A whole-house makeover transformed the cottage from run-down to super sweet.

By Zoë Gowen
May 24, 2021
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As an editor for shelter magazines, my day job was writing stories about beautiful homes while I lived in a tiny rental condo with too few windows. It was time I put those magazine ideas to use on a fixer-upper. When I landed this 800-square-foot 1943 cottage in Birmingham, Alabama, skeptics saw a cramped house with a falling-down garage. I recognized potential.

To keep from getting overwhelmed by my whole-house makeover, I limited myself to working within the original footprint and made improvements in stages. A goal of maintaining classic cottage-style elements, like the simple woodwork and the charming front porch, kept me focused while in the rabbit hole of design options. A good friend and Kismet led me to a great handyman who worked with me for three summers on my home improvement adventure, guided by the design and DIY lessons I've picked up through the years.

beige house gray awning
The exterior before.
| Credit: Laurey Glenn

First: Curb appeal means everything. Starting outside can rev you up for the rest of a rehab. It's like wearing your favorite outfit when you're feeling down. I demoed the low brick walls, steps, and railings (goodbye, fire ants living under my front porch) in favor of more inviting, low-slung white wooden steps that wrap the porch.

white house green white striped awning
The exterior after.
| Credit: Laurey Glenn; Stylist: Mark Thompson

White paint, a snappy accent color, a Dutch door, and window boxes perked up the place. I saved the awnings—they keep energy bills down, and I like them—but striped them. After this upgrade, Uber and food delivery drivers began to notice. "This house is cute and easy to find," they'd say. "It's the only house in the neighborhood with stripes," I'd type in the delivery notes.

Inside, a few tried-and-true small space tricks came into play. I took the house to a clean slate before I moved in, turning the patchwork of green, mustard, red, and brown shades into a cohesive and expansive white canvas. I painted the floors Farrow & Ball Shaded White and every wall and ceiling Benjamin Moore White Dove. These two colors are popular with interior designers, and I love how they play off each other.

white china cabinet
Credit: Laurey Glenn

I found the china cabinet for $125 at an estate sale and used leftover exterior paint to cover its original honey-brown finish. This piece wouldn't fit in the dining room, but I like having these things on display in my living room better anyway.

living room pink couch cream armchairs
Credit: Laurey Glenn

I tried the sofa everywhere, but centered in front of one window made the living room feel its biggest. Roman shades mounted just below the crown molding (rather than at the top of the window frames) create the illusion of a taller ceiling.

Bold colors shrink a room, so I chose a soft pink and celadon palette. Double-duty furniture earns its keep. My sofa is long enough to fill in as a guest bed, and the chairs have casters so I can pull them up to the dining table.

orange dining room skirted table
Credit: Laurey Glenn

I also harnessed the power of restraint. Just a few surprises—like the garden bench at the dining table and the whopping light fixture in the kitchen—brought the right dose of personality.

One day I realized the house felt too sterile, so I painted the dining room peach and sponged on a gold glaze. You see the dining room when you walk in the front door, so I treated it like a foyer and went with a skirted round table. For access to the new screen porch, I replaced a window with French doors from a Habitat for Humanity ReStore.

outdated kitchen green ceiling
white kitchen wood countertops pendant light
Left: The kitchen before. | Credit: Laurey Glenn
Right: The kitchen after. | Credit: Laurey Glenn

Wood countertops, a reclaimed industrial pendant, a deep sink, and a bridge-style faucet refreshed the kitchen. Adding the dishwasher was a big but worth-it splurge. Replacing the hardware and the faux drawer fronts gave the cabinets a lift.

Another lesson I drew from involved maximizing available space. My back deck was an eyesore that didn't provide much of a hangout space. My good friend and architect Ebee Tullos drafted a plan to convert the old deck into a classic Southern screen porch. The project consumed every weekend from May to October with endless trips to the hardware store, where I learned that my Toyota Prius can haul as many as forty 8-foot-long boards. When finished, the multipurpose porch exceeded my expectations. By the time I reached this stage, I had honed my decorating skills and learned to think like a contractor, inspiring me to add interior design work to my freelance career as a writer.

porch purple rattan furniture
Credit: Laurey Glenn

I re-covered the cushions on the vintage rattan sofa and IKEA chairs with outdoor fabric. The color combo reminds me of my favorite Nike shoes from middle school.

Curtains give me privacy without blocking much light. I get a backyard view through the other screen wall, which opens up the whole house. Custom wood frames make the screens look like windows.

dryer purple curtain
Credit: Laurey Glenn

My washer and dryer were installed in the garage when I first moved in. Now they're on the porch, protected by curtains, a countertop, and two much-needed closets. I can use the wood top for folding clothes or serving drinks.

garage-turned-office entertaining shed french doors dining seating
Credit: Laurey Glenn

I turned the run-down garage into a home office and entertaining spot by adding insulation and drywall, installing French doors and flooring ($1/square foot slate tile), and sewing tablecloths into a Roman shade and pillows.

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