Renovation Rockstar: Layers of History in Kansas City | Think Realty
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Renovation Rockstar: Layers of History in Kansas City

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“Mob” tunnels, false ceilings and an incredible backstory built this project.

Project Notes:

Built in 1890

4 bedrooms/4 bathrooms

3,010 square feet

Original floors and staircase

Kitchen with 12-foot ceilings

Purchase Price: $122,000

Rehab & Carrying Costs: $200,000

Appraised Value After Rehab: $468,000*

*Because the neighborhood is dominated by multigenerational households and rentals, comps for Hatley’s property were nonexistent. This is one reason the Airbnb strategy is a good one, as it enables her to wait for other, truly similar properties in the area to change hands before she sells.

Malia-Jason-Hatley
Co-investors Malia and Jason Hatley emphasize projects like this one, which Malia described as an "emotional gamble," are possible in part because of careful financial planning and teamwork.

When Malia Hatley bought a 130-year-old brick house in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, she was definitely interested in the property for the location. “That area, Columbus Park, is really close to the downtown area. It’s full of restaurants and entertainment, a vibrant community, and, I admit, I already had one project that I’d bought about four months previously that was right behind it. We were renovating it as a duplex, and it was chugging along just fine,” she recalled. Then, she laughed. “I thought it would be so convenient. Instead, it just meant any given tool someone needed was at the other property every single time!”

Despite her wry sense of humor about the project, Hatley had a passion for the property from the very beginning. “I had done an extensive amount of research about the house before the auction, including talking to all the neighbors and learning about the previous owner, who had died,” she said. “We had a pretty good idea of the history, but we hadn’t yet been inside when we started bidding.” This is not particularly unusual in this type of circumstance, so, Hatley noted, “We assumed we would have to replace everything.” It was a good thing she did.

When Hatley and her partner and husband, Jason, walked inside for the first time, they discovered that the house had been heavily soiled by pets, neglect, and general age. During the cleanout process, they also discovered a mysterious hole in the basement (neighbors later speculated it might be a “mob tunnel” once leading to the basement of another nearby residence), false ceilings covered in “gold, sparkling popcorn” that, when removed, revealed a second layer of kitchen cabinets extending upward into the (newly revealed) 12-foot ceilings, and a family treasure trove of archives that descendants of the owner returned to collect with gratitude.

“It was definitely an adventure,” Hatley said. “And that was before we even started the renovation.”

Although the investors had originally intended to renovate the property as a small multifamily rental, Hatley soon discovered her plans would have to change. “We found the house had multiple additions. This meant the exterior walls of the house were 12-inch brick walls and, in some cases, interior walls were the same. “There was no good way to reconfigure the rooms, which had been used as multifamily previously but were very awkward as they were,” she said. There were also some historic elements that led to Hatley to believe that the home would be better suited to either a single-family residence or, as she ultimately decided, an Airbnb rental that the investors may, at some point, sell at retail.

“The house had this gorgeous staircase and that incredible kitchen. We were going to lose them if we made the property multifamily,” Hatley said. “The area is definitely a good rental neighborhood, but we felt like keeping the history, the story, and the residence intact was ultimately our best option. This is a neighborhood where people don’t leave. They live here forever. We knew it was an emotional gamble, but it was the right decision for us and the property. We are now stewards of a piece of historic Kansas City."

The former owner had paved the backyard, but Hatley knew residents in the area would prefer a "little green" instead. “We put down sod, watered it forever, and now it has a little yard,” Hatley said.

One of the home’s unique attributes that ultimately convinced Hatley to keep the property as a single-family residence, the historic staircase, was certainly a well-hidden gem at the start. “It was covered layers of paint and disgusting, red, soiled carpet, but you could tell even then that underneath, there was a beautiful staircase. Under the trash, there was something really lovely,” she said.

Above, the finished staircase graces the entryway along with the historic thin-plank hardwood floors, which are truly irreplaceable. “I could write a book about wood-stripping products at this point,” Hatley laughed, “but those floors were not coming out on my watch. They are beautiful. You will never be able to replace them with anything like them because no one makes that flooring anymore.”  The floors are featured throughout the house, including in the bedrooms and kitchen.

Of all the surprises the house held for the Hatleys, however, the kitchen probably was the most exciting adventure of all. “We knew going in that gold popcorn was coming down. What we didn’t know, however, was that in the kitchen, above that false ceiling, there was a second layer of cabinets, original to the house, that went all the way up to the ceiling,” Hatley recalled. She noted this is not an uncommon find in historic houses. “With 12 feet to work with, a lot of people will just slap up a new ceiling instead of repairing plaster or signs of water damage.”

Ultimately, Hatley opted to keep all of the cabinets, “even though you need a ladder to get to the top ones,” and replaced all the doors, drawers, and fixtures. The investors also commissioned a custom island standing on repurposed porch columns, which Hatley opted to leave unpainted. “I wanted to keep some of the character from the old kitchen,” she explained.

The bedrooms, like the rest of the living areas on the main level, feature the thin-plank hardwood floors Hatley's flooring team worked so hard to restore. The bathrooms are fully updated, and the investors added one more bath during the renovation. “The bathrooms have new tile,” Hatley admitted. “We scavenged their hardwood for the rest of the house!” They pulled the planks from closets as well.

Wondering where the pictures of the “mob” tunnel are hidden? Turns out, there aren’t any. “In all honesty, I think they had plumbing problems or needed to replace a sewer line and jackhammered the floor. Then, they hid it under shag carpet,” Hatley said ruefully.

During the renovation, she had not yet learned about that tidbit of the house’s “legend,” so the crew simply replaced the entire concrete floor and turned the area into a game room. “I wish I had known,” she said. “If I’d dug the whole thing up, I could have found Jimmy Hoffa!” Instead, she’ll have to content herself with the satisfaction of a challenging restoration project completed and producing in her property portfolio.


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