August 31, 2023

Inside Brad and Danielle Symes’s Hills home

Danielle and Brad Symes and their daughters have done the hard yards, living in a caravan as they slowly transformed their historic Adelaide Hills home. It’s been a hands-on, hard slog at times but the results are spectacular.

Brad and Danielle Symes home

It’s hard to believe that Danielle Symes had barely picked up a drill or a paint brush before buying her “renovator’s delight” in Crafers with husband Brad in 2021. Now, fast forward two years, and this 38-year-old mother of two has morphed into a do-it-yourself icon on social media, keeping her 37,000 followers transfixed by her hands-on transformation of their stunning Adelaide Hills home – and nearly everything in it.

From knocking down walls and patching up rotting timber, to mixing and pouring cement, sanding floorboards and restoring furniture, Danielle has turned this labour of love into a “before and after” Insta sensation and the final result is spectacular.

“I’ve just taught myself by YouTubing everything,” Danielle says. “I do all the research and then Brad and I execute it together, he does a bit more of the heavy lifting, but in terms of stripping and painting and all that sort of thing, it’s usually me.

“This reno was a real eye-opener  … if you wanted something a bit different, it either cost more or builders would say it couldn’t be done. So, I thought, I’ll have a crack and do it myself.”

Brad and Danielle Symes home
This expanse of outdoor living was what really sold Danielle and Brad on the beautiful property.

Nearly all of the couple’s furniture and antique homewares have been lovingly discovered in op shops, salvage yards or online – tables, chairs, sideboards, wardrobes, light fittings, plates, vases – all rescued, restored and often repurposed by Danielle, whose interior style and DIY talent is matched by her vision for what is possible. “It’s not just a financial thing, we love doing it ourselves and putting our stamp on things,” she says.

For Danielle and Brad, who is a former AFL player and played for both Port Adelaide and the Crows from 2004-2012, home ownership was almost a dream too far at one stage. The couple and their daughters, Harper, nine, and Charlie, six, were renting a home in Walkerville which they were hoping to buy. But negotiations stalled when Covid hit and they were forced to move into another rental property. They began house hunting, but everything they liked was going for $400,000 over the asking price.

“Within a couple of months, we realised we couldn’t afford to buy on the plains anymore, we just got priced out of the market,” Danielle says. “So, we started looking in the Hills and it was the best thing we ever did.”

Danielle says she has dreamed of a kitchen like this for years. Having a huge farmhouse table was a “non-negotiable” and she and Brad designed it themselves: “We want it to wear and tear and remind us that this is the heart of our home,” she says.

The couple first saw this house, a deceased estate, when it appeared on a real estate agent’s database in 2021, prior to opening to the public. “I looked at it and said, ‘this is it, this is the house’. I knew straight away,” Danielle says. “We asked to see it early, so there was no one here when we first walked in. We fell in love with it and we got a false sense that it was ours. Then we came to the open inspection and it was so busy the agents had Covid marshals and there were cars parked all the way down the street. There were people here with tape measures, sizing things up. I cried all the way home.”

But Danielle and Brad leveraged all they had and, much to their surprise, were successful in securing the house in May 2021.

“We were in shock,” Danielle says. “But I also really felt like this house just spoke to me. It was a house I could instantly see myself making a life in. I envisioned family and friends coming over, having big dinner parties outside while the kids ran around in the garden. We wanted chooks and a veggie patch and it was just the life I’d always wanted. I wasn’t even sure I would get that life, but this is the house that made all that possible.”

Brad and Danielle Symes home
The butler’s pantry is accessed via the wooden doors, on the left. The doors were second hand and Danielle restored them herself.

It’s easy to see why Danielle and Brad fell in love with their one-acre slice of Hills life. Walking through the country-style wooden gates into the front garden, a winding gravel path leads into thick greenery and towering trees including a huge American oak, while an old owl statue sits atop a stone column conjuring a mystical Harry Potter feel. Walk a little further to discover a pond and babbling fountain, tucked out of sight; a secret garden.

“We left some little mushrooms and fairies in the garden before the girls came to the house, so they discovered them on their first visit and they think fairies live in our garden now,” Danielle says.

