Designer turns rundown units into stylish cottages

TUPELO – Almost daily, Chris Rakestraw would cut through North Green on his way home and look longingly at three rundown houses on the west side of the street.

“I’d driven past them numerous times and I felt like I chronicled the units,” said Rakestraw, 32. “I remember when the porch fell off one of them. I felt like they had potential – they just hadn’t had a lot of love.”

Rakestraw, who has been buying, renovating and re-selling homes for about 10 years, checked into the price of the properties, but it was too steep, considering the amount of money he’d have to put into them.

“But I felt a calling to these houses, like they needed me,” he said. “And I needed a project to work on for the rest of the year. One day I went to the basement of my home to my meditation spot and meditated for an hour. I came back up and checked my computer and there had been a reduction in the price – almost by half.”

That was on a Friday night in May 2012. Two weeks later, Rakestraw closed on the three units.

In one short year, he’s worked day and night to turn a neighborhood eyesore into a neighborhood asset. He calls his creation Greensboro Cottages.

high quality

The first thing Rakestraw and his crew of two or three did was gut the structures to see what they were up against.

“We leveled out the properties and did a significant amount of dirt work in the back,” he said. “We replaced the electrical system, added central heat and air and replaced the plumbing from the street all the way to the back of the property.”

Rakestraw said a lot of the components of the houses that had to be replaced were the originals from 1936, the year the cottages were built.

“I’m not sure if the houses were built before or after the Tupelo tornado, but I’d think after because they’re apartments and people would have needed a place to go to quickly.”

When he purchased the properties from Mary Partlow, there were four units – one duplex, one single-family home and one duplex that had been converted into a single-family home. Rakestraw took it back to its original state and now there are two duplexes and one single-family home. Two units rent for $750 a month and the other three are $650.

“I wanted to create a higher-caliber apartment to attract a higher-quality tenant to generate higher rent income,” he said. “I put in three times as much money as what I paid for them – more money than I intended. But I’d never bought a property before where I had to replace everything.”

Rakestraw said he salvaged everything he could, from original pine floors to heart pine ceilings.

“We kept the fireplaces in the units even though they’re not working,” he said. “Anywhere I can, I want to grab things like that because that makes these units special.”

A changed landscape

The shotgun-style apartments, covered in lap siding, all have porches on the front, so tenants have public spaces to sit or entertain guests. Once inside, the layout is basically a living room, kitchen, bedroom and bath.

The south duplex is olive green, the middle house is terra cotta and the north duplex is blue, and all have cream-colored trim. Rakestraw used the same soft gray palette on the inside walls of all the units for conformity and ease of rehabbing during tenant turnover.

The kitchens all have stainless-steel appliances, including a dishwasher and over-the-range microwave, and each bathroom is equipped with a washer/dryer. He’s even put sleek sliding barn doors between rooms to minimize swing space. Ceiling fans, recessed lighting and wood and ceramic flooring add to the casual sophistication of the cottages.

In March, Tupelo Mayor Jack Reed presented Rakestraw with the Tupelo Forward Award, which recognizes people who have gone above and beyond when it comes to design.

“I am the youngest to receive it, only the third person to receive it and the only one to receive it for a residential project,” he said.

Rakestraw hired Sportsman Lawn & Landscape to transform the outside of the cottages into a green space, with Japanese maples, crepe myrtles, azaleas, camellias, gardenias, cleyera, hydrangeas, liriope, seasonal color and Bermuda grass. And there’s even a cozy courtyard between two of the units where tenants can relax and grill out, if they like.

“All the houses around here are owner-occupied, single-family dwellings,” Rakestraw said. “That’s what gives this area an old neighborhood feel. My goal, certainly, is to make money, but also to improve neighborhoods and save houses. I know I can’t save every old house – nobody can. But the change here is actually greater than I imagined. This corner has changed the landscape.”


Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal

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