the kitchen itself for less than half of the cost. Simply remove the doors and hardware, sand, and paint a color of your choice.

Replace hardware.
Weathered cabinet handles can drastically age your home. Swap out the hardware in the kitchen and bathroom for modern knobs and handles. Your local hardware store will have a variety to select from.

Update light switch plates.
Did you know that you can replace a light switch plate for less than one dollar? You can even take it one step further by painting them the same color as your walls.

Add moldings to walls.
As long as you have the proper tools, DIY molding is relatively simple. You can choose from two popular types—crown molding and panel molding—each will give your house an elegant ambience.

Give the outside of your home a facelift and increase curb appeal.
A pop of color can take the outside of your house from drab to fab. Easy do-it-yourself projects like repainting your front door, adding new shutters, and planting bright flowers in window boxes can add a welcoming effect. Updates like adding trim to flower beds, modernizing outdoor light fixtures, and repainting your mailbox will not only be easy on the eyes, but will also increase the overall curb appeal.

Revamp indoor light fixtures.
Instead of spending your money on a brand new fixture, consider giving your current one a makeover. Transform the fixture cover either by adding a fresh layer of high-heat paint or replacing the glass.

Repaint walls with neutral colors.
Although bright colors are fun, a neutral palette can make your home feel more clean and act as a blank canvas. Try to stick to timeless colors—cream, gray, and tan.

Frame your bathroom mirror.
Does your bathroom have a plain plate-glass mirror? Adding decorative baseboard trim around it can make a world of difference.

Hang curtains high and wide.
Help a small window out! Hanging drapes high and wide will give the illusion of a larger window, along with making the room more spacious.

Add visible storage.
Is there anything better than extra storage without having to open either a door or cabinet? Floating shelves are both a simple and aesthetically pleasing solution.

Give your air grilles a fresh look.
Since a return air vent is a necessity, why not make it look its best? With just a quick trip to your hardware store for a can of paint, you’re able to transform an eyesore into something that’s worth looking at.

Organization 101: How to Make It a Habit

So you’ve spent some time on Pinterest or other social media networks, and suddenly feel that you need to overhaul your life and become more organized. Every time you discover an aspect of your life that needs organization, you find yourself rushing out to buy something new to help yourself with the project.

Then, after a few weeks, the inspiration fades away, and you end up back where you started. If this sounds familiar to you, it’s okay; it happens to the best of us.

The good thing is that being organized is not a personality trait; it’s a skill set. You just need to have the will to accomplish your goals and a few tips from someone who has been there. If you’re ready to be organized for the long term, here is what you’ll need to know:

Know yourself.
Be honest when identifying your biggest problem areas, and know what your goals are before getting started. Most importantly, prioritize your goals based on which ones will have the most positive impact on your home, office, or life.

Being organized is not the goal.
Don’t try to become organized for the sake of being organized or because your partner or colleague tells you that you should. Identify your own personal problems and priorities. Brainstorm (or write down) why each project is important to you and the benefits you’ll enjoy once the project is complete.

Expect hurdles and failures.
The process of organizing a space has a tendency to uncover some hidden uses or storage needs that you weren’t aware of. This realization can force you to make some big adjustments or even start over. Organized people understand that their system of organization is not a commitment; they know that when it’s not working, and it’s okay to just start over.

Free your mind.
Organized people don’t try to remember every item on their tasks list. Instead, they get their to-dos out of their heads and onto a list or calendar, so they never have to worry about dropping the ball. When you have a system and schedule in place, your mind is free to think about important problems, brainstorm a great idea, or even daydream.

Routines are the backbone of organization.
Create a routine, and stick to it. This might take weeks, months, or even years—there is conflicting research on how long it actually takes to develop a habit. So to find the routine that works best, think of it as a work in progress. Start by identifying the repetitive or undesirable tasks, and incorporate them into a checklist with milestones. These small actions will eventually become more and more familiar; they’ll save you time by adding efficiency and eventually become habit.

