The New York Times: Right at Home

How to Buy, Decorate, Organize and Maintain Your Space


By Ronda Kaysen

By Michelle Higgins

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New York Times Real Estate columnists and home experts Ronda Kaysen and Michelle Higgins share their insider knowledge in this essential, all-in-one resource for how to buy, decorate, organize and maintain your space.

Whether you are shopping for a first home, renting a new apartment or are searching for smart and affordable ways to redecorate or reorganize, Right at Home is the book for you.

Kaysen and Higgins have spent more than two decades interviewing experts and demystifying all aspects of home buying and care. This guide, drawn from their work, will be with you at every turn, whether you’re unpacking the kitchen for the first time, moving in with your significant other, or figuring out what to do with all those baby bottles and sippy cups now that the last child is out of diapers and the cabinets are bursting. Including pro tips from experts such as Marie Kondo, Bunny Williams and Justina Blakeney, and a removable annual home maintenance checklist, Right at Home is the indispensable guide that you will return to again and again.


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Whether we rent or own, our homes serve as a backdrop to our lives—the place where we raise our families, celebrate our accomplishments and seek refuge from the complex world outside. But a home can also be a source of tremendous angst. Set out to buy one, and you may enter a market with high prices and fierce competition. Sign a 12-month lease, and you may not know how to make the place feel like home. Once you get the keys, you are handed the dizzying task of organizing, decorating and maintaining your largest investment. Where do you begin?

That’s why we wrote “The New York Times Right at Home: How to Buy, Decorate, Organize and Maintain Your Space.” Consider it a user’s manual for homeownership, filled with information and tools for how to care for your home—whether that’s a two-bedroom apartment you’re renting for a year or the house where you plan to live out your life.

Some books look good on your coffee table, full of glossy images and captions that glorify homeownership. Others dictate a strict set of rules. Our book is meant to offer you guidance on your journey through homeownership, based on your own values and style. It may also look nice on your coffee table. But if you don’t have a coffee table yet—or don’t like the one you’ve got—don’t worry. We’ll help you find the right one for your living room, and keep it from getting cluttered, too.

This guide will be there for you at every turn, whether you’re unpacking the kitchen for the first time, moving in with your significant other or figuring out what to do with all those baby bottles and sippy cups now that the last child is out of diapers and the cabinets are bursting. Eager for an enviable living room, but not sure how to take a decorating risk? We’ve got you covered, with advice drawn from interviews with the country’s top interior designers and organizers. Our goal is to offer concise, practical—and sometimes entertaining—strategies to help you navigate the often daunting privilege of homeownership.

You’re in good hands. Together, we have spent a combined 25 years reporting for The New York Times, frequently about homes, including how to buy, decorate, organize and care for them. In our columns and cover stories for the Sunday Real Estate section, we’ve written extensively about New York’s heady housing market, toured hundreds of apartments and interviewed many of the country’s most influential architects and designers about the latest trends. As The Fix columnist, Michelle has explored how best to renovate a kitchen on a budget, decorate with children and find the perfect paint hue, delivering insider advice on home renovations and décor. As the Ask Real Estate columnist, Ronda has answered just about every question there is about housing.

Years spent interviewing industry leaders and experts and culling through the latest studies and data has taught us that good home stewardship is a skill. And just like any other skill, with enough research, information and practice, it can be mastered.

We also know this because we’ve lived it. Ronda has spent seven years slowly renovating a century-old house she bought with her husband, David, in the New Jersey suburbs. Before becoming a homeowner, she lived in a dozen different rental apartments, most of them in Brooklyn, N.Y., and many of them in need of love and creative decorating.

Michelle spent her childhood covered in paint and sawdust in a 19th-century farmhouse in upstate New York, which her parents lovingly restored, before moving to a mid-century-style home. After apartment hopping for more than two decades as a renter in Brooklyn, she and her husband, Greg, bought the mid-century-style home she grew up in. They are now in the process of renovating it.

