One Room Challenge Week 3: How to Lighten a Room with a Limited Budget

Whoa! We now see the big difference one change can make! This change even made us remove a costly idea from our One Room Challenge makeover plan, and we’ll save a lot of money because we don’t think we need that idea now.

What’s the change?

Before & After Wallpaper Removal

I could not get the bright “blown out over-exposed photo” look in this room before. Even with a big 4’ by 9’ window. The walls sucked up the light and refused to share much light with us! I knew removing the wallpaper would make a difference. But I was surprised by how much difference.

Once upon a time, I liked the dark coziness that wrapped you in a warm bear hug. But now I need lightness and happiness in here to lift my spirits. And, if we sell our house sooner than later, I think lighter rooms are better. Thus the need for “Operation Lighten & Brighten” during this One Room Challenge.

The One Room Challenge is a six-week timeframe when 20 featured designers and 200+ guest participants make over a room. We all share our progress each week.

See my Week 1 post for the moodboard and design plan.

See my Week 2 “procrastination post” when I took too many breaks from removing wallpaper and instead pinned coffee table ideas on Pinterest. Just keepin’ it honest.

If you want to lighten up rooms in your home, and you’re on a limited budget, here are ideas to get the biggest impact, listed in order of potential impact …

Biggest Changes

Lighten the Walls

If you have a room that feels too dark, look at your walls as a first step.

Even if your walls have a color that you don’t think is dark, maybe it’s more of a “medium” color, the color can still make a room feel darker. Walls are an enormous surface area in most rooms, unless you have many big windows. Painting walls lighter will give you the biggest impact for your money.

You saw above the difference of removing a “medium” golden color wallpaper in our family room. Here you can see the true darkness of the wallpaper – the difference between the paper and the bare drywall beneath it:

Big Difference Between Wallpaper and White

Right now, the walls are bare drywall, as I await an order of Pure & Original Fresco lime paint. It’s coming over from Europe! I will paint the walls a much lighter warm cream/golden color. I want to keep the warmth of the previous wallpaper, just lighter.

The color doesn’t have to be white to make a bright room. You can use many light colors. Imagine the lightest colors on a paint strip, like these Sherwin-Williams colors:

Sherwin Williams Paint Colors

You can also look at the Light Reflectance Value (LRV) number of a paint. You might not have heard of this number before, but it’s so useful. This number measures how much light a paint color will reflect. Numbers range from 1 to 100 with 1 being the darkest, 100 the lightest.

You can find LRV numbers on the backs of paint chips and on paint manufacturer websites. Look for numbers that are 50 or more; 65+ gets pretty bright. 100 is pure white.

I assumed that your ceilings are white, as the majority of ceilings are. But if they are not, all the info above applies to ceiling paint color as well.

Add More Lightbulbs

Literally, lights are needed to light a room! Light paint with high LRV numbers can still look dark and dingy if there aren’t enough lightbulbs in the room. Especially in the corners, where paint on walls and ceilings will turn dark gray if there isn’t enough light in the corners.

Use a mix of table lamps, floor lamps, wall sconces, chandeliers to distribute lots of light throughout a room.

This tip doesn’t have to be a budget-buster. You can find lighting on sale. You can find inexpensive lamps, wall sconces and chandeliers at thrift stores, eBay, Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist. Don’t worry about the finish. Instead, look at the shape and size. You can always paint a lamp. Yes, even metal! Prime it and/or use a chalk or clay paint. DIY blogs are full of tutorial posts showing how to transform shiny brass lamps and chandeliers with a few coats of paint. You can make a farmhouse look, French antique look, boho look, mid century modern. All with paint. If a thrift store lamp lacks a shade, you can get shades at stores like Target, HomeGoods, Hobby Lobby.

Lighten Dark Wood Furniture and Built-Ins

If you have large dark surfaces like a dark armoire, entertainment center or bookshelves, consider lightening them.

First, I know that people in favor of painting furniture and people not in favor of painting furniture are like Republicans and Democrats when debating our positions. My position is, your house is your house. Your things are your things. What you do is your business. I would only advise to not paint valuable, truly collectible pieces of furniture. Those are investments that rise in value. Most furniture is not that. I think the line in the sand is, will the furniture sell for far more than its original cost today, as it is, unpainted? If not, paint it if you want to.

