A Cottage Worth Sticking Around For
While redoing a 1920s cottage, this husband-and-wife team fought toxic fumes, a pest infestation—and a pressing deadline
The morning we woke up to winged carpenter ants—hundreds of them, swarming over our bed— could have been the end of it. We had only been in our fixer-upper for a few weeks. And already we'd barely survived a night when the furnace's broken heat exchanger released enough carbon monoxide to have nearly killed us.
But Ann, my soon-to-be wife, hung in there.
Shown: Adding a deep porch with cedar railings and wide steps, cedar window awnings, fresh siding, and 50-year roof shingles gave the 1,400-square- foot home a welcoming new look.
When we first saw the 1920s cottage, on a Sunday drive along Lake Michigan, I knew it had potential, but Ann wasn't so sure. We went ahead and bought it anyway.
Then came the ants. She took cover, I called the exterminator, and when I found myself in the attic vacuuming up the most disgusting nest I'd ever seen, I didn't let Ann anywhere near it—I knew if I did, she'd leave the house for good.
Shown: The uninsulated cottage had a leaky roof and an awkward entry.
We had bought the place partly because it came with a big lot. We liked that it was old and had the charm of other lakeshore cottages here in Holland, Michigan. The price was right, the location ideal, and the house level and sound. Nothing rattled, nothing sagged.
Shown: Jeff and Ann Hoekstra gather around the dining-room table with their son, Henry. (Their daughter, Greta, arrived just a few weeks later.) Contemporary touches, including an IKEA pendant and Flor rug tiles, mix with the room's period molding, vintage clocks, and arched openings, one original, one new.
But it didn't have any insulation, it was hard to tell the front from the back, plaster ceilings had been stuccoed, and rooms were a hodgepodge, with doors everywhere.
Romantic, right? We moved in and got going on one room at a time, beginning with the downstairs bedroom and bath, working nights and weekends. I had just started my own remodeling business, specializing in old houses. Ann hadn't done any renovating before.
Together we redid plaster and pulled up carpeting to reveal oak floors. We enlarged the downstairs powder room and moved walls upstairs so that we could add a shower to the bath. We got pro help with electrical and plumbing upgrades, a new septic system, a well, and, of course, a new gas furnace.
Two years into the project, things were progressing at a steady pace when one day, Ann phoned me at work. "Sit down," she said. "I'm pregnant."
Shown: Now open to the new mudroom, the kitchen shows off Jeff's hand-built cabinets and plate racks, hex-tile counters, and the original oak floor, painted glossy white.
Within 48 hours, I pulled permits for the other big things we wanted to do, including adding a sitting porch and small foyer in the front and a mudroom in back. And oh yeah, a nursery.
After ripping off and recycling the aluminum siding, I redid the entire exterior, framing out the porch, wrapping the house in two layers of foam insulation, and adding new siding and a new roof with more insulation. It's made the house nice and tight: We haven't had a winter gas bill higher than $90.
Shown: The old one had good light but felt cramped.
It was summer when we started in on the kitchen, so we moved the fridge onto the front porch, donated the old dishwasher and stove, and grilled a lot.
Ann's favorite project was the kitchen. It was the last room we finished before that big deadline: the birth of our son, Henry. Ann had a specific look in mind and fixated on a 3-foot-wide apron sink and a British-made bridge faucet. Those became our big splurge items, and we built the kitchen around them. To make sure everything would fit—and to sell my ideas to Ann—I used a Sharpie and painter's tape to lay out the new cabinets and appliances and sketch a pass-through to the dining room. We demolished the room down to the studs and opened up an exterior wall for the mudroom addition. I cut an opening for the pass-through using a template based on the house's original arched passageways. To match the 1920s period of the house, I built cabinets with beadboard fronts and period-style latches. When Ann asked for a desk area in the mudroom addition, next to the kitchen, I just continued that same cabinet style.
Shown: As a birthday present, Jeff built dining room display shelves for Ann's rolling-pin collection.
After three years of more or less constant sawdust, we were ready to paint. The red dining room required seven coats. When it came time to give the oak floors a coat of white (we didn't have the money to refinish them), we moved out for a week. Henry was born just eight weeks later.
Shown: Jeff repeated the kitchen cabinets' beadboard fronts in the mudroom storage cabinets and built-in desk. The steps add definition to the space and double as a perch for kids and guests who want to know what time dinner is.
Though Ann swears she will never again live in a house while remodeling it, the whole experience really bonded us to our first home. We see evidence of our work everywhere, from reclaimed-wood countertops to the shelves I built for a collection of vintage rolling pins that were given to us as wedding presents.
This house has so much of us in it, I don't think we could ever leave. We'll just keep adding to it. Eventually I had to screen in the front porch—we'd had it with the mosquitoes. Not as bad as flying ants, sure, but still....
What we did: Renovated a 1,200-square-foot cottage, adding 200 square feet.
Remodeling cost: $60,000
Time frame: Nearly three years, with a concentrated six-month finale.
Where we saved: Did all the labor ourselves except for plumbing, electrical, and roof-shingling. We ran out of money before we could refinish the floors, so I painted them instead—it cost me about $150 and one wicked headache.
Where we splurged: We paid more than $3,000 for our apron sink and bridge faucet. We also invested in wood-frame windows and asphalt roof shingles with a 50-year warranty.
What we'd do differently: Can't think of a thing—we're thrilled.
Biggest challenge: Preserving the character of the house while also modernizing it.