What These Houses Taught Me About Decorating

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What have the homes you have lived in taught you about decorating? If you think about it, it may be quite a lot.

Post Updated: 6/4/2020

Over the last few months I have been reading many decorating books, both old and new. From how-to’s to high-end coffee table style decorating books.

Cover of Ellen Degeneres Home book

There isn’t a decorating book I don’t like as every book offers inspiration, and insight into a person’s personal style which I love to see. Even books that are not my style, I still can glean a new way to look at something that gets my creative juices flowing.

This happened when I was reading the coffee table style decorating book, Ellen DeGeneres Home.

Ellen Degeneres Home book open on table to a page that says What this house taught me.

In the book, she showcases all the houses she has lived in and has a list of bulleted things that she has learned about decorating from living in each house. Each house taught her something about the decorating process that she could take with her to the next house in which she lived.

I loved this part of the book. It gave me the idea for this post.

I thought it would be fun to do the same thing to share the best things I learned in each of the 6 homes I have lived in, including my first college dorm room.

All were unique and I learned something from each that helped me to become confident in my choices when it came time to decorate a new home.

Looking for photos of all the houses I have lived in for this post was a trip down memory lane, so many happy and fond memories at each house.

What These Houses Taught Me About Decorating

House #1: Split-Level House

Split level Home built in 1959

The first house I lived in was a split level.

It was home sweet home in Willow Grove, PA from birth to the day I left for college.

split level home built in 1959

My parents lived in the house for 50 years until they moved into a retirement community.

The new owners made the garage into a room, but the house looks pretty much the way it did when I lived there, although my mom would have had a fall wreath on the door and colorful mums planted all around. :-)

Diane-in an old black and white photos at-around-12-years-old laying on a bed with hands under my chin.

When I was around 11 years old, my parents moved my two sisters and I to the master bedroom of this house since it was the largest bedroom where 3 twin beds would fit. There was green pattern wallpaper on the walls that was much too formal for 3 young girls.

This is when I embarked on my very first decorating project. I resourced it from the back of a cereal box. Until the room was made over, my sisters and I covered the walls with posters.

You can see one behind me on the wall in the above photo. It was one of six that was ordered from the back of a CapN Crunch cereal box.

Do you remember those days when there were order forms you cut out from the back of the box to buy toys and more? This was back in the late 1960’s.

Each poster had a different cereal character on it. They were very colorful and made the room feel more to our liking.

They were not up long as my mom and dad made over the room a few months after. But they were my first attempt at decorating a room.

What Living In My Childhood House Taught Me About Decorating

  • A bedside table and light are essential for every bed for books, photos and reading at night. With 3 beds in the room, it was tight and store bought night tables were too large to fit.

My dad made 3 night tables using orange crates. He painted them white and put hip and modern pink and red raindrop wallpaper on the top of each one. My sisters and I loved them.

Seeing him make something so chic and perfect for the room fueled my passion for repurposing items to make furnishings and decorative accessories.

  • Dimmer switches make a big difference – As a kid, I loved when we ate dinner in the dining room because the light in the room was controlled by a dimmer switch. It made eating dinner feel special and elegant. My siblings and I always wanted it very dim and have candles on the table, even for weeknight meals.

I have installed dimmer wall switches in every home that Ed and I owned. In the kitchen, living room, dining room and bathrooms. Plug-in tabletop dimmer control switches for floor and table lamps.

Being able to dim the lights with the push of a button allows you to set the mood for entertaining, relaxing or taking a bath with low lighting.

  • Colorful posters can hide the unsightly. Decor doesn’t need an official pedigree to be wonderful.

House #2: College Dorm Room

An old grainy photo of one of my dorm rooms in college.
My second college dorm room that I decorated.

The next home I lived in wasn’t actually a house, but a college dorm room. I lived in 7 different dorm rooms over 4 years of college.

It was in college dorms that I finally had a little place to call my own, even though it was only one half of the room. It was mine to do what I wanted.

What Living in a College Dorm Room Taught Me

  • Poster putty and double stick foam hooks are amazing products. No damage to walls or furniture.
  • Door draft dodgers placed along the bottom of a door keeps light from a brightly lit hallway from coming into a room at night.
  • Overhead lighting is harsh. Every room needs more than one light source. Lighting can be harsh or not enough if you rely on a ceiling light. I like soft, even lighting, and think floor and table lamps are essential to creating the right mood.
  • Large comfy pillows are needed when your bed also functions as a sofa during the day.

House #3: California Spanish Bungalow

Spanish influenced home

After Ed and I were married, we moved to the San Francisco area and rented this Spanish style home in Oakland. Ed was a naval officer at the time. His ship was home ported at the Alameda Naval Base (which is no longer a base, but the land is now used for a weekly flea market). We thought we would live here for one year, but his ship needed repairs and that took us to Bremerton, Washington for 6 months.

