How to Update a 1970s House on a Budget (27 Ideas)

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TV and YouTube are full of DIY home update ideas and shows about how to update an old house on a budget. What they don’t tell you is how to get motivated to actually do the work! And this begs the question we asked when we wanted to sell our 1970s house: Why isn’t home improvement a priority until it’s time to move?

I mean, why do people put off home renovations and “honey-dos” until it’s time to put it on the market?

  • If it’s merely a matter of money, why is it important enough to lay out cash to modernize for others but not important enough to spend our money on ourselves? After all, sites like Credible offer home improvement loans, and many home improvements can increase resale value.
  • If time is the issue, how do home renovations fit into our schedules all of a sudden, even though we couldn’t find the time before?
  • If it’s a matter of finding the energy, why do we suddenly have it, if we didn’t have any before?

I don’t have an answer to that, to be honest. We were as guilty of putting off our “Fixer Upper To-Do List” as the next person. Sure, we googled “updating 1970s house interior ideas” a lot. We read everything possible to make a house look attractive to buyers … and watched more episodes of Design on a Dime than we probably needed to. And then … we put the actual action on the back burner.

Knocking out walls for a more modern style? Only a “someday” idea until we decided to move overseas where life was cheaper. We thought a remodel would create a lot of upheaval and interruptions to our lives. Sure it did, but not as much as we’d expected. In the end, the inconvenience was worth it.

And yeah, we needed to sell, because the bank was breathing down our necks. Yet there was no way we could sell our old house “as is.” Especially in a soft real estate market.

How to Downsize Possessions Before a Move (Step-by-Step)

Setting a goal

Talk is all well and good, but … If not now, when?

There’s nothing like setting a target date to get you moving. We told friends that we were moving overseas so we would have to do it.

We began to focus on Our Expat Adventure, and suddenly it no longer mattered that someone else would enjoy the fruits of our labors.

We were more excited about a new life in a new place.

ⓘ UPDATE: After 10 years of living on another continent, we couldn’t be happier. Life is slower and cheaper overseas, and the medical care is just as good.

Home improvement, baby steps style

Those magazine home updates are fabulous – until you see the price tag. Ouch! Certainly out of our budget. But here’s the thing: You can use cheaper building materials and get a similar style.

Here’s the good news: You don’t feel the pinch as much if you buy things bit by bit.

We kept our eyes open for sales at the big box stores and scoured the bargain racks at Wal-Mart, buying what we knew we would need down the road. So what if we didn’t have time to do it? That is a great way to avoid a serious dent in the checkbook. Besides, doing it that way made paying for our home update project a lot less daunting. Practically painless, even.

 We bought most items at Lowe’s and Home Depot. I’ve added affiliate links to Amazon products in this article for your information and convenience.

Here is a brief account of how we changed our split-level 70’s house since we first moved in, along with a few tips I’ve picked up. I originally wrote this article to journal what we did along the way, but now that it’s finished, perhaps it will give you a few update ideas of your own.

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Old kitchen, with fan, wallpaper and knick-knacks. Text says How to Update a 1970s House on a budget

4 easy 1970s living room update ideas

For what it’s worth, that Home Improvement for Dummies book has a lot of useful DIY ideas.

ⓘ TIP: To save money, borrow power tools from friends. Who knows, they might even offer to help!

1. Wall color.


Go ahead and roll your eyes. Our living room was “blessed” with that dark, fake-wood wall paneling that every house from the ’70s seemed to have. Even worse: The dining room wall color was an ugly, faded mint green. Omigosh, it felt like we were in a hospital!

It’s amazing what a little bit of paint can do! We primed and painted right over everything, even though the previous owners were heavy smokers. It worked, too! The dining and living rooms felt like they were bathed in sunshine, so we carried the color throughout the space, from the dining room straight into the hall and down into the foyer.

Great for us … but with 20/20 hindsight, I’m not sure how many buyers were turned off by our Harvester Gold walls. Perhaps we should have gone with a more modern wall color like a neutral grey or sand.

