The morning Lauren Liess moved into her Herndon home, she took a sledgehammer to the basement to demolish the drop ceiling. Later that day, she and her husband ripped apart the kitchen.

With a second child on the way, a new interior design business to promote and her husband, Dave, a high-school English teacher, home on summer break, Liess didn’t want to waste time.

And she had quite a project: The 1970s bi-level house was an architectural eyesore with an equally bleak interior. “It was the most hideous house in the neighborhood,” Liess says.

But with Dave’s DIY assistance, and $35,000 from savings and no-interest credit cards, Liess took a house that had been for sale for four years and, in six months, turned it into a jewel.

“It was scary,” says Liess, 29. “But it worked.”

Two months later, in December 2009, a Better Homes and Garden editor saw the house’s transformation on Liess’s blog, Then it all started happening: A story about their home appeared in the December 2010 issue of the magazine. Soon after, Liess was selected to participate in the D.C. Design House, where she debuted her own line of fabrics. She currently has a 10-piece furniture collection in the works.

Her career trajectory is even more impressive given that just three years ago she was only doing design part time and living in her mother’s basement.

In 2008, the young couple, with their 1-year-old son, moved into Lauren’s mother’s McLean home to build their savings. They had lost money on their Reston townhouse when the real-estate market collapsed. At her mom’s house, Liess began design work full time, started her blog, which now gets approximately 120,000 hits a month, and found their current home.

She spotted the five-bedroom home online, but it wasn’t much to look at.

The exterior was devoid of personality; it was painted a pallid “peachy-tan” and lacked landscaping. Inside, the walls were painted white, the floors covered in linoleum and white wall-to-wall carpeting. The bathrooms still had the original avocado-green fixtures, and the kitchen had recently been “upgraded” with vinyl flooring, builder-grade maple cabinets and Formica countertops. Some of the appliances were almond-colored.

One of the biggest drawbacks was the architecture. In bi-level homes, the main entrance opens to a landing with stairs leading to the upper and lower levels.

“It’s an inconvenient type of house because there are lots of stairs,” says Anita Lasansky, manager at the Long & Foster Reston North Hills/Herndon office. “You have to make a decision every time you enter the house.” A bi-level is usually the last choice on a client’s list, she said, “but they are usually less expensive because they are not as popular.”

The couple’s own real estate agent tried to dissuade them from buying the house, says Liess. “My in-laws pleaded with us.”

But Liess was in love. So much so that when the couple’s purchase offer was rejected, she drafted a letter to the homeowners asking them to reconsider. “I promised to take care of it and love it,” she says.

Soon, the house was hers.

“The bones were in great shape and it had the feeling I wanted: light and airy,” Liess says. “I know [bi-levels] don’t typically sell easily, but they are so livable. All 3,000 square feet of this house are aboveground.”

By embracing the contemporary architecture and applying her style — a mix of traditional, vintage and natural elements — Liess gave a dated and nondescript box a fresh, family-friendly facelift. Today, the house, much like Liess, exudes warmth, comfort and a charming personality.

Also appealing: the blend of high and low, and old and new, that give her spaces the feeling of being assembled over time.

With a limited budget to span an entire house, Liess had to spend wisely. She sought out discounts wherever she could and scoured sources such as Craigslist , eBay and thrift stores.

In the living room, a wall of windows is softened by linen curtain panels Liess made herself. A high-end sofa, found for a steal ($350) on Craigslist, was reupholstered with apple green velvet upholstery. Artwork came from thrift shops and antiques stores. A vintage camel saddle, handed down from Liess’s grandparents, has a new cushion and is used as a footstool or extra seating. And the pale green patterned wall is courtesy of a stencil that was hand-painted by Dave. “It took him three days,” she says, “but only cost $60.”

In some rooms, Liess opted for low-cost, cosmetic fixes rather than expensive overhauls. In a bathroom, for example, the green toilet was replaced with a white one, the green tub hidden behind a white shower curtain and the green sink sprayed with a white epoxy.

In the $2,000 kitchen makeover, where the house transformation began, the Liesses removed the upper cabinets, installed bead board from countertops to ceiling and hung rows of open shelving from Home Depot. They painted the lower cabinets and the front of the dishwasher a dark sage (Witch Hazel by Behr) and added brushed nickel hardware. They replaced grimy white linoleum flooring with engineered hardwood in a rich walnut. A butcher block-topped island from Ikea was placed in the center, and a vintage chandelier Liess found at a New York flea market was hung above.

Of course, not everything was done inexpensively. There were some splurges, too. For Liess, this wasn’t just about creating a home for her family; it was a business investment.

“I would not have done this in our financial position if it wasn’t for the business,” she says. “To create something special, I knew certain things had to be at a certain level.

Such things include: a beaded chandelier from Anthropologie ($500), a 5-by-7- foot piece of wall art ($900) in the dining room, a custom-cut wool rug ($2,000) and a glass floor lamp ($500) in the living room.

Had the original budget been meatier, Liess says her upgrades would have also included new windows, custom window treatments, new kitchen cabinets and real wood floors.

“If we had an unlimited budget, the look and feel of the house would be the same, but architectural details would change and my material selection would be of higher quality.”

For now, though, Liess is enjoying the home and career she’s created.

And, of course, mentally making more changes.

“I have an addition planned in my head,” she said. “I’m always tinkering.”


·See more photos of Lauren Liess’s transformation of her home, including images of what it looked like prior to the renovations.

·Liess shares her tips on how to make your home’s entryway more inviting.