We kept our furniture in this house, and lived in sub-standard Navy housing that was fully furnished in Bremerton.  I am not making the “sub-standard” part up. That was what it was called.

It was a bare bones, one story dwelling on a concrete slab connected to another, but bearable to live in temporarily. I don’t have a photo of this dwelling. It was ugly, but the views from the windows were stellar of Mount Rainier and the surrounding mountains.

What Living in This Rental House Taught Me: 

  • Light Can Make or Break a Room – We didn’t own this house, so we couldn’t paint any of the dark bedroom walls. It made me depressed. I know I need sunny and light to be happy in a home.
  • Large mirrors placed across from windows, makes the mirror look like a window and doubles the light in a room. The mirror trick helped the dark-walled rooms look brighter.

House #4: Brick Colonial

Brick home with balconies

If you know anything about military life, you know that you move a lot.  Once Ed’s time was up in California, we moved back across the country, but this time to the south.

He went on what is called a “shore tour” to get his Master’s degree and teach Naval Science at Duke University, University of North Carolina, and NC State. We bought this brick home in Durham, NC.

My oldest daughter was born when we lived here.  I remember painting every room and stenciling a tile design on the white backsplash in the kitchen. It was the first house in which I really started to hone in on my decorating skills and style.

What This Brick House Taught Me:

  • White double French doors between two rooms and all exterior doors adds a lot of character to a room. When the walls are painted a deep color, the white pops against the dark and makes the space look inviting even with sparse furnishings.
  • The joy of removing wall to wall carpeting and finding hardwood underneath. Enough said. :-) If you have it, don’t hesitate to take a peek under it. You may be pleasantly surprised.
  • That you can’t paint over stained wood without using a primer first. Ed built a full wall bookcase in the living room and stained it a dark brown. After a week, I decided it would look better if it were painted white.

So I bought white paint and went to work. It looked amazing with the white French doors in the room. Boy was I surprised after a few days later when I came home from work to find a pink bookcase.

The wood stain bled through the white paint and created pink. I learned about stain blocking primer the next day.

  • That you can’t paint over oil-based paint with latex without using a primer first. If you have been reading my blog for a while, then you are probably familiar with the big antique armoire in my studioffice.

When we moved to this house, it was orange and I wanted it to be a neutral tan color so I painted it with latex paint. After a few days, I noticed the surface had bubbles in it and with each passing day they were getting bigger.

To my horror, I found that I could peel the dried paint off the armoire in huge sheets, like it was shrink wrap. I quickly learned that you need to use a primer first over oil-based paint, before using latex.

  • A stone fireplace can add a nice organic feel and warm up a room.
  • The only time I like to use the color red in decorating is at Christmas. This house had new red wall-to-wall carpeting in the living room and up the staircase and second floor hallway. It threw off everything I wanted to do in the house. I just could not live with it.

House #3: Brick Twin House

Twin home

After Ed got his Master’s Degree and left the Navy, he went to work for Merck Pharmaceuticals. We moved to Pennsylvania, close to where I grew up.

We bought the right side of this twin home as they are called in southeastern Pennsylvania. A twin home—much like a duplex—is two separate homes that share a center wall. It is basically two identical houses that are connected.

This house was narrow, but had the best architectural molding, trim, and built-ins of all the houses we lived in. We lived here for only one year.

What Living in a Twin House Taught Me:

  • When putting a room together, I like to sit in every chair to make sure it is comfortable. If not, out it goes. We furnished this house with hand-me-downs from Ed’s parents. The sofa and upholstered chairs were stiff and formal Victorian style. When watching TV, we laid on the floor to be comfortable. I was happy when we could afford to buy a comfy sofa and chair for the room.
  • When using area rugs, make sure they are large enough to fill the primary use of the room. Rugs that are too small throw off the proportion and disrupt the visual flow of the room, plus they become a tripping hazard.
  • Stripped wood left natural looks amazing. When we bought this house the previous owner had stripped all the wood in the house and left it unstained. It looked beautiful, especially the built-in cabinets and two columns that separated the living and dining room. The wood was the perfect warm, almost white-washed wood color.

I have tried stripping many wood pieces of furniture to get the same look, but have never quite been able to achieve it. I am still trying.

  • Simple, fabric DIY window valances hung on windows adds some pretty color/pattern pops and can make a room look “decorated” when there is little to no budget to buy furnishings.

House #4: Craftsman Style House

Craftsman style home

This was the smallest house I lived in. We bought this Craftsman style house in Freehold, New Jersey. Our second daughter was born 2 months after we moved here.

This is the house where I wrote my book, Instant Decorating. I was 32 years old. We did a massive amount of painting to this house. I wish you could see, but I had stenciled the porch floor in a blue and pink checkerboard pattern. It was one of the projects in my book.

