When you were growing up, you probably dreamt of the day you’d have your own place. I was way too dorky to get invited to house parties and do normal teenager things like hook up with boys, so daydreaming about my future house was pretty much my hobby. One of my first (and quite possibly strangest) blog posts was about how I even kept a glory box.
Fast forward to actually having my adult home and the reality has been so different to what I had imagined! The quaint English-style cottage with a rose garden I envisioned buying when I was a teenager somehow became a 3×2 brick and tile, fixer-upper 70s house in the ’burbs.
Sure, I liked the house when I first saw it at the home open. It made me smile. That lion’s head door knocker! Shagpile carpet! A 1970s bar! Orange glass windows! We threw a 70s-style housewarming in celebration and took Polaroids. And we got a dog.
After a while, though, things seemed less quaintly charming (but the dog has remained cute). The brown bathroom with the pink roses on the tiles wasn’t funny, it was horrible. The old windows that couldn’t be opened were just annoying. The dark sunroom with the stained roof was depressing.
What shocked my naïve 20-something self was how LONG it would take to make this house feel like MY home. But eventually it did – and no, we didn’t have to renovate the entire house for it to feel that way.
I realised that so many of my friends and people I meet are in the same boat (or they have been) – struggling to make the place they live in feel like THEIR home. They don’t like where they are.
I figured there are lots of different reasons and situations where a house you’re living in might not quite fit the ‘home’ bill yet:
• You’ve just moved into a rental.
• You’ve bought your first home! It’s definitely a ‘first home’ kind of home though.
• You’ve bought a fixer-upper that you plan to fully extend and renovate. Eventually… one day…. when you can afford it.
• You bought an old house for its block, and years from now your aim is to bulldoze the house and build anew.
• You’re saving a deposit for your own place… so you’ve moved back home into your parents’ granny flat in the meantime.
• You’ve finished building a brand new house but it doesn’t feel finished or ‘yours’ yet.
Whichever scenario, coming home to a place you’re not happy with isn’t nice. Whatever stage of life you’re at, your house should feel like home – a retreat that makes you feel good.
So I decided to write this post for anyone who feels like their energy sags when they get home, who’s struggling to make their house feel like home.
Take it from someone who’s lived amidst the renovating rubble, disorganisation and strange hand-me-down furniture for years (friends will attest) – the sooner you make your living situation feel like home, the happier you’ll be there and in your life in general. Even if your finances don’t stretch to a full reno, there are loads of things you can do. Today I’m going to share some of my ideas.
EMBRACE THIS STAGE IN YOUR LIFE
Hands up who loves looking through your parents’ old photo albums? I love seeing photos from ‘back in the day’. Dad in flares, Mum when she had a perm, and what the house I grew up in used to look like.
Hey shagpile carpet! (Luckily it’s now been pulled up in favour of lovely jarrah boards). You can see I clearly already had a keen sense of irony from a young age, sitting amongst my daggy furniture wearing my Gucci tee.
My parents both migrated to Australia, my mum from Germany, my dad from Sri Lanka, and they both started their lives here from very modest beginnings. The house I grew up in was initially a two bedroom, single bathroom 1950s brick cottage that they slowly extended and renovated as they could afford it. It’s now been added onto so many times and the floor plan is so winding with so many nooks and unexpected turns and rooms that my sisters’ friends nicknamed it ‘The Burrow’ after Ron Weasley’s house in Harry Potter.
Initially it was simple and small (above is the old back garden, where my parents added an aviary against the house) but I never remembered it as anything other than the most awesome home. Kids don’t care that much about aesthetics!
My parents entertained weeknights and weekends and we always had parties, with everyone squashed around the small dining room for birthday cake cutting. The block was (and is) a quarter acre and the big backyard felt like a labyrinth. My sister and I pretended the shagpile was grass for our toy dinosaurs. We ate popsicles sitting on the chipped concrete step off the old sunroom. Baths were sometimes in the laundry sink. It was not a fancy or styled or precious house at all and I loved growing up in that house.
I feel like the first house we live in is not MEANT to be the dream house. It’s like your first car. The first car is not meant to be a lovely car. How are you going to appreciate the nice car unless you’ve endured the hardships of a 1984 Toyota Camry that smelled like an old workout towel and had a heart-stopping habit of sighing dramatically and turning off at traffic lights while you pleaded with her to start again for the next five minutes while angry commuters in rush hour traffic honked at you? (Before she completely died on your parents’ verge, to be eventually traded for a bottle of wine by your dad’s car dealer friend, who later calls and says he wants his wine back? RIP Betty).
RELAX A LITTLE…
I feel like my generation has been brought up on this media diet, particularly social media, that makes us subconsciously feel like we should have this perfect life and that we are failing in some way if we are not achieving everything at once.
