1-part Home, 1-part Hilton and 1-part Disney
Sipping Moonshine at the real estate closing.
I wrote my first mortgage check on Friday and the forest fire came on Monday.
“You want us to build what…where?”
“That’s a good snake, you want to keep those around.”
As crazy as it sounds all of the above statements are true, welcome to my first two years of cabin ownership in the Great Smoky Mountains.
My wife and I are what most people would consider practical people, we don’t go off spending money frivolously so the thought of buying a vacation cabin never entered into our minds. Sure, we had vacationed in the Smokies for many years and stayed in cabins during those trips but we never longed to own one. Instead, we had the idea of fleeing Illinois for Tennessee and building a log cabin for our retirement to live out our golden years in the “peaceful bliss amongst the mountains and the woods.” We did what everyone does, read the magazines, learn all about cabin construction and the start searching the online listings for available real estate both lots and existing cabins.
We sat down with our financial planner discussing just the feasibility of buying one. Then comes reality, I’m not retiring for ten years or more and who’s going to maintain this cabin that’s 650 miles away (we live in Chicago)? Our financial planner just tossed out “how about renting it out?” My wife’s reply was swift with a hand hitting the desk “Absolutely not! No one is going to be staying in my house!” Case closed or so I thought. “What about a bridge cabin, one that we own and use as we please and rent out on the side to offset some of the expense of maintaining it without any emotional connection” I suggested. Not at all a bad idea. And so it began, the search for our bridge cabin.
The cabin spoke to her.
Trulia, Zillow, Redfin, Realtor.com all became like a video game to us, every night pouring over listings. It took the better part of a year but we narrowed our search down to six cabins. We trekked down to the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge area during Labor Day 2016 to find our cabin. We met up with our realtor Tim and off we went to tour our cabins. Our top choice cabin’s condition was a bit misrepresented in the listing pictures plus it had a white-knuckled, near vertical drive up to the cabin reminiscent of the mountain in How the Grinch Stole Christmas….pass. Our second choice was decorated beautifully in Japanese décor, again not in the listing photos….pass. Our third choice went under contract one day prior to our visit….pass. Our fourth cabin we realized we actually rented on a previous vacation (no wonder it looked familiar)….pass. We skipped the fifth by location and opted to see our last choice which had a terrible listing photo of a cabin with blowing snow flurries and faded stain and a satellite dish mounted to the front of it but it was nearby. We pulled up to the cabin, stepped inside and my wife said “this is it”. The cabin spoke to her, we found our cabin….so much for no emotional connection.
Original Real Estate Listing Photo:
The Smoky Mountains area is filled with log cabins but mostly what you would consider a commodity cabin, they are built to be rented more so than lived in. When you buy them, you buy them furnished right down to every fork and spoon in the drawer. Pictures, furniture, lamps, everything is now yours and we really didn’t want any of it. As we looked around the list of things that needed to be addressed grew. Kitchen cabinets that were poorly made, a jet tub with plumbing issues, old, aged and broken appliances, window blinds that were over a foot too long for every window and soon I would own them all. After quickly taking some fast measurements we moved on to negotiations and pretty soon we had our price and for us it came in at the bottom of our budget. Now we can do something special here.
In between the time from our agreed upon price to the closing we went to work making plans to hit the ground running with renovations. We wanted to kill off the commodity cabin look (Cheap fixtures, cheap appliances, pooltables, arcade games, tube tv’s, etc.) we wanted a cabin like what you see in the magazines, we wanted different. We wanted texture and natural materials, we wanted to bring outside inside. We agreed nothing from Home Depot as far as cabinets, vanities or sinks go, we wanted an authentic cabin/lodge look. We wanted our 1-part Home, 1-part Hilton and 1-part Disney plan. Little did I know how difficult finding a contractor to share our vision would be at first and then by accident we found lightening in a bottle with Jan and Daryl Byrd from Tennessee Kitchen and Bath.
The Best Laid Plans.
The first item on my agenda to change out was the corner mounted jet tub in the master bedroom. I’m not sure why that’s a requirement for every cabin in the Smokies or who even started it but in my mind it’s time has passed. Instead of the jet tub I wanted a copper soaking tub with rock walls surrounding it and a fireplace in the background. No contractors wanted to talk with me about a change like that, that’s blasphemy in their minds to remove a jet tub! I stumbled onto a Facebook post where Jan and Daryl we’re removing a jet tub and installing a walk-in shower in a cabin and I thought “close enough.” I sent them a message with my plans including a mocked-up picture and they jumped onboard. They admitted they had never done this before but really enjoy a challenge. I found my partner.
With all our plans in place now all we needed to do was close on buying the cabin. Our car was loaded front-to-back and top-to-bottom with supplies to start remodeling our cabin. After we drove 650 miles from Chicago to Gatlinburg the call came that there was a last-minute problem and we wouldn’t be able to close. Let’s just say the next 24 hours didn’t go well for the bankers, the realtors or the title company people. After all the last-minute issues were worked out we all gathered at the title company for the closing. As we waited for our meeting a very nice woman from the title company seeing that we were stressed approached us and asked us if we wanted any refreshments, I declined but my wife asked jokingly for a large glass of wine. The lady smiled and said, “we don’t have any wine dear, but we do have some moonshine if that’s agreeable?” and that’s how it came to pass that we sipped Ol’ Smoky’s Apple Pie Moonshine while signing our closing documents. Only in Tennessee.
We Own A Cabin! And then it happened.
