I am stating the eleven-part editorial feature on The List of the top ten things to invest in when starting your interiors in a new place (whether you are paying rent to the bank or the landlord) or a new stage in life. See this post for the full preface. I would also like to state that, even though I am listing these one through ten, some of them are equally important. Its best to think of all ten as items of A-1 importance.
No. 1: Good Bones
Everyone says this...but what does it really mean? I will speak for classic designers everywhere and say that good bones means great architectural features. Great architectural features include baseboards, crown mouldings, an interesting ceiling treatment (such as beams or coffers), wainscot paneling or bead board, chair rails, framed-out passages, wall niches, great banister and balustrades, tread caps, window casings, door casings, great fireplace mantles, good cabinetry...pretty much all the woodwork and trimming. Also included in "good bones" are good windows, quality doors, good flooring (natural stone or wood plank), good counters in non-dated materials, etc. Things that qualify as bones are permanent and attached and require demolition of some sort to remove.
Good Bones means that you don't have to invest or address the envelope much (or at all) before you start to fill the room with fabulous things. If these foundational "good bones" elements are absent, need repair, or need replacing/restoration due to an outdated style or finish, then you need to put some of your budget here before anything else. When I start a project, if the home already has great architectural features- it saves the client a lot of money because that layer of design is already taken care of. Do it first thing.
If you are a homewoner- go for the whole nine yards. I am a self procliamed "trim junkie"- so you really can't overdo it. The style of what you are doing should coincide with your architecture (for example- don't do Arts and Crafts details in a Federalist style home). Invest in really great, high quality base boards and crown moulding. You can always add wainscotting and an architectural ceiling later. Also keep in mind that good and appropriate architectural features increase the value of a home and help it sell faster.
If you are renting, and you have moulidngs (as typical in older buildings on the east coast, mid-west and other major cities of the west- such as Denver, for instance), put in the elbow grease to renovate them. If there are no moulidngs (as typical in "newer" buildings here on the west coast where building is all about making it cheap and fast and selling it at a premium), decide how long you will be in the space. If its over two or three years, go for a few upgrades- base and crown, for sure. Ask your landlord if they would be willing to match your improvements, you would be surprised how many landlords would agree. At the very least, paint. And paint the entire place- make it home. If your rental has those old acoustic "pop corn" ceilings- that's a great thing to match your landlord on. Get them professionally scraped and re-textured. Apartments and condos only need a few upgrades to become a "wow" space- and they are generally a lot smaller than a house, so your dollar really goes far and covers a lot of ground.
Just because you don't own your rental doesn't mean you can't take pride in where and how you live. The years you spend renting are years of your life that you won't suddenly get back when you decided to carry a mortgage one day. Good design knows not if you rent from the bank or the landlord.