Minimize.
Have trouble letting things go? First, identify which of these common reasons is making you hold on to stuff—it’s sentimental, it was a gift, you think might need it some day, or it’s still in perfect condition. Ask yourself one simple question: would I choose to go out and buy this thing again right now today if I didn’t have it? If the answer is no, then you should let it go. Remember that having less means less to clean, less to organize, and less mess—less really does mean more.

Have a place for everything, and everything in its place. When deciding where to keep things, always consider where and how often you use each item. Store things where you use them, and don’t allow once-a-year items to eat up real estate that’s within arms reach.

Success is in the follow-through.
Procrastination is the enemy of organization. Once you have a plan for an organization project, or even a small clean-up task, schedule it. If something is scheduled, make every effort to complete it on time.


Remember, being organized is a skill, and it takes practice. Sure, organization comes more easily to some people, but that doesn’t mean an organized life is impossible to achieve if it takes you a little while to get your feet wet.

9 Home Repairs You Can Count On (and When to Expect Them)

If you have ever purchased a home, you know that saving for that down payment is tedious. After budgeting and making financial sacrifices, the last thing any new homeowner wants to worry about is expensive home repairs. But unless you are prepared to ask the right questions of the previous homeowner, you may need to stick to the dreaded budget for longer than you think.

Here is what you need to know about common home repairs before you buy.

Roof (every 30 years)
The life expectancy of an asphalt shingle roof (the most common type in America) is about 30 years, with the average roof replacement costing around $12,000—although more accurate estimates are based on size, pitch (slope), and surface material. More high-end roof materials include slate, sheet metal, ceramic, and, of course, solar panels, all with varying life expectancies.

Windows (every 30 to 50 years)
When it comes to windows, wood casement windows have a longer life expectancy than aluminum casement windows, averaging about 50 years (wood) versus 30 years (aluminum). Obviously, the number and quality of the windows will greatly affect the replacement cost, should it be necessary. And for a better return on your investment, look for windows that are ENERGY STAR qualified. To get the most of existing windows, or when replacing windows, go to www.energy.gov for more information.

Gutters (every 30 years)
Gutters and downspouts are estimated to last for about 30 years; however, inefficient or improperly installed gutters can lead to a backup of water or ice, and can damage roofs, siding, and even a home’s foundation. Any standing water near the drainage point of a downspout may indicate improper installation, and you should ask the previous homeowner how long this has been occurring.

Central Air (15 years)
Much like a furnace, the lifespan and efficiency of a home’s central air conditioning depends on the relation of the size of the unit to the home. Several factors come into play when choosing the right unit for a home, such as the amount of wall and attic insulation, the efficiency and placement of your windows and doors, and the orientation of your home to the sun.

Furnace/HVAC (15 years)
A furnace replacement is on the mid-to-higher end of the home repair spectrum. Proper maintenance plays a big part in the lifetime of a HVAC system, so be sure to ask the previous homeowners about their upkeep. If you do need to purchase a new system, make sure you do your research, and understand the term annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE), which measures how efficiently a furnace converts gas into heating energy.

Hot Water Heater (13 to 14 years)
A water heater replacement is one of the most common household repairs, considering their life expectancy is about 13 to 14 years for a gas and an electric unit, respectively. It is not difficult to determine when you need to replace your water heater, as a decrease in water temperature will dictate the replacement.

Carpet or Vinyl Flooring (11 years, 30 years)
Interior projects, like flooring replacement, are often for aesthetic purposes rather than need-based replacements. But if you are considering a home with carpet, you should know that the lifetime of a carpet is only about 11 years. When considering an update, know that vinyl or tile flooring usually has about a 30-year life expectancy.

Hardwood Flooring (100 years)
Real hardwood floors have the longest life expectancy—up to 100 years—but may require refinishing to keep them looking new. Since there are many variations of wood flooring, it would be wise to do some research into which type best fits your family’s needs. Some flooring may be more sensitive to moisture or prone to scratching, and therefore require more maintenance.

