Formal living rooms and dining rooms are underused in most homes. They often are uninviting, uncomfortable spaces designed for a way of life that few families live.

What a waste! Here’s how to affordably transform an underused living room and dining room into comfortable, functional spaces where people want to be…

Your Living Room

Four strategies to make an unused living room more inviting…

Connect your living room to a heavily used room. The simple fact is, people become much more likely to spend time in their living rooms when they can see them from a space where they spend lots of time—a visual reminder that the living room exists is all it takes to increase usage. To achieve this, call in a professional to take down all or part of a wall between your living room and your family room or kitchen (or any other oft-used room that is next to your living room). This typically is not as expensive as you might think. Bonus: Besides making your living room more connected, it will make it feel larger.

Or do the opposite: Close your living room off to create a single-purpose space. Add a set of French doors (or take other steps necessary to give the living room privacy from the rest of the home) and make it your “away room”—an escape from household noise and activity. When segmented from the rest of the home like this, a living room can make a wonderfully spacious painting studio, home office, yoga or meditation room, music room or library.

Update living-room furniture for your real lifestyle. Old-fashioned, formal, uncomfortable furniture is among the biggest reasons many living rooms are uninviting spaces. Home owners often feel that this is the kind of furniture they’re supposed to have in a living room or that they can’t replace this furniture because it’s been passed down through generations. Replace it anyway—your ancestors (or you) bought it for a life very different from the life you are living.

Add a window seat and/or vary ­living-room ceiling height. In most living rooms, the ceiling is a uniform height throughout, making the room a boring box. Though it may sound ­counterintuitive, lowering ceiling height by as little as six inches along one side of the room or over an alcove can create visual interest and, surprisingly, make the room feel larger and more inviting. Example: Lower the ceiling height above a living-room seating alcove that contains one or two chairs—it will make this area feel cozier and make the entire room seem more engaging.

You can do this even if your living room’s ceiling is only eight feet high—dropping the ceiling by just six inches over an alcove or along the length of a wall fools the eye into believing that the eight-foot section is taller than it actually is. It’s the contrast between the two ceiling heights that makes the space as a whole seem bigger.

Adding a built-in living-room window seat is another good way to add interest and coziness to the room. It usually is a good idea to lower the ceiling above this window-seat area—then the combination of built-up, built-in seating with the lowered ceiling above results in a space that feels “safe” and appealing and connected to both the interior of the home and the world outside. Place a comfortable cushion across the width of the seat, and you’ll have a wonderful space for curling up with a book.

Your Dining Room

Some dining rooms go unused…while others are used principally for purposes unrelated to dining—where bills are paid or where kids do their homework. To make your dining room more inviting and useful…

Have the wall between your kitchen and dining room partly or totally removed. The kitchen is the social center of most homes these days. If it were possible for people sitting in your dining room to make eye contact and conversation with people in your kitchen, the use of that dining area would skyrocket. If the layout of the home makes it impractical to completely remove the wall between the kitchen and dining room, even partially removing it or creating a pass-through opening between the rooms could be sufficient—the key is that eye contact and comfortable conversation are possible. Example: Perhaps a section of wall above the kitchen counters could be removed, leaving the lower wall (and counters) in place.

Add a set of bookshelves along a ­dining-room wall. A wall of bookshelves displaying the books, photos and artwork of your choice can dramatically ­reduce the formality of your dining room, making the space cozier and more inviting. Built-in, floor-to-ceiling shelving can look especially nice, but freestanding bookshelves are a viable and often less expensive alternative.

Alternative: Have attractive bookshelves installed along the upper section of one wall…with drawers and cabinets below. In homes where the dining-room table is the place to pay bills or do other paperwork, these papers must be repeatedly carted off to a different part of the house when the space is used as an actual dining room. Having appropriate drawers or cabinets in the room makes it easier to stow papers and other projects, reducing clutter and saving time. This storage area could be designed to look like a sideboard or buffet table.

Troubleshoot your table. If you have a dining-room table that’s so small your guests often have to squeeze in next to one another (or sit at a card table)…or a table so large that it dominates the room and yet it’s almost never used to capacity—you have the wrong-sized table, and this greatly limits enjoyment of your dining room. Replace your table with one that can be expanded by adding leaves or sliding out extensions. Then your table will always be the right size for whatever you want it for at the time.

Purchase a protective pad for your dining-room table. If someone in your house (maybe you!) shouts, “Don’t scratch the table,” whenever someone uses your dining table for a project or chore, the single best way to improve your enjoyment of your dining room (or, at least, to reduce your stress) is to buy a cover that will protect its surface. The best of these are pads with a hard top surface and a soft underside that won’t scratch the table beneath. Some are decent-looking, too, though keeping an attractive tablecloth on top of most table pads looks better.

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