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A house that was loved into a home

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A neglected dwelling with ugly fittings, on a plot strewn with rubbish, has been turned into an extraordinary home in a thriving green space on a shoestring budget by using second-hand finds and upcycled objects

There’s an old property saying about buying the worst house in a good street. So I did.

About 21 years ago, I received a handsome retrenchment package and was planning to blow the money on a trip, first class, of course, on the Orient Express. Or something equally fabulous but just as unwise. “Are you insane?” exclaimed a sage friend. “Buy property. You will never regret it.”

I must have looked at more than 100 houses during the eight months it took to find the gem I now call home. Every Sunday was spent going from one show house to the next, with nothing in my price range appealing.

The shower in the en-suite bathroom opens up onto the patio and garden. Picture: Sue Olswang

I was beginning to despair and reconsidering that first class compartment on the Orient Express. Then a house in a good street in one of my favourite suburbs, Westdene in Gauteng, went on offer. Houses on one side of the street face Melville Koppies West. Rooms with views, in other words.

From the outside, there was zero charm and on the inside, the house was shabby, very shabby. It had been unoccupied for two years and the structure would require work – and money. The garden was overgrown and full of rubbish. The kitchen was horrendous, the bathroom even worse.

Ugly 1970s-style kitchen cupboards were replaced with this beauty found in a second-hand shop. Picture: Sue Olswang

But, there was the view. And a garden big enough for my dogs. When I heard the estate agent who was marketing the house had put in an offer of her own, I knew it was a good buy. So, I upped her offer by R5 000.

The retrenchment package covered the deposit and transfer costs and the house became mine (and the bank’s while I was bonded). Today, the bond is paid off and my home really is mine.  And it is no longer the worst house in a good street.

Over the years, I have renovated the kitchen and guest bathroom; added an en-suite bathroom to the main bedroom (with a shower opening onto the garden and the view); extended the patio ; turned the staff accommodation into a cottage; added a carport ; installed a fireplace in the open-plan lounge and dining area; and turned the jungle garden into a green oasis at the lowest possible cost.

A ceramic basin bought at a fleamarket went into the new en-suite bathroom. Picture: Sue Olswang

I have zero building skills, so I had to employ teams for the structural changes and additions. But still, to keep costs down, I did a lot of the other stuff myself, including painting the inside and outside of the house, garage and cottage many times over the years.

One cost-cutter was to use recycled slate roof tiles, at a cost of R1 each, to tile the patio bathroom, kitchen and cottage. The rusting kitchen sink was replaced with a second-hand sink (at a third of the cost of a new one) and the horrible 1970s-style kitchen wall tiles were stripped and the walls painted with easy-to-wash, stain-resistant roof paint. In fact, the most recent repaint of the inside of the house was done with roof paint.

A tired wooden shower mat was painted up for new life in the garden. Picture: Sue Olswang

I went for grey walls throughout because everything looks good against it and it makes other colours pop. Another cost-cutter was using bamboo (free from my neighbours) for towel rails. When the brick paving in the front area was removed to make way for a garden, the bricks were used to build a stairway in the bottom garden.

The garden, a labour of love, has been established mostly with cuttings and plants from friends. The soil has been changed from poor to perfect with homemade compost, and mulching and everything is organic and thriving because I have not used any poisons in my garden or home for more than 20 years.

The master of my green space is Fred, a life-size zebra gifted to me by a friend who could not take him to New Zealand when she emigrated. He is kept company by wire beaded flamingos, parrots and other birds. They are a delightful surprise for people who visit my home for the first time and make the garden fun for children (and adults).

My green space is also full of “stuff” I could not bear to add to landfills. Two tired wire shower caddies, for example, were painted bright colours and nailed to a tree and a wall to house succulents.

There’s nothing like showering with the door open when the wind is blowing. Picture: Sue Olswang

When the new bathroom was added, ceramic plumbing pipes were replaced with plastic ones. Pieces of the ceramic pipes are now plant containers. When the bottom of a steel waste bin fell out, this too became a plant container.

After two decades, my work is mostly done, inside and out. Now it is maintenance, improvement and enjoyment. I don’t often think about a trip on the Orient Express.


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