Self-Renovation in Charlevoix

To anyone else, the piles of discarded beer cans and other flotsam covering the floors of the old caretaker’s cottage on Nowland Lake would have looked liked a disgusting mess. To Bob Riesenberger, it looked like money.

Redeeming the deposits on all those cans, he figured, “would make my first mortgage payment.” He’s joking, of course. But Bob was able to see potential in the cottage, a teardown by all accounts, that others would have missed. Rather than bring in a bulldozer, he rebuilt the cottage from the ground up, keeping the same foundation. In the process, he created a home comfortable enough for a full-time residence and discovered a new career.

Bob and wife Carol bought the place about eight years ago when they were still working at jobs downstate. Bob had finished fixing up their little cabin in an old resort on Nowland Lake near Charlevoix and was looking for a new project. He learned that the resort property owners association was selling the old caretaker’s cottage up the hill from the lake.

To convince Carol that the cottage was a wise investment, Bob made sure she didn’t go inside. The most recent tenants had been a pair of young men, prodigious hunters as well as beer drinkers, who apparently butchered their game at home. Bob figured that Carol would not appreciate the deer parts scattered amidst the empties any more than she’d take to the chipmunks and squirrels living in the attic.

For months, Bob drove up on weekends to strip the cottage bare. Then he and Carol redesigned the layout. A stairwell to the Michigan basement wasted valuable space, so Bob closed it off, adding access through an outside door. The old bathroom was replaced and a second added. A laundry was installed in the large pantry, the second bedroom expanded, and the kitchen and living area opened into one large room.

Bob, who had remodeled the couple’s Birmingham home as a hobby, did most of the work himself. He added custom touches, such as the curtain rods and crown molding made from slender birch logs, some with twigs left on. A built-in corner desk is his handiwork, along with a cabinet for the television and audio equipment.

For Carol, a gourmet cook, Bob designed an oversized island with concrete countertop tinted to look like soapstone. He says the countertop is big enough for Ping-Pong, but she says it’s perfect. “I have more counter space up here than I did downstate,” Carol says.

They downsized big time, however, when they moved to the 1,100-square-foot cottage permanently three years ago. Yet the Riesenbergers, whose two grown sons live outside Michigan, say the place is just right for them and is especially cozy in winter when the wood stove heats the entire house. Besides, with its open floor plan, the cottage can accommodate a crowd. One winter evening, the Riesenbergers hit maximum capacity when 22 friends gathered in the great room. In summer, with the French doors open and the wraparound deck in full use, they host even larger parties that spill into their yard and pergola.

Enthusiastic entertainers, the Riesenbergers enjoy the camaraderie at their little resort. The folks there are friendly and tolerant, too. For example, even though the association covenant requires the lakeside cottages to be painted the same yellow and green, the property owners gave the Riesenbergers carte blanche on exterior color.

Aiming to spice up the neighborhood, the Riesenbergers painted their cottage a bright purple and green. They quickly reconsidered when they saw that their cottage bore an unpleasant resemblance to Barney the dinosaur or, as the neighbors more tactfully said, an Easter basket. Now with the siding repainted a deeper shade of purple and the trim a pleasing lavender, the cottage gets only compliments, Carol says.

That’s the good thing about doing the work yourself, adds Bob. “You can change things and improve things as you go.”

Bob’s work on the cottage impressed so many visitors that he was soon asked to help on other people’s remodeling projects. “I discovered that I liked it and that I was good at it,” he says.

When the jobs kept on coming, Bob eventually decided to sell his downstate business and move Up North to become an independent contractor specializing in bath, kitchen and mid-sized renovations. As it turns out, the cottage that Bob rebuilt, rebuilt him, a happy ending for all concerned.

Janet Lively writes and teaches in Traverse City.