Home Tours

How a smoke-stained cottage was transformed into the sweetest home

In just two months, this dark, smoke-stained cottage in Taupo was transformed into a sweet and soulful character home on a super-tight budget

Meet & greet 

Selena McWilliam, 33 (business owner and interior designer), Michael, 44 (builder), and Jordyn, 10.

Why did you purchase the house?

Selena: I fell in love with it; it was absolutely an emotional buy. I had always wanted to live in a home that had character in spades and this little cottage was absolutely perfect.

What did you love about it?

Everything! It is in an amazing location with vacant land stretching out in front of it, leading your eye out to the lake view. It’s tucked away in a quiet street that we didn’t even know existed until I saw the cottage advertised. The original features were what we really fell in love with: the gorgeous original doors and locks, wooden floors, high ceilings and panelling.

What era is the house?

It was built in 1930. From what we understand, the cottage was originally situated on a lakefront section and was moved to where it is now, overlooking the lake, in the 1990s.

Tell us about the buying process.

Houses with this sort of character are rare in Taupo- so there was a lot of interest in the property. It had sat empty for quite some time prior to being sold and was sold ‘as is, where is’ due to its neglected state. We managed to secure it at auction, I don’t think I have ever been so nervous in my life! Luckily, Michael can handle an auction like a pro.

Did you plan to live here?

This cottage was purchased with the intention of us moving into it a few years down the track after we had finished another project. It was going to be boutique Airbnb accommodation until then.

When did you start the project?

We started in September last year and completed it in November. The cottage was sold in December. This wasn’t part of our plan, but after being approached to sell it numerous times we decided to test the waters. The sale of our beautiful cottage has freed us up to finish another project that we have been working on.

Talk us through the process.

The reno was to have taken place in two stages. The first was to get it ready for Airbnb. The second stage was to be the final reno of the bathroom and kitchen for ourselves, but it was sold before we got to that stage.

What changes did you make?

We pulled out the existing wardrobes, carpet, curtains and the kitchen bench and all the broken door handles. All the windows and stays needed repairing or adjusting as well. There were parts of the cottage that had never been finished, like the bathroom and hallway which were missing finishing trims. There were also weatherboards that needed replacing and the double garage that desperately needed a reclad.

We had all the exterior walls insulated with Insulmax, a blown insulation. We then had the painters sand the interiors right back. Owing to all the smoke stains and neglect from the previous owners, this was a bigger job than we’d anticipated. But the transformation was incredible once it was painted white. The exterior of the house had to be sanded and chemical-washed in places, too, due to the condition of the paint.

We ripped out the almost non-existent kitchen and installed a temporary one for Airbnb guests, including appliances, and put new carpet in the front bedroom as the flooring didn’t match the rest of the house. We replaced all the original locks with brand-new rim locks – one of my favourite features. We then installed guttering and soak pits so that we could get building consent.

Were you daunted at all by the prospect of such a big project?

Not at all. I was completely in love with the cottage and didn’t care how much work it needed. We knew exactly what we wanted to achieve.

To help with the project, I put together a 3D concept on the software programme SketchUp. This allowed us to keep our vision on track and cost it accurately. It also enabled me to place the furniture I wanted to purchase and ensured that everything worked together. Michael and I make a great team and our skill sets complement each other, which is a bonus.

Were there any issues in the house you wanted to fix?

Well, it didn’t have a proper kitchen, so that was high on our list. Houses of this age tend to have good bones, although this one was severely neglected so it needed a lot of attention. It also didn’t have building consent when we purchased it so drainage had to be installed and council plans updated before we could get consent.

Did you do most of the work yourselves?

Michael is a builder so he took care of all the building work. We also have a great team of tradies that we work with regularly. Because we needed a quick turnaround with this project, we brought in professional painters, which was a total luxury for us.

What inspired you to go all white?

The interior was very dark – it was mostly painted a dark green when we purchased it – so we really wanted to lighten it up. White highlighted the beautiful old features in the house such as the tongue-and-groove walls, wide architraves and gorgeous wooden windows. It transformed the small space, making it feel light and liveable – such a long way from the smoke-stained, forgotten cottage we’d started with. It also made the perfect contrast to the wooden fireplace, which was installed in the 1990s. And if I’m honest, I love white on white. It has become my signature style.

What are the challenges and bonuses of working with an older home?

The main challenge is never knowing what you are going to find, but the bonus is that you have so much history and character to work with. It becomes about uncovering what it once was – enhancing what was originally there and modernising it.

Any disasters?

A badly injured ankle on the first day meant I spent the first part of the project on crutches and the rest of it limping. I really struggled with not being as hands-on as I would have liked and it meant an increased workload for Michael, which was tough.

What was your budget and did you manage to stick to it?

The final cost was roughly $60K. We always keep to the budgets we set. We spend hours planning and costing everything before starting any project, ensuring that we always know what a project will cost us. Any overspends are pulled back in other areas.

It can be hard with an older home like this where you often don’t know what you will find until you start, but having a contingency fund and being prepared to be flexible with your wish list means that you can stay on track financially.

Where did you save money, and what did you splurge on?

As Michael did all the building work, we saved a lot. For me, this project was a lesson in styling on a very tight budget; I actually enjoyed it more than I thought I would. There is something very satisfying about pulling together a beautiful home in such an affordable way. Our big splurge was getting painters to paint the interior and exterior – normally that’s our job. We also had all the external walls insulated to make the cottage cosy for Taupo-’s freezing winters.

Best moment during the process?

Being able to work together. I treasure those moments where the three of us work together, especially during the less stressful parts of the project. Our daughter, Jordyn, has wonderful ideas and is fantastic with colours. It’s nice to be able to build on those skills with her; her renovation knowledge is amazing.

What’s your favourite feature of the new space?

I can’t pick just one. This cottage isn’t just about how it looks; it’s the feeling it gives you. It has all the modern conveniences you need but with such a rich history everywhere you look. It feels like a place that has many stories and a place to make amazing memories.

See the before and afters below 


Interview by:  Fiona Ralph. Photography by: Selena McWilliam.

This article was first published in Your Home and Garden. Follow YHG on Instagram, Facebook and sign up to the fortnightly email for inspiration between the issues.

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