19 Frugal (And Easy) Ways to Update an Old Home


Even though I have a tight budget for home improvement, my wife and I have been able to make cheap changes that have the neighbors complimenting us on how nice the house looks, and in one case even asking if we replaced the siding and the roof! The truth is that we spent nowhere near the cost of big projects like new siding or a new roof. We spent only a few dollars to make some highly visible changes that made a big impact.

So what are these cheap upgrades you can do yourself to make your house look so much better? Here are some of the cheap upgrades I did at my 1980s house over the past two years. (See also: How to Create Your Dream Backyard on a Budget)

1. Add an Architectural Mailbox

Our house is at the end of a street with the mailbox right out front. Unfortunately, our faded old mailbox made a terrible first impression with its wasp nests in the newspaper slot, battle scars from having trellis nailed to it, and being overgrown with vines over the years. My wife found a black steel "architectural" mailbox set on clearance and we decided to upgrade. Now we have the fanciest mailbox in the neighborhood for only a few dollars more than the standard plastic mailbox kit that everyone else seems to have.

2. Paint the Front Door

A new front door can cost a few hundred dollars or more. Painting the front door you already have costs about $30. You can add some color to your exterior, and painting your front door can protect it from the elements and make it last longer as well.

3. Paint Shutters

My house has vinyl decorative shutters on each side of the windows, but they were looking faded. We were able to easily take them down, paint them, and replace them since they are attached with screws. We painted the shutters a bold color to add some interest and make the windows more prominent.

4. Hide Ugly Utilities

The central air conditioning unit, gas regulator, and other utilities are installed right at the front of our house, probably because it is at the end of a street. My wife built a low fence about eight feet wide out of cedar pickets in front of the utility stuff, and stained it a nice golden color. She hung some flower baskets on the fence posts and installed some nice black steel house numbers on the new fence that match the mailbox. Now instead of seeing ugly utility equipment, you see a nice feature that is coordinated with the house.

5. Replace Front Porch Light

I removed the faded and out-of-style early 1980s porch light next to the front door and replaced it with a modern unit for about $30.

6. Housewash

A neighbor generously offered to let us borrow their power washer for an afternoon, and my wife happily signed me up to take advantage of this offer! We washed the moss, mold, and mildew off of the vinyl siding — making it look almost new again.

7. Slash and Burn

While doing the other exterior projects, we gathered up several truckloads of clutter from the yard. We hauled the stuff that someone might want to the auction house and hauled the junk to the landfill. The yard had a number of overgrown bushes and flower beds filled with weeds. We pruned back the bushes, weeded the flower beds, and added fresh mulch. Finally, we had a huge bonfire to finish clearing the yard.

8. Install Bathroom Floor Tile

An inexpensive upgrade to the bathroom was to install a porcelain tile floor. We got some tiles on clearance at the local carpet warehouse and installed these on top of cement board that went down right over the old vinyl bathroom floor.

9. Install a One-Piece Toilet

We decided to replace the leaky old toilet with a new one since we had to take it out to install the tile floor anyway. Much like the architectural mailbox, a one-piece toilet is not the cheapest way to go, but it sure adds a lot of style for a few extra dollars.

10. Replace Light Switch Plates

We went around and replaced all of the old faded plastic light switch plates and outlet plates with nice brushed nickel ones. This cost about $5 per plate, but this is a cheap upgrade that adds style and consistency throughout the house.

11. Replace Bathroom Vanity

We found a deal on Craigslist for a bathroom vanity with solid surface top and a built-in sink. It even included the faucet with the sink. This is just what we needed to replace the old bathroom vanity set and provide a nearly instant upgrade. We also installed a new mirror and light above the sink.

12. Install LED Recessed Lights

The old recessed spotlights that are used as primary lighting in much of the house were hot and used a lot of electricity. I replaced all of them with LED recessed light fixtures that will last thousands of hours and use a fraction of the electricity.

13. Replace Light Fixture in Entryway

The old light fixture in the entryway was one of the first things to catch your eye when you walked in the front door. We replaced this with a nice new light fixture that has a glass shade that looks like tile for about $50.

14. Paint Old Light Fixture

In the dining room, we decided to keep the old light fixture, but painted it black with spray paint to make it look more modern. This project cost about $5 for a can of spray paint. This light fixture was installed on an adjustable track, so it could be easily unplugged and taken down for painting. If your fixture is wired-in, you will need to turn power off at the circuit breaker in order to disconnect the wire nuts and take it down safely for painting.

15. Install New Kitchen Sink, Faucet

We picked up a kit at the home improvement store that included a heavy-duty two bowl stainless steel kitchen sink and faucet for under $200. Replacing the stained porcelain sink and leaky faucet fixtures was a great upgrade.

16. Paint Subfloor With Porch Paint

The carpets were stained and worn out, so we removed them and found raw subfloor underneath. Ideally, we would have installed hardwood flooring, but this is quite expensive. Instead, we painted the subfloor with a $30 can of brown porch paint. This was a quick and easy project, and it is easy to touch up any scrapes or scratches that may occur with a bit of porch paint.

17. Paint Tub and Shower Surround

Replacing a bathtub and shower surround would be a big, expensive ordeal. We decided to apply some white epoxy tub paint to our old fiberglass bathtub and surround instead of replacing it. This project cost about $60. I must say that painting the tub and surround with the sticky epoxy paint was a lot of work, and the strong chemical odor of this paint was unpleasant. But hauling out the old bathtub and shower surround and replacing it would have been much more difficult and expensive.

We found a replacement kit and installed a new shower faucet and bathtub spout. We also upgraded the shower head with one that provides a bit more pressure. The shiny new plumbing fixtures look sharp against the freshly painted bright white tub and shower surround.

18. Paint Interior Walls

My wife led the charge in painting the interior walls. The walls were a faded off-white color. now they are several colors including a modern light gray, dark blue, green, and orange. Putting some modern color on the walls is a cheap way to make an older house look more modern.

19. Install Closet Organizers

We installed closet organizer kits in all of the bedroom closets, adding more places to hang clothes and additional shelves to amplify storage. I changed the light bulbs in the closets to cool white LED bulbs to better show the color of clothes and avoid the possibility of something falling against a hot incandescent light bulb and catching on fire.

What are the best frugal home upgrades that you have done? Share with us!

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Guest's picture

Good read with some great DIY suggestions!

Guest's picture
Carey @ wiserdollar.com

Good list! A few other frugal and easy household upgrades are to replace corroded shower heads with new ones, repaint the mailbox (especially if near the front door) and put a fresh coat of paint on curbside house numbers.

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