Greetings from Milwaukee! We are Andrew and Kiel, two thirty-something Millennial residents here since 2015. We moved here from San Francisco, along with Crimson, our adopted Chiweenie, looking for an opportunity for a slower life and a chance to be homeowners for the first time. Andrew is an apparel product developer and Kiel is an architectural design manager, and together our expertise and interests unite in a passion for developing the sense of place and experience.

Our first home brought us so much pride and joy, primarily through our achievements in first-timer home remodeling projects; this work not only taught us invaluable trade-type skills that we can continue to build upon in subsequent projects, but also helped us learn more about one another and added great new shared interests to the attributes of our relationship. DIY is not easy work, particularly when you’re juggling new careers and establishing a new social network, but the flow miraculously happens amidst the disagreements and the blood drops on the Hardibacker. Two years to the week of buying our house, we finished the major remodel, and with our new-found time off we quickly became restless and began to evaluate the answer to the question everyone kept asking: What’s next for you guys?

west elm - Midwest Malibu Cottage Home Renovation Journal

Illustration by Tallulah Fontaine

And what happened next is where this story begins. It happened by accident, really, one Saturday over brunch. Some friends of ours had recently moved and were trying to convince us to also pick up and move to their new zip code. Having just finished our two-year remodel project, we LOLed at the notion of moving, but the seed was planted and we thought it would be a good idea to open the Zillow app and waste the afternoon going to open houses, “just to see what’s out there.” Famous last words! As we pulled up on the street to the third house we looked at, the search concluded. Stepping out of the car, we looked down upon a tiny little ranch, heavy, late-Summer light pouring through the canopy of trees that surrounded it, and knew we were home.

What follows that moment is what we’re here to share. So, obviously we bought that quirky little house on a giant, wooded lot in a small village in the middle of the Milwaukee metro area. It seemed meant for us—the house had never really been updated and the property was maintained but not cared for—it was a big project that we suddenly summoned the gumption to take on. We welcome you into our life as we work to transform this place, inside and out, into our new (hopefully forever) homestead. Experts we are not, skills we have just some, but we do have an abundant vision and a (limited) budget and are here to share not just the glossy “After” shots, but the reality of what precedes those double-tappable Instagram moments. We know that we are fortunate to be able to be on House Two at this point in our lives, and from that experience we have advice to share, and we know that there are lessons we will learn along the way here. Welcome to our Midwest Malibu Cottage! We’re inviting you to follow along with us as we move through the house, and even the exterior, project-by-project, for the next few months.

It’s what sane people do, just buy another house on a whim, right? We really didn’t even talk that much as we toured the house and property; there was so much affirmational energy between us in the moment and when we got in the car to leave all we said was, “I guess we should call Mary.”

The House

west elm - Midwest Malibu Cottage Home Renovation Journal

west elm - Midwest Malibu Cottage Home Renovation Journal

Proven Advice: Have a great realtor you can trust.

We called our realtor [it’s odd to say that—we have a realtor that we’ve used multiple times?!], Mary, and she dropped everything to get us back into the house for the second time that night. By the end of the week, we had negotiated the accepted offer on the property, and began the march toward closing the deal. Buying a home for the second time was such a different experience; we knew what to expect, and with Mary’s expertise, it was just flawless and simple. The day we walked away from the closing table was kind of uneventful, because we were competent borrowers and we let our realtor do her job, so there was no nail-biting along the way. Except for one huge, 1,400-square-foot problem: selling the first house.

Lesson Learned: Listen to your realtor.