I will paint these oak shelves with Fusion Mineral Paint in Cathedral Taupe color. See a sample board in the lower left corner here:

Painting These Oak Shelves

Fusion Mineral Paint

Both these Fusion colors look okay with the warmer colors and golds in this room. The choice was a toss-up between Algonquin and Cathedral Taupe. Cathedral Taupe is lighter so I chose that. After all this work, I don’t want shelves that feel too dark!

I’ve already tested the Fusion Mineral Paint with a topcoat of Modern Masters Dead Flat Varnish, and I have a General Finishes flat varnish. That seems to make a tough enough surface to withstand moving the stuff on the shelves occasionally so I can dust. I don’t know about scraping heavy books across the shelves — as you can see we don’t keep books in this room. We have shelves in an office for books.

You can also explore paints that are recommended for kitchen cabinets. Those paints, such as Benjamin Moore Advance and Sherwin-Williams ProClassic, will be durable and super-tough because of the heavy use and wear that kitchen cabinets get.

Your cost for this includes a cleaner like TSP and deglosser to improve paint adhesion, sandpaper, tannin-blocking primer and paint. That is far less than buying new quality furniture.

Lighten a Dark Fireplace

Most fireplaces have enough visual punch in a room, that changing the surface can change how you feel in the room. You can lighten a dark brick fireplace in several ways, some more expensive than others:

  • Whitewash the brick with watered down paint
  • Cover with stone veneer
  • Cover with tile
  • Cover with drywall and paint

We plan to “beige-wash” or “gray-wash” the fireplace. White will be too stark in this room.

Dark Brick Fireplace

I resisted the whitewashed brick idea for the longest time. I’m still not sure. If I don’t like it, it can always be covered with stone, tile or drywall in the future.

Finally, Lighten the Floor

Now that we’ve covered all the other major surfaces, let’s get down to the floor business. I listed this last in “impact” because I think even when floors are dark, if vertical surfaces in a room are all light, the room will still be okay. Usually much of the floor area is covered by things like area rugs and furniture.

If your floors are dark, whatever their material (carpet, wood, laminate, tile, etc.), flooring is not cheap to change. We’ve chosen to replace carpeting in this room instead of extending the hardwood in here.

Carpet Samples

Putting hardwood in here would unleash an expensive domino effect across the whole first floor of our house, to make all hardwood floors match. If I’m paying money, it will not be for honey oak stain! But we don’t want to change all hardwood color right now.

If you have a very limited budget, the one option I can think of to lighten your floors is this: go to sites like and eSaleRugs. Watch for clearance and sales where you can get rugs 50% up to 75% and 80% off. With free shipping. You can find a large selection of styles and colors during these sales. You are sure to find something you like. You can get large rugs. We recently got several rugs on sale that are 8’ x 10’ for less than $250.

No, you won’t get the top quality wool vintage rugs imported from Morocco for these prices. But here’s the thing. We have a valuable 100% vintage silk rug and it is sometimes out on the floor. But then cat poop or cat vomit happens nearby – thankfully never on that rug – and we freak out and we roll up the rug and put it in a closet.

Have you ever heard the saying “don’t wear jewelry that you can’t afford to lose.” Well I say “don’t use rugs that you can’t afford to get pooped on.” Kids, dogs, cats, intoxicated adults, adults who paint without protecting the carpet (ummmmm been there done that), we can all be tough on carpets. It’s okay to get a cheap rug if you worry about these things.

Look for a rug with these qualities:

  • Lighter color – you can put an area rug on top of wall-to-wall carpeting to lighten it up
  • Pattern and color variation, enough to hide spills and messes – rugs with consistent even color will show off the stains
  • Large enough size – see advice for choosing the right rug size

Smaller Changes

Remove Dark Useless Things Overhead

Look above you and see if there are big, heavy, solid, dark things higher up on walls that don’t need to be there. There was a big dark oak shelf installed about 7 feet up on the wall, above the fireplace.

Remove Things Overhead to Lighten a Room

This shelf drew the eye too much to a useless spot, and it also FELT like a big heavy thing looming over our heads. We never displayed anything on it, so what was the point of it? Once we removed the shelf, the light from the sconces also seems brighter. That light is not getting blocked by a dark shelf. You’d be surprised how that little change made a difference in light.

