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All About Living Rooms

The living room is likely one of the first spaces guests see when they walk through your front door, so it should make a great impression. Are you considering minor updates (a mantel refresh, adding crown molding), or a bigger project, such as installing new floors, adding French doors, or removing a wall to create a more open floor plan? Read on to learn more about creating a living room that you enjoy.


By This Old House


Take a look at how your current living room functions—is it a formal sitting room that rarely gets used or is it an all-purpose room where your family spends most of their time? Make a list of reasons why the room might need a reboot, then ask yourself what you hope to accomplish: perhaps it’s better traffic flow or more built-in storage. Are you considering minor updates (a mantel refresh, adding crown molding), or a bigger project, such as installing new floors, adding French doors, or removing a wall to create a more open floor plan? To gather ideas, look at images of living rooms in home design magazines and online. Save the images and note what you like about the spaces, using that as a guide to determine your palette, materials, and décor style. Budget Concerns

Once you’ve gathered inspiration for your project, set your budget. Living room remodels will vary in cost depending on size, materials, and the style of the space. There are a variety of ways to finance your renovation, including a home equity loan or line of credit, as well as FHA and personal loans. In addition, some homeowners refinance their mortgages or borrow against their 401Ks. Hiring a Pro

Unless you’re doing a major overhaul where you’re taking out walls, you can probably tackle most living room projects yourself. Painting, retiling the fireplace, putting in new molding, and changing light fixtures are DIY-friendly tasks. If you’re running new wiring, hire an electrician, and if your new layout requires moving a radiator, you’ll need a plumber. Depending on your carpentry skills, you may want to hire a pro for any elaborate millwork. Consider hiring an interior designer for help planning a functional layout, as well as guidance in selecting a palette and finishes. Living Room Basics

Flooring Your choice of flooring will set the tone for your living room, but it will also have to work with the surrounding rooms. Great for high-traffic areas, hardwood floors are ideal for a seamless transition from one room to another. Wood is still the most popular choice for a living room floor, though furniture feet, pet claws, and high heels can take a toll. Solid wood flooring includes both prefinished and unfinished varieties. Prefinished planks come stained and ready to install, whereas unfinished ones get sanded, stained, and sealed on-site. Engineered wood is a lower-priced alternative to hardwood that’s easier to install. Because it’s not solid (it has a veneer), you won’t be able to sand and refinish it as much as hardwood. You could also get the wood-look with luxury vinyl planks or laminate. Another option is wall-to-wall carpeting, though in recent years it’s fallen from favor for busy public rooms. Area rugs are a great way to protect your floors and designate zones. If you’re employing an area rug, be sure it’s large enough. Aim for 10 to 20 inches of bare floor between the edges of the rug and the walls. At the very least, ground an area rug under the front legs of your furniture to establish a seating zone. Most living rooms need at least an 8’-x by-10’foot rug. Fireplace Every room needs a focal point, and in the living room it’s often the fireplace. There are four general types of fireplaces based on their fuel sources: wood, gas, electric, and pellet. In addition to their ambience, wood-burning fireplaces offer immediate heat and the appeal of real flames, but they are not without drawbacks. Much of the heat from a wood-burning fireplace is lost, making it the least efficient option. Also, when wood burns, it emits carbon monoxide and other toxins which are expelled through the flue and chimney. Gas fireplaces come in three types: inserts, built-in versions, and basic burners that resemble logs. Low-maintenance and easy-to-operate, gas fireplaces produce minimal emissions compared to wood-burning ones. They also provide a more consistent heat. Electric fireplaces are another safer alternative to wood-burning ones, and they have zero emissions. They use an LED light system to emulate flames and require minimal maintenance. A pellet stove insert offers the cozy feel of a wood-burning fireplace, but the pellets burn longer and more efficiently. Furniture Use a focal point, such as a fireplace or a piece of artwork, to help guide your furniture arrangement. To create a sitting area conducive to conversation, the sofa and chairs should follow a U- or H-shaped configuration. Allow for 18 inches between the edge of the coffee table and surrounding furniture to avoid hitting your knee. And the coffee table should be at least half the length of your sofa—otherwise the two pieces will look out of scale. You’ll generally need 36 inches along the perimeter of a seating area for easy passage. And if you have a television in the living room, don’t mount it too high on the wall: The center of the screen should be 30” above the lowest seat height in the room. Lighting For the living room, you’ll need a mix of overall illumination from ceiling fixtures or recessed lights, task lighting (for activities such as reading), and decorative accent lighting. Allow for at least 3 watts (42 lumens) per square foot. Create a lighting plan that incorporates outlets where you may need them—for instance in the floor, where lamps will go when there isn’t a nearby wall outlet. To find the right size for an overhead fixture, take the dimensions of the room and add them together. That number in inches is the ideal diameter for a ceiling light; by this quick formula, a fixture with a diameter of 18 inches would work well in an 8-by-10-foot room. Consider putting overhead lights on dimmers, so you’ll be able to control the lighting, depending on how you’re using the room. Molding and Millwork


  • Baseboard: Used to transition where the walls meet the flooring, baseboards usually measure between three and five inches, and are accented with shoe molding.

