The Best Builder Upgrades You May Not Have Considered

Dear Laurel,

I found your blog the other day when I was trying to figure out some builder upgrades. And, I’m hoping you can do a blog post about this sometime soon.


Here’s my laundry list of woes:


The shelf above the doorway. Why do they do those home builders do that? And, you won’t believe what the previous owners had up there. I think it was a dead animal that escaped from the attic and didn’t know how to get back.

Then, there’s the standard builder’s grade kitchen. Oak. Oak, and more oak.

Plus, the cabinets are one foot short of the nine-foot ceiling

Also, there are no mouldings. No crown moulding and just the very standard fare window and door trim.


There’s more. I just realized that there’s no pantry! There is a side by side washer/dryer, however in the kitchen. No other laundry room. Is that weird, or what? We have two little kids and lots of nephews and nieces. We need food storage! Can we move the washer/dryer? I don’t want to move it to the basement.


This home builder cut every corner imaginable.


Plus, money just became tighter as my husband’s business has taken a hit.

We need some builder upgrades that won’t cost a lot. Or, at least some ideas that we can do gradually over time. The house is still basically nice. The ceilings are still nine feet and the windows are big. It is bright and airy but just lacking in the character and charm I was so hoping to get.

Oh, one last thing given what’s going on in our world right now. It’s about having workers in our home. Do we have to take their temperature first before they come in?

Thanks so much,

Betty Baitinswich



Oh, Betty

Before, I go on… For those of you not familiar with my “dear laurel” letters. There is no actual Betty Baitinswich. However, she is an amalgam of a few different letters or comments I’ve received over time. And, my prior experience with clients who have purchased either a builder home lacking in character. Or, another home built maybe in the 1960s.


Let’s begin with your Builder Home Upgrades for the Kitchen.


You have three choices when dealing with the homebuilder’s kitchen.

  1. Live with it.
  2. Rip it out and start over.
  3. Augment and paint.



Here we go. Standard fair. This is the kitchen of a wonderful blogger, Cristina from the Romodelando La Casa blog. She chose door #3– Augment and Paint.




Here’s what she did for $11,000. Amazing! I love this!


And, Cristina and her hubs did it all themselves! Folks, to be clear, these are the SAME cabinets, but everything else is new. Please check out her blog in the link above and here and here. It is chock full of wonderful advice— including how to paint your cabinets. There are lots of other great projects too!

IF you don’t like the color of your cabinets, it IS possible to paint them. It is a lot of work, but from one who did it or rather had it done, it is absolutely worth it!



Waterleaf Interiors


Let’s discuss the laundry in the kitchen.



HGTV – photo by Jeffrey Herr

I had a client who does have a washer dryer in the kitchen of her builder home. Actually, it is in the eating part of the kitchen. One solution for Betty who is sans pantry would be to have a top and bottom washer/dry and then use the other section as a pantry, and/or broom closet.



HGTV – photo by Jeffrey Herr

Something like the above situation.



Hendel Homes

This is a very cool idea, as well. That is a radiator grille material in the doors. Very clever and beautiful!


Okay, let’s move on to the most bizarre piece of architecture to come out of the 1980s-onward builder’s homes.


ledge-over-front-door-builders-homedum dum dum.


The ol’ ledge-going-to-know-where-with-no-access-gathering-copious-amounts-of-dust-over-the-front-door-abomination.


Yes, indeed. Oh, I do kind of understand the logic behind it. Homeowners want to put coats somewhere grumbled the home builder. Fine. There you go. I made them go somewhere.


addicted-to-decorating-reader-question-how-to-decorate-ledge-above-front-doorvia: Addicted To Decorating

Yes, typically, what lives underneath the overhang to nowhere are two coat closets. Like I said, I get the need for a closet.

But sorry. It’s shit design.

And, sometimes, there isn’t even a coat closet. There’s nothing but wasted space.

For decades, homeowners have been scratching their perplexed heads wondering what on earth to do with the dangerous and unreachable landing. I have seen it all. Living plants. Dead plants. Dusty plants. Murals. Plastic flowers. You name it.


Let’s take a look at some ways some folks have handled “the ledge to nowhere.”



Oh, it’s such a pity when your mother-in-law stops by unexpectedly and the sled falls on her head as she slams the door shut.