Fireplace (100 years)
If you’re considering a home with a fireplace, you should know that, while fireplaces look nice and create relaxing environments, there is some very serious maintenance required to ensure safety. Although the lifetime of a wood burning fireplace is around 100 years, annual maintenance is still required. You should also consider the amount of homeowners insurance coverage required for a home with a fireplace.

By considering these important and often costly parts of your home, and asking questions about them beforehand, you will feel more confident in your purchasing decision, and you’ll be more likely to avoid headaches during the home inspection process. And once the home is finally yours, use the home maintenance schedule to protect your investment and get the maximum life out of your home.

How to Be a Mindful Homeowner

Use this checklist to make sure you’re keeping up with all home and community matters, from home maintenance tips and money savers to being good to the environment and your neighbors.

Energy Savers

  • Invest in a drying rack and a clothesline so you can skip the dryer year-round.
  • Lower the temperature on your hot water heater to 120ºF, and toss a hot water heater blanket over top of it for extra insulation.
  • Replace incandescent light bulbs with CFL and LED light bulbs for a 75 percent and 85 percent energy savings, respectively.
  • Check the amount of insulation in your home, and install more where needed. Let the home’s design and the climate you live in be your guides for the proper amount.
  • Plant mature trees on the east- and west-facing sides of your home to keep it cool in the summer and to block the cold wind in the winter.

Home Improvers

  • When making home improvements, be sure to check for national and state tax benefits.
  • Improve indoor air quality by maintaining your air filtration systems and decorating your home with houseplants.
  • Make sure all home electronics have proper surge protection, and consider a smart power strip, which will cut the power to auxiliary electronics when not in use, for electronics such as your TV.
  • Clean indoor and outdoor vents of dust and obstructions on a semi-annual basis.
  • Regularly check carbon monoxide and smoke detectors to see if they are in working order, and your fire extinguisher to see if it is fully charged and free of leakage, corrosion, damage, and defects.

Community Matters

  • Make sure that you know and review your community and homeowner association (HOA) rules often. Rules are typically more applicable during the change in seasons.
  • Set boundaries with your children and pets to make sure they have good manners. Dog owners should be especially considerate of noise levels and designated bathroom spots.
  • Develop relationships with your neighbors, whether they are young, old, community locals, or new residents.
  • Be good to your neighbors by reporting suspicious activity, lending a hand with weather-related problems, or offering to help with a tedious home maintenance task.
  • Take pride in your community by helping to maintain the whole neighborhood, not just your own yard.

New to the neighborhood? Download this contact sheet to organize important phone numbers for easy access.

Stuck in the Renting Rut

If you’ve been renting an apartment for longer than you’ve had a Facebook, don’t worry—you’re not the only one. But if you’ve been teetering on the fence of buying or renting, going over the pros and cons, all whilst watching your friends settle into their own place, it might be time to say goodbye to the landlord.

It’s normal to be afraid to take the plunge into home-buying territory, but with the help of a great agent and a little research, you can determine if the time is right for you.

If you have a healthy savings account.
Perhaps the scariest part about buying a home is making the financial commitment, but if you’ve managed to save enough (and then some) to put a down payment of at least 10 percent, you should feel confident in your ability to make the purchase.

If you’re ready to commit.
Another common qualm about buying a home is the uncertainty of where you will be a year or two from now. However, if you have a steady job and are happy with the location, there’s really no reason for concern.

If the price is right.
An agent can help you determine whether or not the price you are looking to pay is reasonable for your specifications and needs in a home, but ultimately, if the market is favorable and you’ve found the right deal, there’s no better time than the present.

If you’re sick of pouring money into someone else’s pocket.
It sounds harsh, but if you’ve been renting for three, five, or even ten years, you have been spending thousands of dollars on something that doesn’t even truly belong to you when all is said and done. Sure, a mortgage is likely more than your current rent, but you’ll have a place to really call your own.