My College:
Family Life

DIY Room Makeovers For Those Empty Bedrooms

Marybeth Bock, MPH


Every year it happens.

A student departs for college, a career, or the next chapter in life, and one of a few scenarios play out:

A younger sibling speedily moves in and claims the empty bedroom as their own, tossing their older sibling’s leftovers into a nearby closet or basement.

A veritable shrine to the temporarily moved-out child is established once the room is tidied up, with a candle or essential oil diffuser, and a weepy mom who sits on the bed occasionally, staring at certificates and trophies, patiently waiting for a text message.

A gleeful empty-nester decides to finally make their dream a reality and turn that room into a she-shed, man cave, hobby haven, tiki bar, or fitness studio. Let the Home Depot runs begin!

I recently found myself in this newly emptied room situation and pondered what I should do with the space.

Pinterest of course had countless fantastic suggestions like: Netflix Marathon screening room, painting studio, gift-wrapping room, enormous closet, and cozy library — all of which held some appeal. But after a lot of thought, and the realization that our guest room had morphed into a home office during the pandemic and will likely remain that way, I decided that my son’s “Teen Boy” vibe bedroom needed a transformation into “Chill Guestroom” for friends and family members to enjoy when they visited.

There was a lot I wanted to accomplish with this room renovation, but I did not want to spend a lot of money. Hence, my “DIY on a Budget” project began. Here’s what I did, and how I did it on the cheap.

5 Steps To An All-New Look

1. First up was tackling the wall color.

When we moved into our current house a decade ago, we let our kids pick whatever color they wanted for their bedrooms. At the time, my son was a huge Yankees fan, so he chose a dark shade of blue, and adorned his walls with pennants and sports memorabilia, and honestly — who was I to complain looking at a framed Derek Jeter every day?

The room is small, but the dark blue walls didn’t make it feel too cave-like, due to a lot of natural light coming in from two large windows. However, the color wasn’t really inviting for a guest room, so it had to go.

One gallon of "Behr Paint & Primer in One" later, and bold Yankee Pinstripe blue became a pale and relaxing "Distant Shore" blue. (Pro-tip: Be sure to purchase paint roller covers for semi-rough surfaces if you have textured walls. Your arm will thank you.)

Do you need a little moral support or a refresher on DIY room painting steps? Here’s a helpful list from Architectural Digest.

2. The next step was some furniture transformation.

My son’s room was filled with large pieces of dark brown furniture, adorned with drawer handles that were outdated and brassy colored. In a word, “Ick.”

The furniture gave the room a heavy feel and didn’t vibe well with the rest of our house, so I wanted to switch things up. The pieces were still in excellent condition, and I liked all the storage space, so a surface-level renewal was all that was necessary.

Make way for the magic of milk paint!

If you’ve never used water-based milk paint before, it's amazing for covering any type of wood furniture. It is low-VOC, non-flammable, simple to clean up with just soap and water, and disposal is super easy.

I have painted two rooms worth of furniture with milk paint (wood sanding is optional) and a little goes an exceptionally long way. I highly recommend the General Finishes brand, available in stores and online.

My son’s furniture transformed from dark brown with brass handles to a light grey with satin nickel handles, that I removed, and spray painted to easily cover over the brass finish before putting them back on.

3. Bedding re-fresh was next on my list.

The old plaid comforter and dark blue throw pillows on my son’s bed definitely needed some refreshing. Rather than purchase all new bedding, I found an inexpensive, textured white duvet cover with a bit of a Boho vibe on Amazon, and found some fabric on sale at my local craft store to cover a pillow and a bench cushion.

Do not fear if you don’t sew! I don't own a sewing machine nor know how to use one. All you really need is a hot glue gun and you can “wrap” a pillow like it’s a present, gluing the fabric together on the backside. Watch some YouTube videos for inspiration.

4. DIY art is easier than you think.

Wall décor can be pricey, so before you donate or toss old art that no longer fits with your new room’s ambiance, consider upcycling it yourself.

To cover up two old canvas prints that were nighttime cityscape scenes, I bought acrylic paints in four colors that complimented the walls and furniture. By mixing them with a pouring medium I was able to cover the existing artwork and create a marbleized design that matched the fabric I bought for the bench and pillow.

YouTube has countless videos for all kinds of fun and easy DIY techniques for creating your own unique wall art. Start your search with keywords like “DIY canvas painting” or “easy painting ideas.”

5. Decorative touches were the final step.

The only new decor pieces I bought for this room renovation were an inexpensive, round hanging mirror for one wall and a faux plant to hang from one corner of the ceiling. You can find lots of cheap decor for your room’s surfaces or shelves at thrift shops or garage sales. Lots of old pieces like vases, lamps, and frames can be updated with paints and spray textures. Always “shop” your own house first and see what you can re-purpose before buying anything new.

General Tips for Room Makeovers

Whether you’re turning a bedroom into a hobby space or a yoga studio, here are basic design tips to keep in mind:

  • Choose two main complementing colors and weave a neutral and/or metal throughout your room.
  • Use mirrors to make your space appear larger and brighter.
  • Mix shapes and textures throughout.
  • Decorate in 3’s for items on dressers, shelves and desks. Items with differing heights provide the most visually appealing look.
  • Use plants (real or fake) to add life and color to the space.
  • Don’t overdo and allow clutter to overtake the room. Decorative bins and baskets are great for storage.

If you can’t decide on wall paint colors, consider ordering 12”x 12” color swatches from Samplize. They are adhesive backed and removable so you can get a great feel for what colors look like on your walls in all different lights. Samplize sells low-priced swatches in all paint colors from Benjamin Moore and Sherwin Williams

Whatever you decide to do with an empty bedroom, know that you can easily do a DIY transformation with ample help from sites like Pinterest and YouTube, and without spending a lot of money. Save your cash for tuition — or a fun getaway without kids!

Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adult students and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor and freelance writer. Marybeth has a bachelor's degree in psychology from UCLA and a master's in public health from San Jose State University. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing. You can find her work on multiple parenting sites and in two books.
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