Would you buy a house you hated? Could you make an offer on a home with an interior you didn’t like at all – a home that was actually a particularly ugly example of the era it was built?
Home owners Craig and Emma Croxford did – buying a 1970s Willetton house that was so depressing and needed so much work that it actually brought Emma to tears on various occasions!
But with many weekends of work and a vast quantity of DIY, Craig and Emma have managed to turn this diamond in the rough into a friendly, comfortable family abode that is now a perfect family home for them and their two young daughters. The house (and their renovation story) actually reminds me SO much of our house and our journey (the houses were built in the same year, too).
I met Emma through my close friend Heather Robbins, whose name you might recognise as the photographer behind many of the lovely photos you guys see on House Nerd.
Emma and Heather have a funny meet cute. They met four years ago when they were both new, sleep-deprived mothers to five-week-old newborns, each venturing out of their houses to get a caffeine fix, with respective newborns in tow. They spied each other in the café (or in Heather’s words, “I accosted Emma and pounced on her,”) started gabbing away in the way you do when you have a small baby and proper adult conversation is rare, and immediately became firm, fast friends. Now their husbands are also friends and so are the kids (now four in total).
Emma and Craig met as youngsters back in 2004. “Craig and I met in a Canberra nightclub at 5am in the morning in 2004,” laughs Emma. “We were both amongst the last people left in the nightclub when they turned the lights on. Yikes!”
After buying a unit in Canberra together and renovating it, they relocated to Perth in 2010 when Emma was offered a position as a junior academic at Murdoch University. Once here, Emma and Craig quickly discovered they hated renting and became desperate to find a home of their own.
“We originally took a six month rental in Bicton but we hated it,” admits Emma. “It had no heating, Perth had a historically cold winter and we just wanted to get into our own place where we could feather our nest.”
Wanting to buy a house in an area that would be close to both their workplaces, good government schools and on a larger plot of land, Emma and Craig started house-hunting in Palmyra, Fremantle and the surrounding suburbs. But they soon established that homes in those areas, that were within their budget, sat on plots of lands much smaller than they wanted.
“So we moved our hunt up to Leeming, Murdoch, Bull Creek, Bateman and then carried on up South Street,” says Emma. “A couple that had just befriended us had just purchased a home in Willetton and they seemed to want similar things in a house.
“We decided that Willetton would be a good area – it had good local schools, would hold its value and was close to our work. After making that purely intellectual decision, we then reconciled ourselves to finding a house – though we didn’t much like the style of many of the houses in this area, in truth. I cried every weekend when we house hunted! Willetton is very much in the process of being modernised and in 2010 most of the houses that we looked at were in their original or semi-renovated state.”
When I saw Emma’s before photos, her house gave me deja vu – it reminded me so much of ours when we got ours, with so many similar features, being built in the same year. (The Crap Shack was actually a 1970s display home back in its glory days, and the home many others were modelled upon!) But Emma’s house was – dare I say it – even more unattractive than ours!
But Craig and Emma could see its potential, and they were desperate to get a foothold on the Perth property market. Emma says she later wondered if they probably jumped the gun a bit – they were that eager to get out of their rental. “I think our dislike of our rental pushed us to look to buy sooner than was probably ideal, given that we didn’t know much at all about Perth,” she tells me. “When the renovations were taking their toll, we often asked ourselves whether we had done the right thing buying this home!”
Built in 1979, the double brick, four bedroom, two bathroom house was built back when Willetton was a new suburb. “The house contained many of the “classic” features of this style of home in this area: arches, a sunken lounge, and it used to have clinker brick and the most horrendous mould-look tiles in the bathroom,” groans Emma. “I find it difficult to understand how these were ever fashionable but I’m given to understand that they were!” (Maybe they disguise real mould?)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the house had been on the market for a while. “It had been a rental for a long time and was generally pretty rundown,” says Emma. “It smelled and it took years to get rid of the smell!” (I am beginning to see that so many things about Craig and Emma’s renovation story remind me of Mr Nerd and I and our journey with the Crap Shack!)
Emma and Craig could see beyond the dated features and the aroma to the home’s scope for a lovely, sizeable, green backyard. “People seem to have gone to extra ordinary lengths to ruin the layout of their home and create concrete wonderlands in their backyards,” continues Emma.
“In the end, this was one of the few homes that we walked into that had some established trees/plants and an intact layout that we could work with. It had good solid bones and compared to many of the homes that we had looked at, we were happy that it had some established plants – a big beautiful liquid amber greeted us in the front yard – and the layout hadn’t been ruined. Other viewers at the home open would walk in and straight out again but Craig and I remember standing in the backyard saying, ‘This has potential!’
“We had renovated our flat in Canberra and had a bit of a taste for it so we were prepared to do a bit of work. It’s fair to say that we didn’t expect to take on a project that needed absolutely everything doing, though!”
The house had had some work done in the early ’90s but the kitchen was an original ’70s style “pizza kitchen” as Emma and Craig called it, with a red lino benchtop teamed with exposed clinker brick – very ugly! “The dark clinker brick sucked all the available light out of the family room and lounge room and created a safe haven for small creatures,” remembers Emma. “There were white tiles on the floor throughout that had a salmon fleck and I just didn’t seem to be able to get them clean.” (Reminds me of our old 1970s white tile floors – you can see those before photos here!)