Craftsmand style bungalow: home sweet house

It had a nice backyard and garage, two screened in porches, and deck. We lived here for 4 years.

What Living in a Craftsman Style House Taught Me:

  • When you bring in something new, let things that don’t make you smile anymore go. This house was small, so I had to constantly edit. Having to do this taught me to not only to be content with less, but everything in the house we had to absolutely need or love.
  • Let the decorating evolve. A house doesn’t have to be showroom perfect ever. Take your time to get each detail right. It not only saves you money, but the long term outcome will be better.
  • Paint can do wonders for a room. When you paint an entire room, it changes it dramatically, but sometimes just painting one wall can really add a nice dynamic to an other wise plain space.
  • Always have enough room to move through your home so that there is a flow from room to room. Leaving some spaces empty will make a small house or room appear larger.

House #5: Center Hall Colonial

Center hall colonial: home sweet house

This is the house I lived in when I started my blog back in 2009. I have six years of posts showing everything we did to the house. It was the most spacious house we lived in with tons of natural light.

What This Center Hall Colonial House Taught Me:

  • Don’t be afraid to place furniture in the center of a room. The living room in this house was a long and narrow open concept space. It wasn’t until I moved the sofa to the middle of the room that the room came to life. The sofa (we had 3 during the time we lived here) stayed in that place for 20 years. Ed added an electrical outlet to the middle of the floor so that we could plug in two lamps that were on a table behind the sofa.
  • It is more important on how you want a room to feel over the decor. Should it be formal, casual, fun friendly, minimal and quiet, warm and cozy? Having an idea ahead of time can really help you in putting it all together. Think about how to you want to feel in your space rather than how you want it to look.
  • Any kind of art or collection of objects can make a great impression when grouped together. Framing your kids art can make a nice statement, hanging a collection of teacup saucers on a wall adds personality to a room. The more unique the display, the more personality it can add to your home.
  • Adding white trim molding around doors and windows gives a room character. Even the most basic is worth adding.
  • Candlelight makes any room feel relaxing. When eating dinner, entertaining in the living room, taking a bath, and sitting out on a porch. Candlelight turns normal into cozy and relaxing.

House #6: My Current House on Lake Murray

Lake side of 1970 era home that got a new coat of paint

I enjoyed every one of the houses I lived in, but the setting for this house is a dream come true for me. As the saying goes…

“It’s not the houses you have lived in, but the life you lived in them that matters.”

We have worked over the past 4.5 years making it our own.

What Living in a Lake House is Teaching Me

  • Life is all about the view. I set up every room to take the maximum advantage of the view out the sliding doors.
  • Go for comfort over trends or style – Some may feel differently, but all that matters is what is right for you. Comfort and function before style.
  • Chalkboard walls make a great, fun statement in a home. You can draw on them, do fancy lettering, use to make lists or write notes. When company comes, let them draw and doodle on it, too.
  • Make maximum use out of every space – We needed a place to put the vacuum and odds and ends that we use frequently, but wanted behind closed doors. Creating an under staircase closet created the space needed and made the staircase look better.
  • Having the right power tool makes any home decorating project easier.
  • DIY’ing can be exhausting, but is worth the effort when finished and you stand back and realize what you accomplished with your own two hands.

Each of the houses I have lived in, became a loving home, each had a story to tell. Some with quirks that make them interesting and unique. Others, simply a roof over our heads for a short time.

After living in each house, my decorating education grew from that first CapN Crunch poster collection when I was 11 when my passion for decorating was sparked.

How many homes have you lived in? What have been your decorating takeaways from each?

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  1. I really enjoyed your post. Your Freehold, Nj home reminds me of our Nutley NJ home where we lived for 27 years. Now we are on Amelia Island, FL for almost 21 years. We are 1000 feet from the ocean.

  2. Let’s see, counting an apartment but not dorm rooms (which would add 4 to the total), I get 6: Two houses with my parents before I went to college, apartment after college, back with the parents in their 3rd (downsize) house, my first house, and now my second, where I hope to stay forever. Even if it’s not as neat as your place. (Right now my basement is a horror because the folks have downsized again, and all those gotta-stay-in-the-family items are coming my way.)

  3. I lived in four houses growing up in Michigan (Dad would buy and repair, or build and sell). Then there were the two small places as a single, plus nine more as an adult, married, with children, and now empty-nesters. Each home had things of pleasure and beauty, precious memories…one of the most fun homes ever was a white stucco house on the side of a mountain in Quito, Ecuador- arched doorways, a couple porthole windows, a spiral stairway…and mountains in the distance wherever you look! Thank you for the walk through the memories!

  4. Thanks for sharing these stories, Diane! Gosh, we may have run into each other when you were in Oakland- I was working retail at the time in the area. Small world, right?

  5. Diane,

    What a joy it is to read your blog. I so enjoyed this post, it made me reminisce about of all of the houses that I have lived in.