At the back of the property is a sun-drenched pebbled terrace area where a rustic table (found online and restored) provides the perfect place to relax and entertain while taking in the sprawling garden views. Rustic stone steps, framed by pencil pines, lead down to an enormous lawn area complete with a cute white cubby house (second hand and restored). Close by are the veggie garden and chook shed, built by Danielle and Brad from bits of wood they found around the property.

The piano belonged to Danielle’s grandmother who was a music teacher. It was then passed on to Danielle’s father and now to Danielle who plays it with her girls.

It is a picture-perfect, semi-rural life, but it’s been quite the journey to transform a historic house into a modern, comfortable and beautiful home. With a limited budget, the family moved into their caravan on the property when the renovations began, living in close quarters for six months while enduring an Adelaide Hills winter.

“Looking back, it’s pretty wild we got through that,” Danielle says. “We were warm enough because we had a little blow heater but the worst thing was the girls would need to go to the toilet at night. You’d wake up and have to put your coat on, your boots and really rug up, then run out in the rain and, you know, they’re kids, they can get back to sleep but Brad and I would just lie there.”

The three-bedroom home was originally built as a coach house in 1870, one of the only stopovers between Melbourne and Adelaide in the area, and a sign on the big wooden gates welcomes guests today to “The Coach House”.

The couple opted for a wrap-around shelf with brass railing below rather than overhead cupboards in the kitchen – allowing them to show off all their collected pieces and country style.

When Danielle talks about the history of this house she refers endearingly to the previous owners, who created a lovely family home here, laying the foundations for families to come. “There’s a lovely feel to this home so I figure they must have lived a happy life here and hopefully they are happy we are doing the same here with our family. They converted the house into a family home when they came over from England and we found all their old steamer trunks in the attic, as well as a tea set and a typewriter.”

In a nod of respect to the previous owners, Danielle and Brad have put a vintage typewriter they found in the attic next to an old camera that belonged to Danielle’s grandfather. The antique items are displayed in the home’s conservatory – a beautiful room with dappled light and views out to the front garden through decorative stained-glass windows.

In many ways Danielle and Brad, who were high school sweethearts, were the perfect people to take ownership of this historic home, prepared to invest everything they had to restore the 150-year-old property with a deep sense of responsibility to its age, beauty and significance.

Danielle believes an old stove used to sit in this alcove, which is now a perfect shelving nook.

Attached to the lounge room walls, for example, are old wooden beams, or bumpers, where horse carts used to be tied up. 

“We loved the bumpers so much, we sanded them back and stained them,” Danielle says. “There are also little metal rings attached to the walls outside where they used to tie the horses up. We just love the history of this house, it’s everywhere you look.”

For some of the major demolition works, Danielle and Brad brought in a builder and other tradies as they needed to rewire and replumb the entire house. The main aim was to open up the living spaces and bring in more natural light. To do this, a large wall was knocked down creating views from the kitchen, through the living room and French doors and beyond to the garden.

Today, the sophisticated and authentic country-style kitchen is Danielle’s happy place, complete with butler’s pantry that also houses the laundry.

Charlie’s room has that rustic country feel and looks out onto the garden.

“I feel like I’ve dreamed of this kitchen for years,” she says. “I’ve been saving images of European kitchens ever since I joined Pinterest. The very first picture I pinned is still my number one inspiration. Brad and I designed the kitchen in the back of our eldest daughter’s homework book. It was a rough drawing that we adapted, but never swayed from.

“We both wanted a cosy space with a huge farmhouse table and a butler’s pantry. I wanted all the beautiful pieces I’d collected over the years to be on display, so we opted for no overhead cupboards and instead a wrap-around shelf with a brass railing. I figured, why have all these beautiful things to only hide them away in a cupboard!

“I love the idea of ‘using the good china’ for every ordinary day. I have a lot of fun playing around with the styling of it all and I love that it’s a way to constantly change the look of our kitchen.”

Brad and Danielle Symes home
Danielle has a knack for reinventing used furniture. This sideboard used to be a brown kitchen cabinet – Danielle and Brad added doors and legs and painted it to create their TV cabinet. The TV is hidden behind the doors. All up, Danielle estimates the cost was about $200. The lounge chairs were another market place find brought back to life.

