When you look at established designers with decades of work behind them, and homes that just keep getting grander and grander, it’s easy to imagine that everyone in that profession is living that lifestyle. But the reality is that designers are just like us, and they too have to make long-term plans and concessions to score their first home. Take California designer, Casey Mason – with many projects under her belt and a little bit of grit, she’s was able to use her know-how to transform what her real estate agent called the “ugly” house in the neighborhood into a gorgeous ranch-style contemporary home. 

In our interview with her, she shares lots of great lessons learned and resources for transforming a home on a budget.

Where were you living before and why did you decide to move?

Before moving to this house we had been living with my parents for 2 years in order to save money for our first big purchase (it’s our first home). My parents live on a 14-acre ranch. When I was younger, they converted an old shed into a dance studio for my sister and I, which is where Cole and I ended up living for 2 years. The room that I would have sleepovers in as a kid became our house – it was humbling, to say the least!

It’s actually pretty funny to look back on now because it’s basically a 400 sq. ft. rectangular room with no running water, so we would have to walk 200 yards to my parents’ house to use the bathroom/shower. We definitely had to make a lot of sacrifices to buy this home, but every one of them was worth it.

This home looks so cohesive with an easy layout, was it like that originally or did you have to make big changes?

One of the things that initially attracted us to this house was its basic layout with no funky additions or a weird floor plan. We knew that the fewer architectural elements that we had to “fix”, the better. We did remove a wall between the kitchen and living room because in relation to the house, the original space for the kitchen was really large and the living room was quite small, so we felt that removing the wall between the two spaces would allow us to make them equal, and ultimately open everything up.

What were the deciding factors in choosing your home? Were there deal-breakers?

The house was pretty much in its original 1962 state when we bought it. To most people, I think that would have been a deal breaker, but we really were looking for something that we could totally gut and make it our own. We loved how much natural light the house gets, which was one of the main factors for me when we started looking at houses.

How did the renovation process start? What were your first steps?

Since this is our first home, we really had to budget when it came to the renovation. We decided to do the renovation in phases, which is not something that I would recommend because you end up living in a construction zone for quite some time, but it’s what worked for us.

We started with the necessary but not necessarily fun or pretty stuff like a new roof and new electrical. Then we removed the wall between the kitchen and living room, scraped all of the popcorn walls and smoothed the ceilings, added can lights (because there was absolutely no overhead lighting in this house except for the horrible dropped ceiling in the kitchen with fluorescent lighting, so the kitchen ceiling was raised up about 16” and we added proper lighting.

Then after a few months, we installed new kitchen cabinets, new countertops, new appliances, reworked the fireplace hearth and installed wood floors. After a few more months, we finished up the kitchen with the backsplash, hood, and lighting – the pretty stuff! All in all, it took us about 15 months.

As an interior designer, did you already know what sort of style or look you wanted coming into the project?

Yes! I have been pinning and obsessing about designing my own home for years! So I couldn’t wait to execute my ideas! The house is a 1962 ranch style, so it lends itself perfectly to the laid-back, sunny and natural aesthetic that both Cole and I are attracted to. We live by the beach and my husband is originally from Hawaii, so there are some slight nods to the ocean here and there. I actually love having his surfboards leaning in corners in various rooms!

What part of the renovation did you take on yourselves and which part did you contract out?

This renovation was definitely a balance of DIY and hiring professionals. Anything we felt that we could tackle ourselves, we did! That included scraping the popcorn ceilings (probably never do that again!) demo-ing built-ins and cabinetry, installing the RTA (ready to assemble) cabinetry, and reworking the fireplace hearth. We hired out the roof, electrical, major framing, wood floor installation and stone/tile work.

Where did you splurge and where did you save?

Honestly, there isn’t one element that I would consider a “splurge”. Since I am an Interior Designer, I was able to call on a lot of my vendors and find some pretty killer deals on flooring, cabinetry, countertops, and tile. My work connections coupled with the hours and hours that I spent sourcing materials meant that I was really able to keep the price points really low.

The home feels so personal, could you tell us about a choice or an object that has special meaning to you?

Thanks! Everything in this house means something to us. The hearth has our initials carved into the back corner. We remembered to do that just before the concrete dried. We flew down Cole’s sister and brother-in-law from Oregon to help us build and install the kitchen cabinets. Every night we would sit in the spa and talk about the day’s work, it really was a cool bonding experience.

If you point to anything in the house, we can give you the back story. Even when it came to the décor, Cole (being a surfer from Hawaii) knew that he wanted an art piece that was meaningful. So we purchased a photo of Cole’s best friend surfing one of Cole’s favorite waves in Hawaii.

Of the foundational pieces, which is one that you’re thrilled about?

We are both super impressed with the RTA cabinets. Again, after much research, I found a company in Northern California called Walcraft Cabinets. Their quality is insane, especially for the price! Their quote came in at about ½ the cost of Ikea Cabinets and I continued to be impressed with the quality.

What were some special challenges that you had to deal with when it came to decorating?

The biggest challenge for me was actually deciding on something! For example, I think I pinned around 57 different counter stools for the island. I would fall in love with one, but then it would be a ½ inch too wide or something would be slightly off. Even the stools that we ended up going with had to be recovered because the fabric that they came in didn’t work. That meticulous searching and sourcing seemed standard for pretty much every piece in the house. I know all Interior Designers can relate – we can do this all day for clients, but when it comes to our own homes we suddenly are incapable of making decisions.

What aspect of this new home makes you proudest?

One aspect that makes me the proudest was that my husband and I did this together. The late-night DIY projects are something that I look back at fondly, even though at the time there were many frustrating moments and fights (there might have even been a tool thrown a time or two!). But that’s really what makes it all worth it.

Anyone who has remodeled his or her home will tell you how crazy a process it can be and how much thought and consideration goes into every single decision. But at the end of the day, when we sat on our island stools (that took way too much brain power to decide on) in our finished kitchen for the first time and ate chips and salsa and cheers our beers, we were like, “yeah, we did this!” It’s a pretty awesome feeling.