In these pages, packed with the deeply sourced reporting you’d expect from writers for The New York Times, we will guide you through the buying process, dispelling the mysteries surrounding mortgages, brokers, bidding wars and even the wistful buyer’s letter. Wondering how to get your credit history in order so you can qualify for a mortgage? We’ve got you. Not sure what happens once you actually make an offer? We’ll take you through the process from your first open house until the keys are in your hand.

Once you move in, we’ll offer advice for how to best organize, decorate and maintain your home, taking you room by room with suggestions on everything from how to choose paint colors to the safest place to store your medicine. (Hint: it’s not the medicine cabinet.)

If your home is woefully cluttered, we’ll help you restore order and calm to it, so you can arrange everything from your refrigerator to your bedroom closet in a way that works for you.

If you’re renting and at a loss for how to make a sterile space feel like home, we will provide you with creative and innovative ideas that will make the place your own without spending a lot. There are fun and economical ways to customize a space without risking your deposit—in other words, you don’t have to paint the kitchen cabinets to make them pop.

If you’ve never established a good home maintenance routine, or didn’t even know one was needed, we’ll help you get started, walking you through all that needs to be done, season by season and room by room. Keep on top of the annual tasks that your home asks of you, like cleaning the gutters and servicing the furnace, and you will come to understand how your home operates, and how to respond to it when it needs your attention.

Flip through this book for guidance and inspiration. Turn to it as a trusted source. Use it to build confidence in the choices you make about where and how you live in your space. Over the years, you can return to this guide for instructions at each new twist or turn that modern home life brings. With the skills you’ll gain, your home will look and feel as beautiful and welcoming as you envisioned it, setting the perfect backdrop for your life.

Welcome home,

Michelle and Ronda



Buying a home can seem like a daunting process—it just may be the most expensive and emotionally charged purchase of your life. There are baffling terms you may have only heard of peripherally, like FICO scores and mortgage preapproval letters that you are now expected to understand. Start the house-hunting process and you may not know what to look for or how to find the right professionals to work with, be it a real estate lawyer or a home inspector.

But home buying is no great mystery. Although the process may feel overwhelming, and the language new, you can master it. With this guide, you will gain the confidence to start shopping and can turn back to it throughout the process so you know what to expect, know what questions to ask and can find the home that’s right for you. Whether you’re searching for a starter home or your forever home, with careful research and determination, the keys can be yours.


Homeownership has long been a cornerstone of the American Dream, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right for everyone. Buying a home is a huge financial undertaking, and often the largest one anyone ever makes. Owning a home is an ongoing responsibility that requires routine maintenance, updates and additional costs. Before taking the plunge into the buyer pool, it’s important to consider whether homeownership is right for you.

Rent or Buy?

When looking for a new place to live, the first question you ask yourself will help drive the rest of your decision-making. Should you rent or buy? Buying may seem appealing because you will put an end to escalating rent and can build equity. But the reality of routine home maintenance and repairs can quickly drain a bank account. It’s important to run the numbers to figure out how much you can comfortably afford. Property taxes, homeowners insurance, utility bill changes, yard care, homeowner association fees and unanticipated repairs all factor into the true cost of ownership.

“One other factor to consider is the equity being built up,” said Greg McBride, the chief financial analyst at “A portion of your out-of-pocket mortgage expense is going toward principal repayment and is effectively residing in an illiquid, pseudo savings account known as ‘the equity in your house.’”

To determine if buying makes more financial sense than renting, you’ll need to compare your monthly rental payments to the monthly costs of owning—not just what you’ll pay each month toward your mortgage. In order to make an apples-to-apples comparison, jot down all of your out-of-pocket costs and calculate how owning may affect your taxes.

In general, whether renting or buying is better for you largely depends on your specific circumstances. (There are dozens of online calculators, including The New York Times’s rent vs. buy calculator that will help you pinpoint exactly how long you need to stay for your investment to begin paying off.)


What is the true cost of homeownership versus renting? Examine all of your out-of-pocket costs and how owning may affect your taxes.

How long do you plan to stay there? If you expect to relocate in just a couple of years, renting is likely a better option, since your home probably won’t appreciate enough to cover what you paid out in closing costs and ownership expenses.

