Entrepreneurs restore, rent area historic homes

Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

Maureen Hawley wasn’t looking to buy the first time she saw the 1880s-era farmhouse for sale near downtown Ann Arbor. A friend had asked the interior designer and owner of La Belle Maison Design to go along with her in the summer of 2016 and offer her opinion on the historic house, located near downtown, that she was considering purchasing.

While her friend ultimately decided not to make an offer, Hawley found she couldn’t get the 2,200-square-foot house out of her mind. “There was something about it that appealed to me,” she explained. “I kept thinking about it. It had positive energy and felt like really good space.”

It also had more practical attributes such as “good solid strong bones,” she says, as well as a clean and updated basement, four large bedrooms and an abundance of natural light. Previous owners had done much of the renovation dirty work about a decade earlier, converting the original radiator heat, adding air-conditioning and recessed lighting and updating the small kitchen.

Hawley, however, was almost an empty nester, and definitely not looking for a bigger house, she says. But because of the house’s central location, she found herself driving by it often, dreaming about its potential and possibilities and wondering why it had been on the market for a year despite Ann Arbor’s perennially hot real estate market.

A month later, the sign was gone and Hawley found herself with regrets. “I felt bad that I had missed it,” she explains. “I called the real estate agent and surprisingly, it was still available. They had taken the sign down because they had decided to try and rent it.”

She asked the real estate agent what she thought had deterred other buyers. Her only answer was that the house was located on a corner and that some people may have been intimidated by that and the home’s age, thinking that it needed more work than it did.

“The house had been very well taken care of through the years,” says Hawley, who has experience working with real estate agents staging homes for sale. She’d been looking for a challenge, she says, and started thinking about what she could do with it. A frequent traveler, she has stayed at Airbnbs ( and VRBOs (Vacation Rentals By Owner, around the world, and decided to buy the house with short-term rental in mind. “The location is ideal for short-term renters,” Hawley says. “What everyone who has rented it loves is that they can park their car and walk into town, walk to the shopping, sporting events, just about everything.”

They also rave about the interiors, which Hawley has done on an approximately $25,000 budget using secondhand, estate sale and discount home stores such as HomeGoods. She enjoyed decorating the house, going for a look that she calls “Vintage Modern.” “It’s classic, timeless and maybe just a little quirky,” she says of the overall design. “I love the mix of opposites, and that’s how I decorated the house, and always with comfort in mind.”

She says that it’s a bit more masculine than her personal style, which includes a more romantic, white palette. “I didn’t want it too feminine, because there are a mix of people who rent, both men and women. I wanted it to be comfortable for everyone.”

Guests seem to appreciate her attention to detail. She had her first renters in May of 2017, and has had regular bookings since. Weekends are especially popular.

Hawley enjoyed curating the home’s art, most of which is original. “A lot of it is black and white and it really fits the house. I had fun working on this project,” she says, adding that it’s been a good investment too. “I’d definitely do it again.”

Discover Detroit

Karen Brown has had a similar experience. The Boston-Edison homeowner and owner of Eastern Market’s Savvy Chic was also intrigued by the rise of Airbnb and the continued renaissance of many of Detroit’s inner-ring neighborhoods.

Unlike Maureen Hawley’s property, however, the 2,000-square-foot, four-bedroom, three-story century-old rowhouse she purchased in Detroit’s up and coming North End had not been kept up through the years. “It was vacant for 20 years,” she says. “The porches had collapsed and it needed a total renovation.”

But she had successfully restored her nearby Boston-Edison home and liked both the challenge and the potential the place represented. She is doing most of the work herself, including stripping original woodwork, removing interior walls to make the kitchen larger, moving doors and redoing the kitchen with cabinets she picked up for just $300 at a Detroit salvage company.

She’s been encouraged by the people who have stopped her and asked either to buy the property or about its future. “This is a very popular area to buy in at the moment,” she says. “It’s two blocks from the Michigan rail and perfectly situated between Woodward and I-75 and I-94 and West Grand Bloulevard.”

Like Hawley, she decided to decorate in an urban chic manner, mixing vintage and modern with a deft hand. “I wanted it to feel comfortable but not overdressed,” she explains. She enjoys reading magazines and books and culling creative decorating ideas such as the vintage ladder used in the bathroom which doubles as a towel bar. Lucky guests who stay on the third floor will find an enviable view of the Fisher Building.

She found evidence of past owners during the restoration, and felt like they’d approve of the work she’s done to bring the house back to life. “It’s definitely a work in progress,” she says, adding that she hopes to have it ready to rent in early 2018. “I felt like there was a spirit in the house that wanted it to be restored and brought back to life,” she explains. “For me, renovating it as an Airbnb location is a way of honoring the house’s past and the people who lived here and helping a new generation discover the city.”

Luxe loft

Not all who dabble in the Airbnb rental market are designers or shop owners, however. Jessica Woll began thinking about buying property in the city when she was in law school at Wayne State in the 1990s, she says.

She ultimately decided to purchase a five-story warehouse that had been used as apartments in Eastern Market in 2016. The building began life as a candy-making factory and was later converted to a meat-packing supply house before falling into neglect until it was converted to apartments in 2008. Signs still reflect its meat-packing history, including “Sausage Room,” “Meat Scales” and “Casings, Spices and Twine.” Woll has personal connections to the area as well — her grandfather opened a fruit stand in the market after fleeing the Holocaust in the 1930s.

Renovations included painting, fixing the elevator, installing a security system and refurbishing the original hardwood floors. Woll’s goal was to “evoke a modern, yet welcoming feel, while reflecting its foundation of history and progress.”

Afterward, she filled the lofts with high-end modern European, primarily Italian, furniture, Michigan and Detroit-based artists and stocked it with made-in-Michigan products such as coffee from nearby Germack and local microbrews. Woll rents out the third floor lofts; other floors are used as family space, events and photo shoots, even as the set for a recent movie. She partnered with restaurateur David Kwiatkowski, of Wright & Co., and the Sugar House, on a new restaurant on the ground floor, Gratiot Provisions, scheduled to open next spring.

“Our lofts have attracted quite a few artists and European executives,” Woll explains. “We have loved greeting the tenants and introducing them to the city and Eastern Market in particular. It’s been wonderful being ambassadors. ... We love being a part of the blossoming of Detroit. When I stand at the front door ... I can see the stalls of the market across Gratiot and I feel that my family’s legacy has come full circle.”

Khristi Zimmeth writes the Trash or Treasure column for Homestyle. You can reach her at