ⓘ TIP: Buy all your paint at once to ensure that the color will be consistent. Unless you have a huge space, one 5-gallon bucket should be more than enough.

Before-After Living Room

2. Bright white trim.


Painting the living room baseboards and trim freshened everything up. It also covered a lot of dings and dents around the door and windows.

  • Cost: $20 for a quart of high-quality, bright white paint.

3. New laminate flooring


Laminate flooring has a relatively low cost per square foot. We got the kind that “floats” and doesn’t require glue. It’s easier to install on uneven subfloors.

When we moved in, the carpet in the living room and dining room was so worn and ugly that we ripped it out right away. It’s a good thing we did: The previous owner had been suffering from respiratory problems and—no surprise—there was powdery mold underneath the padding!

ⓘ TIP: Mold inspector’s advice: Sweep up what you can, then spray the floor with hydrogen peroxide and let dry. (That’s the bubbly stuff that people use on cuts.)

We lived with basic sub-flooring in the living room, dining room, hall, and kitchen until we could afford to buy enough flooring for the entire area. It wasn’t the prettiest living space, but hey, it’s moving in the right direction.

As for labor, tearing out carpets is quick and easy. Anyone can do it, and to be honest it’s so fun to rip things out that it could be a family project. Cutting the carpet into 5-foot-long strips with a utility knife makes it easy to handle.

The tack strips were just as easy, only needing the claw side of a hammer to remove. The wall molding can be reused, if you remove it carefully.

  • Disposal: Free. We rolled everything up and hauled it to the dump in the trunk of our car.

If you have a power saw, laminate flooring is easy to install, because the cut edges are hidden along the wall. That said, we did hire a pro friend to do the more difficult parts at the end, such as around the sliding glass door.

  • Cost for his labor: about $350.

4. New, modern ceiling fan with light

Purchased: A new ceiling fan for the living room. It has a light, remote control and multiple speeds.

Istalled when the house was built, our living room fan was dated, broken, and noisy. Because our son was working toward his Eagle Scout rank in Boy Scouts, we asked a friend to show him how to wire it.

Bonus: it was free labor.

  • Cost: about $150.

13 ideas for a 1970s kitchen remodel

Here are a few more renovation ideas for you, if you’re looking for ways to update a 70s kitchen on a budget.

1970s itchen update before & after

5. New wall color.

The day we moved in, we pulled off the kitchen’s original, faded floral wallpaper.

With one tug. Yikes.

After sanding the walls, we painted the kitchen walls with some of the living room’s paint.

6. Accent color

The under-cabinet walls behind the stove and sink got a pop of color. We skipped the primer because we’d just painted the room.

Cleanup took more time than the painting itself.

7. White trim.

Purchased: One quart of white, semi-gloss latex enamel + paint brush.

We painted the windows, trim and baseboards in both the kitchen and living room at the same time.

This might have been the easiest home improvement project of them all. It only took an hour, including cleanup. Easy, peasy.

  • Cost: Same $20 quart we used for #2, above.

8. New cabinet color and hardware.

Wrought iron hardware is incredibly old-fashioned, and dark wood can make small rooms feel dismal. We removed all the old hardware, plugged the holes with a tube of wood filler, and painted the cabinets vanilla white. This instantly brightened everything up and made the kitchen feel much cleaner.

The cabinet doors had finger pulls, so we didn’t need new hardware. The hardest part was removing the doors. Sure, it’s more convenient to simply paint over the hinges, but the end result made us glad we didn’t.

This old home improvement took up most of the weekend. However, that was mostly because we had to wait for the filler and paint to dry.

  • Cost: about $50 for paint and wood filler.

9. New counter top.

Goodbye, Formica burn marks! We replaced the worn countertop with a stock one from Lowe’s in a neutral, granite pattern. Conveniently, they even sell ones that are conveniently precut to fit corners.

The big challenge was getting a smooth cut along the wall edge, but we managed okay with a couple of tips from friends. (You can see it in the photo from the demolition phase.)

It took about a day.

