Unexpected trials and treasures during a major renovation of a 1901 house left these DIY newbies with a place worthy to call home.

By Sarah Wolf
Updated: February 11, 2019

When Elizabeth and Brian Burns inherited a circa-1901 house from Brian’s grandmother in a small North Carolina town, they were eager to roll up their sleeves, swing some sledgehammers, and shape it into their home. “We had watched way too much HGTV. We thought, we’ll just refinish the floors and paint the walls—it’ll be easy,” she says. “That was not the case, unfortunately. We thought we were a lot handier than we actually were."

But with the help of Jake Angi, a contractor and friend, the Burnses discovered all sorts of surprises lurking behind almost every wall. Some shockers were discouraging: extensive termite damage, for example, and plumbing and wiring that needed to be replaced. A few of the surprises made the couple smile. Beaded-board ceilings and oak floors in two rooms were salvageable, and several items discovered on the property found new life and purpose in the refurbished home to give it an aura of age.

The steps leading up to Elizabeth and Brian’s porch once marched down the left side. “We moved them to the front to make it more welcoming,” Elizabeth says. They sized the staircase the same width as the gap between the posts so they didn’t have to move or replace any of the front posts.

Because of their limited budget, Brian and Elizabeth installed almost everything themselves in the kitchen, including stock cabinets and laminate countertops. The aluminum windows in this space were replaced by vintage windows in the same size found on Craigslist, so all the home’s windows are now wood.

Original to the house, a former swinging door was pressed into service to separate the kitchen from the pantry and coffee bar. Because the door now slides on a rail, it requires no floor space to open.

The tile for the backsplash, which Elizabeth and Brian installed themselves, was a discontinued product on closeout at a home center. They bought all the available boxes at two different stores to have enough for the backsplash and a shower stall (not shown). “We figured out the cost, and it was 6 cents a tile,” Elizabeth says. “We did the whole backsplash for, like, $2.”

A sliver of space next to the microwave was too narrow for an upper cabinet, so they crafted two shelves from scrap wood to hold a few jars of seasonings. The countertops look like marble but are actually laminate, a spill-proof and low-cost alternative to stone. bonus: they are easy to install.

The stainless-steel appliances—dishwasher, range, microwave, wine refrigerator, and regular fridge—all came from Lowe’s. To save on this big expense, the Burnses waited for a sale (holiday bargains can net a 30–40-percent discount) and put the purchases on a store credit card, which saved an additional 5 percent.

An old board from one of the backyard sheds was cut into three shelves and mounted on the wall with iron brackets to provide simple open storage.

Once buried under wood paneling, the brick fireplace and chimney were almost an afterthought. But after the wall between the relocated kitchen and dining room came down, the fireplace (and its antique brick glory) could become the focal point it was meant to be.

“They do not make standard curtains that long, and I did not want to pay for custom,” Elizabeth says of the dining room’s tall ceilings and ceilingheight windows. Her ingenious (and no-sew!) solution: plain polyester tablecloths from Amazon, which she snapped up for a mere $5 a pop. A short spin in the dryer shook out the wrinkles, and she threaded the panels onto metal rods with curtain clips.

The living room stayed in its original spot at the front of the house. A few elements were salvageable, such as the French doors—which open graciously into the office— and oak floors.

The fireplace, unfortunately, was rendered useless because the outside chimney had crumbled, but the mantel is still charming. The bricks are actually veneer, a lightweight product that is glued to drywall with construction adhesive. Elizabeth painted their original red faces and black “mortar” lines with whitewash, then slipped an electric heater into the firebox for a warm glow.

Both Brian and Elizabeth sometimes work from home, so the office accommodates two with a clever T-shape configuration of three identical tables. The trio were castoffs the Burnses found strewn throughout the house—Brian’s grandfather made them decades ago. Elizabeth refreshed them with stain (on the tops) and paint (on the legs). A few coats of black chalkboard paint transformed thrift store paintings into wall-mounted work surfaces.

Much of the home’s supports and woodwork had been decimated by termites, but a few precious pieces, including the oak floors in the office and living room, could be saved. Elizabeth and Brian entrusted their contractor to match the old flooring with the new—a tricky task. “We love how it turned out,” Elizabeth says.

A tightly arranged matrix of art wrangles personal and peculiar finds in the office—a pet silhouette, old Hollywood thank-you note, and wood monogram, to name a few.

Originally the kitchen, the master bedroom was rebuilt “from the ground up, with new floors, new joists—everything,” Elizabeth says. One part that managed to make the transition from kitchen to bedroom: the beaded boards on the ceiling. But “they had a lot of grease and smoke on them,” Elizabeth says. “It took five coats of primer, but I finally got them white.”

The couple created a faux fireplace using a vintage mantel they refinished. While it doesn’t light, it still warms the room visually. Elizabeth swabbed on leftover chalkboard paint to create a “brick” surround—chalk lines stand in for mortar—and in the firebox, a pair of iron curtain tiebacks cradle a few logs from a fallen oak limb. Wrapped in battery-operated string lights, the logs look like a cheery, crackling fire!


Comments (5)

January 22, 2019
I have the exact same dining room chandelier! Purchased it at a consignment store. Looks lovely in your home!
October 15, 2018
I love how they created the fireplace in the bedroom. Just curious if they considered using a paint pen or small brush to paint on the grout lines. Beautiful home!
October 12, 2018
I just love what they did. It looks so nice!
October 5, 2018
Those tables worked out great in the office. Great idea
October 5, 2018
What a wonderful project! Good for you and you respected the 'personality' of the house.