Renovations

A South Auckland cottage gets a modern makeover

This enterprising couple spent two years transforming their run-down South Auckland cottage into a warm, light, modern home

Meet and greet

Kate Webby, PR and communications manager at Vend, and Jordan Metcalfe, works in commercial property, plus Tinks their rescue dog.

A South Auckland cottage gets a modern makeover

A few weeks after Kate Webby and her partner, Jordan Metcalfe, moved into their home in Otahuhu, Auckland, they experienced serious buyers’ remorse. What was meant to be an exciting time became a few weeks of panic as they realised just what they’d taken on. “We spent the first weekend stripping the wallpaper off all the walls because it was so thickly covered in grime that no amount of scrubbing was getting it off, and then the house turned out to be infested with fleas, which took us over three months to get rid of,” laughs Kate.

They’d always known it would be hard work turning their run-down cottage into a lovely family home, but the reality of actually living in it was much, much worse. Kate describes the home at that time as being a “pretty sorry sight – totally overgrown and uncared for, with a garage that was covered in graffiti and falling down”. But it had so many positives, too. It was a short drive from the city, the suburb was filled with young families doing the DIY thing and, most of all, they could afford it. So the couple gritted their teeth and got stuck in, spending every weekend over the next two years demolishing, prepping, building, painting and overhauling their three-bedroom, two-bathroom 1930s weatherboard house.

Problem

  • The living and dining areas were separated by a false wall, which really closed in the space. There was also no door to separate the conservatory from the dining room, which meant the conservatory couldn’t be shut off on cold days.
  • The kitchen was in poor condition and had a strange layout, including no space for a fridge.
  • The garden was totally overgrown on one side, a dumping ground on the other, and very sparse in between.

Solution 

  • Kate and Jordan removed the false wall to create sunny, open-plan living, and splashed out on bifold doors to the conservatory. As well as creating flow, this allowed them to close off the conservatory when needed.
  • They put in a new kitchen, keeping the old plumbing in place to save money. The island bench was removed to allow more storage, a wider fridge cavity, a five-burner oven and large double sinks.
  • They removed or cut back overgrown hedging and dying trees, created box gardens and planted olives and a hedge of feijoa all around the section. Thousands of dollars were spent dumping rubbish from the back of the property before they could add a clothesline and vege garden.

The reno

Fleas and years of caked-on grime aside, the house faced north, had good bones, a great 117-square-metre layout and two bathrooms. Without needing to knock down walls or do any major structural changes, the couple were confident it was a reasonable renovation they could tackle themselves. First, they sat down and strategised which order to do it in. Because they knew they were playing the long game and they’d be living on site throughout, the couple reasoned they should first work on the rooms that added to their quality of life. This would give them areas
to retreat to when the going got tough.

“I think you can probably cope with anything if you have somewhere nice to sleep or escape from the chaos, and somewhere nice to prepare meals and eat, so we started with a bedroom and the kitchen,” explains Kate. And because it was summer when they moved in, they also focused on the landscaping and getting stuck into their planting so everything had time to grow. From there they let the seasons – and budget – dictate the order of the renovation.

The budget

To keep costs down, Kate and Jordan were committed to doing whatever they could themselves. They got tradespeople in for the work they physically couldn’t do or weren’t qualified for, such as plumbing, electrics, some building work and plastering, but everything else they did themselves.

“We learned that you can often do more than you realise – you just need the right tools and a friendly builder to steer you in the right direction… or a good YouTube tutorial!” says Kate. “We had to invest a bit in different electric saws and other tools, but it made a big difference to our budget to be able to tackle some of the building tasks ourselves.”

The couple faced a lot of physical challenges, but Kate says the trickiest tasks were the behind-the-scenes jobs that no one would ever know about it. These also sucked up a large lump of cash. “For example, we had to move the fuse box; the garage and back porch needed some serious repairs; and we had to remove and dump over two tonnes of rubbish from the section, which cost thousands of dollars. Plus, to keep some of the home’s character, especially on the outside, we had to spend more money and time than we would have liked.

“I also spent hours pulling old rats’ nests and bones out from the kitchen wall cavities, which is something I hope to never do again,” Kate says ruefully. But their work ethic and hard slog paid off – the couple ended up renovating their entire home for $65,000.

Making it count

Even though they were working to a tight budget, Kate and Jordan tried really hard not to skimp on anything important. “This wasn’t about doing a quick cosmetic job where you’d just paint or build over the bad bits. We wanted the whole house to be in good condition for years to come,” she says.

They spent time doing everything properly, especially when it came to prep, but they also invested in key pieces that they knew would make a real difference to the house, like the new kitchen and the big sliding bifold doors that lead to the conservatory. Both had a real impact on the feel of the house, as well as instantly giving the home a more modern look.

“I also think our tapware was a real win,” says Kate. “I was adamant we should get Hansgrohe taps for the kitchen and ensuite, even though it’s on the more expensive side. I managed to hunt out what we wanted during big sales, and because they’re such good quality and design, they’ll definitely last the lifetime of this house.”

Bang for buck

The couple were smart about the changes they made. For example, they completely overhauled the bathrooms, kitchen and laundry but kept sinks and toilets in the same place so they didn’t have to spend on moving the plumbing. “In our experience, plumbers are the most expensive of all the tradespeople, so if you’re completely changing plumbing layouts, the cost can be massive,” says Kate. The couple did the bathrooms last, reasoning that they’re the rooms you spend the least amount of time in each day. This also gave them time to save up for the fit-out.

Conserving the conservatory 

For two years, the pair hummed and hawed about what to do with the conservatory. They eventually settled on keeping it for the additional space it adds to the living areas. They simply gave it a quick spruce-up. “Now it’s a fantastic room on a sunny winter’s day with all the bifold doors open. It would be amazing if we could get rid of the frosted glass and fill the room with plants, cosy rugs and chairs for the perfect reading spot,” Kate says.

Fruitful choices 

Outdoors, the couple replaced the dilapidated old fence, added a big deck and dug up old, hidden concrete to build new paths. They also constructed about 50 metres of garden beds around the section and planted 13 feijoa trees as a hedge, eight olive trees and 16 climbing ficus to soften the hard edges of the fence. An expert nurseryman advised them that 13 feijoas was too many but Kate maintains they made the right decision. “They look great and I’ve been able to make a fair few delicious pies with the spoils!”

A clean style – and break 

Because this was their first major renovation, Kate and Jordan didn’t want to take any big risks with design, colour choices or style. “We didn’t quite trust ourselves to pull it off and didn’t want to risk having to redo the work,” they say. Instead, they played it safe and went for a clean, simple, timeless look with a colour palette that could easily work with anyone’s taste.

This ended up being a good call – as the couple neared the end of the project, they decided to trade in the big city for a rural life in the Waikato. The light and bright cottage they invested so much time and energy into is now rented out to a family who are no doubt enjoying the fresh new look and feel.

Words by: Debbie Harrison. Photography by: Vanessa Lewis.

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