  • Cost: About $200.

10. New faucet.

You can’t replace the kitchen counter without removing the kitchen sink and disconnecting the faucet. Perfect time for a new, updated faucet!

We bought a fantastic faucet with a pull-down sprayer. It offered a high arch to create better sink clearance and created more space while doing the dishes.

  • Cost: About $80

11. New window treatments.

A colorful window valance, hung high to admit more light, added some personality and warmth. The red stripe matched the wall.

We also installed an inexpensive white mini-blind for privacy.

  • Cost: About $25.

12. New open floor plan.

We tore out two kitchen walls ourselves. I’ll admit, it was more fun than it probably should have been.

living room before and after

13. Glazed cabinets.

We antiqued the vanilla colored cabinets with a warm brown glazing paint (Sherwin Williams French Roast). It hid a lot of our painting imperfections and gave the cabinets a high-end look. Gorgeous!

Had I realized it would only take a couple of hours (not counting drying time) I’d have done it ages ago. Omigosh, that was too easy for words, and the result was stunning!

I’m sorry to say the photos were lost.

As a matter of fact, glazing was so fun and easy that while I was at it, I decided to glaze the cheap fake-wood medicine cabinets and sinks in both bathrooms too. They sure don’t look ancient and beat up now!

14. New hardware.

I also added the cheapest brushed-nickel hardware I could find. The key was to get something that fit the existing holes.

It’s amazing how such a small expense can change the entire feeling in a room. That little bit of bling? #worththeeffort

  • Cost: less than $100.

15. New kitchen island with breakfast bar.

This took the most planning, because we wanted to install it right over the area where the kitchen wall had been. Okay, the real reason was that we didn’t want to rip up our newly installed flooring.

When Home Depot changed their models, we bought the closeouts and adjusted our design for the cabinets that were available. The finish was different to the wall cabinets, but that’s common these days. No reason for painting and glazing to match.

Remember the Formica counter top we had installed in Phase 1? It was a standard, stock color, so we bought the same style for the island. Using the same style throughout tied the entire kitchen together into one cohesive whole.

A carpenter laminated the new breakfast bar with matching sheets of Formica. (You can find them right next to the ready-made countertops.)

16. New lighting.

Goodbye, fluorescent fixtures! Removing the overhead fluorescent created a hole in the ceiling. Patching, then painting the ceiling was next.

We added a few well-placed dimmable can lights. as well as two pendants over the breakfast bar on a different switch.

To save money, we hired a friend in the home improvement business and acted as his go-fer so he didn’t have to pay an assistant.

17. New kitchen appliances.

The appliances took a huge bite out of our finances but it was so worth it! To economize, we bought floor models from the scratch-and-dent area of the big box store, one by one.

We stuck to a black finish to ensure everything would match.

Woman in hot pink sleeveless dress loading a dishwasher in a 1970s kitchen. Text overlay says "update ideas for a 70s home"

7 ideas for updating a 70s bathroom

Avocado. What were they thinking in the ’70s? Our master bath was so horrendous I knew it would turn off buyers.

We had no choice but to switch out everything, from top to bottom. We paid the sanitation department to deliver a dumpster, and out it went.

  • Cost: Under $2000 for everything we did to update the bathroom.

18. Paint the walls

Plus, all the elbow grease in the world would never make this tired, old bathroom look clean. After 30 years, things look really dingy. One quart of latex enamel = brighter walls (a vanilla-eggshell hue).

White, gloss latex enamel for the trim, window and door. Same quart we’d used in the kitchen and living room.

19. Replace the tub

The original tub and shower was a one-piece plastic deal. It and the glass sliding door had two things against them: major hard-water buildup and 1970s avocado ugliness.

In went a new, inexpensive bathtub and a curved shower rod. While it cost a bit more than a straight one does, the extra elbow room is delightful.

20. Replace the floor.

No more peel-and-stick vinyl tiles. Instead: the cheapest 12″ floor tiles that we could find in a neutral color. Again, we bought them when the hardware store was running a sale.

