How To Spot Potential in an Older Home

By Elsie Larson

As a home and lifestyle blogger on A Beautiful Mess, I’ve had several home-buying experiences, both for my personal home and my work. They’ve all had one thing in common: they’re older “fixer-upper” homes. 

Sometimes older homes’ outdated paint colors, fixtures and appliances scare off buyers. But making cosmetic changes to update the home to your taste might be more affordable than you’d expect. It’s all a matter of seeing the potential in older homes.

Dark, dingy kitchen turned sunny and modern

This kitchen, for example, caused me to skip viewing this house several times. It was just so dark, and I didn’t love anything about it. It had dark wood paneling on the walls and ceiling, dingy older appliances, a stained linoleum floor and plywood cabinets. To top it off (although you can’t see it here), the washer and dryer were also in the kitchen.

Potential_before - after

But when we viewed the home in person, we realized we could reface the kitchen on a reasonable budget. We used the existing plywood cabinets along the bottom with a fresh coat of paint. We added inexpensive subway tile and open shelves to the top. We updated the appliances. And we did a faux concrete countertop for under $ 200.

Now it’s a totally new space. It looks more expensive than it really is, and it’s totally custom and fun.

Outdated style transformed to cheerful stunner

As another example, check out the kitchen in my last personal home. I think these before photos speak for themselves.

Potential_before-after 2

We refaced this kitchen with a lot of DIY. Our splurge was a new quartz countertop that still looked brand new when we moved out three years later. We painted the kitchen cabinets and walls ourselves, which is the least expensive way to update an outdated kitchen. It was super fresh by the time we were done.

kitchen combo

This living room makeover is one of my favorites because we really didn’t have to do much. Updating the paint and curtains made a world of difference.

Potential_before-after 3

Potential_living room

See, it really isn’t that hard to update the look and vibe of an older home. For one last before-and-after, here’s the dining room. It started out as formal, dark, and just not my style at all. But I loved the high ceilings and knew it had plenty of room to fit an even larger table.

Potential_before - after 4

After a little paint, a DIY table and a DIY light fixture, it was a completely new space. It went from least favorite to favorite room in our home! And the best part was, it wasn’t a difficult or expensive makeover.

dining room combo

Takeaway tips

Here are a few quick tips for seeing the potential in an older home.

  1. Ignore style choices. Remember that ugly furniture and fussy drapes don’t matter. You can easily change any of those things. Instead, look for good bones and expensive upgrades that will save you money (like a new roof, furnace, or windows), and use your imagination for how the space could look with minor upgrades like fresh paint and new fixtures.
  2. Overlook old smellsIt’s hard to feel positive about a house when you walk in and it smells musty or stale. But unless your home inspection reveals something serious, you can probably make an “old-smelling” house smell nice in a weekend. And if you’re removing carpet, even better.
  3. Disregard colorsThis is tough. When I scan house listings on Zillow, I often get really distracted by that bright red bathroom or that huge Disney mural in a bedroom. But these things don’t matter, and can be changed in a weekend with just a little paint – so don’t judge a house by its colors.
  4. Look past the clutter. This can be another tricky one. It’s hard to look at a room with an open mind when it’s overstuffed with boxes, clothes or knick-knacks. Remind yourself that when you move in, the house will be empty. Bring a measuring tape when you view if you need to be sure something of yours will fit (like your beloved king-size bed).
  5. Take note of special featuresLook for those features you love that you couldn’t add, like an incredible view, a cozy porch or a huge window. For example, in my last house I fell in love with the antique clawfoot tub.


If you’re shopping for an older home, keep these tips in mind. You might just discover your dream home.

For more fun home projects check out our blog, A Beautiful Mess.

Want to add some homemade happiness to your own space? Zillow and A Beautiful Mess are partnering to give away $ 5,000 to make your home feel a little more like you. Enter for a chance to win.


Follow blogger and author Elsie Larson on Instagram, and read more on her blog, A Beautiful Mess.

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