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 ...and thanks for stopping by. I'm Claire Douglas,  DIY and home interiors writer specialising in money-saving and creative home interior projects. I've spent years developing my 'bespoke on a budget' approach to DIY and home interiors and I love sharing all my tips and tricks in tutorials and posts here on my blog, in articles I write for some of the leading titles, in the press, on Instagram, Tiktok and my online course

How to update stairs on a budget - everything you need to know before you start

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

wooden stairs

Knowing how to update stairs on a budget is seriously handy when you are completing a home renovation project; it’s also useful info for those with a tired old staircase that could do with a revamp on a budget.

What people consider to be ‘on a budget’ will vary tremendously, so I’m just going to tell you how I did mine and hopefully, there will be some useful info in there for you.

How to update stairs on a budget: 10 ways to makeover and revamp your stairs

For a long time, our stair decor wasn't a priority. After we moved in, there was A LOT to do, so we were busy decorating the rooms and doing the garden (which, after a recent few months of total neglect, needs doing again, argh!), and the hallway and stairs were a bit of an afterthought. By the time I came to tackle the makeover for the stairs, there was very little money left in the budget, so I decided to be a bit resourceful and think creatively (always more fun that way, right?!)

1. Paint the stairs

painted wooden staircase how to update stairs on a budget

The first part of our stair transformation was to lift the carpet to see what we were dealing with. Luckily, aside from 50 million staples, a nasty

job and a few dents and dings, the stairs were in pretty good condition. This bit of good news spurred me on to rip up all the stair carpet and the underlay. Ripping up carpet is one of the 1-hour DIYs featured in the 1-hour DIY - flooring update blog post in case you haven’t attempted this stair DIY before. As with all painting projects, the key to success is not to skip the prep. The only way to get a professional-looking finish (& more importantly, a finish that isn’t going to annoy you every time you look at it due to avoidable imperfections) is to prepare the surface properly first. In the case of my grotty old stairs, this meant removing all the old staples with pliers and staple removers, filling any cracks with flexible wood filler, sanding any lumps, bumps and imperfections and giving it all a really good clean. You can read the exact process with step-by-step images in my DIY stair runner on a budget blog post

Once the prep was complete it was time to paint the edges of the stairs. The edges were the only bits that would be visible as I knew I was going to be fitting a DIY stair runner. You could opt to ditch the runner and settle for a beautifully painted set of stairs, as this would reduce the total project costs significantly. 

There are positives and negatives to painted stairs, on one hand, they are easy to clean, they cost less than fitting carpet or a stair runner and they can make a big impact if you go for bold colours. The downsides are they can be slippy with socks on (particularly for kids or accident-prone people (like me!)), and they can show up the dust more, but to be fair you have this issue with a stair runner as the dust collects in the painted corners and they can feel colder. As with most interior design decisions for your home, it’s personal preference and you should go with the option that best fits your needs and lifestyle.

2. Add wallpaper to update your stairs

patterned wallpaper - how to update stairs on a budget

Adding wallpaper to the walls of your stairs is a relatively simple process if you only paper the lower section of the wall. Obviously, the task becomes all the more involved if you decide to paper the full height of the walls, as you’ll need stair ladders (and nerves of steel!). I added a dado rail first using some strip wood moulding from the DIY store and then used that as the cut-off for the wallpaper.

I used paste-the-wall wallpaper as I find it less fiddly than the paste-the-paper type, where the paper can get soggy and be more prone to tearing or getting air bubbles. I chose a neutral colour paper with a modern ‘brushstrokes’ pattern from Decorating Centre Online.

3. Fit a DIY stair runner 

DIY stair runner for how to update stairs on a budget

A DIY stair runner is such a good way to transform your stairs, as there are so many creative and affordable stair runners you can get your hands on. From IKEA door mats for a couple of pounds each to more bespoke-looking, rustic runner rugs made from jute or seagrass. For my budget DIY stair runner project, I chose runner rugs from B&Q, which were sadly discontinued, but I found this alternative from Dunelm, which actually looks easier to fit because it is one continuous runner, unlike the separate rugs that I had to join painstakingly.

Stair rods are a great way to make a stair update on a budget look more luxe and they can be picked up for around a tenner each, adding around £150 to your project costs. I chose not to fit stair roads as they look like they’d be tricky to hoover around, so I’m guessing they add quite a lot of time to the task of vacuuming the stairs (one of my least favourite cleaning jobs to start with!).

I chose not to fit underlay when I installed my stair runner because I wanted to secure it with carpet tape and tacks. Although it worked perfectly and has stood the test of time, if I could go back and do it again, I’d add underlay for extra comfort underfoot. 

4. Fit a DIY handrail

DIY stair handrail.- how to update stairs on a budget

I added the DIY stair handrail a few months after the runner. I wrote a step-by-step DIY tutorial with pictures and product links in case you fancy giving it a go. A DIY stair handrail is a great way to update stairs on a budget because you can make what is essentially a safety feature become a feature by choosing a sleek style and painting it black. I’d seen lots of (very expensive) modern stair handrails and was sure I could fashion one for a fraction of the price. Happily, I was right as ours came in at about £35 at the time.