We go on social media and we see updates from friends doing exciting things and ticking boxes on bucket lists; year travelling Europe, getting engaged, getting a dog, getting a promotion, buying a beautiful house, buying an investment property, renovating a house, beginning a start-up, having a baby, having a dream career, awesome nights out, great wardrobe and on and on. We not only think we CAN have it all, we start to expect that we should.
Close friends will tell you that I’m always preaching some random saying for every situation. But I do like my random sayings! And something (that I really do tell myself all the time) when I feel that crazy urge to be achieving everything at once is, “You can do anything, but not everything.”
I think a lot of us need to calm down! It’s unrealistic to feel like you should have everything at once – perfect home, perfect relationship, career, garden, travel plans, hair. The people who have all those things are secretly aliens with really good stock in dry shampoo.
PUT UP YOUR PERSONAL STUFF
Ok, minimalism is totally in right now, right? I get it. I really do. When I’m frazzled, sometimes there is nothing that calms me down more than having a big declutter and throwing out some T-shirts I once had a bad day in.
But you know what? There are some things I’ve given away, even years ago, that now I actually wish I still had.
Don’t look at minimalism as the solution to all your problems. Is your life really going to improve because you gave that plate to Good Sammy’s? Probably not.
Plus it’s so very nice to go over someone’s house and see the things that make them tick, isn’t it? To see what books they’ve read and photos of things they’ve done. I don’t know… I think some people go so crazy with the minimalism or in making their house Instagram-worthy with all the right, on-trend products styled in the right, on-trend way that their homes no longer show THEIR personality in them.
Why not embrace your maximalism a little? Homes should reflect the people who live in them. Don’t be embarrassed to display the things that are a part of you and that you love, whether it’s your pottery frog collection or that unnerving yet intriguing self-portrait you painted in Year 12 Art.
RESIST THE URGE TO BUY EVERYTHING FROM ONE SHOP
Rooms and homes are so much more interesting when they’ve been decorated with things from all different sources, rather than when someone has gone to IKEA and pretty much copied a display room item-for-item. Mix old and new, IKEA with vintage. People can tell when you have bought every item from Freedom. I love it when I feel like I have things that have a story behind them.
Don’t rush to just fill your home with meaningless or cheap things – take your time to attain things you really like, even if it’s a $20 chair you found from a vintage market. The end result will be a layered, way more interesting and more homely look. Especially if you share my fondness for vergeside collections! I think I furnished half our home with vergeside finds when I moved out.
DON’T BE AFRAID OF ENTERTAINING!
So, why does it feel like so many people are afraid of having guests over? It makes a bit sad when I hear people say that they NEVER have people over, and I feel like sometimes people never entertain because they are embarrassed of their home and they think people will judge them. Or they’re too afraid to invite people over for a meal because they think they are going to muck it up, no-one will want to eat their home cooking or baking, etc.
I get it, I do. Planning and preparing a decent meal for people can be a little nerve-wracking if you are not a natural Masterchef. There’s always so much to think about, you want to time it right, what if you burn it, what if your friends don’t get along and the conversation is stilted? etc.
Trust me though. True friends will love coming round to your house at no matter what stage it’s in. We’ve had friends who have come round impromptu for fish ‘n’ chips for dinner, who are happy just chilling in the backyard around the fire with us because the house was bare of furniture and the house was midway through a dusty kitchen reno. What’s that saying? (Yeah, I got a saying). Those who matter don’t mind, and those who mind don’t matter.
The more you entertain, the better you get at it and the more comfortable you’ll feel about inviting people over (even last minute). Good friends don’t care what your house looks like or if you’re midway through your laundry reno. They just want to have a nice night with you.
Please have little parties and people over for dinner and enjoy the heck out of your home.
Honestly, the more people share your home over fun nights, the more you’ll close the front door on your guests feeling happy and buzzing with wine, feeling like YOU actually like your home more.
MY TIPS FOR MAKING ENTERTAINING EASIER
Mr Nerd is a champion at inviting people over for dinner and telling me about an hour before (honestly though, I enjoy it) so we’ve gotten pretty good at the hasty ‘shove everything in the cupboard and pull out the vacuum cleaner to get rid of all the dog hair’ routine.
My tips: House smells like paint, plaster dust, dog, cat, all of the above? I burn one of the Glasshouse candles by the front door (the Vanilla Caramel one is incredible) and guests arrive cooing, “Ooh, did you make cupcakes?” No, I did not make cupcakes. I just like to disappoint guests at the front door so their expectations for the night are set nice and low. You can also mask smells by putting a teaspoon of cinnamon in a pot of water and warming it on the stove.
Before your guests arrive, turn off the ceiling lights, put nice scented candles everywhere. Yes, your guests may arrive and initially be nervously whispering to each other, “Are we going to have a séance or are they going to try to seduce us?” but it makes any more undesirable aspects of your house look quaint and romantic rather than dodgy.
