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This clever couple gave their Dunedin cottage a full makeover for $20,000

This couple managed a large-scale reno of their Dunedin cottage on a miniature budget – all while studying medicine and raising a baby

Meet and greet

Kenny Hau, medical student, Nikita Hau, kitchen designer and registered nurse, and Freddie, 16 months.


  • There was no dining room and the kitchen felt poky and enclosed.
  • The floor plan was dysfunctional and the rooms felt cramped.
  • The large, open-plan lounge, kitchen and dining area was hard to heat during winter.


  • The laundry was moved into the bathroom and the resulting space was used to create an open-plan dining room and kitchen.
  • Two chimneys and four fireplaces were removed to create large, square rooms with much more usable space.
  • A barn door with glass panes was added to allow the lounge to be shut off on cold nights, while still offering a connection to the kitchen area.

This clever couple gave their Dunedin cottage a full makeover for $20,000

When we say the Hau family are a hard-working bunch, we’re not exaggerating. Through savvy shopping, clever solutions and sheer hard graft, Kenny and Nikita have renovated almost an entire house with a budget smaller than what many would spend on a new kitchen or bathroom alone.

Throw in the fact that during the renovation Kenny was also studying medicine, Nikita was working full-time and their son, Freddie, arrived after a complicated pregnancy that required lots of to-ing and fro-ing from hospital, and you start to get the idea that this family doesn’t shy away from tough stuff. And at the end of the process? The Haus had completely overhauled the interior of their Dunedin home for less than $20,000.

But let’s start at the beginning. In 2015, Kenny and Nikita moved from New Plymouth to Dunedin so Kenny could pursue his dream of becoming a doctor. Even though student life meant they’d be cash-strapped, the couple were also ready to start a family so they set about doing what they could to reduce their weekly expenses. The biggest expense? Rent. “It became clear that purchasing an old, rundown house would be much cheaper than continuing to pay Dunedin’s high rents,” explained Nikita. So they started their search for a home.

The original house 

After an unfruitful 12-month search, the Haus stumbled across a dated, dark, 1910 weatherboard cottage with a peculiar layout and blue-and-brown colour scheme. It was perfect. They viewed the house during Nikita’s lunch break, went back for a second look that night and made an offer the next day. Their plan was to rejig the layout for better flow and use of space, as well as modernising the interior.

They intended to spend two years renovating, doing it room by room to minimise the mess and make it possible to live on-site. That was the plan – in reality, things hit fast-forward when they discovered they were having a baby. “Instead, it became a race to have the house as liveable as possible before our son’s arrival,” laughs Nikita. “Our poor midwife looked so concerned when we showed her the baby’s room, full of bricks from a removed chimney and missing half the floor!”

The reno

Budgets can quickly get gobbled up by labour costs alone, so Nikita and Kenny knew they had to roll their sleeves up and do what they could themselves. They also pulled in family and friends for working bees wherever possible. While other students spent their holidays relaxing or road-tripping, Kenny got stuck into DIY and Nikita joined in when she could. Walls came down, bulky fireplaces and chimneys were demolished, lino was pulled up, floors were fixed, and layer after layer of wallpaper was stripped. It was relentless, often back-breaking work.

“When we look back now, we can’t believe some of the conditions we lived through, especially during our first snowy winter when the house was full of holes. But we had a strong vision of what we wanted to achieve, which got us through,” Nikita says. At one point, visiting friends were relegated to sleeping on a mattress in the kitchen as it was the only room (other than the master) that was weather tight.

Opening it up 

By moving the laundry into the sizeable bathroom, the Haus were able to make better use of the space, create the open-plan flow they wanted and give the kitchen a feeling of spaciousness. It was one of the few jobs where they had to pay tradies (a plumber and electrician) but it more than paid off.

At $7000, the kitchen was their biggest investment (other than a new roof) but as a functional space and the centrepiece of their open-plan living area, it deserved to be. At the other end of the cost spectrum, the most profound change was also the cheapest: when the couple purchased the house, a large fireplace dominated each room, making the spaces feel cramped. Removing these freed up the house, giving the couple some big, open areas to work with.

“This was an awesome transformation which didn’t require any trades – just a hammer and hard work,” says Nikita. They were able to turn the space left by the chimney in the master bedroom into a walk-in wardrobe, giving them some much-needed storage. To solve the issue of storage in another area, the couple craftily upcycled an old wardrobe to hold cleaning equipment and products in their bathroom-cum-laundry.

Decor on a dime

Nikita and Kenny have a knack for budget buys. Not only did they bide their time and wait for the right pieces, they were also unafraid to ask retailers to match quotes or give a better deal. “If you are renovating on a budget, don’t be too proud,” says Nikita. “We think people can feel ashamed to say they want something at the lower end as though this reflects on them somehow. But owning a house and renovating it yourself is a massive achievement and one to be very proud of.”

New carpet and a fresh lick of paint in a neutral colour gave the couple the perfect backdrop for their decor. “We love a mix of vintage and new, colour and neutral, and pieces which don’t really appear to fit together but somehow do.”

The couple took their time furnishing their house, collecting and upcycling secondhand items as they came across them. “Typically, we find a centrepiece and build the room around it. Like the vintage dressing table we found at the Hospice Shop, which we painted green – we’ve complemented this with plants and natural fibres,” says Nikita.

The next move

Even though the renovation was brutal at times, Kenny is keen to dive back into another one. However, Nikita is reluctant to leave the cottage. Not only does she love this home, she can’t bear the thought of facing another on-site renovation… especially while she’s pregnant with their second child. “We are extremely proud to have created a cosy home in which to bring up our babies and we hope we can inspire others in a similar circumstance,” Nikita says.

Words by: Debbie Harrison. Photography by: Guy Frederick.

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