While we were second-time home buyers, we were now first-time home sellers. The idea of juggling two mortgages was the nail-biter, and even though we were conservative in our first home purchase so we technically could afford this new (luxury) problem, we panicked about the financial liability and felt we needed to offload House One ASAP. Our realtor was convinced that the work we had put into House One made it irresistible and it would sell quickly, so her advice was to stay put and leave House Two vacant so we could remodel with ease, and when we were done, we could move in. Nope, nervous Millennials know better, so we had her list the place and, as she expertly advised, we had an accepted offer in less than twelve hours. We should have listened, and now we are literally living in the consequences. In House One, we were able to slowly remodel room-by-room but we decided to hit this project more comprehensively, so we are living in an upside-down zone of unfinished confusion, which is a test of will for both of our personalities! But the reality is, we just didn’t see how we could pay two mortgages and be comfortable spending remodel dollars at the same time; it’s a sacrifice we had to make to be fiscally responsible. ::shrug emoji::

west elm - Midwest Malibu Cottage Home Renovation Journal

Let’s introduce this little cottage that has turned our lives upside down! We’re working with a small ranch, built in 1957, that has about 1,900 finished square feet, with three bedrooms and 1.5 bathrooms. It is located in a village of about 6,000 residents, right in the middle of the Milwaukee metropolitan area. The majority of the house is on the main level, but there is a family room and office/workspace in the basement that opens out to the rear patio. We do have a large amount of unfinished storage space in the basement, which includes a workshop as well, so we have plenty of room to make messes and store things as we work. Neither the exterior nor the interior of the home have been updated since some work was done in the 90s to freshen things up, which we actually are happy about, because we don’t have to undo anyone’s recent mistakes, and it’s essentially a blank slate for our vision.

The property totals three-quarters of an acre, which is six times the size of our former property, and is filled with a mature landscape and so.many.trees. The property setting is what sold this place to us: it reminds us of our favorite home in California, a peaceful, quiet place of privacy and connection to nature. There is a large terrace-landscaped back patio that provides a great spot to take in the surroundings. It’s all going to take a lot of work to restore and care for, but it’s something we envision ourselves doing together for years to come, something that will satisfy a shared passion. We feel fortunate to have come across such a place in the middle of an urban area. It bridges our Wisconsin life to the things we loved most about California.

This place isn’t perfect; not every box is checked. We have a one-car garage, which is actually a downgrade from our previous home’s two-car size, so we definitely compromised there and begrudgingly spent our first Wisconsin winter here shoveling-out and de-icing one of our cars. One component of our long-term plan for this property is to expand the garage. There are a few larger projects like this on our agenda, and while our budget doesn’t permit us to have it all right now, it gives us goals, and something to look forward to and around which we can prioritize our finances. We are always transparent about our limitations, both logistically and financially—we are real people with real checking accounts, so doing all the things all at once is just not something we can pull off.

Midwest Malibu Cottage

We’ve named this project the Midwest Malibu Cottage to most succinctly summarize the our conceptual vision. Our previous home was conceived around an idea of Scandifornia, in which we blended imperfect minimalism of Scandinavian influence with the bright, casual modernity of rural California, and we will definitely be utilizing those same filters here. But here we have this incredible woodland to look out upon from the house, which is just undeniably Wisconsin, and this is a certifiably traditionally-styled structure, bland as it may be, so we definitely live in the Midwest. But there was something that spoke to us about how this house allows you to look out the rear onto the landscape, and it took us to a place where we think of some beachside cottage in Malibu that is all bout embracing its adjacent landscape vista and opening out to it—our vista is just of trees, not ocean. And while 1,900 square feet is not a shack in terms of scale, we are positioned in a neighborhood where the neighboring homes are actually twice that size, so we do look like a cottage in comparison.

Now that we’ve established what we’re working with and our base concept, let’s walk through the house as we first found it to get a feel for what we’ve signed up for, and to help us laugh, because sometimes that’s all you can do (or cry).

