Before you go to the hardware store — or book a contractor — you can use software like free floor-plan apps and augmented-reality tools to sketch out ideas for your remodeling projects.

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Got a bunch of home-improvement dreams but you’re not quite sure where to start? Let a free or inexpensive three-dimensional floor plan program be your guide.

While making a 3D model is no substitute for professionally crafted plans and blueprints, it will give you a way to experiment with ideas before you hire a contractor or an architect. And some programs are simple to use: If you can use a tape measure and drag objects on a computer screen, you have the necessary skills. Here’s how to get started.

Step 1: Take a measured approach

You’ll need all the measurements of the room or project area to recreate it. A locking 25-foot retractable tape measure is the time-tested tool, but you can also get rough estimates with augmented-reality tools like Google’s free Measure app for Android or Apple’s similarly named iOS 12 Measure app. Some apps, like Magicplan for Android and iOS (prices start at $3), can do both the measurements and put together a floor plan.

Apple’s Measure app uses augmented-reality technology to automatically detect the dimensions of rectangles like doors and the size of objects, but using a good old-fashioned tape measure may be more precise. (Handout via The New York Times)
Apple’s Measure app uses augmented-reality technology to automatically detect the dimensions of rectangles like doors and the size of objects, but using a good old-fashioned tape measure may be more precise. (Handout via The New York Times)

Measure everything: the length, width and depth of the walls, doors and windows in the space, and don’t forget fixtures like radiators. You should also grab the dimensions of the furniture, appliances and other items in the renovation zone. If you plan to buy furniture, appliances or shelving, collect the measurements from the product’s specifications online (or on the box).

Step 2: Find friendly software

You can find plenty of home-design apps in a range of prices in your app store. And some retailer apps, like those from Build.com and Wayfair, use augmented reality to show virtual objects like furniture in a room.

But if this is all new to you — or if you’re adding on a room — the free edition of Sweet Home 3D for Windows, Mac and Linux computers may be your best bet, because you get an intuitive interface and many design options. The application has many appealing features for beginners, including an illustrated user guide and video tutorials. (A full version of Sweet Home 3D with more design options is also available for less than $15 in the Microsoft and Mac App stores.)

Sweet Home 3D has a free online edition that works in a web browser. SketchUp Free is another browser-based drawing program and has paid versions.

SketchUp, a 3D modeling program. If you are new to free 3D drawing programs, check out any included help guides, tutorials or forums to make sure the software is right for you. (Handout via The New York Times)
SketchUp, a 3D modeling program. If you are new to free 3D drawing programs, check out any included help guides, tutorials or forums to make sure the software is right for you. (Handout via The New York Times)

Planner 5D has free versions for Android and iOS that give you plenty of room to play before you need to start making any in-app purchases. The program also works on Windows 10, macOS and the web.

Step 3: Lay out a floor plan

Next, make a scale model within the program’s workspace, which typically looks like a grid of squares representing feet or meters. Refer to your list of measurements and use the program’s tools and grid to create walls, rooms, doors and the other central elements.

With Sweet Home 3D or whatever design program you choose, use the room measurements you collected to sketch out the space you plan to remodel. (Handout via The New York Times)
With Sweet Home 3D or whatever design program you choose, use the room measurements you collected to sketch out the space you plan to remodel. (Handout via The New York Times)

If drawing a room from scratch intimidates you at first, check your program to see if it includes templates or sample files. With a little clicking and dragging, you can usually modify these examples to match the outline and measurements of your own room.

Step 4: Add interior furnishings

After you map out the room’s exterior dimensions, start filling in the interior with furniture and appliances. Most design apps have an object browser window you can use to drag 3D models of common items (like tables, sofas and bar carts) into your floor plan where you want them to go. More stylish furnishings may require an in-app purchase.

Most free apps — including Planner 5D, shown here — offer a few basic objects to put in your design, but you may need to buy the ones you really want with an in-app purchase. (Handout via The New York Times)
Most free apps — including Planner 5D, shown here — offer a few basic objects to put in your design, but you may need to buy the ones you really want with an in-app purchase. (Handout via The New York Times)

Depending on your software, you may also be able to select different window and door designs, as well as stylized wallpaper, flooring, curtains and other furnishings to make your model look as close to your renovation dream as possible.

Step 5: See it in 3D — and share

Some apps provide a split-screen view between the 2D floor plan and a 3D model that you can spin and rotate. Other programs display the project in the flat 2D view and you add the extra dimension with a tap or click. Seeing your room in 3D can give you a better idea of how everything works within the space, and can highlight issues you may not have seen on the flat floor plan, like fire sprinklers that block cabinet doors from fully opening.

As shown in Sweet Home 3D, you can even create detailed floor plans and models of an entire apartment if you’re really ambitious. (Handout via The New York Times)
As shown in Sweet Home 3D, you can even create detailed floor plans and models of an entire apartment if you’re really ambitious. (Handout via The New York Times)

When you’re satisfied with your creation, move on to the next phase. Print it out to use it as a guide as you work, or send a copy to your contractor so you’re both on the same page when it comes time to start the job.