Please, don’t jump!

Oh, wait. It’s plastic. I was nervous there, for a second.



This one, the builder added just for spite.



How do these homes get a C of O? Anybody? You can’t take possession of your home without so much as a lightbulb in a ceiling fixture. But, you can build a death-trap of a ledge. Apparently, that’s okay.


ledge-over-the-front-doorThis is seriously disturbing.


Okay, here’s my budget builder upgrade recommendation.


Do nothing. And then, get a Swiffer with an extra-long arm and give it a dusting once a month.

But, if you have some cash to spare, here’s what we did circa 2003. You can tell because the quality of the digital photograph is far from what they are today. At the time, we thought they were just wonderful.


Balcony best home builder upgrades - LBI

Design and photo by me


I wish I had a before photo. We were lucky because in this case, the home builder was kind enough to give us four feet to work with. So, the contractor and I were standing in the entry without client looking up. And, I asked him what he thought of putting a railing up there and then putting a door that connected to the master bedroom.


Well, he loved the idea and so did the client.


As you can see, that’s what we did. Then, he added the built-in bookcases. And, we did the chairs and table, too. The chandelier was the only thing that was already there.

So, as long as your ledge is at least two feet deep, you could put in a door (and a coordinating railing) from whatever room and then you could put up some living plants. Or create a little, safe play area.


Staircase- coastal home - Walter Powell - Architect, Sunshine Coast Home Design, Interior Design Kelly Deck Design, Photo -Linda Sabiston

Walter Powell – Architect, Sunshine Coast Home Design, Interior Design Kelly Deck Design, Photo -Linda Sabiston

Another possibility in some cases is to actually build an entire area over the double-story entry. However, you’ll need at least 17 feet to work with, preferably more.


Next up on our list of builder upgrades and related to the balcony idea is the rest of the staircase.


I’m going to present some ideas here, but for a post that’s all about staircases, go here.



The builders home – standard oak staircase.

In all fairness, this isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever seen. But it’s common and lacks finesse, that’s for sure.



Maggie Overby

They did a wonderful job of updating their standard builder’s staircase.


Kate Marker Interiors Elm - Project white staircase

Kate Marker Interiors

photo – @margaretrajic on instagram


I love how Kate had everything painted white.


Typically, only the spindles and newel post are white. But, a white handrail is also beautiful and a great design choice. It does always work better to paint on unstained wood. We did paint over our stained wood and did have a little chipping. But, it wasn’t terrible.

By the way, please check out Kate’s gorgeous Instagram account and her website. (above link) Both are incredibly lovely. I adore her fresh, young traditional style. I find it quite soothing. So, I think that a lot of you will appreciate that ease on your eyes, especially at this time.


Kate Marker Interiors via instagram

Kate Marker Interiors via instagram

See what I mean? Super talented, she is!



My favorite square newel post. (source unknown)


home depot stair-parts-stair-balusters - square newel post

This is from Home Depot. That link will take you to the square ballisters.

I also love the square newel post.


However, I found another newel post that’s actually sold on Etsy.

They really have just about everything on Etsy.

And, if you love Etsy, you’ll also enjoy this recent post.


recessed box newel post - premiumstairparts - Etsy
recessed box newel post – premiumstairparts – Etsy


via 913interiors - Chinese Chippendale Stair railing and grille cover - builder home upgrades

913 interiors – Chinese Chippendale stair railing


Of course, I always go ape for a Chinese Chippendale style railing. And, I love how they coordinated the vent with a coordinating grille. Remember the recent post about how to handle ugly baseboard heaters and radiators?


Chippendale design stair rail-The-Guest-House

Chippendale design stair rail-The-Guest-House



Traditional Home – Louise Brooks of Brooks & Falotico


Here’s one staircase that is anything but standard but I think I love it!



I’ve always adored the idea and have done it at least once. That is, putting a frame around an existing, boring bathroom mirror.


home-talk-adding-frame-bathroom-mirror - Builder Upgrades

That’s much better! Bathroom makeover by Home Talk


Mouldings are a great upgrade for a builder’s home.


There are many posts that discuss beautiful architectural wall mouldings.



This was a special job I got to work on a few years ago. I talked about it in this post.   Although the home isn’t a builder home, it did need some embellishing. The clients did a beautiful job. I came in after they did that. But, I did a lot of other things here.

