I love all the houses I put on Modaokon. But with its unpretentious character details, classic weatherboard build and young owners who DIYed and decorated the whole house on a shoestring budget with lots of secondhand, op shop and side-of-the-road finds, this Palmyra cottage felt extra-special to me the moment I entered.
I grew up in Palmyra and it has always had a special place in my heart. I lived my whole childhood in the same house, a 1950s two bedroom cottage that my parents renovated and extended over the years, and didn't leave until I bought the Crap Shack. I love Palmyra’s quaint old cottages, the beautiful old limestone and brick school and all the pretty little parks (how can anyone who grew up there not feel a sentimental twinge for a place called Three Bears Park? Dinosaur Park?)
Katie Stanwix is one person who understands my love of Palmyra - she and her husband Ben, who now live with their sons William, 5, and George, 2, bought this cute cottage seven years ago when they were settling back in Perth after living in London. They were hunting for a home where they would eventually begin their family, and had their hearts set on finding an old character house in Palmyra. But finding such a house wasn't easy.
Katie, a journalist, and Ben, now a lawyer, house-hunted in Palmyra for more than a year. It seemed like if it wasn't above their budget, it wasn't going up for sale. And Katie and Ben were becoming increasingly frustrated.
“One day we drove past this house and I said to Ben, ‘That’s ALL I want – a three bedroom weatherboard cottage, it’s my dream home," says Katie.
“Later I mentioned the house to my agent, and he said, “Is that the weatherboard house on Cleopatra Street with the big tree out the front?’
“I said yes and he said that the owners were getting the house ready to put on the market that very week!"
So dogged was their determination, Katie and Ben weren't about to let the house go to someone else. “Ben and I walked in while the owners were still painting the bathroom and said, ‘We’ll take it!’” laughs Katie.
Built in the early 1900s, their little old house is one of the few remaining original solid jarrah weatherboards in Palmyra and with its wooden veranda, leadlight front door and huge lilly pilly in the front garden, it has a classic charm that has long attracted admiring glances from passers-by. For a young couple, it wasn’t a cheap buy – so Katie and Ben knew the DIY and decorating needed to be done on a tight budget. "Internally some of the walls were painted a hideous aqua blue colour so painting it out white was one of the first jobs we did together," says Katie. "We also ripped up the remaining carpet to expose all the lovely wide jarrah floorboards."
The gardens also received an overhaul. "The facade was classic with a lovely veranda - simple and the look we had been searching for - but the front garden was very confused," says Katie. "It was piled high with woodchips with just a few lonely kangaroo paws poking out. The rest was a large patch of wonky brick paving and quite a bit of the home was hidden behind overgrown brambles. Just changing the front garden transformed the house! We spend so much time outdoors, especially on our veranda."
Ben and Katie spent a lot of time removing stubborn vines, dirt, yanking out tree roots, pulling out a huge stump with a 4WD and levelling out the front yard. Ben pulled out an unsightly, rickety old carport that obscured part of the facade and replaced it with a driveway that runs down the side of the house, made from compacted red cracker dust from Creations Landscapes. "He also laid grass and created a path to the house from the recycled bricks, then built a little timber and wire fence to seal off the driveway, used old grey timber sleepers from the back to build another little garden path towards the driveway," says Katie. "Just changing the front garden transformed the house! We spend so much time outdoors, especially on our veranda."
Ben is definitely no stranger to hard DIY work - whenever the urge may strike! "I remember when I was about 37.5 weeks pregnant with my first baby and Ben suddenly decided to rip out all the old wall lining and the ceiling in the nursery," says Katie. "He was worried they were too old and that the nails had started falling out and the whole room would crumble on our baby. I just about had a heart attack because we were due to have the baby in a matter of days!"
Yet Ben's industriousness paid off. Good man. "He managed to put in new wall linings, insulation, new ceiling, replace the plasterwork, the window sill and paint - just before we brought William home from hospital," says Katie proudly. "He had even put all of the things I had bought for the nursery back exactly where I had initially put them – even the little fabric animals on the windowsill. He had to work through the night with a headlamp on for a week to get it ready in time! He’s very precise and patient and although he works at a good pace, it’s in his nature to get things just right."
Katie freely admits that when they bought the house seven years ago, it stretched their purse strings as a young couple a little. "Ben was just an article clerk back then, and we had both come back from living in Europe and spent all our money travelling to as many countries as we could while we lived there," says Katie. "I’m still glad we did that – but when I fell pregnant earlier than expected just after we bought the house, we didn’t have a lot left over. Our circumstances are a bit different now, but when we bought our cottage in 2006, we spent all of our money on getting the house and had very little left over for furnishings."
As a result, having to be frugal has manifested in the thoughtful way they have carefully and lovingly furnished their little home. "About 95 per cent of what we bought was secondhand and we were chuffed with what we were able to pick up," says Katie. "Now nearly everything in our home is still secondhand and not a lot has changed in seven years. I don’t go shopping much because I’m busy outdoors with the boys and we don’t have internet connection at home, so I don’t browse or shop online. I do appreciate beautiful things but I can enjoy admire things without coveting them or feeling like I ‘have to have’ things. The consequence is I don’t buy much. I’ll buy something that I really love and tend to only replace it when it's officially pronounced dead! That said, I do give a lot of thought to what I’d like to buy when I do need something."
Although they had their dream weatherboard cottage in their names, Katie says renovating as a young couple working on a budget wasn't easy (oh, I hear you). "It’s a very easy home to live in but in the very beginning there were so, so, so many challenges," she says. "There were stages where I would say to Ben, 'This house is ridiculous. All we seem to do is slave away on the house.' WE being HE of course. I always stand around being a pain and complaining about how long something is taking and then when it’s all done and looking great and I’m in love with the result, I try to muscle in on the glory saying: “Look at what WE did. Yay!” Ben is very good natured about it." Sounds just like me and Mr Nerd...
Katie and Ben's sons William and George love their little house so much, it seems like they think of it as a person, perhaps another family member. "Every time we pull out of the driveway, they shout, 'Bye bye house – toodle roo – we’ll be back soon to see you,' "says Katie. "Every time – they never forget! I don’t think there’s anything in particular they love about the house, but I think they have formed an impression of the house as just a comfortable and happy place to be in. I know they love being at home and they love their house because they tell me."
It's a little house - less than 100sqm - but so far it has suited the Stanwix family well. "It’s only 90sqm internally so we live in close quarters but I find it quite comforting to know the boys are always right there," says Katie. "I’m sure in a few years I’ll feel very differently! They’ll want their own space too."
And it is partly why, after many long, heart-aching debates, Katie and Ben have decided to leave their first home - they are now expecting Tyrant Number Three. "Our third baby is on the way but in this little house we know there is nowhere to put our next baby!" says Katie. "And telling William to move out of his room and into a tent in the back yard just didn’t seem right somehow."
She says they will miss the house - it had been perfect for them both as a young couple and for raising their little boys. “It’s such a robust home for kids – it’s indestructible. I love its simplicity and honesty and that it’s unpretentious – it just is what it is and tries to be nothing else.” Maya x
Katie and Ben Stanwix, who work as a journalist and lawyer respectively, and their two boys William, 5, and George, 2
A 1900s solid jarrah weatherboard cottage, styled and finished on a shoestring budget
Palmyra, Western Australia
Three bedrooms, bathroom, solid jarrah weatherboard walls, front veranda, country-style kitchen and dining, lounge room, paved alfresco entertaining area with raised vegie bed, side driveway
Heather Robbins of