Also, we replaced the baseboard and painted it with the trim paint. One 6-foot piece was more than enough.

It helps to have friends in the renovation business. We borrowed a tile saw and installed the floor ourselves. That said, we know our limitations. When the time came to tile the walls, we paid a professional to do it.

I’m sorry I only have this one shot from midway thru the bathroom renovation. Trust me: Replacing the ugly toilet and tub surround in the master bath brought our bathroom into the 21st century. Long overdue.

tiles on the floor of the bathroom waiting for the grout

21. Tile the walls.

We’ve long liked the upscale look of travertine tile. So when Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore (a salvaged goods shop) had some boxes of damaged tiles, we bought them all. There were just enough to makeover the shower/tub area.

Two splurges: a travertine soap dish and a narrow strip of 1″ glass tiles, which we bought at the hardware store. The glass tiles were an accent at eye level above the tub. Who knows … little touches like those might be the tipping point with buyers.

22. Replace the toilet

Once the tub was in, it was time for a new toilet. In white. The seat was at a more comfortable height than the old one had been. Before, it had felt like we were squatting.

If you’re considering this, you’ll be pleased to know that newer commodes are designed to be more water efficient. Another money saver!

ⓘ TIP: A toilet riser is an affordable way to raise a commode up to a more comfortable height.

23. New sink and cabinet

The original 1970s bathroom sink was stained and badly chipped, the faucet was corroded, and the cabinet was an odd size. We scored a 30″ sink-cabinet combo for under $300 when there was a sale at Lowe’s.

24. New medicine cabinet

The mirror on our original medicine cabinet had spots that were missing the silver backing, and the interior was damaged from toiletry leaks.

Our home improvement store has a section where they sell slightly damaged goods at a discount. One day, we found a mirrored medicine cabinet that was oversized enough to cover the hole from the old cabinet. Win!

3 ways to update a dated master bedroom

Master bedroom with fake wood paneling, circa 1975
This is our master bedroom before.

25. Change the ceiling fan

The original bedroom ceiling fan was small and weirdly noisy. Time for an upgrade! We found a remote-controlled ceiling fan-with-light combo that was similar to the one in the living room.

Not only did it provide more light in the master bedroom, we slept better afterward. Probably because of the improved air circulation.

26. Painting master bedroom walls

I agree: Those nicotine-stained wood panels are the stuff of nightmares. We had detested the master bedroom walls from the moment we first looked at the house, yet we never did anything about it. Until now.

The master bedroom walls got some of the same 5-gallon bucket of paint that we bought when we first moved in. I was a vast improvement, and hopefully the buyer will think it’s perfect for winding down after a long day or just lounging around on the weekend.

27. Update bedding and curtains

To make the bedroom more cozy and inviting for buyers, we bought an inexpensive “Bed in a Bag” bedding set that went with the wall color and splurged on curtains to match.

Final thoughts on updating a 1970s home

As exhausting as it was at times, every DIY project gave us a sense of accomplishment. It was fun to watch the transformation step-by-step. Our once-dated house became light and airy, modern yet cozy—ready to sell, and totally livable. Mission accomplished!

If you’re looking for ways to give your space a makeover without breaking the bank, don’t be afraid to take on projects yourself. You’ll be amazed at what you can do with just a bit of elbow grease and creative thinking.

If this article has been helpful, please use our affiliate links as a way to say thanks. Good luck!

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Written by Linda

Linda is multilingual and has been to over 50 countries. Her insatiable love of travel, cuisine, and foreign languages inspired her to create As We Saw It, where she documents her trips, shares practical itineraries, and offers insider tips. She’s passionate about helping fellow travelers save time, money, and hassle, and loves to discover new places to explore.

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2 thoughts on “How to Update a 1970s House on a Budget (27 Ideas)”

  1. This is all really good advice! Remodeling or updating your home can certainly take a toll on your financial standing, so it’s nice when you can find helpful tips like yours to make it more affordable. Your home looks absolutely wonderful! You did a fantastic job! Thanks for sharing!

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