The bedroom in the carpet looked grey, but then Emma and Craig established it was actually pink. “The bathroom had an arch that made it feel tiny and the tiles that could only be likened to a mould swab through a microscope,” says Emma. “And did I mention that it stunk?”
I have to wince in commiseration – our house also had a funny ‘old house’ smell when we got it that we eventually deduced was the curtains and shagpile carpets (that promptly got binned). I am starting to see all these similarities between Emma and Craig’s house story and our own with the Crap Shack.
And, just like Mr Nerd and I within an hour of being handed the keys, Emma and Craig promptly set to giving the house a makeover. They didn’t (yet) love the house, but they felt like they could do something with it.
“We just wanted to create a nice, practical, family home for ourselves,” says Emma. “Initially the house was way too big for us and we lived only in the front part of the house, renovating one room at a time – we didn’t have enough furniture to fill it anyway.” (Yet another thing that reminds me of when we got our house – there would be weeks when I never ventured into the minor bedrooms, and the house even felt unnecessarily big – whereas now, with a little kid and a full home office set up here, I’m hungry for every square metre of space and have had to somewhat curtail my love of dragging home miscellaneous pieces of furniture found on the side of the road).
Like Mr Nerd and I, Emma and Craig did projects in bursts as their budget and time would allow. “We did our bedroom first so that we at least had a nice room to retreat to at the end of a hard day,” says Emma. “From there we painted the lounge room, kitchen and dining room and family room. Craig is a meticulous worker – painting each room took six weekends worth of work.”
Then it was time to say farewell to the pizza kitchen. Craig did the entire kitchen himself, with the help of this stepfather one week. “He refutes it – but it took three months,” says Emma. “I like to cook. Three months without a kitchen was tough! And the dust was incredible. He removed 350+ bricks from the kitchen, complete with eco-system.”
Emma then fell pregnant and, again just like Mr Nerd and I, she and Craig had a mad rush to try to finish renovation projects before their baby arrived. “We did our bathrooms when I was pregnant with our first child, Hannah,” she tells me. “The stress of doing the bathrooms and laying the floor gave Craig shingles! By the time we had our first daughter we had done all the interior except the laundry. Doing the laundry with a baby in tow was more difficult – dust and noise aren’t a baby’s best friend.”
They also eventually did the floor, and just like us, Emma and Craig were beyond happy to see the last of their old floor. “The floor completely transformed our house, as did the kitchen. I was so delighted to see the white filthy tiles go, I can’t tell you!”
But transforming the house did not always go harmoniously or according to plan. Living in a house as you renovate it can be quite frustrating at times, and it was especially difficult as Emma and Craig were still new to Perth, knew very few people here, and loneliness became another hard thing to cope with on top of the never-ending renovations.
“I used to cry because I felt like it was never going to end, especially early on when it was all before us,” reveals Emma. “I struggled because we had moved to a new city and all I really wanted to do was go to the beach, brunch and have beers by the pool.
“We made very few friends the first few years we were here – we were working or renovating! I had a demanding job (my first two years in a teaching and research role were a really steep learning curve) and I used to moan that I worked too hard during the week to spend my weekend crawling around in dust.”
I don’t know about you guys or if this is a little schadenfreude of me, but I am always a little heartened to learn that I am not the only one who fights with their partner while renovating!
When it comes to home improvement, Emma says she and Craig have different approaches that sometimes caused marital friction.
“He is meticulous and detailed, I am a “near enough is good enough” person!” she says. “This caused some clashes. I think we have a beautiful home because of his detail focus but Craig would never pay a professional tradesman if he could do the job (and mostly he could – with the help of Dr YouTube), nor would he allow friends to help – because he had enough self-insight to know that he would probably alienate them by being too demanding of detail!
“So everything that was done was done well, but took weeks. Renovating is incredibly stressful so we developed alter egos so that we didn’t bicker too much. Craig was ‘Trevor’ (because I would always be saying “whatever, Trevor” as I was being told to do something differently) and I was ‘Bob’, his surly apprentice. Make of that what you will.”
Trevor and Bob – I mean, Craig and Emma – also discovered the benefits of their suburb. “There is a big, beautiful park at the bottom of our street – it is next to a pond that is always full of ducks, and surrounded by enormous gum trees that provide shade even in the summer months,” says Emma. “The park and quiet cul-de-sac were part of the attraction of this house for us. We have also been fortunate to have some amazing neighbours – we have a street Christmas party every year and on the day we moved in, one neighbor stopped over with a cake, another with cookies. I feel like that doesn’t happen very often these days and we lucked out! There are also great Asian food options around us – I was beside myself with excitement when Yum Cha opened up down the road.”
Downsides to living in Willetton? Until recently there wasn’t a nice café in the area, says Emma. “Typically, I had enjoyed two periods of maternity leave without a decent coffee shop in walking distance when a lovely little café opened at our local shops the week I returned to work! The area has changed a lot since we bought and I can see signs that it is getting more lively – but we still bemoan a lack of a local pub, a bit more life.”
So – having a house that they now love but at one point loathed, what advice would Emma and Craig give to other home renovators who have acquiesced to their less-than-dream-house? “Do it in bursts – break it all down, do one project at a time – try to avoid looking at the big picture if the big picture is ugly!” says Emma. “And take breaks off in between to reward yourself.” Maya x