8 Lessons From A DIY-Renovator, With TDF’s Art Director Annie Portelli

The Design Files’ art director Annie Portelli has been bringing her magic touch to TDF for almost eight years now, and for the last two of them, she’s also been renovating her own home in Melbourne’s inner-west with her husband Simon ‘Sparry’ Harris.

It’s been a mammoth task that the couple have dedicated almost every weekend, day off, and spare moment to, as they ‘accidentally’ fell into renovating the entire property themselves!

They’ve recently moved into the half-finished home, and today we’re sharing a look inside, as we launch the return of our TDF Talks podcast — with a special four-part series on renovating! In the first episode (which you can listen to on Spotify or Apple Podcasts), Annie reveals how she tackled this epic DIY renovation project, and — below — we’ve recapped some of the lessons she learnt along the way.

Christina Karras

After styling The Design Files home shoots for several years, it’s no surprise Annie’s own home is a winner. Custom modular sofa by Monde. Akari 24N light by Noguchi. Walls are painted in Dulux Hog Bristle Half

Annie’s renovation spiralled from a simple cosmetic update to the floors and kitchen to almost every surface being ripped up and replaced. Vase by Lucy Tolan.

One of the hardest parts about the renovation was the endless decisions that came with the process!

Annie and Simon both have backgrounds as graphic designers, meaning they both had strong opinions on what the house should look like!

The newlywed couple also had to grapple with working on the house during lockdown.

The kitchen is one of the main things still yet to be completed, but for now they’re using a temporary set-up from IKEA. Chopping Board by TS Makers. &Tradition Flowerpot VP1 Pendant from Cult.

The couple made sure the house was liveable at the two year mark, having only just moved in about a month ago.

Simon also left his graphic design career in the process of the reno, to become an apprentice carpenter!

The timber-lined ceilings is a hero feature of the new interiors.

Apart from structural changes to walls, the plumbing and electrical wiring, the couple were on the tools every weekend doing everything else themselves.

It’s been a long road, but Annie says they can finally see their vision coming to life.

Christina Karras
16th of June 2023

Annie Portelli and Simon Harris never set out to renovate their home the way they did.

With one DIY-style renovation already under her belt (her dreamy North Melbourne ‘terrazzo palazzo’ that people still mention to this day!), plus Simon’s new career as an apprentice carpenter, it seemed like the savvy couple could complete a simple, cosmetic update of their Victorian-era abode in no time.

But fast-forward two years, and their beautiful home is still not quite finished. Unwittingly, Annie and Simon found themselves restoring a lot more of the home than they expected, and spending a lot more money too, eventually moving in with Annie’s parents while they navigated the extensive renovation.

Between working full-time and taking on freelance design jobs after hours to keep up with the expenses and mortgage, Annie and Simon were on the tools and working on the house every weekend. Despite it all, it is one of the most stylish half-renovated homes we’ve ever seen!

So today, as we re-launch our TDF Talks podcast with a new series all about renovating, Annie shares all the lessons she has learnt! Here are some of the takeaways:

1. Don’t judge a book by its cover

It wasn’t love at first sight for Annie when she stepped inside their home for the first time.

‘I famously hated the house,’ she reveals to Lucy. While it would be amazing to vibe with a property you’re inspecting immediately, it doesn’t mean it won’t end up being the perfect canvas. What’s probably more important is doing your due diligence.

2. Get a building inspection

Buying during the peak of the pandemic in May 2021, and at the end of a long search, meant Annie and Simon decided to skip the building inspection before buying the house.

The couple thought they’d do ‘a low-fi renovation’, get rid of the kitchen, replace it with an IKEA one, take the tiles up, sand and varnish the floor. But a split decision to remove the flooring revealed that the house needed to be re-stumped — something they wish they knew earlier!

3. All your budget goes on the invisible things

Re-stumping cost Annie and Simon an unexpected extra $11,000 – and that was just the start!

‘We blew our $70,000 budget in the first year and had nothing to show for it,’ Annie adds. Be mindful of the hidden costs you might uncover along the way and account for this in your budget. Materials also add up quickly too!

4. Make a clear plan with your trades, and commit to it

Annie and Simon’s initial builder ended up falling through, which left them working with a mix of contracted trades, and it was hard to navigate.

‘You need to be straight with your trades from the start. Draw up a timeline together, do a checklist together and sign off the budget together,’ she explains. ‘There’s so much assumption, and everything is so loosely agreed on, so you’ve got to be really clear and have it all in writing!’

5. Be prepared for the long haul

‘Two days a week isn’t enough time to renovate a house yourself,’ Annie says. ‘Managing time is really hard. One thing that kept getting me down was how long it was taking. If I had a bit more of a realistic timeline, I would’ve been able to manage the stress a bit more. I was putting a lot of pressure on the both of us to do things by certain months that wasn’t being met, and I just felt like a failure.’

6. Know what you can do, and what the trades should do

Anything structural, electrical or plumbing requires a certified trade. Annie and Simon enlisted help from these professionals along the way to make sure the house was up to scratch, and had a builder come to help remove a wall amongst other things which required more experience, but did the majority of the renovation themselves — including digging trenches for the plumber to put their lines in!

7. Be prepared for the (many) micro-decisions

‘When you do a renovation there are so many little micro-decisions you have to make, and of course they are based on money and style and availability,’ Annie notes. ‘I don’t think you should ever have to make that many decisions with your partner a day.’

Renovating your own home is just as personal as it is stressful, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed!

8. It doesn’t really feel like a house until the very end

‘One of the last things Sparry and I did was put the lining board in the lean-to… everything else up until that point is hidden! But when that went up we were so proud,’ Annie says. ‘It was a really nice moment because we could finally see our vision come to life.’

Listen to full podcast with Annie below, or find TDF Talks on Spotify and Apple Podcasts!

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