How much home can you afford? If you can’t afford a home large enough to fit your family in a few years, it may be worth it to rent while you save a bit more.

Will you save on taxes? Depending on your situation, the interest you pay on your mortgage may be tax deductible.

Are you ready for the responsibility? A home comes with added chores and tasks. If the furnace goes on the fritz, you have to call someone to fix it and pay the bill. When it snows, you have to shovel the walk and driveway. Do you want these responsibilities? If not, you may want to keep renting.

How much commitment can you handle? If the market turns, you may not be able to recoup your investment when it’s time to move, forcing you to choose to stay or lose money. On the other hand, your commitment to a lease is only as long as its term.

What’s on the market? If you can’t find a home you like, it’s likely not worth tying yourself to something you’re unhappy with.


Stretching your budget to buy a home may actually make you miserable. A 2011 study of about 600 women in Ohio found that homeowners weren’t any happier than renters. The study was conducted by Grace Wong Bucchianeri, then an assistant professor of real estate at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Indeed, homeowners spent less time on leisure activities with friends and reported that they derived some pain from homeownership. What exactly caused that pain wasn’t indicated in the study, but financial experts say that people who make the leap from renting to buying can be caught off guard by the nuts and bolts. Even if a low mortgage rate means you spend less each month than you did when renting, maintenance and repairs can drain a bank account faster than a leaking water heater.

Of course there are plenty of benefits to homeownership, including the predictability of knowing you no longer have to worry about the landlord raising your rent, or not renewing your lease. And if both your lifestyle and the hard numbers point toward buying, the next step is to determine how much home you can afford.

How Much House Can You Afford?

To determine how much you can spend on a home, take a close look at your budget. Review your bank statements and spending habits for the last couple of months to figure out how much you are spending on everything from cellphone bills to restaurants. Once you have a better picture of your spending habits, determine how much you want to allocate toward a monthly home payment. This figure should include your principal, interest, tax and insurance payment, which add up to your monthly mortgage sum.

The Federal Housing Administration formula, used by many lenders, recommends allocating no more than 31 percent of your monthly income to your housing payment. This figure will change based on your amount of debt. Buyers with no other debt may be able to budget as much as 40 percent of monthly income to housing. (But remember that the rest of your budget is going to have to go toward heat, water, electricity, routine home maintenance and food.) Overall, your total debt-to-income ratio, including car payments and credit card bills, should not exceed 43 percent.










So, for example, if you make $50,000 in annual gross income, your monthly gross income is $4,167. That should leave you with $1,292, or 31 percent to devote to your monthly mortgage, provided your overall debt does not exceed $1,792 a month.

But remember that besides the mortgage, buying a home includes additional one-time payments that can quickly add up, like closing costs, legal fees and other expenses associated with buying, such as a house inspection. And don’t forget about moving fees, home improvements or regular maintenance and repairs, which you may not have had as a renter.

It’s also a good idea to plan for the unknown. Could you afford to buy a new hot water heater on a moment’s notice? What will your finances look like if you or your partner decides to stay home for a few years to take care of children or go back to school? Can you still afford the home if one of you is laid off or decides to work part-time? It won’t hurt to crunch the numbers for those scenarios—or even to try living on one income for a bit to see if you can do it.

Take a close look at your budget to determine what you can really afford to spend on a home.


It’s time to assess your spending, clean up your credit and figure out what you can afford. Have you decided to buy? Before you jump into the world of open houses and real estate agents, take the time to get your finances in order. It will help you once it’s time to apply for a mortgage. It will also help you get some financial perspective before you fall in love with that perfect center-hall colonial or the studio with views of the park.

Check Your Credit Score

Lenders use credit scores, also known as FICO scores, to evaluate the potential risk of lending to you. The higher the number, which runs from 300 to 850, the better your score. The best mortgage rates go to borrowers with credit scores in the mid- to high 700s or above, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Most lenders require you to have a score of at least 620 to qualify for a fixed-rate loan backed by the mortgage giant Fannie Mae.

