Professional Photography by Sara Tramp | Additional Photography by Orlando Soria
I hit a major wall this summer. I got really sick of Londo Lodge. Being there felt inherently stressful, overwhelming, and generally just incredibly heavy. The never-ending application process for my permit to rent it out on Airbnb dragged on for months and continued to get more expensive. I think I’ve spent about $8K just on application, inspection, and certification fees on top of everything I’ve had to spend to get this place up to current code. At a certain point, pretty early on in the time I began living at Londo Lodge, the place went from being a restful place of joy to a space of never-ending stress and headaches. And before I get to talking a little bit about what all those stressors we/are, I want to first explain why all of it was okay and worth it.
Making the leap from non-homeownership to homeownership is different for everyone. But there’s a reason “house poor” is a known phrase. I’d say it’s pretty common, especially for people like me who bought their houses alone without help from family or a partner, to go through a period of financial scarcity after buying a house. In many cases people spend their savings on the down payment so their reserves are depleted. And overall, that’s fine. One of the things that’s historically made home ownership worth it is having an asset that accrues value over time, or at least becomes a place to store a significant amount of capital as a means of building wealth over your lifetime. So the expectation shouldn’t be that jumping from not having a home to having one is going to come without any sacrifices or hardships. So I’m in a great place, a lucky place where I’ve been able to get myself into home ownership, which will hopefully mean a more stable financial future for me. But because I’ve done it during a time in which my career fluctuated, my income swerved all over the place, and I went through the same depression and anxiety most people felt during the pandemic, it’s hit hard and made the whole experience feel overwhelming.
I keep using that word “overwhelming” because I can’t think of another word to describe it. From the calamitous windstorms, to blizzards that hadn’t been since in half a century, to multiple wildfires threatening the house, fate has not gone easy on Londo Lodge since I bought it. My income really dipped as soon as I got the house, so I was trying to tackle getting the house photo-ready by doing as much DIY as I could. A lot of the makeovers in the house were done under a ticking stopwatch situation – me trying to frantically makeover a room quickly so I could get furniture in, shoot it for a brand, and meet their deadlines. My job as a content producer for brands means they want to see their products (usually furniture) in pretty spaces. But as you’ll see in the “before” photos in this post, the house was most certainly not photo ready when I moved in. I had to remove the carpet, swap out light fixtures, paint and repair the walls, and source furnishings for the entire home. One thing I’ve felt grateful for is my partnerships with furniture companies. Having moved twice since 2020 and having furnished two houses – this cabin and my LA bungalow – on an extremely tight budget, I never would have been able to pull it off without sponsors. I don’t know how people do it. Furnishing houses is expensive! Like too expensive to do all at once unless you’re a billionaire.
A few of the biggest roadblocks in getting this place photo ready (and ready to rent out) were the flooring and the septic system. It took me forever to find someone to install the flooring. Then I did and… it didn’t end well. It’s a story I can’t really share because that wouldn’t be fair but here’s where it stands right now: the flooring is 90% installed but there are gaps and mistakes all over the house that are going to need to be remedied by someone who really knows what they’re doing. Luckily, my friend and contractor Justin Swaby was able to come up from Joshua Tree to install the stair rail and do some repairs, but now I’m looking for someone to repair the mistakes on the main post at the bottom of the stairs (it was originally installed at a slight angle that wasn’t noticeable because it was a drywall post going into carpet). Finding resources in a new community is hard, even for designers!
The septic system is a boring story but the main gist is that it was certified when I bought the house (as in “hey this septic system is totally fine to use”) then when I went to apply for a rental permit it was more like “hey this is not okay to use even though we just said it was” which was confusing. And it’s cost a few thousand dollars just to get people out to the house to inspect it, file various reports, and do some pumping to prep the system for more guests. The good thing is that I’m learning so much about how these various systems work (remember my well running dry last summer?). The bad thing is that most of these discoveries cost money to discover. And I’m getting to the point where I’m beyond fatigued with feeling financially stretched while *trying* to do something that will give me more stability. Renting my place out was always something I had in the back of my head as a means of being able to afford it, so I’m excited I’m hopefully getting closer to the being a reality.
