The rehabber: Last year, Robin O’Brien traded in her flight-attendant uniform for a tool belt, intending to use her architecture degree and pursue a new career as an old-house renovator. Growing up in Rochester, she learned from her grandfather and father how to use tools, and later gained home-building confidence by leading a crew for Habitat for Humanity for 10 years.
The house: O’Brien contacted Nicole Curtis, star of the DIY show “Rehab Addict,” who referred her to Brian Finstad, a north Minneapolis housing advocate who found the perfect fixer-upper. The 1,100-square-foot, two-story home had a cute front porch that faced Farview Park in the Hawthorne neighborhood. The owner had inherited it from his deceased mother and had been renting it out. Over time, the home had been stripped of the woodwork, doors and most of its character. O’Brien had to pay just $1, the back property taxes and closing costs. “I knew I could bring my personality and repurposing skills into the house and make it unique,” she said.
The crew: O’Brien recruited friends to do demolition, including tearing out the wall between the kitchen and dining room to open up the main floor. On “Sheetrock Saturdays,” her friends came over to hang wallboard.
Salvage savvy: Many of the materials were scored at salvage yards, or donated by other contractors and neighbors. O’Brien found free window trim at an Architectural Antiques loading-dock sale. The upper kitchen cabinets are from Bauer Brothers Salvage, while the “lower cabinets are from a neighbor’s remodeling gone bad,” she said.
Kitchen character: During demo, a chunk of plaster fell off the chimney; O’Brien found brick beneath, and left it exposed. She also tore out a 1970s dropped ceiling to expose the vaulted rafters, making the kitchen feel more open. Then she covered up an existing door that opened to an alley, making room for a refrigerator.
Two new bathrooms: On the main floor, O’Brien converted a closet into a powder room. In the upstairs bathroom, she tore out a wall between the toilet and sink and put in all new flooring and fixtures, including a claw-foot tub, found on Craigslist, from a home on St. Paul’s Summit Avenue.
Scariest moment: O’Brien was standing on a ladder stretched to the maximum and painting the tallest peak. “It was so scary — but I wanted to save money,” she said.
DIY style: O’Brien assisted the carpenter in installing wood trim and hanging cabinets, and did all the painting herself. She hired subcontractors for other tasks, such as electrical and plumbing, and spent countless hours scouring Craigslist and local salvage yards.
Euro-inspired exterior: After spending the summer scraping and caulking, O’Brien painted the clapboard siding a sea-foam blue with creamy trim, reminiscent of a lakeside cottage she saw in Helsinki, Finland.
Curb appeal: O’Brien assembled wood spindles — only $2 each from Bauer Brothers — in a variety of different sizes and shapes to create a welcoming, one-of-a-kind front porch.
Surprise guest: “Rehab Addict” Curtis paid her a surprise visit. “She walked around like it was her joint,” said O’Brien, “and offered encouragement and advice.”
Beautifying the block: Completing the renovation has been rewarding, and helped O’Brien meet some nice people in the neighborhood. “A neighbor stopped by and told me to be careful because the area was rough, and he asked if I knew what I was doing,” she said. “A few months later he drove by and gave me the thumbs up.”
Advice for newbies: Have an engineer evaluate the house before buying, to find out if major structural work is needed, which could add on thousands of dollars. “The way to keep costs down is to dig through salvage yards and get donations,” she said. O’Brien also plans to get her contractor’s license for her next project, so she can be in charge of the schedule.
What’s next: O’Brien currently lives in Plymouth, and was considering moving into the Minneapolis home, but the timing isn’t right, she said. So she’ll put the house on the market for $99,900 in mid-September. (It’s listed by Constance Vork, Lakes Area Realty, 612-396-4046.). Now she’s on the hunt for the next north Minneapolis home to rescue and transform. “I can’t wait to do demo again,” she said. There are “beautiful homes for sale at bargain prices.”