Having a huge farmhouse table was a “non-negotiable” for Danielle who spent hours scouring the net for the perfect second-hand piece, without luck. She then looked at importing a table, but the cost was more than the price of the entire kitchen.

“So, in the end I drew up a design and got one made here in Adelaide,” she says. “It was then my job to stain it and add handles. I found some antique handles in a little shop in Woodside which really brought the whole thing together.

“We eat breakfast around this table every morning and it’s the hub of our house. It sees homework, baking, wine with friends and even cutting out sewing patterns. We didn’t seal it with a heavy varnish because we want it to show all those things. We want it to wear and tear and remind us that it’s the heart of our home.”

The butler’s pantry was an unexpected success – while it was built to hide all the mess, Danielle says it’s turned out to be “one of the most beautiful rooms in the entire house”.

“The jar wall was a silver lining of a building mistake. The builders got the measurements wrong, which meant we couldn’t have a cupboard there like we initially planned. We were left with this very shallow space and then Brad had the brilliant idea to turn it into open shelving. It’s now one of our favourite features.”

Juggling renovation and restoration work, as well as busy careers and raising two girls, has been a careful balancing act over the past two years for Brad, a financial advisor who runs his own business, Stellan Capital, and Danielle who is a photographer and videographer working with an online company called Supermarket Swap.

“It’s been exhausting at times, and we’ve faced some setbacks but it’s also incredibly rewarding when things work,” Danielle says.

The master suite, leading to the terrace through French doors, oozes elegance, with all pieces except the bed sourced second hand.

Another major success was the creation of the master suite. What was an open library at the bottom of the staircase has been closed off with a new wall, then a huge fireplace in the middle of the room was knocked out to create a generous-sized master bedroom with French doors leading out to the terrace. An antique chaise lounge, found on marketplace and resurrected, takes pride of place at the foot of the master bed, while an antique desk and a beautiful armoire – all second hand – finish off this enticing and elegant master zone.

When it comes to combining interior pieces, Danielle says she “just meshes things together”, mindful to balance the old with the new.

So, how would she describe her interiors style? “I don’t 100 per cent know,” she says. “I initially thought it was French country but if you look that up on Pinterest, that’s more formal than me. So, maybe European or English cottage country with a hint of modern? It’s hard to describe …  maybe minimalist country.”

Some parts of the garden have a mystical “Harry Potter-like” feel.

One of Danielle’s most treasured pieces is the piano, which sits in the cosy dining room near the pot belly fireplace. The piano belonged to Danielle’s grandmother, Winnie, who taught piano in Clare, before passing the piano down to Danielle’s father, who then passed it down to her.

“My dad is the one who taught me how to play,” she says. “I love playing classical music, it’s my stress relief and I can get completely lost in it. My favourite piece is Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven. I’m now teaching my girls to play too.”

The girls are making the most of all the space and comfort of their new Hills home, spending lots of time outdoors in the fresh air. Harper and Charlie are also able to walk to school with Danielle when the weather allows, taking a beautiful walking trail where they pick blackberries and collect eggs courtesy of a neighbour who leaves them hanging on his front gate.

Having a chook shed was an integral part of Danielle’s home-ownership dream.

“We have such beautiful neighbours,” says Danielle. “We have a lovely elderly couple across from us who we swap eggs and baked goods with and next door to us is another young family with children the same age. We see ourselves being lifelong friends with them and the kids growing up together.”

The lifestyle of the Adelaide Hills and being immersed in the local community has created a peaceful, slower pace of life that Danielle, Brad and the girls are embracing.

“We have bunnies, magpies, crows and kookaburras that frequent us every day,” Danielle says. “The kids have named them all and think of them like pets. I constantly feel inspired by our home. I often find myself wandering around the house just in awe of it and I always say to Brad, ‘how lucky are we to have all this?’. We will forever be working on this house, but that’s never scared us. I actually love the fact that, for the rest of my life, I’ll be pottering around this beautiful house we get to call home.”


This article first appeared in the June 2023 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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