There’s a moment that kind of sticks out in my mind about having this house. One morning while I was there, the power went out. When that happens you have to manually open and close the garage to get the car out. Something must have gone wrong with how I opened it though, because when I went to go close it when the power came back on, it went off its tracks and was immediately destroyed. This moment came after months and months of delays with the rental application, months of scraping by as each time I got some money in my savings something came along to wipe it out, a few days after finding out I had to pay someone $1500 to dig a hole in my yard and pour water into it to certify water from my septic system would absorb at the correct rate. So I was just done. Having that house has brought me so much joy and I’m still so thankful for it. But it has also been endlessly stressful with moments of rest and quite far and few between. When the garage door broke, Joey was at the house with me. And he did something kind of great. He immediately went online and figured out how to get a new door and he even offered to pay for it. One of the most daunting things about buying a house is all the stuff you have to constantly figure out. How are you going to get more propane? How do you get rid of that giant bed you no longer need? Who can install a new toilet for you. So just having someone else pop in and figure out every once in a while is such a nice feeling, one that makes you feel supported and less alone in the experience. Just a lesson for all of us – take note if people in your life seem overwhelmed and think of ways to do some of the leg work for them. Often people in periods of crisis get a lot of advice about what to do and usually that advice involves more labor on their part. So if you can take a little bit of the weight off someone you love, they’ll be more thankful to you than you might expect.
Again, I don’t want this to come off as compliany. I’m very lucky to have this house! But someday when I have my fancy country house that’s beautiful and well designed, I want you to remember that I paid a lot (emotionally and financially) to get to that point. Lot’s of scary moments with just a few hundred dollars in my bank account while brands hounded me for content I had to fix the house in order to create. Doing big, important things that will drive your life isn’t always easy. So I see the past few years as an investment in something that will pay off in the future.
On a side note, Joey and I are no longer a couple. I’m still having feelings about it and I thought it best to kinda keep it to myself for the sake of our privacy. However we still love each other and I’ll always support him and his business. So please keep him in mind if you need a talented (and sweet, and easy on the eyes) chef. We were there for each other during really hard periods for both of us. He was dealing with a traumatic premature heart condition that made him feel like his life was over before he turned 40 (he’s been getting much better treatment and is doing great now!). I was dealing with my show being canceled and all the feelings around that – just the feeling of rejection combined with worrying about how I was going to survive as my main project for the past few years abruptly ended. We had a really great relationship and I’ll always love him. But our breakup felt necessary for now and it’s been a little sad cloud hanging over the summer.
So yeah, that’s all I’ll say there for now except that I’m thankful for the time I had with that beautiful man. If you follow me on Instagram you’ve probably seen how handsome he is. But more importantly he’s got an incredibly generous heart and is endlessly supportive – he’s just an overall sweetheart. No one did anything “bad.” It just wasn’t working for us and we separated in the most loving way possible. Oh, and don’t worry! I didn’t let him pay for the garage door post-breakup!
Now that I got the breakup out of the way, let’s talk about the fireplace! How’s that for a transition?
The fireplace had some good attributes and some bad ones when I moved in. I love the color of the stone. And I love that it’s a wood burning fireplace. I didn’t love the original 90s brass doors on it. And one of my main pet peeves in general design wise is a diagonal fireplace because it lacks the depth and presence of one that is a rectangle that comes out from the wall and has a bit more visual heft. On this fireplace there’s one detail that drives me fully crazy. The opening isn’t centered! To mask this, I bought an oversized fireplace screen (sadly no longer available from West Elm) and shifted it slightly too the right to make the whole thing look more balanced. It only kind of worked. My ultimate plan for it is to rip it out, build a larger more traditional fireplace in its place, and add a door to a (not yet existent) deck off the dining room.
BUT WHERE TO PUT THE DINING TABLE?
