DIY Makeover: This renter transformed her drab three-bedroom into a Scandi-chic mid-century modern happy place
The renters: Janine Viret, a registered massage therapist, and Alistair MacGillivray, a software developer
The project: A three-bedroom apartment in Riverdale
DIY budget: $2,000
In 2010, Janine and her husband, Alistair, moved into a basement one-bedroom in the 100-year-old Broadview Mansions complex, near Riverdale Park. In their early days of living in what Janine calls “a dark hole” for $1,100 a month, they heard whispers of several fabled three-bedroom apartments in the building. It was hard to imagine one of the units becoming available. “They were occupied by lifers,” says Alistair. “The lady down the hall had lived there for about 70 years.”
In 2019, desperate for more space and light, the couple upgraded to a two-bedroom (at $2,400 a month) in a neighbouring building. Still, they held out hope for one of those three-bedrooms. Two years later, they learned that one was available for $2,800 a month, and they pounced.
But they were less than impressed by what they discovered during a walk-through of the place. There had been a flood inside the unit, and the plaster in the hall closet was bubbling from water damage. The hallway light fixture was filled with so much water that it resembled a fishbowl. The hardwood floors were buckling, and the walls were gouged and marked with crayon doodles left by toddlers. Abandoned phone cords dangled out of the walls, and exposed electrical cables stretched from the breaker box in the kitchen down through the floor.
Despite the apartment’s good bones, the place was a disaster, Janine says. While the landlord initially agreed to fix the worst of the damage—sanding and varnishing the hardwood floors, replastering the closet, and repainting the walls—the couple continued to advocate for more changes. “We use the word hazard a lot to get stuff done,” Alistair says. Eventually, the building management agreed to drywall around the cables in the kitchen, replace a rusting pedestal sink in the bathroom and remove the offending kitchen radiator.
Next, the couple embarked on a series of DIY renovations in order to make their dream apartment a reality. They swapped the bathroom’s cheap medicine cabinet—which Janine says looked like it belonged in a dorm room—with an IKEA mirrored cabinet sourced from a Facebook group ($90). Janine purchased tile whitener and sealer from Home Depot ($19) and spent four days cleaning the bathroom until it sparkled. Since the original copper pipes behind the toilet had turned green, she purchased a special abrasive ($5) and polish ($20) to recover their original finish. Afterward, she says, her knees were black with bruises.
When the pair moved in, one of two doors leading to the second bedroom, which Alistair uses as an office, had been mysteriously painted shut. “When you walked into the apartment, it looked like a hallway to nowhere,” Janine says. To open up the space, they ran a utility knife around the door frame and forced it open. The door no longer closes, but the couple prefers the spacious open-concept feel.
In the kitchen, Janine and Alistair removed the ugly orange wallpaper from the built-in cabinet. They painted its interior dark green and its exterior white to complement the rest of their Scandi-minimalism-meets-Parisian decor. At some point, Janine plans to remove the paint from the metal hinges on the cabinets, restoring them to their original rustic glory. The pair also ripped out a small, awkwardly placed dinette shelf from the kitchen. It remained empty for months until Janine sourced a vintage French pastry table ($50) on Facebook Marketplace, transforming the area into a coffee nook.
The crown jewel of the apartment is the living room’s original fireplace, which is embossed with cherub motifs. While cleaning it out, the couple found filthy horsehair insulation dating back to the building’s early days. They painted the inside of the fireplace dark green and filled it with artificial candles, since it can no longer be lit.
The most expensive upgrade was replacing the boob lights with pricier fixtures. Underneath foam ceiling medallions purchased from Amazon ($30), they installed a wicker chandelier from IKEA ($99) in the hallway, a vintage Danish mid-century modern lamp sourced from Etsy for $90 (these lamps regularly sell for upward of $700, but to save money, Janine purchased one that needed restringing). Their biggest splurge was a minimalist lamp by designer Julie Lansom (just under $1,000), which the couple purchased as a Christmas present for themselves.
In total, they spent $2,000 on upgrades. The couple has been approved for adoption since 2020, and they hope to turn the third bedroom into a child’s room. “We don’t want to leave Riverdale, but we can’t afford a multimillion-dollar home,” says Janine. They plan on staying put and growing old in the space. “At least until we can’t get up and down the stairs,” says Alistair.