Get some board games for ice breakers. Yeah, I am a total game nerd, I own it (and I will kick your butt at Pictionary). Two of my favourites that are easy to learn and great for group situations: Scrabble Catchphrase and Dobble (you will have your quietest, shyest friend screaming at everyone and jumping on the table, right Kate).
Have a pot luck dinner where everyone brings a plate. Birthdays – tell people no presents but that it would be appreciated if people could bring a plate. We have done this many times.
Also people will forgive a less-than-stellar dinner effort (or party bag effort, although to give myself credit, I included an amazing oven-roasted chip recipe in my potato party bags) if you give them food like amazing melty brie topped with honeycomb. In fact, I think a brilliant, no-fuss meal for entertaining is cheese (try hot melted raclette – yum) cured meats, gherkins, fruit, nuts, honeycomb, crackers, crusty bread etc, all on big share boards – lots of yummy things to pick at all night long. Yum.
CHOOSE YOUR STARS – AND SUPPORTING CAST
It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking you have to spend a lot of money to have a beautifully renovated and styled home, but Angove Street Collective designer Greg Baker told me once you actually shouldn’t aim to have expensive, amazing everything.
The trick to good design without breaking the bank is deciding which pieces should be the centre of attention and which ones should let the focal points sing.
“I tell clients that your interior is like a stage; you need a supporting cast and a star,” he says. “Not everyone can be a star but if you have a good supporting cast – for example, simple but quality white tiles – the furniture can be the star. Save some of that star budget for the end and buy a feature armchair or a beautiful lamp, a piece you will really use and love that people will really notice. Save early on in the project. You’ll have to decide on things like tiles and benchtops early but once the house is done, it blends into the background. If you’ve saved you can buy a really beautiful piece of furniture.”
Or save for renovations and make your money pay off that way. We lived with yellow 70s glass in our walk-in robe for five years… it was a happy day when it was finally time to replace it!
MAKE DO – PUT YOUR MONEY IN INVESTMENT PIECES
When my dad moved from Sri Lanka to Australia and was living in his Mt Lawley bachelor pad, he built himself a bookcase out of bricks topped with planks before he finally invested in beautiful, solid string shelving that he still has today.
Make do with what you have or what you can thrift cheaply or scavenge. If you buy something that you tell yourself is “just for a few months” (as I did with an ugly melamine set of drawers I once paid a ridiculous $30 for from a nasty secondhand shop for clothes storage) trust me when I say that ‘just for a few months’ piece will probably end up staying with you like a bad smell for the next four years!
Save your money for things that you really love that will stand the test of time or put a little effort into op shopping, verge hunting, browsing Gumtree or checking out trash and treasure markets.
BUY NEUTRAL STAPLE PIECES
I used to tear out pictures from magazines of interior design schemes I loved and keep them in folders (now I have Pinterest). It’s funny sometimes looking back at them; what I thought was perfection when I was 18 isn’t what I would choose now. My personal taste has changed SO much since the day I moved out. And I would suspect this happens to a lot of people! It’s pretty rare that someone’s taste in interior design doesn’t change as they get older.
So if you are styling your home on a limited budget, probably don’t go too crazy on spending money on big ticket items that will anchor you to a particular design theme.
While I dream of having the nerve to jump into a bold colour choice like my friend Carla from Etica Studio did with her dreamy navy sofa, I know that I don’t have such a good eye for design as Carla does.
So for me, it’s probably a much safer choice to stick with a neutral base and layer coloured accessories over it. If you’re worried about picking a bold colour or you don’t have a big budget for decorating, you can’t go wrong with purchasing your big items – couches, dining table, chairs, coffee table, bed – in classic neutral colours and woods, and slowly adding colours to your home in the form of cheaper accessories like bed linens, plates, cushions, pots, inexpensive rugs. Neutral bases don’t have to mean beige, bland and boring.
MIX UP TEXTURES
On that note – incorporate different texture. Just like when you’re eating a meal, texture helps make interior design schemes interesting. If everything in your room is white, shiny, glossy lacquer, it’s going to feel very clinical and boring quickly.
Mix up textures – leather, textiles, lacquer, reclaimed wood, etc, to keep things interesting.
Also don’t be afraid to mix woods! It’s such a myth that you need to keep timbers through your home identical. Greg agrees. “Some people will say, I can’t have a walnut cabinet because I have jarrah floors, but is the forest all one wood? Mix it up. I think these days we’re appreciating the beauty of old wood and recycled timber more. Don’t be afraid to use a range of different timbers.”
