How "I Spy DIY" Blogger Jenni Yolo Quickly Overhauled a $24K House

First-time homeowner and dedicated blogger Jenni Yolo shares her fast fixes for renovating a dilapidated Milwaukee house in just a few months.

It's hard to believe, given how bright and crisp this century-old house looks, that it was once a forlorn foreclosure owned by the city of Milwaukee.

Jenni Yolo, a blogger who crafts and chronicles at I Spy DIY, remembers it well. Darkened by dropped ceilings, layers of filthy flooring, and a few hundred cockroaches and rodents, the two-story house was almost hopeless.

"But a couple of things drew us to it," Jenni says. "The price point of $24,000, which meant I could put a decent amount of money into it because it needed to be gutted—I wanted a house I could totally customize and make into what I wanted. And the location: It's in a really cool, up-and-coming neighborhood in Milwaukee called Walker's Point."

couple on deck stairs in front of house
Jenni Yolo

With these two benefits in the "pro" column, Jenni took the leap, configuring cabinet layouts, vaulting the ceilings, pulling up tile, and scoring styling steals from eBay and World Market. The result is a cozy but airy gem nestled in a chic neighborhood that channels Jenni's design vision.

"I love that amazing sense of pride when you do something yourself and it turns out," she says. She should definitely be proud of a project completed well—and in a whirlwind.

Almost every inch of every surface of the circa-1885 house was refreshed and revamped, including the exterior. Board-and-batten vinyl siding on the upper level and a new metal roof give it a smart, tailored outlook. The old concrete porch was sheathed in cedar planks, and the railings, columns, and steps are made of the same red-tone wood. Watery blue-green paint charms the front door—the back door wears the same color.

kitchen with wooden dining table
Jenni Yolo

The kitchen faces the backyard, so pretty views were a priority. Homeowner Jenni Yolo opted for windows instead of wall cabinets, allowing the whole kitchen (and the adjacent dining and living rooms) to shimmer in sunlight. Somewhat splurgy copper sconces are absolute eye-catchers, and they elevate the rest of the room. She balanced the budget with $60 glass-globe pendants (from Amazon) over the peninsula.

kitchen with wooden shelving and white cabinets
Jenni Yolo

"I moved things around quite a bit" when planning the kitchen, Jenni says. The trickiest part was where to put the refrigerator. Settling it opposite the range and surrounding it with cabinetry let other elements fall into place.

Salvaged wood shelves bring a sense of character and age to the otherwise-new kitchen and draw the eye up toward the tall ceilings. The backsplash is covered in inexpensive white hexagon tiles, which were trickier to get right than one would think.

"They can be a bit of a pain because they're on a mesh backing, and it's hard to evenly space the sheets," Jenni says. Choosing pale grout helps disguise any spacing snafus.

Jenni and her dad built wood doors and hung them on sliding hardware to resemble barn doors—they conceal Jenni's crafting lair.

wooden dining table with black chairs
Jenni Yolo

Jenni alerted workers to set aside the old 2×4s during demo. A carpenter then pulled all of the nails, planed the boards smooth, and glued them together as a tabletop for the dining room (it sits atop a welded metal base). Jenni applied a natural stain for a gorgeous glow.

Jenni Yolo

"Since the house is so narrow, I went with an open concept for the main level. I use rugs to define different rooms'; they ground each space so the space makes sense."

—Jenni Yolo
craft area with white shelving
Jenni Yolo

The compact craft room is outfitted wall to wall with modular furniture specially designed with crafting in mind, and it's stocked with all sorts of supplies and inspiration. The small glass jars are, believe it or not, yogurt cups that Jenni painted and repurposed to collect pushpins, rubber bands, and other bits and bobs.

One wall is "tiled" with cork squares, transforming it into a giant bulletin board. Jenni pins paint chips, fabric swatches, and other samples here to keep them in sight.

living room with two couches and display shelves
Jenni Yolo

Much of the focus during the remodel was to update wiring, plumbing, and insulation—improvements no one sees but that make a house livable. The house had almost no architectural interest worth saving, so Jenni started with a blank slate and designed an entire wall of shelves to anchor the living room.

"I love thrift shopping, and now I have a place to display everything I find—much to my husband's chagrin," Jenni jokes. Her treasures include empty liquor bottles with fabulous lettering on the labels (a hard-fought eBay battle), nubby-textured baskets from World Market, and vintage books she buys based only on their color (they make really cool displays!).

sitting area with wooden table
Jenni Yolo

Rather than staring at a TV in the center cubby, Jenni and husband David sit under the watchful gaze of a bull—well, a bull portrait by artist Amy Carroll for Minted.

"I love how simple these portraits are and that they nod to Wisconsin without being hokey." A piece of outdoor furniture now at home inside, this teak stool stands in as a side table. Jenni rubbed it with beeswax oil to seal it, "and it turned that beautiful color," she says.

