Finding the right home is not easy and many people spend months or even years searching and debating before signing on the dotted line. And while some people fall in love with a property at first sight, others dismiss it initially only to realise at a later date that it was, after all, the house of their dreams.
The latter is exactly what happened to Aoife McGettigan (28) and Ronan Ward (29) before they bought their property in Milltown, Dublin 6.
“We began our house hunt in the D4/D6/D14 area in January last year, but it felt very daunting as we had friends who had things fall through at the last minute,” says Ronan, a development associate. “We were trying to find somewhere which was close to both of our workplaces so we set up alerts on property sites with a list of criteria – south Dublin, two or more bedrooms, back garden, within our price range – but it was frustrating to see the same properties coming up again and again.
“They all seemed to either need heaps of work, were tiny or not where we wanted to live. Then when we went along to open viewings [we] would regularly be amongst 50 other couples all vying for the same place. We quickly realised that the houses which needed work had far less interest in them.”
The couple got into a bidding war for a house near Sandymount, but the price kept rising so they lost out. However, this was a blessing in disguise as something better was around the corner.
“I saw our house online months prior to viewing it but we discounted it due to the amount of work we felt it would need,” says Aoife, who works as an occupational therapist in mental health. “Then one day when we were fed up of not seeing anything new, Ronan went along to see it on his lunch break. He immediately texted to say ‘This is our house’ as there was just something about the place.
“There was an open viewing the following weekend and we went back. We were the only people who turned up, in contrast to the well-decorated house around the corner which was rammed with viewers. The agent was closing up early when we arrived, so we rushed around it and I fell in love with the potential. Leaving that day we were both so excited about the prospect of turning this old place into something entirely new and ours.”
The second time the couple visited the house, they were shown around by a different agent who happened to be a relative of Aoife's large family in Donegal. And while they wouldn't normally believe in something being "a sign", they couldn't ignore this, particularly as the location, local amenities and the house itself, despite the need for work, seemed perfect for them.
“We went sale agreed, signed in April and closed in June 2019 and we couldn’t wait to make it our own,” says Aoife. “The renovations lasted around four months and during this period we lived with my grandfather in north Co Dublin.”
According to Ronan, initially the upstairs of the house was still in its original state, while the downstairs had been altered to include a den at the front, a livingroom to the back and next to that a small, “concrete” scullery kitchen. What had originally been a lawn had been changed by the previous owners to a driveway.
But while there had been some changes, there was a lot more to do.
“The previous owners had also squared off the kitchen with a dining area and knocked through from front to back, putting archways between the den and livingroom through to the dining area,” he says. “It was very dark and felt closed in, with little light reaching the central living space. Also, throughout the house, the mains and service pipes had been added externally to the walls, the electrics didn’t seem to have ever been upgraded and there were old round light switches everywhere.
“The back garden had a rotting deck and was mainly taken up by a large decorative circle of concrete with an overgrown raised bed at the very rear. And on top of that, brambles were growing wild behind the boundary wall and obscuring the light.”
So now the new owners of this 1940s house, together with an architect, set about transforming the building into their ideal home.
“We had an idea in our head that we would like two living spaces downstairs, so we gutted the entire house,” says Ronan. “This included digging out and levelling the rear garden and demolishing the old rear extension, which a neighbour helpfully informed us gave previous tenants lots of grief with leaks.
“Initially it was exciting – we had ideas about everything; if it could be found on Pinterest, Aoife had found it. We had ideas to do simple renovations, but as we discovered more and more things that would need to be modernised, we realised that we were really better off doing it all right the first time. This meant a full demolition of the old, subpar extension and starting that from scratch.
“There’s a particular kind of fear when you spend so much money on a home and then watch the walls being torn down. The sheer scale of it, starting right from the basics of plumbing and wiring, building up to the finish of the place, really felt daunting, but our builders were so skilled and efficient that they kept things moving along for us at a pace which didn’t allow for too much hesitation. Any worries we had, which of course there were many, were quickly calmed by the guys on site and Andrew Haydon of Clarus Building, who oversaw the project. For every moment of feeling overwhelmed, there was a moment of joy in seeing things progress and come together.”
The refurb included an open-plan kitchen/dining area and the addition of 300sq ft to the downstairs of the house. Velux windows were installed to add light; new gas, plumbing and wiring was installed and upstairs the old bathroom was modernised with a rainfall shower. The boiler was also removed to add more space to the spare room.
Work in progress
Once the structural work was complete, Ronan and Aoife set about decorating, but cheerfully admit that the house is still a work in progress. "In terms of inspiration, we went for calming neutral colours, mainly greys, and a high-grade pale oak laminate floor which runs throughout the ground floor which makes the space feel open," says Ronan. "The downstairs bathroom is a dark blue and gold theme inspired by a trip last year to North Africa, because in an otherwise calming and neutral space, we planned for the downstairs toilet to be bright and cheerful, full of interesting things we collect along our way.
“We went for soft tones of grey for the rest of the house, which now feels like it’s brand new as it’s warm and cosy, well insulated and has a new kitchen and floors, but we held on to some old pieces like the original doors and handles upstairs.
"We're still working on gathering furniture and bits and pieces as we go and are happily living with lots of helpful donations from friends and family, including a sofa which has travelled from my homeplace in Belfast to Aoife's homeplace in Sligo and finally up to ours – as well as two vintage armchairs, which were Aoife's grandparents' first pieces of furniture, bought when they moved in together after marrying, 60 years ago."
Ronan estimates that the cost of the refurbishment, excluding furniture, was about €100,000, and says the figure would have been a lot higher if they hadn’t spent time shopping around for different suppliers. But while it was a costly and somewhat laborious project, they are thrilled with the end result.
“Even though every day seemed a slow crawl towards the end, people constantly told us it would be worth it, and we can now see their point,” he says. “There is great comfort and security in turning the key in our own front door, the one we deliberated and debated over until choosing the perfect one.
“But when the work was finished initially, we were both so exhausted that it was hard to even think about the house or get excited about putting the finishing touches to things. But when we got to Christmas and were hanging up the decorations, it really began to feel like home.
“People ask us if we would do it again and while it’s hard to think about ever going through the ups and downs of it again, you can never say never.”