BECOME A CRAZY PLANT PERSON
Move over, cat lady. Crazy plant lady is HERE and she’s brought her kalanchoe. Plants are the number one thing that will make any interior design scheme look a little bit brighter and more homely, I swear. Are you a plant killer? It’s ok. My top picks are mother-in-law tongues, fiddle leaf figs (nice light, don’t overwater) ficus or rubber trees, devil’s ivy, ZZ plants, umbrella trees and succulents. If you have black thumbs, I wrote this article on 10 great indoor plants and how to look after them for Houzz.
COVER THE NASTY
If you’re planning a full reno one day but right now your kitchen tiles are hurting your eyes, we’ve got options! There are tile paints AND there are even peel and stick tiles. Perfect for renters. Try Shopstyle.
We used to have a lovely little hole in our tiled floor, where a tile got jackhammered up by mistake right by the bathroom. I bought a $4 piece of lino from Bunnings and stuck it down to cover it up for the time being. Then pretended I was stepping on a Carrera marble slab. Be inventive. Really hate your kitchen floor? What about putting down black and white lino tiles for the time being?
PAINT CAN DISGUISE MANY UNATTRACTIVE FEATURES
Not just walls. You can paint pretty much anything these days. Laminate, wall and splashback tile, even showers, benchtops (there are even DIY solutions for making laminate benchtops look like granite ones). Remember when I painted our old kitchen splashback tiles.
You can even spray paint tapware with the right product. (I haven’t done this).
FAREWELL NASTY WINDOW TREATMENTS
One of the very first things I did to our house was yank off all the nasty vertical blinds and the fluffy floral curtains from the kitchen. Phew. (And then I lived with newspaper on our bedroom window for a while as I waited for our blinds to be shipped, but hey, it was NEWSPAPER I CHOSE). Vertical blinds were so popular in the 90s weren’t they? I remember my parents extended their house and got them and man was I impressed back then. But now they’re very dating, and they look cheap. I’m a big believer in swapping them out for curtains!
I get curtain rods from IKEA – they’re cheap as chips and they have a really nice range of curtains and sheers as well. On that note, sheers are great for gently camouflaging a less-than-lovely window or view, while still bringing in nice diffused light and making a room look a little bit more expensive. Blockout curtains are also great if your windows get direct light in either the late afternoon or early morning (good for nurseries!) Blockouts can be expensive but Freedom have some decently priced ones.
FAIRY LIGHTS WILL DISGUISE ALL KINDS OF THINGS
I don’t care how old you are or how manly your husband is. Fairy lights are awesome. And so are bulb lights for taking a garden from daggy to hipster-friendly.
TINY, DARK ROOM? FIND YOUR DARK SIDE
Old houses in Australia are particularly well-known for having small, dark rooms. Historically, it made sense. We weren’t too savvy back then about solar passive design. And having a dark room that didn’t receive a lot of direct sun was one way architects and builders knew to keep a home cooler in our long, agonising Australian summers when air-con didn’t exist yet.
But what to do now if your old house has a dark, little room? Your first reaction might be to go white to “open the space up”. But what if you go the opposite? Go very dark. Dark paint can have a way of blurring the lines of a room and making them recede. Abigail Ahern does dark paint very well and very bold.
This little 34sqm home has dark walls and doors throughout and it works so well, especially with lighter pieces of furniture and accessories that pop against the dark grey-blue paint.
While white walls are lovely and will probably never go out of fashion, what I love about really dark paint is that it looks so good and just deliberate, like you are some interior design maven who knows exactly what they’re doing and has absolutely no fears about painting their walls with a dark colour that will probably take about 18 coats of primer to get rid of.
Also, dark paint looks great on walls and in houses that aren’t perfect. Somehow those weirdly textured walls look wonderfully tactile and interesting. (I wrote this post a while ago about working black into your home, and this post about how I painted part of our entry way black).
GET A SKYLIGHT
If dark still isn’t for you… my parents-in-law recently installed a skylight into their dark country kitchen and the difference it has made was amazing. It was about $1000 and now they never need to turn their lights on in the day.
SPEND MONEY ON THE THINGS YOU USE THE MOST
I am such a skimp, so this is something I’ve learned the hard way. My aunt told me the saying, “Buy it once, buy it for life.” Meanwhile I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been tight with my money and bought the cheap thing only to have to replace it three or four times. I should have just bought the expensive well-made thing to begin with!
A few instances where I actually have and it’s paid off: a beautiful piece of Laguiole bakeware, a Nylex non-kink garden hose (I am an expert at tying garden hoses into knots, but these really don’t kink) really good secateurs/hedge trimmers, quality outdoor furniture, my enamel colander, a secondhand but solid coffee table that’s been danced on by six people at once at a party and miraculously survived.
Big thanks to People’s Choice Credit Union for supporting this post! People’s Choice Credit Union recently won a CANSTAR award for their first home buyers home loans with competitive interest rates. You can visit their website here, read about their first home buyers loans here, or follow them on Facebook, Twitter @peopleschoiceAU or on YouTube.