In 2009, Kat O’Sullivan, who goes by Katwise, 46, and Mason Brown, 43, were living in an artist loft with roommates in Brooklyn, New York City, when they got an idea.
“We were always under the threat of eviction and having to move further away from the city center and I just did the math and realized that the price of a mortgage was half the cost of rent,” Katwise, a patchwork artist, tells CNBC Make It.
The two sat down together and drew a circle around New York City on a map and started looking for where they could buy land for a farm. It’s an idea Katwise says was pretty naïve at the time.
“I had absolutely no clue how much it was. I just thought anything was going to be better than continuing to pay rent and living with so many different personalities to make sure we had a roof over our heads,” she says.
Katwise and Brown started their search that April. Two months and 25 viewings later, they saw a 180-year-old farmhouse on 16 acres of land in Kingston, New York. They knew they wanted to buy it.
What struck the couple about the house the most was that the property owner was still living there and had been for 60 years.
“She was sitting inside the house when we saw it and emitted this beautiful glow that made me feel like the house was a treasure and it was an opportunity to grab the baton from her and look after it because I could tell she was ready to pass it on,” Katwise said.
The couple didn’t have enough money to buy the house outright, so they applied to several government programs and received funding, which included a $30,000 grant.
But after an inspection, the organization behind that grant concluded that the house should be torn down instead of fixed up, so they pulled their funding.
The same day the couple lost their grant, Katwise’s former Etsy shop where she sold patchwork sweaters went viral. The money from sales allowed the couple to move forward with their purchase of the farm.
In June, their $224,000 offer was accepted. The couple received a $8,000 tax credit that first-time home buyers were eligible for because of the financial crisis in 2008.
The couple has been renovating the farmhouse for over 10 years
Katwise says they didn’t realize at the time just how much work their new home would need. Nothing in the house had changed since the 1950s.
The couple had to redo nearly everything from the foundation and septic system to the roof.
Katwise says they’ve put at least $224,000 into redoing every single aspect of the farmhouse — a little over the same amount they paid for the property.
“Honestly, I try not to add it up because it is a bit staggering to contemplate. I am just grateful that, thanks to the pandemic, the property values have gone up so much that we are mercifully not underwater,” she added.
The way the couple has things set up, the home has four bedrooms, one full bath, and one-half bath. Katwise and Brown each have their own rooms for work, an additional room for photo shoots and yoga, and a living room with a fireplace. The property also has several outbuildings.
When Katwise and Brown first bought the house, it came with 16 acres of land, but the original size of the property was 40 acres. The original owner had to sell parcels of land off over the years.
Over time, Katwise and Brown were able to buy the other 24 acres, which brought the property back to its original size.
One thing Katwise says she wouldn’t be able to live without is a rail trail that runs alongside their land. A rail trail is a multi-use public path that’s created from former railroad corridors.
“It’s just one of the coolest features that I did not appreciate for a long time,” she added. “It’s a long, beautiful, special trail that is just the greatest gift.”
Katwise and Brown put all of their money into just buying the property. After the closing, they had about $5,000 in their bank account.
The couple had no budget for the many changes and upgrades the house would need.
They decided to do the renovation in pieces, which Katwise now says she would advise others against.
“Knowing what we know now about home repairs, I’d tell them to get their money in order and do everything all at once properly,” she said.
“I didn’t quite understand how it would become our lives and I would be talking about home repairs for the last 10 years,” she says.
“A lot of people look at our renovation and just see the work, but what they don’t see is how much sewing I’ve had to do to be able to afford it,” Katwise said. “I call it the house that sweaters built because it is one and the same with my business.”
‘Everything I touch turns into a rainbow’
When it came time to decorate their new home, Katwise knew the direction she’d be going in — she’s always been a colorful person who loves psychedelic art.
“Everything I touch turns into a rainbow, so I just assumed my house would do, too,” she says.
The couple took inspiration from Katwise’s love of color and the many items the two have collected over years of traveling alone and together.
“By the time we had a home, we had a big collection of treasures from all around the world that we are able to keep the house like a gallery to display it,” Katwise said. “It’s like a museum.”
A point of pride for Katwise is that nothing in their home is brand new; it’s either a souvenir from their travels, purchased from a thrift store, or found on Craigslist.
Although Katwise thinks they will never be done renovating the house, she says the most important lesson she’s learned over the last decade is to enjoy her home instead of looking at it as a never-ending project.
“It’s very easy to look at it as a thing I want it to be in the future and not appreciate what it is now,” Katwise says. “I’m trying harder to just appreciate how lucky we are and how beautiful it is.”