By Rebecca Ford

Many people would love to improve their homes with major structural changes, but often they can't afford such costly renovations. An easy solution can be to make cosmetic changes instead.

Modern household living room
credit: Jupiterimages/ Images
Lighting and furniture arrangements are two quick ways to revamp your home without a heavy cost.

Cosmetic modifications stretch far beyond slapping a new coat of paint on a wall. From pillows to posters, chairs to curtains, there are plenty of ways to put on a new look without breaking the bank, whether you're staying put or planning to sell your house.

"If you can handle a paintbrush and you're not afraid to get a little dirty, you can do it," said Jill Valeri, president of The Welcome Home: Interior Design Solutions in Maryland.

If you can handle a paintbrush and you're not afraid to get a little dirty, you can do it.

Jill Valeri, interior designer

Identify the Issues

The first, and perhaps the most challenging, step is to look at your home with a fresh eye and think about how you really function in this space.

Many people have formal living rooms that they never set foot in, but they could really use a craft room, for example. Or they'd like to switch the living and dining rooms because the sizes or locations would make more sense that way.

"You can't get hung up on what the rooms are 'supposed' to be used for," Valeri said. "Think instead about how you actually live in your home."

But for some people, even such cosmetic changes can appear to be an overwhelming challenge. Just going to the store to buy supplies can be difficult when you're not prepared.

"If you walk up to the color paint wall in the home-improvement store, it's overwhelming, the sheer number of colors," said Valeri.

There are ways, however, to defuse such obstacles.

Make a Plan

First, don't try to do everything at once, advises Kathy Passarette, owner of the interior decorating firm Creative Home Expressions on Long Island, New York.

"This becomes not only overwhelming, but you get to a point where you want to just get it done, and most often you won't be happy with it," Passarette said.

Another way to face down the challenges, Valeri says, is to find an "inspiration piece," whether it's art, an area rug or a curtain fabric. Choose something that inspires you because it contains all the colors that you hope to have in that space, and use it to narrow down your color options.

Once you've figured out a color scheme, a logical next step is to take on the walls. Most homes have beige or white walls, which leave homeowners with a lot of options. Paint? Wallpaper?

Keep your color scheme in mind. Many people decide they want an accent wall but pick a color that doesn't relate to anything else in the room. "They'll have this fabulous burgundy wall in this beige house, and it feels overpowering because there's nothing to balance it out," Valeri said.

An easy trick for handling a large, empty wall is to make picture frames with frame molding and fill them with either an accent color or wallpaper. "It's a nice, easy way to put a lot of interest to a really big space without spending a lot of money," Valeri said.

Once you have the art, you have to hang it. Most people position art too high, says Lauri Ward, founder of Use What You Have Interiors in New York. Hold the art where you think it should go, she suggests, and then lower it 3 inches. "It works every single time," she said.

Ward also advises leaving one wall in a room blank to rest the eye.

Finally, add architectural interest to the room. You can create new touches or build on what's there, for example, with trim or molding. Most of this is basic carpentry that even a novice can handle, Valeri says.

Let There Be Light

Lighting is one of the most important aspects of a room. By changing your fixtures or adding recessed lighting, you can give a room an entirely different feel.

"If a room isn't properly illuminated, it's never going to feel as welcoming as it should," said Valeri. She advises adding dimmer switches so you can control the level of light for different functions.

Instead of buying just one lamp, Ward suggests purchasing two. Pairs of lamps can help tie a room together, as well as help with functionality. "I would like a dollar for every single home that I've been to where there was one lamp on one side of the sofa, and people pretty much took turns reading."

The concept that using two of a kind helps tie a room together applies to anything else that comes in pairs. "Really, you can't have too many pairs," Ward said. "You need as many pairs as possible in one room."

Tweaking Furniture Can Help

Another easy way to update your living room is to get new slipcovers for your throw pillows or couch, says Ward. Cotton slipcovers on throw pillows will lighten up a darker couch for the summer months.

"Keep a throw on the arm of your favorite chair or sofa for cozying up with a good book or late-night movie," said Passarette. It will add a burst of color in addition to being functional.

Simply cleaning out the clutter in a home will make a huge difference, Passarette emphasizes. "Bring in some baskets to corral things like remotes, books, DVDs or CDs," she said. That will add texture as well.

Also, group similar things together instead of spreading them all over the house. "If you put all the pieces together in one area, it looks important," Ward said.

Finally, buy furniture that comes with built-in storage, such as ottomans and coffee tables.

"Psychologically, they can breathe when they come home," Ward said about homeowners returning to a decluttered house. "They don't feel suffocated with stuff."

When a Facelift Isn’t Enough

Some issues require more than a facelift, especially if you're trying to sell your home. For example:

"Anything to do with water damage," said Jill Valeri, president of The Welcome Home: Interior Design Solutions in Maryland. "Nobody wants to inherit a house with water problems."

If the house has settled, cracks in the drywall or ceilings would be a major concern for potential buyers. You'll need to fix them and get the house inspected to make sure there is nothing structurally wrong. You don't want a potential buyer to find this out with a home inspection.

Additionally, fix cabinet doors and drawers that don't close properly and any squeaky hinges, which are minor issues but turnoffs to buyers.

Finally, control pest damage. Either termites or an ant infestation would be a big red flag for any buyer. "Nobody wants creepy crawlies," Valeri said -- even if you aren't selling the house.