5. Continue the stair runner onto the landing

DIY stair runner on landing how to update stairs on a budget

One of the questions I got asked the most about the stair runner project was, ‘What did you do at the top of the stairs?’. I considered two options: the first was to finish the runner under the lip of the very top step and the other was to carry the runner up and over the top step and keep going along the landing. Initially, I carried the runner along the landing until it met the threshold of the bathroom door (as shown) as the landing was bare (painted) floorboards. When we had the landing carpet fitted about a year later I altered the stair runner to finish under the top step.

6. Style the stairs with plants

Office building with lots of plants how to update stairs on a budget

Ok, so this needs to be on the list of how to update stairs on a budget but I can’t claim to have done this fully with our stairs. The truth is, I’m the WORST at looking after real plants as I’m incapable of watering them and they unsurprisingly all die. Fake plants are fine up to a point but you wouldn’t want them everywhere (for the amount of extra dusting, if nothing else). I did add a giant artificial plant in a rustic basket to the bottom of the stairs to hide some old junction boxes and cabling, but it would have been far more impactful to have some lovely hanging plants on the stairs walls or window sill at the top of the stairs.

7. Add wallpaper or tiles to the risers

While we are on the subject of things that I didn't do (!) then why not look at some other ideas on the list of how to update stairs on a budget? I’ve seen lots of cool DIY projects where people have tiled their stair risers (with real tiles or stick-on tiles as either work well for this one) or added wallpaper to the risers to create a cool look. These projects obviously only work for painted or bare staircases but are worth a scroll on Pinterest if that’s what you’re working with. 

8. Cause a distraction

If you have an old or unattractive carpet on the stairs and neither the budget to pay for professionals nor the inclination to undertake a DIY project yourself, then a good alternative might be to decorate the surrounding area to distract the eye. You could paint the walls and add a gallery wall, a striking piece of oversized art, or even a material wall hanging to create a focal point up and away from the stairs themselves. 

9. Add DIY stair lights

If you’re wondering how to update stairs on a budget for stair lighting then the answer is battery-operated, rechargeable & motion sensor lights. Hard-wired lights come with the added cost of an electrical to install them, whereas battery-operated or rechargeable lights can be attached to the sides of the stairs without this cost. I have a whole other blog post about lighting hacks to elevate your interiors without an electrician if you fancy finding out more about this. 

10. Stick on stair treads

If your budget is really tiny and you don’t want the effort of fitting a whole DIY stair runner then you could opt to fit some self-adhesive stair treads/stair pads. These are pads that cover part of each individual stair tread. They come in a range of styles, from plain to patterned and can be glued to the stairs treads for extra security.

11. Don’t clutter up the stairs

Conversely, this point is more of a how not to update your stairs on a budget, but I feel compelled to write it as I often see stair cases in people’s Instagram posts that are cluttered up with home decor like lanterns and baskets and plants on the actual stair treads. This might sound obvious but I really don’t advise doing this as it’s a total trip hazard!

Top tips for how to update stairs on a budget 

Decide on a colour palette for the project that works with the rest of your home.

That’s not to say it has to be a carbon copy of the colours used in the corresponding rooms, but if you pick colours that work well with your other rooms, or the same colours but in different proportions as this can really change the aesthetic and the energy of the room. This is something we look at in more detail in my online courses as playing around with colour ratios is such an effective tool in your interior styling armoury. The stairs can be a good place to go bold with your colour or design because you don’t spend a large amount of time in that area.

Use interesting materials or textures.

Stairs are a good place to use some interesting materials to add character and interest to appreciate as you are passing through. These could be in the form of a hardwearing stair runner made from a rustic textured material like seagrass or jute or perhaps some textured wallpaper or artwork for the walls.

Get creative with a DIY stair runner

Do a bit of research (Pinterest is your friend for this one!) and you’ll soon see that there are so many ways to fashion a stair runner from rugs or even doormats, or you can buy purpose-made stair runners to suit your style.

How can I update my stairs cheaply?

Painting your stairs is by far the cheapest way to update them. You’ll need to prep the treads and risers before painting. With a wooden staircase, the prep involves making any repairs then sanding and cleaning to ensure a sound surface for the paint to adhere to. You could use stencils to create a pattern with paint or use materials like wallpaper or stick-on tiles on the risers for a creative and unique finish. 

What is the cheapest way to decorate stairs?

Paint alone is about the cheapest way to decorate stairs, but there is an element of DIY effort with this option. If you aren’t a DIYer, paying someone to prep and paint your stairs will likely be more expensive than a cheap replacement carpet. If your stairs are already painted and don’t require a lot of prep, a fresh coat of paint is a more straightforward DIY project. 

How do you modernise an old staircase?

You can modernise an old staircase by adding bold or bright colours in the paint on the walls or the decor you choose to hang on them. You could opt for a stair runner or carpet with a bold design like neon edging. If your old staircase is full of character or period charm then a better option might be to emphasise the features and make a focal point of them.