DIY Duplex: Your Questions Answered!

DIY PROJECT

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You asked, and we are finally answering ALL of your questions about the DIY Duplex! Mr. Yolo and I are super proud of this house, and what we did with the budget we set. The house was so charming to start, and it’s been so rewarding to give this 1890 built home a new life. Plus, it was our first DIY renovation together since getting married. Working with our family, 90% of the work was done by us, so it was truly a DIY renovation!!!

You’ve followed our journey renovating the duplex through setbacks and victories (re-live in over on @ispydiy Instagram Stories under the DIY DUPLEX highlights).. We’ve received a ton of questions along the way, and we are excited to share all the deets!

What was the budget and timeline on the duplex? Our renovation budget was $30K, and we planned to complete it in three months. The purchase price is so relative to location, but we purchased the house for a pretty good price, knowing that we would not need to make any structural changes, and all the walls could remain in place. For reference, we have never bought a house pre-renovation for more than $140K, and the least expensive house was $24K. All our houses are in the city of Milwaukee, in neighborhoods we love and want to invest in.

A little backstory on the duplex — Mr. Yolo bought this house before we got married, and I had only seen it in photos. He planned to use it as a rental after completing the necessary repairs on it. There are two units in the house, an Upper and Lower unit. The upstairs needed a gut renovation, so the plan was to renovate the top floor only. BUT, then I got involved, and the project scaled. (Sorry, not sorry, Love!)

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Once we got into the house and took a closer look, we found a bunch of issues with the work done on the lower unit. Just a couple examples: we found laminate flooring over carpeting, trash behind the walls, texture sprayed over the trim work — things that looked ok in pictures, but were mostly band-aid fixes that we were not comfortable with. So the project went from updating just the upper to renovating the whole house. Yikes! Our timeline went from three to six months. (What’s that old saying about all renovations taking twice the time and twice the budget….)

We just finished the renovation before 2020 (woot! Took us 7 months) and after looking at the numbers to renovate both units we ended up around 7K over Mr. Yolo’s 30K budget, plus around 2k-3k to furnish it because we decided to turn it into an Airbnb (more on that later).  A huge reason we could keep the budget low is the fact that we did almost all the work ourselves. I do want to note that once I got involved with the project, I was able to work with my blog sponsors to get discounted or free products, which helped keep costs down even though the scope of work increased. 

How much of the work did you guys do yourselves? In past projects, we have worked with contractors. But with this duplex we set out to do it all ourselves, with help from family and friends. Renovating a duplex is both a blessing and a curse. It’s annoying to have a duplex because you have to do everything twice; however, once you’ve done something once, you can refine your technique on the other unit.

The big ticket item that we hired out was the roof, the house is SUPER tall, so it was best to leave that to the professional…which took a chunk of the budget (around 15K) 

How did we know how to do everything, and how did you get it done so quickly? Mr. Yolo is ah-ma-zing. For the last six months, this was his full-time job. He and his crew (aka his parents and some friends) worked their buns off.

Mr. Yolo has a construction background (former project manager for a commercial construction company), but has learned a lot of his handyman skills from working on his own houses.  I took the skills from doing graphic design at a fashion magazine in NYC and applied them to my renovations to fine tune my design aesthetic. When we don’t know how to do something, we go straight to YouTube and reach out to others who have done it before. There is definitely trial and error, but each time we try something, our confidence grows for the next project! And even though learning takes time, it saves you a bunch of money, plus the time you would be waiting on contractors to fit you into their schedules!  

Hiring out may get you a more experienced and skilled install, but no one will care as much as you do, hence, why we DIY!

Why did you choose Airbnb vs. full-time rental units? Initially, we thought the duplex would be a full-time rental unit. And in the beginning, a lot of decisions were based on that.

Then, we were invited to participate in the One-Room Challenge, and did a dramatic gut renovation of the Upper Unit bathroom. The Challenge elevated the aesthetic of the project, which made us (me) want to elevate the look and feel of the entire house.

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We looked at other Airbnb properties in the area, and also at the upcoming calendar in Milwaukee. The city is hosting the Democratic National Convention the year and some other significant events, so we thought that this would be the right time to put this one on the Airbnb market. 

Since we did not have a budget for decorating, I took this as a challenge and got super excited to put my thrifting and DIYing skills to work to make this place as cute as possible without spending too much money. Plus, I pulled every thrifting purchase that did not have a home out of storage; all my years of hoarding paid off! I had the BEST time putting these rooms together and pushing myself to make budget-friendly design choices. It’s truly amazing what you can do with some thrift finds! 