As you can see, the previous family used this room as a living room. Which felt odd to me because there is literally nowhere to put furniture in there. Everywhere is a door, a window, a passageway, or stairs. I think this happens with builders sometimes. They may think about how beautiful a room is without thinking about how one would fit furniture in there. Keep in mind, this is a pretty big house that can sleep a lot of people. So ideally you’d want a living space where everyone would fit. My goal for the house is to convert the garage into a living room and build a garage closer to the main (plowed) drive so I don’t get trapped in my house again like I did over and over the first year. When I build the new garage, it’s doubtful I’ll be able to reuse the door, which made buying it even more annoying because I’m trying to keep my waste to a minimum on this project.
My solution for now was to swap the living and dining spaces. The living room (reveal coming soon!) is a small, cozy room where the dining table used to be. I just makes a lot more sense in terms of layout than the previous configuration.
One of the greatest additions to the dining room (and the whole house) has been the beautifully crafted Everhem window treatments everywhere. Full disclosure: they sent them to me for free. But I know the founder from our time at Homepolish together and she’s created such a wonderful, easy service for people seeking custom drapery and roman shades. They come in beautiful linens and are super easy to install yourself. I hate putting up drapery and swore it off years ago but these were a lot easier than any I’ve tried.
Desiging the stairs was a PROCESS and one I’ve oddly never had to do before. I’ve worked on projects where we changed the flooring on stairs, but never one where I had to design a rail system from scratch. If you’ll remember, this is a two phase project. Phase 1 is just getting it livable in its current style. Phase 2 is a total overhaul where we add a lot more detail in the form of wall cladding, trim, and new doors/windows to create a more traditional vibe. I want the cabin to feel old and romantic, like it has some history.
But for now, the stairs going to look a bit out of place while I slowly renovate the house around them to match their style. That’s something I haven’t heard a lot of discussion on: what do you do when you’re totally overhauling the style of your house but you can’t afford to do it all at once? You run the risk of the house’s design style feeling non-cohesive. Which I guess is where I’m going to be at until I can afford to finish it. I’m thinking it’s going to be a while. Budget wise if I can pull off my kitchen renovation in the next year, that’s likely going to be the only major renovation I can tackle unless things change dramatically with my income or Airbnb starts making me a ton of money. At this point, nothing is a given and I’m not taking anything for granted. So I’ve kind of settled into the idea that this may be a ten year project for me. It’s a challenging way of designing because you have to plan for things so far down the line that may not match with the house’s current state, but I’m determined to have my dream home so if it takes ten years so be it.
One of my favorite DIYs in the house is the mantel I made for the fireplace. I made it for the holidays last year because you really need a mantel at Christmastime. Like why have a fireplace with no mantel? Adding a rustic reclaimed wood mantel could be cool, but because I plan on renovating the whole fireplace anyway I figured this would be a good chance to explore doing a DIY mantel. It’s pretty simple in its construction. Just four 2″ dowels bolted to the ceiling with L brackets and anchors and a simple 8″ plank. I used inexpensive pine, lots of wood filler, and to finish it I used some Danish oil, which is basically a more forgiving type of finish that’s more waxy thank plasticky, more matte than shiny.
I thought about trying to drill into the stone to install the mantel a more traditional way. But I don’t have a ton of skill or experience working with stone. And I liked the idea of bringing something in that had a bit more structure to it. The upsides to this project are how easy it was, that the warm tone of the pine I used goes nicely with the preexisting stone, and that I now have a place to add accessories in that room. The downsides are that the whole thing wobbles a bit and the dowels can be a little constraining for styling because of their placement. If I did it again I might go a little wider with the mantel and put the dowels at the very end. I’m not super worried about safety though. Even though it wobbles it feels secure enough to hold a decent amount (though I have avoided putting larger vases filled with water on it). If you’re curious how it looks styled for the holidays, see below!
You’ll also notice the floors are different here. This is from when I painted them. Like me, this house has undergone so many transformations in the past few years.
