December 6, 2023

This is the story of a little house that grew. Its tale has characters — including Goose the pandemic pup — a surprise plot twist, and a nod to Earth Day with recycled wood and bricks, and previously-loved furniture in the Hamilton home.

“Lil Red House,” as it was dubbed, was a “really cute” red brick bungalow that Stefanie Dollak came across in late 2020 after returning home from living in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Initially planned as a reno-and-resell project for the family business, Dollak & Sons Construction, the circa-1905 house, purchased for $551,000, was instead “perfect for me,” she recalls.

NOW: The front portico was built with wood salvaged from the original bungalow's framing.
THEN: The tiny bungalow was planned as a reno-and-resell project. But Dollak decided it was "perfect for me."

When the building permits came through, Dollak’s dad, John, and brother, Reiner — with weekend help from Joel Whitty, a friend from high school she’d reconnected with — began gutting the outdated interior and rebuilding from the ground up.

They added a second floor, doubling the original size of 750 square feet, and created three bedrooms and three bathrooms for a total cost of $400,000, including furnishings and finishing touches.

Dollak, a senior digital marketing manager with online marketplace Etsy, says “cool things” emerged from the debris during demolition, including Bibles, a prohibition cupboard hidden behind panelling in the basement, and a newspaper from early 1900.

They cut construction costs by repurposing “a lot of great old wood” for framing, and exposed beams in the kitchen and cathedral ceiling of the primary bedroom. Reclaimed bricks became a design feature on small interior walls, says Dollak, who sanded and painted during the six-month project.

With the two-storey home’s exterior changed to Behr paint’s “Swiss coffee,” Lil Red House’s transformation was complete.

NOW: The couple used previously loved and vintage furniture, and the home's entire main floor has herringbone hickory hardwood.
THEN: The original kitchen in the early-1900s house.

She and Whitty both moved in last October, becoming a family of three when Goose, a fluffy Aussie mountain doodle pup, arrived from B.C. the same night. He soon claimed the pretty black-and-white powder room as a favourite spot, according to Dollak, who documented their home’s transformation on Instagram, TikTok and blog called Lil Red House.

She masterminded the design and decor side of the makeover in a style she describes as an eclectic mix of coastal, boho, Scandi and mid-century. With furniture and fixtures from grandparents, Facebook Marketplace and Etsy, the goal was to make their home “feel like ‘Joel and Stef,’” Dollak says.

Her favourite piece is the powder room’s “pinky-purple” Calacatta marble sink purchased on Etsy, which markets products from artisans, crafters and vintage sellers around the world. It was custom-made by craftsman Gabriele Balducci in Italy through a series of back-and-forth texts, she says.

A vintage mirror from France, towel bars from India and a custom rope-and-wool wall hanging by Toronto artist Jessica Hotson are other “very special pieces that help make the house a home,” she notes.

Her biggest splurge was the $11,000 see-through fireplace from Holland that adds cosiness to the family room.

NOW: Goose models the comfortable family room created at the back of the house.
THEN: The bungalow's interior included outdated wallpaper in the living room.

“I love my new home because it was handmade by my family,” Dollak reflects, adding that watching her 60-something dad build it was “very special.”

Whitty’s involvement along the way added another dimension. “It definitely is my dream home … (it’s) very cool because we chose every piece of the house.”

And that plot twist? In the few hours before the new herringbone hickory floor was installed, Whitty secretly wrote a message for Dollak on the subfloor. Then he made a video of it, and showed it to her months later as they stood on the same spot.

The hidden message? It read: “Will you marry me?”


Carola Vyhnak is a Cobourg-based writer covering personal finance, home and real-estate stories. She is a contributor for the Star. Reach her via email: [email protected]

The numbers

Size: 1,535 square feet

Bedrooms: 3

Bathrooms: 3

2020 home purchase: $551,000

Reno addition: $400,000

Fireplace splurge: $11,000


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