In the spring of 2020, Emily Shaw was a recent college graduate and, like many pandemic graduates, she was living at home with no job and nothing to do. So she decided to put her degree in interior architecture to use and fix up her parents’ house in New Hampshire, chronicling the process on TikTok.
Within a month, she had 1 million followers to her account, @emilyrayna, who watched her pull up carpets, replace countertops and restore old furniture. “It was pretty scary,” said Ms. Shaw, 23, who moved out of her parents’ house and now has a TikTok following of 5.2 million. “I was never someone who was into social media before that.”
Ms. Shaw had unexpectedly landed on an audience with an appetite for the drudgery of do-it-yourself home improvement, packaged in the itty-bitty nuggets that make TikTok so delectable. Her early videos, narrated in a soothing yet perky voice-over, focus on the grit of renovation. In one clip, she talks about the tools she uses to remove wallpaper. In another, she recommends the best tape for painting (spoiler alert, it’s not blue.)
Ms. Shaw is among a cadre of young influencers who offer an alternative to the glossy image of home makeover shows popularized by networks like HGTV. In this world of home improvement, there is no professional duo like Chip and Joanna Gaines to swoop in and hold a hapless homeowner’s hand as they tear down walls and slap up shiplap. Instead, these influencers on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube are luring a younger generation eager to figure out how to fix up their homes on their own, on an extremely tight budget.
Relying heavily on Dollar Store finds and Home Depot lumber, these influencers reject the idea that an Instagram-worthy living room requires a four-figure, or even a three-figure budget. Renters and homeowners can learn how to turn Ikea dressers or yard-sale lampshades into sassy centerpieces. Ms. Shaw renovated her parents’ living room, dining room, kitchen, patio and family room for a cool $1,000, showing that with enough elbow grease and sandpaper, almost anything can be worthy of a big reveal.
“I still get a lot of comments on all my videos of, ‘Oh, I could never afford this design,” Ms Shaw said. “I try to reassure people that it is something that they can do.” She pointed to color, lighting and furniture arrangement as three elements that can improve a space on a small budget. “There are so many things that don’t necessarily touch money,” she said.
To pay for the project at her parents’ house, Ms. Shaw sold their old furniture online and used the proceeds to buy new materials. She celebrated her finds, like a tree stump that she sanded, sealed and made into a table for the new patio that her boyfriend was building out of pressure-treated wood blocks, which he found online for free. Despite the shoestring budget, Ms. Shaw transformed a cramped, claustrophobic living area into an airy, modern space for her parents, showcasing the reveal in a teary 11-minute YouTube video. Since she finished her parents’ project, she has decorated her own apartment and offered design advice to followers who send her photos of their frustrating spaces.
At Lone Fox, a YouTube channel with 1.3 million subscribers, Drew Scott recently gave his mother’s drab bathroom a renter-friendly makeover for less than $300, covering the beige tile floors with peel-and-stick hexagon tiles and covering the walls in peel-and-stick subway tile wallpaper. In another video, about Ikea hacks, he turns a basket into a hanging lamp and upgrades a plain pine cabinet into a glammy black one.
Mr. Scott, 26, launched the channel in 2018, but it gained traction during the pandemic, when people were looking for activities to occupy their time and improve their homes. Many of his followers are renters who want their apartments to feel like home. “They need solutions to make them cute,” said Mr. Scott, a renter himself, who likes to focus on renter-friendly improvements like easy wall coverings and furniture upgrades.
The channel is now Mr. Scott’s full-time job. In long, peppy tutorials he shows his subscribers how to make a flower pot out of an old paint can and wood dowels, or how to build a headboard out of cane and pine. “You don’t need a full design team,” he said. “There are little things you can do on a budget that make such a transformation.”
For the more ambitious DIY crowd with a larger budget, there’s Smashing DIY, an Instagram account that Ashley Basnight started in 2016 after she successfully built a kitchen table for herself and got hooked on woodworking.
In her Instagram stories, Ms. Basnight, 30, chronicles the renovation of her home near Oklahoma City. She shows followers how to lay tile, install board and batten siding, and build a pantry. On her website, Handmade Haven, she sells design plans for her furniture and offers woodworking and renovation tutorials, offering followers step-by-step guides for how to replicate her projects.
Ms. Basnight found that once she focused her videos on the process and not simply the results, her following grew. She no longer has to limit her projects to trendy farmhouse décor, a style she doesn’t like but attracts a wide audience. Instead, she can showcase her personal style, which she describes as “modern boho glam.” She now has 224,000 followers, and earned $267,000 as an influencer in 2021, according to a recent post. Two months ago, she quit her job as a software engineer to focus on her social media presence.
Kelsey MacDermaid, 29, and Becky Wright, 29, started their YouTube channel, The Sorry Girls, in 2010, when they were in college in Toronto and saw a market for students looking to spruce up their dorm rooms. “Being college students, we didn’t have much of a budget,” Ms. Wright said. “How do you make your dorm room look like a place you want to live?”
The answer, they found, was shipping pallets. Or at least, that was one of the answers. For one early project, they painted a shipping pallet turquoise and turned it into a coffee table. Then Ms. Wright wanted a headboard for her bed, so she learned how to use a power drill and figured out how to make one.
Now, more than a decade into their channel, and with 2.1 million subscribers, Sorry Girls operates out of a Toronto office with a staff of 10. College days might be long behind them, but they still focus on affordable décor.
In one recent video, the duo rescue an employee’s green bathroom. In another, they make a different employee’s tiny living room more livable, building a sofa console and shelves to add more storage space. A short window appears taller with a clever shade placement, and viewers are shown how to make a collapsible table that attaches to the wall. In other videos, they figure out how to make Anthropologie knockoffs using thrift-store finds, like making a decorative tray out of a wicker basket and a plastic plate.
All this enthusiasm makes the case that with enough spray paint, hot glue and fruitful thrift-store runs, almost any space can look like it belongs on the internet.
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