I decided to reveal the kitchen alongside the dining room because this room has changed the least of any room in the house. The kitchen was one of the main reasons I bought the house. It’s pretty large and the layout is generally great. I love all the prep space. I actually love the color of the cabinets as well, but unfortunately they’re really cheap, loud, and can’t be salvaged. This is the first room I’m planning on doing a really hardcore makeover in. I already have my Bertazzoni appliances on site, I have ordered the doors and windows, and Im working on sourcing lighting. The beautiful acorn inspired lights shown in below are unlikely to actually fit and I’m having a very hard time processing that emotionally because I am so obsessed with them and they match the theme I’m going for so well (elevated rustic with some cape cod and craftsman flair). I may be able to use the pendant version of these lights over the peninsula but if not I’m definitely going to find a place for them, perhaps outside (they’re more designed for outdoor use anyway).
As you can imagine, this is an expensive and ambitious renovation project so I’m not entirely sure when it’ll get done. Right now, I’m waiting for windows and doors to arrive. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a sponsor for those so I had to wait to save up the $8000 deposit (three windows and two doors for this room is costing me $15,000) before I could order them and now they’re not gonna be ready until November. Starting construction in the winter is an incredibly iffy prospect in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where November could be dry as a bone or where there could be a blizzard at any moment. I’m estimating I’ve received over $150K worth of “free” appliances, fixtures, tile, etc at this point and the contractor fee is going to be $50K+, so it’s kind of blowing my mind that this is going to be a $200K kitchen. It’s honestly just wild how much things cost, especially in California. I’m keeping my fingers crossed Airbnb works out soon so I have a little more income to help support this makeover [nervously does kit-cat-clock eyes].
I pitched this kitchen to Bertazzoni before I even closed on the house. So I’ve been working on it ever since and it’s definitely stressful to feel like you’re making a brand that is providing a ton of beautiful expensive appliances wait a long time to get images of them installed. As of now there are a lot of brands already waiting for deliverables for this project but I’m just one person with one income so that’s all gonna have to wait until my windows arrive (and hopefully when they do I’ll have the funds to pay the contractor). And I’m sure when the time comes to renovate the kitchen, it’ll still be a tough decision. Do I keep my promise to brands (who expected content like a year ago) and spend everything I have? Or do I wait until I’m a little more financially stable and spending $50K isn’t as scary? There’s also the fact that I’m not stoked thinking about these appliances hanging out in my garage all winter because it has a definite moisture and mold issue and in order for the appliances not to get damaged I’d likely have to do something about that (what? I’m not sure). I get a lot of emails from involved brands asking me when the kitchen will be done and they’re always friendly and understanding, but there’s still that feeling that I’m letting someone down by taking too long, by not having the money to throw at it right now.
Furthermore, the kitchen and bathrooms are the most dated parts of the house that will keep it from being the luxurious experience I’m aiming for for my Airbnb guests so there’s also some value in getting the kitchen done ASAP because that will allow me to charge a more premium price for the property. So there’s a lot of financial reasons NOT to do the kitchen anytime soon. But there’s also a lot of financial reasons TO do the kitchen soon. The reason I’m bringing this up is that it highlights what new home ownership can feel like. There’s always a ton of questions to answer, very rarely anyone who can answer them in a succinct way, and no matter what you will always regret your decision in some way. This is especially true if you buy in a rural place like I did where simple tasks like getting rid of trash can become endeavors that take up an entire day.
So there we have it. My first Londo Lodge Phase 1 reveal! And a lot of BTS details of what it feels like to be a new homeowner on a budget. My goal with this phase of the project was to show people what you can do on a shoestring budget to improve the look of your home. The most impactful thing I did was remove the blue carpet that was all over the house. Even before I put the beautiful Riva flooring down, just removing that carpet made a world of difference and made the house feel a lot less dated. That’s something many people who move into similar properties could do (as long as there’s some sort of usable substrate under the carpet). Painting was another big thing. I’ve added a bunch of architectural interest by adding borders and painted crown moulding in every room. It’s a small thing, but it makes the house look a lot more tailored and sophisticated.
The idea here is that we can all do small things to our houses to make them feel more considered. When I look at my dining room and kitchen, I definitely don’t see perfection. But I do see a vast improvement on what I found when I moved in. And that is super satisfying to see. That makes all the challenges of being a new homeowner worth it.