“It was the quintessential ‘move to San Francisco and find yourself’ story,” says Amy Harrity of swapping life in Kentucky for the West Coast.
The full time photographer has spent the better part of the past 12 years mastering the ins and outs of the Bay Area. Now a seasoned San Franciscan, Harrity, along with her husband, has only recently begun to see the city through a new lens: That of first-time homeowners.
“It’s not something we were that prepared for, but it was kind of a once in a lifetime experience,” shares Harrity. Situated on the quiet island of Alameda, the couple’s house (built in 1912) is as quirky and charming as the neighborhood itself.
“It almost feels like time stopped in 1952 or something. It sounds cheesy, but I describe it as the Stars Hollow of the West Coast!” she laughs. “Even the Target coming onto the island was a big ordeal—people voted and everything. It doesn’t feel like most parts of Northern California.”
The pair’s transition from longtime renters to homeowners was anything but expected. Prior to acquiring the duplex they now call home, Harrity and her husband had been renting the upstairs unit for three years. It was only when the couple learned that their landlord was entertaining the idea of selling that they jumped at the opportunity to buy.
“The place needed work, but I think that’s why selling to us was so attractive. We had been living in this place and were familiar with all its quirks. We had an understanding of what we needed to do to get it to a place we wanted,” explains the photographer.
After making their move downstairs (the couple currently manages tenants in the upstairs unit where they used to live) Harrity and her husband set out to make the necessary upgrades they had long dreamt of making as renters—updates like repairing the pillars on the second floor balcony that were slowly deteriorating and installing new flooring.
“You’re not going to see a lot of cosmetic difference. Because the home is so old, making cosmetic changes is a little more difficult because we’re bound to a historical home,” says Harrity.
The most notable difference came in the form of a freshly painted exterior. “It had been 20-plus years since the house had been painted—there was a lot of water in the walls. That was great because it was a cosmetic change and a necessity,” she explains.
Inside, Harrity was determined to maximize the downstairs unit’s minimal access to natural light. Whitewashing the entire space (with the exception of an accent wall in Benjamin Moore’s “Odessa Pink”, Harrity stuck to “Swiss Coffee”) was just one part of her home-owning cleanse.
“I wanted to purge and rethink how we were decorating,” explains Harrity. “When we first moved in the apartment four years ago, we were in a different place financially, and we were younger. I was just going to church rummage sales and Goodwills and filling the house up with stuff.”
Like most amateur minimalists, the photographer found comfort in the arms of the KonMari Method. “I was deeply affected by Marie Kondo,” she laughs. “It’s hard for me because I’m the type of person who unpacks boxes and is already putting things on the walls. I want it to feel lived-in and comforting, so I had to practice a lot of patience.”
One said test of patience came in the form of a West Elm sofa. “I think I drove my husband crazy,” says Harrity, who scoured her local outlet regularly in search for the dream piece. “I would go every weekend first thing in the morning, walk in, see they didn’t have the couch, and leave. I did that for about a year!” Eventually she found her dream piece, adding that “It was moments like that… where you don’t just buy something because it’s there and the price is right.”
With this newfound care for clutter came an appreciation for never settling on style. Taking the time to collect pieces that mattered, Harrity wanted to create an aesthetic that felt balanced and warm—not store-bought. “I definitely don’t want everything to look too West Elm or too California,” she says.
Vintage pieces with sculptural appeal and warm wood tones are just two standout elements that have come to define her space. Accompanying a Herman Miller look-alike coffee table, Harrity’s favorite living room find has to be the curvy floor lamp in the corner—a sought-after vintage piece that took her on an all-consuming hunt.
“I was obsessed with this lamp,” she recalls. “I would find it on vintage designer resale sites, but it would either be sold or like $1,700. I thought, ‘Be patient, something similar will come.’ Sure enough, I went to the Alameda flea one Sunday on a mission to get a lamp and found the exact one I was looking for. I ran up to the guy (I’m the worst haggler, but I was desperate) and was like, ‘How much is that?’ And he said, ‘$350.’ And I was like, ‘Sold! Wait a second… $300?’ I was glowing walking out!”
While their former rental is officially starting to come together as a well-loved home, Harrity has big plans for the upcoming year. Converting the two-car garage into a functioning in-law suite and replacing the concrete patch by the front door with a lush garden are two of the projects the duo hopes to conquer in 2019.
But top of her wishlist? Get the fireplace up and going, stat: “I’m hoping for a Christmas-y fireplace,” she says.
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