Most people walk by a discarded wooden wine crate and see a discarded wooden wine crate. Sabrina Soto, host of HGTV’s “The High Low Project,” sees an ottoman, or an end table, a bookcase or a planter.
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“You say you are the thriftiest person in the world,” Soto said to me when I called her this week to tap her secrets for getting high-end looks for lots less cash. “Well, I am the second thriftiest,”
Soto not only shares my cheap reputation, but also, like me, deserves it. We blame our mothers, who were probably clones. Though mine was born in Scotland and hers in Cuba, both women learned early the skills they needed to corner the world market on frugality. They shared the world view: You can always get it cheaper. And they passed it on.
“Whatever my mom saw in a store,” Soto said, “she always said she could make it or find it somewhere else for less.”
“Wait, that’s what my mom said!”
“I loved that about her.”
“Did she ever say, ‘Humph, that’s not even worth the gas that got it here’?”
“Or ‘don’t you dare pay for that!’ I learned everything from her.”
And so, somewhere along the way, bargain hunting became a sport for us, and in Soto’s case a TV show.
For each episode of “The High Low Project,” Soto meets with everyday clients in their everyday homes and works with their everyday budgets. She gets them to share their vision for their makeover room — if money were no object. (I want to play!) With that inspiration, she creates a high-end room to the tune of usually $30,000 to $40,000.
They fall in love with it, of course. But the room is just a tease. All that expensive furniture goes back to the store. Soto then recreates the room for about one-tenth the price. Who wouldn’t be riveted?
“Most people want a high-end look, but can’t afford $500 for a throw pillow,” she said.
I cough. “That’s my budget for the whole room.”
“Homeowners see these great rooms in magazine layouts, and think they can’t have it.”
“I always look and ask: Is everyone heir to an oil sheik but me?”
“By the end of the episode,” and she has now completed 37, “I show the couple and America it’s a look they can afford.”
Homeowners can get any look — modern, traditional, vintage — for a lot less, she insists. However, she admits, “It’s not as easy as we make it look in 22 minutes of programming. We have plenty of oh (darn) moments.” Here are some of Soto’s high-low secrets:
Have patience. Home decorators overspend when they rush to design a room, often, say, just before the holidays because the in-laws are coming, said Soto. Take time to hunt items out, and don’t buy in a hurry.
Bargain shop. Soto’s favorite haunts are thrift stores. “I have the luxury of living in New York City, which has tons of them.” She also frequents online auctions, Craigslist, etsy.com, Overstock.com, Target and HomeGoods.
Look for new uses for common items. Next time you seen an old an old birdcage, imagine, ooh, a cool chandelier. Likewise, when you find an ugly glass table at a thrift store, buy it for the glass, which is often worth more. Put the glass on a new fun base. Look twice at ugly lamps. Many can be transformed with a new shade. Buy bad art if it has a cool frame.
Read the reviews. Because pictures can be deceiving when buying a product online read all the customer comments. “When I’ve made a mistake, or been disappointed in an online purchase, I often find the warning was in a review,” she said. “Right there, it will say, color not as it appears! Now I religiously read them.”
Find additional discounts. Before you click ahead to the online check out, google the store name and search for promo-coded discounts. Soto often stumbles on money-off coupons or free shipping offers. “Shipping costs are a huge deal. They can blow a budget.”
Search for qualities. When searching for low-cost alternatives to high-end-looks, don’t search for the item by store name. For instance, don’t search Restoration Hardware Tufted Headboard. Search for tufted headboards with bronze nail heads. “You may find one that has the same character only it’s covered in microfiber not Belgian linen, and it costs a lot less. Also try searching by manufacturer, not store, and see if the item shows up elsewhere for less.
Only make what you can’t find or afford. “I’m very time sensitive,” says Soto, whose first choice is to find ready-to-go deals locally. When she can’t, she shops online. If she still can’t find what she wants, then she gets crafty.
Worst corners to cut. Spend real money on upholstered items that look and feel good, said Soto, who doesn’t like to buy upholstered items used, unless they were very gently used. She has bought bargain furniture off of film sets where they were used for a shoot.
Best corners to cut. Wood furniture. “The most awful looking pieces can be sanded down and painted.” She talked a friend who was expecting a baby out of buying a vintage wood dresser for her nursery that cost over $1,000. “It’s insane to spend that on nursery furniture.” Instead Soto told her friend to buy an unfinished dresser and paint it high-gloss teal like the dresser she wanted. The friend reluctantly took her advice. They added vintage knobs from Anthropologie, “which we spend a little money on,” and it looked gorgeous — for $125.
“Finding great looks for less is what makes decorating so fun,” Soto said, giving me even more reason to believe we’re related.
Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through marnijameson.com.