Also, as I mentioned in my Airbnb Tips and Tricks post, it’s less wear and tear on a home to Airbnb it than rent it. It’s cleaned 1-2 times a week, and we can go in and maintain/fix any problems after every guest. Plus, most guests are not cooking, so the kitchen is not being used as much. Choosing to list a home for Airbnb rental versus renting it full-time can extend the life of your renovation. The only downfall is that you do have to put more upfront money into getting the home ready for Airbnb. Even with my thrifting ways, we still spent a couple thousand dollars to set up the Airbnb (mattresses, multiple sets of linens, stocking a kitchen, etc), but, in our experience, the return is higher than a rental. 

Where is it located? The duplex is in the amazing Walker’s Point neighborhood of Milwaukee! I LOVE this neighborhood, lived there for years in the house I renovated, and it’s been so fun to see this area revitalized! The location is great because it is very close to downtown, but also has so many amazing shops and restaurants within walking distance. A bunch of my favorite Antique stores are within blocks. Plus, there are a bunch of breweries, amazing restaurants, and wedding venues! Since the whole house can sleep 12, it will be perfect for events like Bachelorette/Bachelor getaways, getting ready for weddings, and thrifting weekends!

Where in the renovation did you save money? Kitchen budgets can range widely, but we were able to keep the duplex kitchens very budget-friendly. We went back and forth between IKEA and Menards for kitchen cabinets. In the end, we went with Menards because all the bases were assembled, saving us time. The lower unit cabinets were $1,300, and the upper unit cabinets were $1,100.

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afterispydiyduplex_KitchenafterOne other way to save money in the kitchen is to install open shelving instead of cabinets, which is what we did in both units. You don’t need a ton of kitchen storage for an Airbnb, just enough for a set of dishes and pots and pans.  Shelving tutorial coming soon. 

We saved a bunch on countertops by using butcher block wood, which is a much less expensive option than marble or granite. We spent about $360 on butcher block countertops in both units.  More details coming soon on the butcher block counters. 

I get a lot of questions on budget-friendly flooring. In an Airbnb, you want flooring that will last over time and lots of visitors. Life Proof Flooring is a good price point for a great product. Unfortunately, we’ve learned the hard way that cheaper laminates show wear and tear quickly. We have some in other homes we’ve done — they’re chipping. Take it from us, stick with Life Proof — that stuff is invincible! Plus it’s super easy to install yourself, I have a post on it HERE! 

What’s your favorite part of the duplex? What are you most proud of? The home was built in 1890, and I wanted to keep as much of the original charm and character. Even though the upstairs unit was in terrible condition, all the original trim work was intact. We were able to paint it and give it a whole new life. Sadly, all the downstairs trim work had been ripped out. Also, the upper unit has the original stained glass windows. I used transparent contact paper to change the color of the stained glass to cooler blues and greens, but the windows themselves remain unchanged. They are so beautiful when the sun shines through!

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What are you disappointed about? Just a couple bummers. The ceilings were dropped in most of the lower unit, causing them to feel very low and claustrophobic. Unfortunately, we did not raise them back up, as it is time-consuming and creates a huge mess ripping out multiple ceilings…think plaster, insulation everywhere (process pic below)!  We were, however, able to raise the kitchen ceiling. Mr. Yolo promises me that raising the other ceilings will be part of a phase II renovation…we shall see! Dealing with SO MUCH texture on the walls drove me insane! But skim coating the entire house would have been a big undertaking, so I minimized it as much as possible, and am at peace with the texture. 

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One other part we didn’t get to is the exterior, but we hope to give it a facelift in 2020. This will involve installing new siding, new window trim, and building out the backyard as usable space. For now, we have some band-aid fixes, but that doesn’t impact how beautiful the inside is!

I want to stay! When will the duplex be listed on Airbnb?  We have the Upper Listed and the Lower will be up soon, check here for all our Airbnb listings!  And stay tuned for more room reveals and before and after posts!!

What are you guys going to do next? Ah, the million-dollar question. For the first time since moving to Milwaukee 6ish years ago, drumroll (!), we are going to put a hold on our renovations…Unless something we can’t pass up comes along, ha!

We have another big project coming in 2020 — our first baby! And we couldn’t be more excited. So we decided that 2020 would be a year of maintenance. We are going to focus on our four (yes, we’re up to four!) Airbnb properties, plus a rental unit we own, and renovating the exterior of our home, The Barnhouse.  We will be busy managing and refreshing our other properties, as they’ve already been withstanding a few years of wear and tear. BUT if the PERFECT renovation opportunity comes along, we would have a hard time saying no. We also have a couple of fun projects and collabs up our sleeves, including some new products! We can’t wait to share them with you guys!


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  1. Alison says:

    I just LOVE your eclectic mix of DIYs, thrifted finds, etc.! What is the trim color you used? It’s a perfect neutral. 🙂

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