Use Furniture with Light “Visual Weight”

What is “visual weight?” Probably best to show you. See these two coffee tables from last week’s epic procrastination post:

Visual Weight of Furniture

Sources: Pier 1, Wayfair

I don’t know what they actually weigh, it’s possible they could weigh nearly the same. The solid coffee table has a much heavier “visual feel” to it than the glass-topped table that’s open. Your eye gets drawn to the solid table, but your eye goes through the open glass table. If you want a lighter brighter room, choose tables with glass or light color tops, that are open so you can see through them, that have thinner light legs.

I am probably not going to follow that advice myself, because I got an idea for a DIY table that you’ll see soon. Still, the table I’m making will be open in the middle, which is an improvement over the Chinese chest that’s currently sitting in the middle of our room. The chest is solid and dark and has a lot of “visual weight.” We will likely move this Chinese chest to a corner by the window and it might hold stereo equipment.

Throw a Throw, and Throw Pillows

If you have light color sofas and chairs, great. If you don’t, don’t worry! You don’t need to replace them or even slipcover them. Getting a slipcover to fit well seems like a pain in the butt, and custom slipcovers can cost.

If your furniture is dark, drape a lighter throw or blanket over it. Put lighter pillows on it. Here’s a dark brown leather sofa in our living room. It came with dark brown velvet pillows. I replaced those pillows with lighter and more colorful pillows. That lessened the dark brown a bit:

Lighten a Dark Sofa with Pillows

My One Room Challenge makeover room has a black leather sofa and dark red chairs. I’ll lighten up the black sofa with a throw and pillows. I’m not too worried about it. Why? See below …

Beware of Boring Beige

After all the advice above, now I might just confuse everyone. Generally, unless you are an interior designer who is skilled at achieving a certain effect, you don’t want everything in your room to be light, white, beige. This will make your room have all the personality of a piece of Wonderbread.

Nooooo … bread is better when it’s handmade and textured, with some fruity jam on the bread, or dipped in deep golden olive oil with basil leaves.

Rooms need a variety of colors. I LOVE the combo of black, red and gold. So I’m keeping the black, red and gold in this room – all of it – and I’m just lightening up the big surfaces around the furniture and décor. That is enough to make this room a big mood-lifter instead of a heavy weight.

One Room Challenge Progress

Or, lack of progress …


  • Removed wallpaper
  • Got Pure & Original lime paint sample colors for wall color, tested sample boards
  • Ordered lime paint
  • Got carpet sample colors; didn’t like
  • Ordered more carpet sample colors; still don’t love
  • Made decision to definitely do carpet; need color we like
  • Got Fusion Mineral Paint sample colors for oak shelf unit, tested sample boards
  • Received Fusion Mineral Paint; tested sealers/varnishes
  • Found source for custom wood grilles to install over radiant heat


  • Get quotes from roofing contractors to install skylights; schedule job (canceled this idea – room should be bright enough without skylights)
  • Replace some radiant heat baseboards
  • Wash walls, repair some spots and prep for painting
  • Prime and paint the walls
  • Empty oak shelf unit, wash, light sand and prep for painting
  • Paint the shelves
  • Order wood grilles
  • Install wood grilles (decided not to do this now)
  • Fix trim under window
  • Remove broken Hunter-Douglas blinds from window
  • Whitewash the fireplace (or more like gray-wash or beige-wash)
  • Schedule carpet installation
  • Fix cracked areas in ceiling paint
  • Finish sewing curtain for window in garage door
  • Find canvas art for fireplace mantel
  • Frame fabric pieces from a vintage kimono and kuba cloth

Oh boy. We have a lot to do. Didn’t get much done during Week 3, except we decided things we are not doing! That’s not enough action. Week 4 is catch-up week. We have out-of-town guests coming to stay with us this weekend, so we were getting the house ready for them during much of our free time during Week 3.


One Room Challenge Spring 2008

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2 Replies to “One Room Challenge Week 3: How to Lighten a Room with a Limited Budget”

  1. What a helpful and thoughtful post! Loved all the ideas, comments, and how you explained your process.

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