Love how the door is framed. Very elegant! That was there, I believe, but the wainscoting is new.

To learn all about wainscoting, please check out one of my favorite posts.



The window treatments in the dining room. The wainscoting is new too.


Oh, you want to know the wall colors?


Yes, please, Laurel…


The walls in the entry are classic gray. Everything else is Cotton Balls except for the ceiling in the dining room which is Glass Slipper. All by Benjamin Moore. And, yes, those are all colors in the Laurel Home Essential Paint and Palette Collection.


Window and door casings can add so much.


We talked a lot about moulding details in this post. And, how to get the proper porportions.


makeit-loveit-window-trimming - Builder UpgradesMake It Love It

Windows. Not really much to say. What a difference!


rachel-halvorson-sitting-area-velvet-blue-sectional-large-windows-linen-roman-shades-architectural-details-Builder Upgrades

I saw this room a couple of days ago by Rachel Halvorson on her instagram have to admit that I’m a little obsessed with it. I’ve already posted it on instragram, twitter and pinterest. Love everything and especially all the little trim details. That’s what makes it soar, IMO!


classical-house-ben-pentreath-interiors-Mouldings - Builder Upgrades

Closing with a little piece of heaven by the wonderfully talented Ben Pentreath. Please check out his website. It is chock full of room candy for days!

Actually, I got to see this gorgeous home when I was in England, but we weren’t allowed to photograph it. But, you can see more of it here.

Windsor One Mouldings Builder Upgrades

Windsor One Mouldings Builder Upgrades


Above, lots of wonderful ideas for classic mouldings from Windsor One. I guess you can tell that mouldings are one of my favorite builder home upgrades.

Please also check out this post for other ideas to spruce up your home.

And, I think this is also a very good post full of ideas for some simple renovations.


ideas for transforming a boring builder home

please pin to your Pinterest boards for reference


Well, I hope that gave you some ideas for some good builder upgrades



Please check out the newly updated HOT SALES! Many new sales to see!


22 Responses

  1. The article was great. We are still updating a 90s home full of oak and no details.
    Love the inspiration.

    Stay safe and well.

  2. Omg I LOL about the huge shelf above the front door !!! The whole blog was just fantastic!! I recently suggested to one of my daughters, that my husband and I could trim out the windows in her LR. We both painted the fireplace bricks white !!
    Baby steps to updating!!
    Keep safe and well everyone!!

  3. Hi Laurel,

    Thank you for sharing this extremely helpful post. Perfect timing, too! I will be unemployed as of next week, and plan to fill my time with baking, cooking, art and home projects. Creativity to fill the mind and distract from the stress of finding another opportunity during this time. I’m grateful in a way, because now I’ll have time to learn from wonderful people like you. I love your incredibly witty and informative posts. They make me smile. Thank you for being you! Cheers!

  4. I love how moldings were used to bring the kitchen cabinets up to the ceiling – genius. Cabinets ending a foot below drives me nuts too, and all I can think of is the dust and dead spiders up there. Thanks also for the visuals on the different types of moldings.

  5. OMG, I cracked up at ‘Please don’t jump’. Kind of captures the edginess of the times.

    Levity aside, some great ideas and wonderful images to soothe my under the surface panicky feelings.

  6. “Oh, it’s such a pity when your mother-in-law stops by unexpectedly and the sled falls on her head as she slams the door shut.” I really LOL’d I LOVE your humor Laurel! I always look forward to your posts, they are SO informative and entertaining.

  7. the kitchen cabinets in the “before” photo look exactly the those in my condo. Gross. I don’t have the energy to paint them or have them replaced. Instead I would love to have a new kitchen countertop and would also love to have a black and white checkerboard tile floor. The way my kitchen has evolved in the nearly four years since moving in, the color scheme is an ivory white, jadeite green and accents of black. It actually looks better than it sounds. I am spending the pandemic reading Julia Child’s “My Life in France.” Hope everyone is finding some way to get through this.

  8. Laurel,

    Love these ideas! Thank you so much for your blog.
    I’m so sorry to bother you about this, but I’ve looked high and low through the archives and I can’t find it. You had a fabulous
    buying guide on LED lightbulbs and what to buy and what not to buy. Can you tell me where to find that again? Thank you!!