Federal law allows you to get a free copy of your credit report every 12 months from each of the three major credit-reporting bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, which generate their own FICO scores based on the data they collect. To find out where you stand, go to, which offers a free report annually.


You can improve your score by paying down high credit card debt, and by cleaning up any financial mistakes, like errors resulting from identity theft or mixed-up files belonging to another person with the same or similar name. Be aware that it takes time for these changes to be reflected in your credit score, from months for an inaccurate bill to years if you’ve had tax liens or bankruptcies. Focusing on your credit may feel like a chore, but it’s a worthwhile one. With a higher credit score, you could get a lower mortgage interest rate, potentially saving you thousands of dollars in interest payments over the life of your loan.


Pay your bills on time. The impact of late or missed payments on your FICO score fades over time as long as you establish good patterns over the long term. Make space between your bad credit history by creating a good track record moving forward. To avoid missing payments, sign up for automatic bill paying.

Keep any balances low. One of the factors that impacts your score is your debt-to-available-credit ratio. Getting close to maxing out your credit cards can have a negative impact on your score. Try to keep your credit utilization ratio below 30 percent to show you are managing your credit responsibly. That means if your total credit limit is $10,000, you should aim to keep your total revolving balance at $3,000 or less.

Don’t close credit cards. Even if you don’t use a credit card, keep it open because the line of credit benefits you. Closing it can negatively impact your debt-to-available-credit ratio, since you’re reducing your overall credit limit. If you are worried you will be tempted to use it, you can simply cut it up.


If you’re just setting out on your own, you may not have a credit history yet. Be patient. Building a strong credit history takes time. Getting a credit card and using it for small charges that you can easily pay off each month can be a good way to start proving your creditworthiness. You can also ask a family member if they would be willing to cosign for you or to add you to one of their credit card accounts as an authorized user. Just be sure that your folks, or whoever you are asking to add you as an authorized user, has good credit themselves or else you won’t be doing yourself any favors. Also, be aware that not all creditors report authorized user accounts to the credit reporting agencies. Staying on top of student loans can also have a positive impact on your credit history.


If you know you plan to buy a home in the next few months, or have an accepted offer, be careful about what else you buy. Sign a loan for a new car, and your debt-to-income ratio could change. Open a credit card to take advantage of a promotional interest rate, and your FICO score could take a hit. Open a new store credit card to buy furniture for the house that you made an offer on, and the bank may frown. If you must make a large purchase because, say, you’re moving to a new city and need that new car and have other large expenses, talk to your lender first.

Get a Mortgage Preapproval

A preapproval letter is a written estimate from a lender of how much you will likely be able to borrow from them. This letter will help you determine how much you can afford, and help demonstrate that you can secure a home loan when you are ready to make an offer on a house. Getting preapproved for a mortgage is different from getting prequalified for a loan, which is essentially a back-of-the-envelope calculation of how much of a loan you may qualify for based on unverified information. The preapproval application for a mortgage often requires submitting pay stubs, bank statements, tax returns and other financial documents.

“Qualifying for a loan and being able to afford a loan are two very different things. A bank can only decide what you qualify for, but the borrower has to decide what they can afford.”

—Zack Tolmie, a mortgage lender for Citibank

Line Up Cash

The more cash you can pay up front toward your home, the less you will have to borrow. A bigger down payment means your monthly payments will be lower and you will pay less interest over the course of your mortgage. If you can afford to put down 20 percent or more of the total home price, you typically won’t have to pay for mortgage insurance, a premium that protects the lender in case you default on the loan.


Saving up enough cash for a down payment is one of the biggest challenges first-time buyers face. A quarter of buyers age 36 or younger paid for their down payments with gifts from friends or relatives, according to a 2017 National Association of Realtors report.

Banks are wary of financial gifts, concerned that the money is another loan that must also be repaid. For conventional loans, banks will only accept gifts to be used toward your down payment from relatives, like your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. So you would not be able to use money from a friend or your second cousin’s sister. FHA loans are less restrictive, permitting gifts from sources like friends, employers and trade unions. Want to know more about different types of mortgages? Turn to here.

