Renovating with style (and a tiny budget)



Neal and Vanessa Finelli, who live in Bradenton, weren’t expecting to buy a duplex in Sarasota last October. They wanted a small, inexpensive urban nest where they could spend long weekends going to the theater, eating at favorite restaurants, walking the bayfront and browsing the Saturday Farmers’ Market.

But when a duplex on Seventh Street became available, the couple expanded their wish list to include income-producing property.




fin1“The duplex had exactly the right location,” said Vanessa Finelli, “next to Gillespie Park with tennis courts. We could walk to downtown, it was the right size at 1,350 square feet, and it had the most beautiful oak tree in the front yard.

“The outside didn’t look great, but the metal roof was new, and there was plenty of space that we could improve and make functional, including a side area that I knew could be a private enclosed patio. Inside, the tile floors were in good shape.

“Maybe the best part of the property was that there was a long-term renter already on one side who wanted to stay. Neal and I didn’t take long to make the decision to buy and then to convert the empty apartment into a stylish little pied-a-terre for ourselves.”

The couple paid $165,000 for the duplex; then Vanessa allowed herself a maximum budget of $3,000 to renovate. “My feeling is that with a big enough budget, anybody can renovate and style a home successfully,” said the artist. “But it takes someone resourceful to do it with practically no money, using repurposed furniture and accessories from garage sales and big-box stores.

“I’ve got a pretty good eye for seeing the possibilities in what some call ‘junk,’ and since I’m an artist, I’m good with colors and proportion.”

As the Finellis did not have to replace the floors, roof or bathroom, she was confident of a successful renovation.

Vanessa said her mission was to make a stylish, comfortable and convenient living space that they would want to call home.

The kitchen took a major share of the budget, because the new homeowners wanted a dishwasher that required reconfiguring a lower cabinet area as well as plumbing work. Then they replaced the counter tops, painted the walls and ceiling and installed new and modern-styled hardware on all the cabinets.

“Because of the small size of the galley kitchen, I took down a bank of upper cabinets,” said Vanessa. “I did not lose that much storage because there’s a pantry closet in the room. It’s not claustrophobic anymore. It feels light and airy.

“I also removed some of the doors on the upper cabinets on the other side of the kitchen. I think open shelves looks best. Now the kitchen is pleasant and feels roomier than it actually is. Paint helps a lot, too, as well as art.”

In the master bedroom, Vanessa went with two twin beds pushed together, instead of a king, because the twins are more versatile. The matching metal nightstands are from Ikea, and she found the rest of the furnishings at garage sales. Area carpets are from Lowe’s. She painted everything to match her color palette, which is black, white, cream, caramel and espresso, with accents of blue. All the interior trim is white, as are the ceilings. The second bedroom is configured as a den and home office for Neal, but there’s a futon for extra sleeping needs.

In the living room, the homeowners bought a new television set and opted for low-profile, contemporary furniture and chose two lounge chairs with matching ottomans instead of a sofa.

“This arrangement provides us with the greatest flexibility when entertaining guests,” Vanessa said. “And when dealing with a small space, furniture that is multi-purpose, versatile and flexible is what you want.

“Our dining table, which is glass and metal, works as a desk when we need it. The table and chairs are from Ikea, where I was able to get stylish pieces sized to this small apartment. Everything looks good, but nothing is too precious.”

Vanessa made the window valences and bathroom shower curtain, as well as the toss pillows, using fabric scraps and yardage she found on sale. She said that keeping busy patterns to a minimum helps the rooms feel bigger than they are.

Outside, the Finellis created two eating and relaxing areas, one in the front yard under the oak tree and another at the side of the house, where they carved out a private patio with a shell floor and fencing. Vanessa tends a small vertical culinary herb garden with plants she buys at the downtown Farmers’ Market. They added shutters to the house, cleaned up the landscaping and are in the process of improving garden areas that surround the home.

The Finellis use their Sarasota place for long weekends. Neal, who is the publisher of TASTE Magazine, has his office in downtown Sarasota.

Recently, the couple decided to offer their side of the duplex to renters on a short-term (two-month minimum) basis.

“When Neal and I know we won’t be able to use the place for two months at a time because of travel or relatives visiting us in Bradenton, we can offer the place to vacationers who want a downtown place, or to actors and singers who are in town for the run of a local production.

“We already know the place is turnkey-ready, comfortable and convenient to all the downtown fun of Sarasota. When we’re not here to enjoy it, someone else might as well.”


Some renovation tips from Vanessa Finelli:
• “Wite-Out correction fluid is my new best friend. I dab a dot on nicks and scratches on white appliances and it works every time. The shade of white won’t match exactly, but it’s close enough.
• “You need a handyman for certain things, such as replacing counters, painting ceilings, making minor repairs that you can’t do. It’s a worthwhile expense, especially if you own rental property.
• “In a small house, limit your color scheme to four basic colors and an accent color. Use these colors throughout the whole place for walls, fabrics, furniture colors, area carpets, etc. This will make the place seem bigger and give it a sensible flow. Go easy on busy patterns. Bring in patterns with pillows, artwork, shower curtain or a valence.
• “Be consistent with the trim color inside. I used white throughout, and I went with white ceilings, too.
• “You can paint just about anything. Don’t pass up a good piece of furniture or an an accessory just because of condition or color. You can fix and improve both.
• “My go-to places for shopping for this project were Ikea, Lowe’s, garage sales and HomeGoods. Also, I took some surplus things from my Bradenton house, and now that home looks bigger.
• “Avoid clutter. Aim for a clean, light and airy look, especially if your rooms are small.
• “Look at objects with an eye toward repurposing. For instance, I took a tower bookcase that was in Neal’s office, painted it and turned it on its side. Now, it’s the TV console in the living room of the duplex apartment. A desk might function as a small dining table. An ottoman is both extra seating and a coffee table. An old bar cart makes a great bedside table.
• “If the ceilings are low, choose low-profile furniture and the space will seem bigger.
• “Under-the-bed storage boxes keep things you don’t use everyday clean, organized and out of sight. You want them.”




Marsha Fottler

Marsha Fottler has been a newspaper and magazine lifestyle, food and design writer since 1968 first in Boston and in Florida since 1970. She contributes to regional and national publications and she is co-publisher and editor of a monthly online magazine that celebrates the pleasures of the table called Flavors & More. (941) 371-8593.
Last modified: January 3, 2015
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