  • Crown: Also known as cornice molding, this molding literally “crowns” your room, easing the transition between walls and ceiling. Most historic moldings used to be made of plaster, but today many are wood or composite. Crown molding can range from simple three-inch styles to 20-inch-tall ones with elaborate silhouettes.

  • Cove: Like crown molding, this concave-shaped trim is used where walls and ceilings meet.

  • Wainscot: Any wood paneling that typically covers the lower half of a wall is referred to as wainscot. There are many types, including raised panel, beadboard, flat panel, and board-and-batten. Raised panels have thick beveled edges and are more common in formal living rooms, especially in Colonial-style houses. Beadboard features slender tongue-and-groove strips of wood and is often used in bathrooms and kitchens. Flat panels feature wood stiles and rails placed over a flat sheet of solid wood, plywood, or fiberboard, and can work with both farmhouse and contemporary styles. Board-and-batten panels have wide planks laid vertically with narrow strips covering the seams. They usually run higher up the wall and are common in Arts and Crafts homes.

Paint When choosing a color for the living room, consider the surrounding spaces. Color is carried from one room to another, so hues that are complementary will create a pleasing flow. Take into account the amount of light a room gets when picking a paint finish. A flat finish works well in low-traffic rooms, and it hides imperfections and diffuses light. Matte is similar to flat, with just a hint of sheen. Eggshell has a subtle sheen and it’s fairly easy to clean, so it’s an ideal finish for living room walls. Satin is glossier than eggshell and can also be wiped down effortlessly. Full-gloss paint creates a shiny, smooth surface that’s the easiest to scrub, which is why it’s often used on trim, woodwork and doors. It’s worth noting that the glossier the paint, the more it highlights details, including imperfections. Flat or matte sheens tend to work best for ceilings, especially if the plaster is less than perfect. Most experts recommend that ceilings should be painted white to avoid feeling claustrophobic, though it’s become popular in recent years to paint the ceiling the same color as the walls or a contrasting color to make a statement. Window Treatments Since living rooms are typically on the first floor, window treatments should let in plenty of natural light, yet maintain privacy. Plantation-style shutters, whether real wood or faux, can add architectural character to your windows. Their louvered or fixed slats are good for controlling sunlight, and they come in full height, café style (which just covers the lower half of the window), tier-on-tier, or solid panels. For a more affordable alternative to shutters, wood blinds are elegant and durable; PVC or composite blinds offer the look of wood at a lower price point. Draperies bring a more formal tone to the living room, while also providing shade and privacy. Create the illusion of taller ceilings by hanging them several inches above the window casing. Most standard curtain panels measure 84, 96 or 108 inches, generally allowing you to hang them well above the casing before the length gets too short. Home Improvement Projects to Consider

A living room overhaul might involve going from a separate or closed space to a more open plan, which likely involves removing a wall. If that wall is load-bearing, a steel beam will need to be installed. Putting in new flooring is another project with major impact—for resale value, it’s hard to beat traditional hardwood. And if you’ve got drafty windows, replacing them will offer a return on investment over time in energy savings. Smaller projects can provide the “wow” factor as well. Installing paneling or built-in bookcases is one way to bring instant character to a room. Same goes for retiling a fireplace and updating the mantel. Adding period-perfect radiator covers is another upgrade that’s both charming and functional. Repairs and DIY Projects

Common living room repairs include quieting a hissing radiator, fixing a creaky floor and, depending on the age of your home, repairing plaster or patching drywall. If you have a fireplace, you’ll need to do annual maintenance. Wood fireplaces require an inspection and chimney cleaning to remove creosote. Check the chimney or vent before the season’s first fire to see if birds or animals have built nests in it, or if other debris has accumulated. Gas fireplaces need the fan, pilots and burners checked each year. There are a variety of beginner-to-advanced DIY projects that add value to the living room. Some ideas: Create a statement wall with paint or wallpaper, or swap in a new ceiling light and put in a medallion. Build a custom mantel to revamp a dated fireplace front or install a coffered ceiling to add architectural interest overhead. Recommended Tools and Equipment

You’ll need a few basic tools for most living room projects. Among them are a standard level, tape measure, hammer, screwdriver, and cordless drill with driver and bits, with a few add-ons for bigger projects. For instance, a miter saw makes the corner cuts needed for installing molding much easier, and you’ll need an air compressor and brad nailer set to lay a new hardwood floor. For specific projects, refer to the recommended tools needed.


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