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I’ve Spent The Past Two Years Renovating My First Home, And These 10 DIY Upgrades (For Less Than $1,000 Total) Made The Biggest Difference Of All

"Having this as an option is something I didn't realize I needed until I had it, and now I'll never go back."

If I had to distill my first two years of homeownership into one sentence, it'd be something close to "the projects never end." In 2021, my partner and I bought our first house: a kinda dinky-looking, 500-square-foot cottage in upstate New York. Though it's certainly flawed and often frustrating, I wouldn't change a thing...that is, except for all the literal changes and upgrades we've been steadily working at ever since closing day.

author on the roof of a house holding a caulk gun to seal the roof and take out a useless satellite dish

While many of the necessary projects we've done around the house haven't been the most enjoyable or cost-effective (I'm lookin' at you, entire HVAC replacement), most of the upgrades we've implemented have actually fallen square in the middle of the Venn diagram that is "worth every penny" vs. "life-changing."

These are the straightforward home improvement projects that I'd highly recommend to all homeowners, from cheapest to most expensive. And if you're a renter, rest assured that several of these will work for you, too.

1. Replacing older light switches with specialty or more modern ones helped a ton with both style and function. And for anyone who's worried about dealing with electricity, I promise it's a lot easier than you'd think.

timer switch on wall so no one leave the bathroom fan on anymore

And while we're talking about bathroom fans (or exhaust fans, in general): If yours burns out, find the manufacturer's site and see if you can order just the fan assembly instead of replacing and re-installing the entire housing. You'll save yourself hundreds of dollars and a big ol' electrician bill on top of that.

author holding up fan assembly in bathroom while replacing it

2. Bad lighting can totally ruin a space. Luckily, I realized early on that replacing questionable ceiling lights with ones you'll actually like looking at isn't very hard. It can make a huge difference in aesthetics, and your literal mood, for very little money.

before and after of swapping a fluorescent ceiling light for a mid-century modern fixture

Warning: Once you replace one ceiling light, you'll feel an intense, primal urge to update all of your lights. And that's great! Shortly after, we swapped our brighter-than-the-sun bathroom can lights for some recessed LEDs that have a built-in nightlight mode, and they've changed the whole feel of our bathroom for the better.

two ceiling lights with night light mode glowing from the sides

(And before we move on, shoutout to BuzzFeed reader rebeccam4e04c2006 who kindly suggested I make that exact swap when I wrote about how much my Edison bulbs, pictured above, were bumming me out.)

replaced lightbulbs in mid-century modern fixture with exchange between author and buzzfeed reader who suggested the swap

3. Perhaps the quickest way we were able to elevate our interior was by swapping out older, cheap-feeling hardware on our doors and cabinets with ones we loved the look and feel of.

new cabinet hardware and door handles, matte black

4. Painting walls is fun and all, but painting doors is where it's at. Our flimsy, hollow-core interior doors suddenly felt more luxurious after we slapped a fresh coat of moody gray paint on them, and my only regret is that we didn't do it sooner.

gray-painted door

5. As a homeowner, I'm constantly thinking about everything that could possibly go wrong when I'm physically away from my house, but having smart Wi-Fi connected sensors and controls in select areas of my home has quelled most of my anxiety.

small white device that alerts the author before pipes burst

I loved our first temperature sensor so much that I even snagged one with a display for inside the house. Since we have mini-split units for both heating and cooling and no wall thermostats, it's the quickest way to confirm temperatures and humidity levels at a glance.

wall mounted device that controls AC from anywhere in the world and a small display showing temperature and the humidity level of the room

6. If you're not 100% in love with your shower head, changing it is ridiculously quick, easy, and cheap. The same goes for faucets (or even adding a bidet), though they require a little more time and patience to install.

new shower head

For slightly more advanced DIYers, changing your faucets can also have a massive impact on your daily routines. The vintage farmhouse double sink we inherited with the house is still one of our favorite things about our home...but the leaky, sputtering faucet that came attached to it was something we could've done without. Enter: the new faucet (with a pull-down sprayer!) that made washing dishes in a dishwasher-less home a lot more manageable.

kitchen faucet running

7. Whether you're a homeowner or a renter, I'd highly recommend investing in a solid set of smart lights for both the interior and exterior of your home. You may not think you need them, but once you've made the switch, you'll never go back.

Our extra smart lights on the exterior of our home are programmed to turn on and off at sunset and sunrise, respectively. The time even shifts with the seasons when days get shorter or longer. Heck, you can even go the extra mile and program them to turn brighter when you arrive home for extra visibility.

before and after or a spotlight light fixture with a motion sensor replaced with a warm glowing exterior lantern

8. To refresh your kitchen on a budget, it's as simple as slapping on a fresh coat of paint...but just be sure to take your time and prep like your life depends on it.

before and after of wood-look cabinets painted with a sage green paint

9. Adding in some sort of hardscaping (in our case, budget-friendly gravel) helped the unruly outdoor space we were left with feel a little more purposeful.

before and after or dirt surrounding stepping stones in a walkway filled with gravel

Working with a local stone yard instead of trying our luck with the Home Depot down the road saved us hundreds of dollars. Getting two tons of gravel delivered cost us just over $100 all in, while we priced out the same project at Home Depot for, prepare yourself, $1,100. This decision saved us $1,000, and I'd happily do it again.

two tons of gravel being dumped onto a tarp

10. And finally: I researched smart locks for weeks leading up to move-in day. Installing this one was one of the first little projects we completed, and it still brings me joy every time I use it.

It's come in handy in dire circumstances, too. When the power went out this past winter on a -20ºF night and I was out of town, kicking myself when we realized I forgot to turn off the water before leaving, we sent our entry code to a trusty neighbor who was able to turn things off just before the pipes burst, saving us several thousands of dollars in costly repairs.

author on vacation in the hot tub on a cold day with frozen hair next to a photo of a flooded room at home from a burst pipe

If you try any of these upgrades in your own home, let me know how it went! And if you've done any other home upgrades that were life-changing in any way, tell me all about them in the comments below.