A thick slice of cypress—unearthed at a local salvage store—bloomed into the most conversational coffee table with the addition of a few hairpin legs screwed to the underside.

bedroom with dark green walls
Jenni Yolo

What looks like pricey paneling on the guest bedroom walls is actually more of a save than a splurge. Jenni simply coated the walls with deep green paint, applied 1×2 boards every 18 inches to mimic battens, and painted them the same green. The "paneling" is capped by an old piece of barn wood Jenni stumbled upon at a salvage store and installed with metal brackets from The Home Depot. It's the perfect perch for a mirror, vase, and paintings, which Jenni swaps out regularly.

wooden cupboard with decor
Jenni Yolo

A standard four-drawer dresser ($120, Target) resembles an antique map cabinet with a little lumber, old-fashioned hardware, and a drill. Each of the four drawers looks like three shallow ones because Jenni fastened three thin wood strips to each drawer face and added knobs and metal labels.

Jenni is an expert at arranging art in a thoughtful but casual manner. This vignette works because she mixed the sizes and heights of the three frames, and two of the pieces overlap. A vase, tray, and votive holder round out the darling display.

David had these walnut hooks (an Amazon purchase) in his bedroom before he and Jenni were married, "And I stole the idea from him—I loved how they looked," she says.

work area in corner
Jenni Yolo

This nook in the primary bedroom serves as I Spy DIY's headquarters: It's where Jenni uploads photos, answers reader questions, and writes about her adventures in remodeling. She keeps the "office" simple, with a vintage lamp and World Market desk.

A purchased metal blanket ladder displays a clutch of cozy textiles and throws, including one that Jenni dreamed up. The black one with the arrow motif—it says "Naps with Griff" on it, in honor of her pup—was woven by Shutterfly using Jenni's design.

bed with patterned blanket
Jenni Yolo

Raising the ceiling in the primary bedroom makes the room look gigantic and spacious. Jenni took real advantage of the peaked roofline to bring volume into the room. Other large-scale choices visually expand the room: tall, sheer curtains at the windows and an enormous modern chandelier mounted on the ceiling.

Jenni Yolo

"I like to do a mix of thrifting an retail shopping—it's one of my favorite pastimes!—And here it's against a modern, blank-slate background."

—Jenni Yolo
corner of bathroom with bathtub and ladder
Jenni Yolo

Through most of the house, Jenni steered away from too-trendy finishes, but she couldn't resist a super-chic brushed gold tub faucet and showerhead. "It brought a nice level of luxe to the room," she says.

A hot bath is sometimes the only way to chase away winter's chill, so Jenni created a "bath board" out of scrap lumber that straddles the tub to hold a book, a drink, and her phone—just in case she needs a long soak.

Previously yellow and in a different room, a spray-painted black ladder fits right into the bath's sophisticated scheme.

black and white bathroom
Jenni Yolo

Three layers of old tile once mottled the floor. After they were all scraped up, matte black hexagonal tile went down—a modern look at a modest price.

Classic subway tiles are almost unrecognizable when placed in a 90-degree herringbone pattern. Edged with black grout, the pattern gets even more play—but didn't cost an extra penny!

gray deck with seating area
Jenni Yolo

Neighbors "are so close that the roofs overlap," Jenni says, so privacy fencing in the backyard was essential. Fence panels step down from the deck to the yard so they're not monolithic, and Jenni whitewashed them with Behr stain for a softer look. A big deck spans nearly the width of the house providing plenty of room for lounging, entertaining, and manning the grill.

Jenni's sister and brother-in-law joined her quest to revamp the backyard. "It took three days and tons of dirt and sod, "Jenni says. But enjoying the fruit of their labors with barbecue and lemonade in the new yard? Worth it.

backyard seating area with shelf for plants
Jenni Yolo

Greenery doesn't just grow in the ground—it crops up in containers too! This fence panel hoists 15 pots of succulents, which almost look like artwork. "I wanted to bring some excitement to that fence, and it's like a living wall now," Jenni says. She spray-painted the terra-cotta pots pink for a softer look.

individual plants on fence
Jenni Yolo

Jenni secured her terra-cotta pots to the fence with inexpensive steel hooks.

"People always ask what we do with all of the pillows when it rains," Jenni says. The answer is that most of them stay inside all the time, even those that are meant for the outdoors, to keep them looking sharp and smelling fresh. "We bring them outside when we have an outdoor party," she says.

porch eating area with hanging plants
Jenni Yolo

A pink-painted planter attached to the wall places fresh herbs within a few feet of the back door. When Jenni and David are cooking, they just pop outside to snip a few sprigs."

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Jenni Yolo

Jenni Yolo is an author, TV personality, home renovation expert, and creator of the blog I Spy DIY, where she documents her passion for flipping forgotten houses in her hometown, Milwaukee. She's the owner of Crafted Host rental properties, the creator of "Handcrafted Home Projects" for DIY Workshop on Magnolia Networks and an on-air DIY expert featured on Good Morning America, HGTV, and Rachael Ray. Yolo is the author of "I Spy DIY Style," released in 2012.

She started off her career as a fashion columnist in New York, where her passion for all things DIY helped her build a reputation in the field. Her expertise and work have been featured on Good Morning America and Rachael Ray.

After moving back to her hometown, Jenni decided to take on one of her biggest DIY projects, buying a house built in 1890 and doing a full gut renovation, leading her to showcase the journey on an HGTV pilot, My Flippin' Friends.

Jenni attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, majoring in Journalism and Strategic Communications. She enrolled in Parsons School of Design, The New School, to continue her education in design.

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