10 Small Design Upgrades to Add Character to a New Home

Because that brand-new look isn't always what you want.


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Moving into a new home or a freshly-renovated space can be a thrill, but there's such a thing as a new home looking too new. The clean, modern look is well and good, but it can feel cold if there’s not some sense of life in a space. Now, we’re not going to suggest you rip out your brand new floors to replace them with reclaimed barn wood, but with a little bit of effort you can make even the newest home look like it has a bit of charming history.

So, we asked three design pros to share DIY ideas and mini upgrades that homeowners or renters could make to give their home more of a lived-in look. Read on for tips on how to get that cozy, inviting vibe.

Say yes to secondhand

Adding antique furnishings and accessories to your home is the fastest, easiest way to add a lived-in aesthetic to your home, says Deb Foglia, the blogger behind Seeking Lavender Lane and the founder of Vintage Keepers, an online marketplace. “Ninety percent of the stuff in my house is vintage,” says Foglia. “Pieces that have charm and were once loved by someone else instantly transition the feel of your home.”

Embrace reclaimed accents

If you already have newer furnishings, Whitney Leigh Morris, the creator of the Tiny Canal Cottage and author of Small Space Style, suggests adding a dash of reclaimed materials around your house to up the charm factor. “Vintage hinges, door knobs, and pulls can work wonders,” she says. Similarly, you can top a console, countertop or dresser with a surface of repurposed materials, like reclaimed wood or natural stone, which you can have sized to your specifications. 

Mix & match 

Both Morris and Foglia note that matchy-matchy furnishings and finishes are often hallmarks of a new space. If possible, mix up your new furniture with older pieces and shop from a variety of brands, not just one retailer. “The sofa and armchair can indeed contrast,” says Morris. “This approach echoes a time when newly-manufactured goods weren’t so prevalent, and unique, mismatched, and homemade goods decorated well-loved rooms.”

Layer on Old World wall finishes

Morris has spent the last year building a new house, but the brand new structure looks anything but sterile thanks to the textured appearance of her walls. “Old homes develop beautiful, rich patinas of all sorts over time,” says Morris. “A way to attain a similar feeling is through the application of layered lime paint and Tadelakt, [a plaster topcoat]. The origins of these concoctions date back centuries, so they inherently offer an Old World, texture-rich look when applied to walls and ceilings.”

Tack up some trim

Another tactic to enliven drywall is to add molding and trim. Foglia added picture frame molding in several rooms of her home and says it's a project you can do yourself if you have basic DIY skills, a miter saw, and (ideally) a nail gun. “Any wainscoting, shiplap or molding gives a room dimension, and instantly looks older,” says Foglia.

Mind your metals

Pay attention to the finishes on hardware, door knobs, and light fixtures, say Erin Wheeler and Amy Burgess, partners at Sunny Circle Studio, a blog and design studio based in Raleigh, North Carolina. “I really love brass, especially antique brass, which makes a room feel a little more lived-in, like it has a story,” Wheeler says. She notes that while it’s a small detail, the patina and warmth of the metal can change the look of the whole room. And don’t worry about matching all your metals: A variety of finishes will make a room look collected over time.

Swap out your bathroom sink

If you want to add more character to your bathroom without ripping everything out and starting from scratch, Foglia says look to the sink. In her own home, Foglia used a reclaimed hammam bowl as a sink. “A vintage vessel sink is usually affordable and instantly gives space more character than a traditional one,” she says. Another option? Place a sink on top of a vintage dresser or cabinet instead of an off-the-shelf vanity—all you need to do is drill a few holes for plumbing. 

Utilize table lamps

Your home may be blessed with state of the art lighting, but there’s nothing like accent lamps to create a cozy atmosphere. And, the design pros we spoke to say the more the merrier. Foglia notes that lamps are especially impactful in the kitchen, where they add unexpected living room styling.

Install a truly personal gallery wall

Nothing says “collected over time” like a gallery wall. Wheeler says that it doesn't even matter if you actually bought your artwork online instead of in a number of antique stores over the years. A gallery wall can quickly evoke the feeling of a well-loved-home, especially if you weave in personal mementos and photographs. Mixed into Wheeler's own wall assemblage are a handkerchief that her business partner Burgess brought back from a trip and a photo of her grandfather from the 1940s.

Get some plants

Bringing in actual living things (aka houseplants) is a great way to make your house feel more home-y. To supply even more charm, mix and match planter and pot styles and choose a variety of different leaf types and plant sizes. Morris is a big proponent of this design move and she has plants in every corner of her home–even the shower.

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