Renovate It

Turning old houses into homes with Laurel LaBauve of SoPo Cottage

“I still think a house is part of the American dream,” says SoPo Cottage owner Laurel LaBauve, sitting on the front steps of her latest project. “It’s the place where we come home to at the end of the day and the place where we raise our families. Having that special home, I think, is so important.”

This house on Sawyer Street in South Portland, the eleventh SoPo Cottage, was a 1,400-square-foot ranch that just a few months ago could most kindly be described as bland.

“I love taking these mostly decrepit old houses and turning them into something for a whole new generation of a family,” LaBauve says. “My husband Richard and I have renovated every house we’ve ever lived in. We kept saying that one of these days it would be fun to turn that hobby into a business.”

An after photo of LaBauve’s renovations show the dramatic changes as well as her bright, open style.
The before photo of LaBauve’s renovations.

And that’s what they did in 2011.

“At first, Richard and I thought we would do this together,” LaBauve says. “But we discovered being together 24/7 is not good for marital harmony!”

By the time the first had two houses sold, Richard had stepped back to an admin role with LaBauve taking control of the thousands of project management details involved with tweaking floor plans and bringing in a construction team, including carpentry, masonry, electrical and plumbing for an entire house, sometimes two houses at once. Project management, after all, is a loose description of what Laurel had done in her 30-year corporate career as an engineer. But she also has the soul of an artist.

“She can just spend hours looking at different ideas and how she can put things together for a certain look,” says Richard, who is blown away by her “color memory” and creativity. “She wasn’t able to use that creative side for so many years working in the corporate world.”

Vicki Loring, who bought the sixth SoPo Cottage, a 1927 Arts and Crafts bungalow-style home, says LaBauve’s homes have a specific look. She followed the SoPo Cottage blog for years and attended several open houses before just the right size and style of home appeared.

“I love her style, her taste and the quality of her work,” Loring says. “Laurel even moved a staircase to create more of a focal point. She has vision that is unique and that she is not afraid to follow.”

LaBauve, a mechanical engineer by training, works up the structural designs herself. She also does tile work, refinishes reclaimed wood, creates fabric elements and scours the country for high-quality bargains that are just right for what she has in mind. For example, for a half-bath in a basement, she found wallpaper from the Netherlands patterned with antique toothbrushes.

“I feel very lucky to have taken a hobby and have turned it into a lifestyle,” she says. “And it lets me do fun things like shopping, because I stage each house from top to bottom.”

AFTER: A rancher kitchen.
BEFORE: A rancher kitchen.

LaBauve imagines who will live in the home—in this case, a young couple with a son with an adventurous spirit. Then she designs a space for these theoretical buyers. Typically, 200 to 300 people come to a SoPo Cottage open house. Then bids are accepted for a set time period, and the LaBauves pick one.

“We’ve never lost money on a house, knock on wood,” LaBauve says. But there was one house where she figured her “salary,” when all was said and done, to be a paltry $4.50 an hour. She spends 60 to 80 hours a week on a house, starting most days by meeting the contractors at 7:30 a.m. and ending with evenings shopping online for details like light fixtures.

“The guys who I work with are really craftsmen,” LaBauve says. “I’m always the oldest person on the job site, and I’m an engineer, so I’ve always been the only woman. I’ve been around men my whole life. That’s not a problem.”

Port-a-Potties, however, are where she draws the line. Every SoPo Cottage has been within walking distance of Laurel’s home (and, of course, her bathroom).

“We go through four or five months of nastiness,” LaBauve says, gesturing toward the worksite. “But I love seeing it all come together at the end.”

One time, contractors were trying to get a big dormer window in before a storm hit, and LaBauve was trying to decide where exactly the window should be based on which way would give the best water view from the bed (which, of course, wasn’t there yet).

“I feel very lucky to have taken a hobby and have turned it into a lifestyle,” she says. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

“I think women’s brains do work a little differently from men,” LaBauve laughs.

But then—who would buy waterview property and not want to be able to see the water from bed?

“I fall in love with every one of the houses,” LaBauve says. “There’s not a single one of these houses that I wouldn’t want to live in. But, for me, it’s the creating of it. I can say goodbye.”

Follow LaBauve’s work in progress on her blog:

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer from Scarborough who dreams of one day living in a SoPo Cottage.

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