Finally, we own a cabin! It was October 28, 2016 and our cabin “Dancing Bearfoot” was born! We met with our contractors and laid out the plans for the bedroom and the cabin. We were planning to take our time and do one project a year, of course under the delusion that the rental income would pay for all of this – wrong! Looking at schedules it was decided February of 2017 will be our renovation month, they were slow in the winter and cabin rentals are very slow in February, the best of both worlds. With our plans laid out we spent the rest of the weekend tearing down, replacing, moving, washing, repairing almost everything inside a cabin. We took an Economy cabin and transformed it into a Luxury level cabin in a weekend and we headed home…exhausted.
The first month the cabin started to rent very nicely, we were pleased with the start and all was going well. I sat down on Friday November 25th the day after Thanksgiving and wrote a check for my first mortgage payment on the cabin, little did I know what was coming next. On Monday November 28th in the afternoon I got a text from Jan our contractor “Chimney Tops is on fire and it’s moving north”. Unknown to us, a fire was started in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on November 24th but a storm blew up on the 28th sending the fire north into Gatlinburg up the bypass and heading straight for our cabin. I was thinking “my check is still in the mail…I haven’t made my first payment yet and it’s all lost”. Luckily for us, the rains came, and the wind shifted and the fire stalled less than a mile from our cabin. We were spared.
Sadly, 2500 other cabins and 14 lives were lost in the fire. Which brings a dilemma, those 2500 cabins will be rebuilt and they will be bright shiny and new while the existing cabins in their current state will be old and outdated. All the cabinets in the kitchen and bathroom were cheaply made and falling apart, unfortunately we were at risk of being one of those outdated cabins. Time to change our timetable. We decided we were going to overhaul the majority of the cabin during the entire month of February, bedroom, bathroom and kitchen, we turned our cabin over to Jan and Daryl from Tennessee Kitchen and Bath.
Work started in the bedroom by tearing out the corner jet tub. The walls were stripped and then framed to allow for the installation of the fireplace. Stacked stone was installed and then the plumbing and drains were routed for the copper tub. Ceramic wood tile was installed on the floor under the tub and finally the tub was installed on top. We were very hesitant that the electric fireplace would look cheap when compare to the copper tub but when you turn out the lights and turn on the fireplace the glow from the tub and the rock wall is incredibly soothing, exactly the look we were hoping for.
When you ask someone about curling up in front of the fire on a cool autumn evening, sipping warm cider from a mug with cinnamon sticks in it…no one is picturing white subway tile and gray laminate flooring on a sofa from IKEA. In everyone’s minds eye they are picturing a cabin. Our goal is to create that feeling of fantasy. As I mentioned before, nothing premade from Home Depot. We had our kitchen cabinets custom made from a picture of one cabinet door found on Pinterest. We had them finished to the natural pine wood color knowing that in time they will begin to turn to that deep rich amber color of most cabin interiors, it just takes patience. The pine branch knobs came from a forge in Colorado, we love the feel of the knob, you can feel the quality. Custom building each cabinet allowed us the opportunity to maximize what was a very limited kitchen area. We had granite counter tops cut and installed and eliminated a two tub sink for one deep bowl sink, this gave us almost an extra foot of counter space. After installing new appliances, the kitchen was complete.
In 1st floor bathroom they removed the old unsightly sink and vanity. To keep the rustic feel we had the vanity custom made by a craftsman in Texas. Our goal was to have the sink look as if it had been there for decades, we wanted the rusty hinges and a bit of a weathered look. On top we installed a rock sink and water pump style faucet. We installed shelving with gas pipe to complete the rustic look but also to provide needed storage. The same stacked stone walls as was behind the copper tub was brought into the bathroom and installed as a backsplash. Add a branch framed mirror and oil rubbed bronze lighting and the rustic bathroom was complete and it’s amazing.
Fast forward to September 2017, my nephew while staying with us points out that the upstairs bathroom is not on par with the rest of the cabin, the one lone remaining cheaply made vanity is falling apart. Once again, we turn to Jan and Daryl and start sharing ideas. Daryl had recently built a live edge dining table that I fell in love with so I asked if he could build a live edge counter top that ran from the sink to over the toilet, they had never done that but were up for the challenge. We closed off the cabin for February 2018 and again the work started.
Not knowing what to expect we turned the entire project over to Jan and Daryl. They picked the wood, the finish….everything. This project was blind faith and they delivered a great bathroom. Live edge counter with a cedar enclosure hiding all the plumbing. Custom cedar framed mirror and again cedar shelving with gas pipes for storage.
Now when I call Jan and Daryl the conversation pretty much starts with “you want us to build what..where? The last time it was a flight of stairs going down the side of the cabin to a deck built inside the underneath of the cabin and install a full size 8×8 garden shed on top of it for private storage. They never know what’s coming next.
We say our cabin is one 1-part Home, 1-part Hilton and 1-part Disney. We have all the comforts of home from comfortable beds to cable TV, to a fully stocked kitchen with premium appliances to the hot tub on the back deck. If you’re a guest in our cabin we have every amenity you’d expect from a top-level hotel. From our sheets on the bed to the towels in the bathroom to the USB outlets on every nightstand and our ultra-fast WIFI. As for the Disney piece, nothing washes away your stress faster than a log cabin. Every corner of this cabin takes you out of your suburban or city life and transports you to another place. It’s an experience you can only feel not one you can describe. That’s “Dancing Bearfoot” and that’s the name of our cabin.
As far as the snake story, sorry I’ve gone too long as it is. Maybe next time! But it’s a GREAT Story!
Thank you for reading. If you’d like to learn more about our cabin please visit us at Dancing Bearfoot.com.