The Diary of a Serial Renovator

SoPo Cottage’s Laurel LaBauve refurbishes old houses in South Portland to resell — but don’t call her a flipper.

SoPo Cottage's Laurel LaBauve
Photo by Meredith Perdue
By Sarah Stebbins
From our May 2018 issue

On a recent drizzly afternoon, we found Laurel LaBauve wrapping up a bathroom-tiling project in a 1938 garrison in South Portland. Wearing jeans and a navy-blue “Maine” sweatshirt misted with grout dust, she gestured at an adjacent gutted bedroom: “You’re welcome to sit on the toilet box.” Stacked around the throne were boxes of tile — basket-weave Carrera marble for the bathroom floor and sky-blue glass subway tile for a thin stripe she’ll juxtapose with the white ceramic she’d just installed in the shower. Next to a doorway, new wiring sprouted from a newly insulated wall (part of a whole-house buttoning-up project). Now, LaBauve said, when the cast-iron steam radiator rattles on, “it actually warms up in here.”

Before & After: LaBauve gave this 1928 South Portland bungalow a Craftsman makeover with an exposed-rafter overhang, moss-colored shingles, a six-lite door with a dentil shelf, and a square, iridescent-glass sconce. She also added a new roof, windows, stair masonry, and landscaping. Photos courtesy of SoPo Cottage. 

LaBauve’s no ordinary handywoman — her throng of social media followers will weigh in on her tiling efforts; later, many will show up at an open house to inspect the results. She bought this place, and 11 others before it, to flip, though she loathes the term. “It implies somebody who just comes in and makes things pretty, puts a new kitchen in, and doesn’t solve any of the issues,” she says. Not, for instance, someone who just sank money she’d hoped to spend on a powder room into blown-in fiberglass insulation and asbestos remediation in the basement.

“We try to make each house something we’d want to live in,” says LaBauve, who founded her renovation business, SoPo Cottage, with her husband, Richard, in 2011. “Safety and energy efficiency come first.” Whatever’s left in the budget after that, she allocates to improving traffic flow (i.e. knocking down walls), kitchen/bathroom upgrades, general cosmetic enhancements, and adding a garage if there isn’t one already.

A former engineer and corporate exec, LaBauve relocated to South Portland with Richard, a writer, from New Jersey. Having rehabbed eight of their own houses, they thought co-running a renovation business would be fun. Instead, “we discovered that working together 24/7 was not good for marital harmony,” LaBauve says. (Peace prevailed after Richard assumed an administrative role.)

All of LaBauve’s projects have been in South Portland, for reasons both professional and, um, personal. “You really need to know the market you’re working in, and I feel like I know this area pretty well,” she says. Also: “I will not use a Porta-Potty, so I need to be able to get home to go to the bathroom.” When a property goes on the market, LaBauve, also a licensed real estate agent, says she typically has just 24 to 48 hours to make an offer. The minimum she’s put into a home is $100,000, “and we’ve put many hundreds of thousands into some.” As for her return on investment? “Most flippers, from what I’ve read, are going for 15 percent,” she says. “I rarely hit that.”

Working with Cape Elizabeth’s Waterhouse Builders, LaBauve turns over two houses a year — not enough, she suggests, to substantially contribute to greater Portland’s affordable-housing shortage. “What I’m seeing is people tearing down houses and building things that really don’t fit with the neighborhood,” she says. “So, in a lot of respects, I feel like what I’m doing is saving some houses.” Saving and adding a personal stamp. The garrison, for example, will feature a coastal theme with nautical-chart wallpaper in the dining room and watery-glass penny-round tile on the kitchen backsplash. “I just want the house to be lovely,” LaBauve says. And if buyers undo her efforts? “I don’t want to know about it.”

Diary of a Serial Renovator

Laurel LaBauve toils six or seven days a week on her projects — creating floor plans, tiling, stripping and/or installing wallpaper, cleaning, problem-solving, “schlepping,” sourcing materials, staging, and blogging about her progress on Here, she describes a typical workday.

4 a.m. | I can’t sleep, so I’m online shopping for the elusive perfect light fixture for the foyer in the garrison. I want something that is traditional but has a bit of contemporary flair.

7:30 a.m. | Arriving at the house, I meet with the guys to review the day’s game plan. It’s crazy here — there are five carpenters, two electricians, and a team installing a new garage door. The crew needs more molding, so now I’m off to Hammond Lumber.

10 a.m. | I drop everything to go see a house that just came on the market. It looks interesting — a mid-century modern, which would put me totally out of my comfort zone!

11 a.m. | Finally, I start tiling the upstairs hall bathroom, which was supposed to be my full-time project today.

12:15 p.m. | The garage door is installed, but now the adjoining exterior door doesn’t close. I order a semi-custom replacement door — to the tune of $567. Now, the electrician needs to rewire and the carpenters will need to install the new door. Expensive morning!

2:30 p.m. | “Lunch” — a granola bar and some nuts I had in my glove compartment.

3 p.m. | I work with the guys to create a materials list for the next day and place the order. Then I touch base with the flooring and paint subcontractors and meet with the stonemason, who stops by to look at a repointing job.

4:15 p.m. | The guys leave and it’s my favorite part of the day. (Don’t tell the guys!) I wander from room to room in peace and quiet, snapping photos and marveling at how much progress we’ve made.

6 p.m. | Back at home, I create a spreadsheet to help me decide if the house I saw today would be a good SoPo Cottage project. Then I download today’s photos, finalize/upload a blog post, and write social media posts.

7:30 p.m. | Dinner with my husband who, thankfully, is a fabulous cook!

8 p.m. | I work on blog posts for next week, then continue my search for that foyer fixture.

9:30 p.m. | I’m falling asleep on the couch — time to rest up for tomorrow’s adventures.

April 2024, Down East Magazine

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