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Design consultant pulls off her dream home on a budget

| Saturday, Oct. 28, 2006

When Peters resident Christine May sold the townhouse she was living in for $250,000 in 2005, she had already purchased a nearby vacant lot with the idea of building a home. But, with the going rate for new construction averaging $125 square foot, May was more than a little worried about pulling the whole thing off.

For starters, the house plan she settled on -- a three-bedroom, three-bath Cape Cod style -- was more than 3,000 square feet. And, after doing the math, she was worried about getting the financing. But since May is a design consultant who specializes in beautifying homes on a budget, she figured if she became her own client she could pull the whole thing off.

Now, after a little more than a year of overseeing the project, the house is complete and May's calculations for the total cost of the home come in at an amazing $80 a square foot.

"It was because of cutting all the corners," May says. "Everything was purchased at a discount -- the used cabinetry; not paying for a big banister; the bathroom vanities purchased from clearance centers."

At $30 an hour, May's services are a discount in the pricey field of interior design. But she says she works a little differently than most interior designers, preferring to work with what her clients already have and like, rather than starting from scratch.

"I work more as a consultant working with you, helping you make choices," she says.

Her philosophies on design can be seen throughout her house, which sports a delightful mix of antique and contemporary, used and new.

In the entryway, a new glass chandelier bought on eBay for $400 looks every bit like the versions that sell for $4,000 or more at antique stores. It's topped with a scrolled-metalwork ceiling medallion May bought on eBay for $80.

"It was real bright gold when I got it," May says of medallion. "It looked terrible. So, I took antiquing paint that I bought at Michael's and rubbed it down with it."

The chandelier illuminates a dramatic entryway that is the very essence of cutting corners.

For example, the antique newel post at the bottom of the stairs was purchased for $75 from an architectural salvage lot. "It looked like something you'd see out in someone's garbage," May says. "It was battered, it was gross. It needed to be completely stripped and refinished."

But the decorative quality of the staircase stops there. Instead of having the builder install a spindled staircase, May chose instead to have drywall go all the way up to the hand rail, saving her more than $1,000.

Other decorative touches in the entryway were bought at a discount, such as the large hutch opposite the staircase that was bought from Levin's clearance room for $188. It's slightly damaged at the base, but hardly noticeable.

Above the hutch is a large, ornate mirror that was bought at Gabriel Brothers. And the botanical prints that hang above the banister are reproductions of antique prints bought at a local flea market. May used frames she bought at a nearby consignment shop.

Perhaps the biggest reflection of savings in the house is in the kitchen. Nearly all of the kitchen cabinets came from a house in Upper St. Clair. May purchased the cabinets for $1,500 from a patient at the dental office where her mother works.

"Her configuration was totally different than this," May says. "They're Plato cabinets, and they were $24,000 originally. I have the original receipt."

May had her handyman reconfigure the cabinets for the space, which required a few filler pieces and crown molding to complete the effect. He also added a plate rack that May bought on eBay for $135 and a range hood that her ex-husband made out of wood and decorated with ornate shelf supports from Lowe's and a plastic plaque from T.J. Maxx that cost $11.

Both the living room and great room also are worth noting for May's "bargain-basement" finds. Not only were the elaborately carved fireplace surrounds in both bought at the same architectural salvage lot as the newel post, the electric fireplace insert in the living room fireplace May found on eBay for $499, less than half of what it cost in local stores.

"I shopped everything around here first, then I went on eBay," May says. "That's how you know whether you're paying a good price or not."

May says nearly all of the decorative items throughout her home were came from eBay, consignment shops and flea markets, or out of the home-decor sections of chain stores like T.J. Maxx, Marshall's, Kirkland's and Gabriel Brothers.

Not to mention, much of the furniture was purchased from the clearance rooms of local furniture stores. All three of the bathroom vanities were damaged pieces of furniture bought from clearance rooms that she had adapted into lavatory sinks.

It's a practice she encourages her clients to partake in as well, so they not only can choose what they like but can benefit from substantial savings. But, she warns, it's always a good to have an idea of your specific needs before you go shopping. That's why she always gives her clients what she calls a "homework list." "People can go shopping with it, so they know what they are shopping for instead of saying, 'Oh my gosh, what am I going to buy?' "

"You should have a plan before you go," May says. "Because if you just go and start shopping, that's when people get overwhelmed, they don't want to buy. They bring home a bunch of stuff that doesn't really have a place."

"Have a plan," she insists. "I usually send people with measurements. Say, if we want a plate that will hang on a wall, we'll decide how tall we want it to be, what color it should be, et cetera. I make sure people have a guideline, because if you don't have a guideline you might come home with something that you think would look great behind the couch, but it could be too small and the scale could be wrong. And then they're stuck and have to take it back."

May says that, regardless of savings, a successful home interior all boils down to what the client likes, and making sure it all flows together well. "If you don't love it, then we're not keeping it, I tell them.

"You know, think about it. I can love it when I'm at your house, but if you hate it after I leave, what's the point?"

Cutting costs

Christine May, of C.May Interiors in Peters Township, says "My slogan is 'creating beautiful homes on a budget.' " Here is her list of tips for getting a high-end look for less:

  • A new coat of paint is an inexpensive way to drastically change the look of a room.

  • Ready-made draperies appear to be custom when trims and additional fabrics are added.

  • eBay, local consignment shops and flea markets offer unique accessories, art and lighting a discounted prices.

  • Integrating used cabinetry into new construction or remodeling projects saves thousands.

  • Dressers and chests from furniture clearance centers make unique bathroom vanities.

  • Mantels, Newel posts and Millwork can be found at architectural salvage shops and add old world charm to new construction.

  • Painting tired old cabinetry and adding new hardware can give it a whole new look.

  • Too many small accessories can look cluttered; less sometimes is more.

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