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Last year, at 44 years old, I fulfilled my lifelong dream of buying a home. An upstate New York house that looked about as tired and run-down as I was, both internally and externally.

Thankfully, designing the inside of the 1,900-square-foot house was pure pleasure. The makeover required a sea of Benjamin Moore’s White Dove, a game-changing shag rug, a sexy Samsung Frame TV, some Smeg snob appeal in the kitchen, and a few oversize pieces of art from Minted (this one kind of changed my life) and Burke Decor (this one legitimately changed my life). Plus several eccentric finds from random Brooklyn stoops, including a rare Jonathan Adler ceramic vase that retails for over $1,000. 

After a few months of shopping, hunting, and dumpster diving, I was left with a chic little abode on the inside and almost nothing left to spend—energetically or financially—on the outside. The property had breathtaking potential (two babbling creeks, magnolia trees, rosebushes, and endless privacy), but presented as 5 acres of abandoned chicken coops, rabbit hutches, overgrown everything, dead apple trees, poison ivy, and snakes. The physical house itself was basically a big hunk of sad vinyl siding that had been unloved, from top to bottom, for a very long time. 

Call me superficial, but I felt embarrassed every time friends or family came to visit us. I envisioned living in the upstate version of a Laurel Canyon–like hideaway, but we weren’t there yet. And given the fact that I write columns about both style and real estate, I wanted better for myself—and I worried that my nearest and dearest would want better for me, too. 

My home’s curb appeal had to improve—and fast. So what did I do? I admitted I had a problem and asked for help. Here’s everything I did to transform my exterior, because in this case, it wasn’t just the inside that counted.

Call the Professionals  

Though I consider myself a creative person, I had absolutely no vision when it came to seeing the home anew. A designer friend urged me to buy a Yardzen package, and I was amazed by how fun and therapeutic the whole experience was. All I had to do was submit a few outdoor photos of my property, along with some inspiration photos, and they swiftly sent me back renderings of what my home could look like. I screamed when I opened the images—they made my house look like a picture-perfect Spanish villa in Santa Barbara, with shabby-chic pergolas and bohemian trellises. (And then I cried, because I was so overwhelmed by hope and possibility.) My Yardzen designer mapped out exactly what I needed to do, plant, recycle, and purchase—and budget for—to make the home of my dreams. The app did all the heavy lifting for me; it was genuinely stunning how easy they made it. 

Courtesy of Yardzen
Courtesy of Yardzen

Update the Siding

After many commitment issues on my part, James Hardie and I are officially in a serious, long-term, loving relationship. I drove up, down, and all around upstate New York for months, snapping photos of homes I had a strong emotional connection to (all echoing that warm-leafy Californian villa and bungalow vibe), and I finally narrowed in on the right fiber cement siding: wide, vertical, Arctic-white panels that look clean and serene. 

Get a New Door…

For the biggest bang for my buck, all roads pointed to a distressed Craftsman-inspired door by Rustica—and by roads, I mean Yardzen and my mother. There are slightly more affordable external door options at Home Depot, but shockingly (or perhaps not), all high-quality doors are quite pricey. That said, a new front door is life changing—and it is arguably the best first impression you can make on visitors.

…And a New Doormat, Too

Because my house is white and the door is made of wood, I added color via a new doormat that’s as durable as it is pretty. I smile when I imagine my children running in and out of the house—and knowing that I can easily hose it down on muddy days. 

Let There Be Light

Outdoor sconces, lights, and lanterns have made a monumental difference in curb appeal come dusk. They cast a romantic glow, and next to these dreamy string lights, which Yardzen also suggested, evoke some serious Malibu-meets-upstate vibes. (By now, are you thinking I should just pack up and move across the country?!)

Invest in Outdoor Furniture

When I was told that any respectable person with a country house must have two Adirondack chairs—they’re not particularly comfy but they’re a “must,” according to my very opinionated New Englander mother—I ordered mine immediately. I also bought one of these Gehry cubes in magenta because they’re very Instagrammable, they won’t get ruined when I inevitably leave them outside, and they hold two spicy margaritas and a plate of grilled fish tacos like they were made just for that happy moment.

Give It Life

My Hanukkah list entails eight nights of big, distressed garden beds, which my mother-in-law, a world-class gardener who lives on a farm in Maine, politely told me might be a bit too aspirational for my skill set. (Point taken, but I’ve always had luck when buying from Bloomscape, so there!)

With all these things combined, my upstate house finally feels special. It feels like me. It feels like “us.” And with the right sun, the right music, and the right cocktails, it even feels like California.