The money must have a paper trail, like via wire transfer, not cash in a shoebox. You and the gift giver should be prepared to show bank statements so the bank can trace the assets. Each of you will likely need to sign a letter affirming that the money is a gift and not a loan. There are also tax implications. The I.R.S. sets limits on how much money can be given as gifts in any given year without being subject to taxation. Check the I.R.S. website for the latest figures or consult with your tax preparer or financial advisor.


Don’t use all your money toward a hefty down payment. Lenders will want to see that you have some reserves in the bank. Closing costs typically add up to thousands of dollars. On average, closing costs for the buyer range between 2 and 4 percent of the price of a property, including government taxes and fees and prepaid items such as property insurance, according to Bankrate, which tracks financial rates and product information. You’ll also need cash on hand for moving, renovations and other incidentals.

Even if you’re not buying a fixer-upper, many houses and apartments need tinkering. The furniture from your rental may not fit. The living room might be avocado green. Set aside extra money for a fresh coat of paint, a new kitchen backsplash or a new sofa to make the place a little homier.


  • "In addition to practical advice written in a non-judgy tone (no konmari cleanses in sight!), this guide is chock-full of IRL anecdotes from the authors, homeowners, and design experts. It's the perfect gift for a college grad, a first-time owner-or those friends that keep hounding you for free decorating advice."—Architectural Digest, "18 Captivating New Books to Spark Inspiration"
  • "Look no further -- Right at Home has it all. Whether you are renting or buying your first home or have owned for years, Ronda and Michelle provide the secret sauce you need to successfully navigate the real estate landscape."—Barbara Corcoran, the real-estate mogul, business expert, and Shark on ABC's hit reality show Shark Tank
  • "Home-ownership and home-decor are intimately connected, but this is the first time I've seen the two subjects converge in a single, holistic guide that will leave readers equal parts informed and inspired. This is quite possibly the most pragmatic home guide you'll ever come across, and it's pretty enough for your coffee table!"—Justina Blakeney, designer and New York Times best-selling author of The New Bohemians
  • "You can't get it wrong with Right at Home. Buy it, read it, and sink into the zen of an orderly space."—Jonathan Adler
  • "What a treasure trove of information! This delightful yet practical resource will be invaluable to anyone who wants to feel happier at home -- from opening the door for the very first time to adding the final, finishing touches. All the answers are here."—Gretchen Rubin, New York Times best-selling author of The Four Tendencies and The Happiness Project
  • "A soup-to-nuts beginner's guide to the shelter game. The authors take a practical and very thorough approach to solving the many challenges of home ownership. But wait, there's more! Even the family pet gets his due."—Bob Vila, TV host, author and builder
  • "This book is a treasure-trove checklist of all the necessary elements that equate to an inspiring and well-considered home."—Kelly Wearstler, founder and principal of Kelly Wearstler design studio

On Sale
Mar 17, 2020
Page Count
240 pages

Ronda Kaysen, journalist, author of Right At Home

Ronda Kaysen

About the Author

Ronda Kaysen is an award-winning journalist and columnist for The New York Times Real Estate section, where she created the “Right at Home” column and writes “Ask Real Estate.” In her decade writing for The Times, her features have appeared in the Style, Real Estate, Business and Metropolitan sections. She has also written for other top publications, including Architectural Digest and Architectural Record.

Author photo credit: Julia Maloof Verderosa

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Michelle Higgins, journalist/author of Right At Home

Michelle Higgins

About the Author

Michelle Higgins is Director of Career Services at The Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. Previously, she was an educator at the school and a columnist for The New York Times Real Estate section. She has served as a columnist and staff reporter at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, covering travel, technology, real estate, personal finance, consumer trends and cars. In more than a decade at The Times, her writing has appeared on page one as well as in the Travel, Real Estate, Business, Style and Metro sections. Now, she draws on her career in journalism to foster relationships between students and employers, and to help aspiring media professionals develop their careers for fulfillment and impact.

Author photo credit: Jesse Pesta


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