Listing Photo Tour

west elm - Midwest Malibu Cottage Home Renovation Journal

Exterior – The exterior is clad primarily in wood clapboards, painted a forgettable taupe color. One of our favorite
elements is the transom-type windows that appear across the front facade; these are the original crank-out wood windows that have been left intact. Our favorite thing at the front facade is the use of stone accents, which are Wisconsin-indigenous limestone. We think a dramatic paint job and some light fixture updating will be a huge help to freshen this place up!

west elm - Midwest Malibu Cottage Home Renovation Journal

Living Room – Holy pumpkin pie! There is too much incredible natural light coming into this room to waste on such a dark wall color, and we’re like #byefelicia to that carpet. The fireplace stone also sucks a lot of light out of the room, and why is all of the furniture shoved into one half of this giant room?

west elm - Midwest Malibu Cottage Home Renovation Journal

Dining Room – A truly forgettable dining experience awaits you here! Except maybe for that curious use of textured wallpaper on the ceiling. This room has a secret past that we quickly figured out.

west elm - Midwest Malibu Cottage Home Renovation Journal

Kitchen – We literally can’t even with this kitchen. It’s the second house we’ve bought with orange countertops. Not sure when the cabinets on one side of the room got stolen. There’s not a lot of storage in here today, the appliances are so tired, and we’ll have you know that there are seven light switches to operate all of those super-sized recessed cans.

west elm - Midwest Malibu Cottage Home Renovation Journal

Powder Room – Mile-High Club is all that can be said about this petite room.

west elm - Midwest Malibu Cottage Home Renovation Journal

Master Bedroom – We love the transom-style windows, but their asymmetrical placement on that wall makes us twitch. Those windows also face East, so not a lot of natural light comes in throughout the day, so this room needs to LIGHTEN UP!

west elm - Midwest Malibu Cottage Home Renovation Journal

Guest Bedroom – The force is strong with this one, and we’re not talking about the Star Wars valance, which came free with purchase, btw. What’s strong in here is the curious use of exterior-grade paneling for the walls in here, and the mysterious soffit that sounds like it’s made of solid steel and serves no purpose in hiding mechanicals. Breathe. Just breathe.

west elm - Midwest Malibu Cottage Home Renovation Journal

Main Bathroom – Okay, glad we took a deep breath, cause this room just took it right back away. You know, the finishes are easy to change, but what we can’t necessarily change is an odd layout. This is the primary bathroom that must be shared in the morning, so we’ve got some work to do to accommodate more than one person and to do so within an environment that is serene. This room is not okay!

west elm - Midwest Malibu Cottage Home Renovation Journal

Family Room – We officially became Wisconsinites when we got excited for a finished basement. We finally made it. Lucked out here that we avoided the wood paneling, bar light, and red carpet that are a signature of the typical
Wisconsin basement.

west elm - Midwest Malibu Cottage Home Renovation Journal

Office/Workspace – Probably the easiest room to solve, yet we somehow have some big, expensive plans here. We are very excited to have a dedicated workspace, not having to use the Dining Room table or cram a desk into the Guest Room. Don’t jump for joy, ‘cause you’ll crash your noggin right into the furred-out air ducts above!

Check out our Pinterest board to see our inspiration for the overall concepts that we look to integrate here. We’ll be sharing more boards as we move through projects, room-by-room, to illustrate where our ideas are rooted. Many things we’ll be attempting are ideas we had immediately when we walked into this house for the first time, but there are some rooms that are either stumping us, or we can’t make up our minds – we’ve found Pinterest to be a great way to organize our thoughts and when we begin to stray or get stuck we can turn there to remain focused.

We just love this place – its imperfections, its unique layout, its foundation in greenery—we know we’re home and it’s not even wearing our influence yet. A lot of life is going to happen here. There is a plan, a vision for what’s about to happen here, and we are nervous about how it will unfold and that we’re going to be sharing it here for all to see. Surely not everyone will agree with our methods, our choices, our selections, but we know that we have learned so much from other DIYers that have come before us and bravely shared their processes, and we hope that we can inspire others, not even so much with style, but with courage, to create a sense of home for themselves that they are proud of. We look forward to this journey!

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June 27, 2018

You made me laugh out loud! I am originally from Northern Illinois, just a few minutes from the Wisconsin border. Good luck with the remodel. Hopefully many of your Wisconsin neighbors will be inspired as well!

Dottie Gray

June 29, 2018

Wow, so many HVAC Vent Sized Windows!

Hope the Roof Holds!


July 25, 2018

can’t wait to see what it’s become!! SOO much potential!

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