  9. Great post! We recently bought & gutted a cute beach bungalow. The builder cut every possible corner…ugh. I had my contractor add tons of moldings, board & batten, etc, now the place is a gem with great bones and we are delighted.

  10. Great post, Laurel. Tons of 1980s homes in Raleigh had those lovely two-story foyers with “plant shelves” as they were known here. Thankfully, I never had one. We had a two-story foyer in our first home and used to occasionally get a cricket in there… sounded like he had a megaphone.

    NOTE TO JOANN: Check with the Home Builders Association in your area for guidelines. I’m a kitchen and bath designer in Raleigh, NC and our HBA has sent out specific guidelines, including posters in English and Spanish, for contractors to display at job sites. In NC, work crews must maintain a distance of 6 feet apart, have hand sanitizer on site, and wipe down frequently touched areas often. Home owners are asked to be out of the house when workers are there, or at least in another area of the house. Hope this helps!

    Thanks, Laurel, for keeping your blog going. It’s a welcome read as it is hard to concentrate with everything going on. Stay safe everyone!

  11. In our neighborhood one of our neighbors had an over-the-door ledge…. on which they put a massive, old-timey baby carriage. At night, backlit by house lights, it looked like something out of The Shining.

    Still better than fake plastic plants.

  12. Your comments about the “ledge to nowhere” over the front door were too funny! When I saw the photo with the small chair and the little stuffed animal, I couldn’t help but think, hmm … time out chair?

  13. Hi Laurel:

    We are considering building out our walk-out basement into a rentable space…year’s lease or Air B&B..not sure which at this point. Just wondering if you know what the doors are that are hiding the W/D on the Jeffrey Herr photo. I love it!!

  14. Please show some pictures with light gray wall and gray floors with 3 walls of sunroom windows. What do you do about the sun blinding you -when you have beautiful scenery outside. Don’t really know what type of furniture I should buy.!!!!

  15. Good Morning Laurel,
    Thank you for this wonderful diversion from the news. At least for a little while I enjoyed my coffee and your classic informative post.
    For Joann, my son-in-law is a contractor and has stopped working on any projects in homes…just working on decks and outside work. For his own protection and the customers. Of course, we live in NJ and the virus is everywhere right now.
    Everyone please take the warnings seriously and stay in as much as you can.
    Stay well.
    Best Always,

  16. Great post once again, Laurel! Love these ideas, and I’ve actually done a few of them. Painting the “honey oak” railings black and the newel posts white in my builder-grade vacation home was easy and added a wonderful update! I also added a small office on the second story to take advantage of the double-height entry, which was totally wasted space.
    As to the question of why builders do those ridiculous ledges, I have no idea. But SO many homes have them!
    Love all your photos of moldings–properly scaled trim is so important in making a home look right.

  17. I always get a chuckle from your snarky comments, but this one was LAUGH OUT LOUD funny! Great tips! Glad you’re sharing your knowledge. Not everyone can afford an interior designer (I know because I am one myself), but everyone should make their homes their havens the best way they can. I

  18. Hello,
    Did I miss an answer to the last question, How to handle workers in your home right now? We are doing a kitchen remodel and I’m just a bit nervous. I’m limiting the number of workers to 3 in my home. I’m not sure that is helpful enough. Btw, leaving the soap and Clorox wipes readily available to them. Thank you for your informative yet lighthearted posts. Stay safe

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Welcome To Laurel Home!


Hi, I’m Laurel, and Laurel Home is the website and blog for Laurel Bern Interiors.
I’ve been creating new-traditional interiors since 1988. The blog is where I share all.

New Edition, November 2023! Get The Indispensable Guide For 100s of Home Furnishings And Interior Design Sources That Everyone Is Raving About

laurels-rolodex-final-book-cover-master 10th edition 23-24

laurel home archives


Please click the image below for more info about my rockin’ Interior Design Guides for 2024!

Laurel Home Interior Design Guides 2024
Amazon ad

please click below to check out my favorite decorating & design books

Laurel Bern's Favorite Interior Design and Decorating Books
Subscribe To The Laurel Home Blog And You Will Receive A FREE Guide Where I Share How To Get Your Paint Colors Right, The First Time.