A front porch makeover is a project you can pull off in one weekend for $500. Don’t buy it? I didn’t believe it either, until I did it.

For years, my house had the worst porch on the block in my Magnolia neighborhood. I’d been meaning to restain the worn-out deck ever since we moved in. The only furniture we had was two hand-me-down, plastic kiddie chairs that were too small for my growing children. It wasn’t exactly the first impression we wanted to project, aesthetically or comfort-wise.

A room of the house

“A porch sets the tone for your house,” said Diane Lancaster, a real estate broker with Seattle’s Lake & Company Real Estate. “So if you have a porch that’s not welcoming or inviting, it’s like, ‘Hmmmm … How much do I really want to go into the house?’ That’s why it’s important to give it personality. And color. I think color is such a mood lifter.”

In her 20 years in the real estate business in Seattle, Lancaster has seen a lot of houses. The biggest mistake she sees people make with their front porches? “Not giving your porch the time of day,” she said. Especially in a neighborhood where houses are flying off the market, going for $300,000-$400,000 over asking, every square foot matters.

Before: The author says her porch was the worst on the block before her weekend of improvements. (Courtesy of JiaYing Grygiel)

“Really, it’s just another room in your house, that’s how I look at it,” Lancaster said. “A lot of us in these older homes, the rooms might be smaller. Especially with COVID, our outside spaces became so important, I can’t even stress that enough. It was a place where we could have a couple people over distanced safely. And that gave us life.”

Like many others, being at home the past year gave me a lot of time to sit around and dream up house projects. I reached out to experts for advice on how to up our front porch game — while sticking to a $500 budget.

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A pop of color for the front door, layered doormats and brass finishes for lighting — these are all trends in porch design, said Emily Wignall, owner of Emily Wignall Design in Seattle. But the basic elements stay the same: good lighting, a place to wipe the mud off your shoes, planters with greenery and somewhere to sit and relax.

When you’re staring down a blank slate, however, it’s hard to know where to begin.

“Most people err on the side of doing nothing,” Wignall said. “I would rather see something than nothing. A cute pot. Showing a little love, even if it’s not perfect, shows you care a little bit.”

After: Seattle writer 
JiaYing Grygiel spruced up her porch in a weekend with the help of two area designers. (Courtesy of Emily Keeney)

An action plan

To get started, my husband restained the deck using leftover materials we had sitting around, instantly sprucing up the porch without spending a single penny.

Since my porch is big enough for seating, Caitlin Jones Ghajar, principal designer at Caitlin Jones Design, divided the space into two zones: one where the packages get delivered and one that serves as an outdoor hangout space. “Now your whole family can be there and spend time together,” said Ghajar, whose design business is based in Seattle and the Bay Area of California.

We retired the plastic kiddie chairs and Ghajar upgraded my seating to a bench that would accommodate adult-sized bottoms. My instinct is to go light and airy, but Ghajar recommended a larger bench that makes more of a statement to complement the thick beams framing my porch. And she suggested black, to contrast against the creamy color of the house. I ordered a bench from Lowe’s ($150), which arrived quickly, and I assembled it by myself without too much difficulty.

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Two pillows ($30 each, from Target) cozied things up. Ghajar tucked baskets ($12 each, Target) underneath the bench for stashing flip flops, sidewalk chalk and the clutter of daily life.

Designer Caitlin Jones Ghajar helped the author reimagine her front porch with more seating and storage. (Courtesy of Emily Keeney)

“Part of the way to keep it feeling really inviting is keeping it tidy,” Ghajar said. “You don’t realize what a difference it is. For me, with three kids, that’s an uphill battle keeping it tidy. If you can strategically design it so it’s a no-brainer for everyone in the household, that’s really nice.”

Ghajar added a side table ($50, Bed Bath & Beyond) to provide a spot to set a book or a cup of coffee. An outdoor rug ($30, Overstock) completed the feeling of an outdoor room.

I was lucky that the items I wanted were in stock and showed up quickly; a lot of companies have massive COVID-related supply-chain delays. But don’t limit yourself to big-box stores. Ghajar’s favorite resources for fun, second-use finds include Epic Antiques in Sodo and Fremont Vintage Mall. “If you’re willing to do the legwork, I think it’s a great way to source some other things,” she said.

Lancaster sent me to Fred Meyer for inexpensive flowers. Pick flowers in complementary colors, Wignall suggested, which are opposite each other on the color wheel. Orange flowers for a blue house, for example, or purple flowers for a green house.

Designer Emily Wignall suggested the author add lots of planters and greenery to spruce up her front porch. (Courtesy of Emily Keeney)

Overwhelmed by the rainbow of options? “Get a green something,” Wignall said. “If picking a color scares you, pick something green.”

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My decisive 6-year-old helped me pick out annuals in a galvanized pot ($30) and a pair of flower pots with bright purple celosia to flank the front door ($20 each). We also pulled out the scraggly plants in front of the house, replaced them with roses ($16 each) and added mulch ($4) to the garden bed. 

Wignall likes jute for doormats: their job is to capture dirt, and because jute is dirt-colored it hides that dirt well. A late-night Target run yielded a pretty braided welcome mat for $30.

Total damage: $494.

The best bang for our buck was definitely the $4 for a giant bag of mulch. As my husband pointed out, that’s less than the cost of an artisanal cupcake, and it instantly elevated our yard.

The final verdict: “It looks like Northgate!” my 10-year-old blurted out when he saw the finished project, Northgate being his idea of chic. As for me, every time I drive home now, I do a double-take. Is that really my house? Yes, it is.