Mike and Allison Nys of Billings didn’t think too hard when deciding whether to build a house or join the remodeling fraternity.
They chose to buy and move into an historic home — believed to be the only residence in Laurel listed on the National Register of Historic Places — and then spend a year or more on a six-figure renovation.
“We fell in love with the history of the house,” said Mike Nys. “It’s going to be a pricey little deal, but on the other hand, if you go with new construction, you’ll spend $250,000 to $300,000 for not that much house.”
A 1905 kitchen was really just some furniture, he said, and the room was probably last remodeled in the 1950s.
A modern floor plan required more space, so the Nys decided to add 500 square feet to the back of the house, while preserving the home’s historic character and value.
After three months of demonstrating to the Laurel City Council that upgrading the home would be good for the older neighborhood, the couple won unanimous approval to get a variance for their addition.
“We explained that we want to be in the town for the long term and want this property to be something people are proud of,” he said.
For the past decade, the Nyses and their son, who will be an eighth-grader, lived in a 2,500-square-foot house on acreage in Lockwood, the first occupants of a house built by Kenmark Construction. But when Allison was hired as principal at Graff Elementary in Laurel, they decided to move.
The lure of remodeling was based on the family’s lifestyle, even when historically low interest rates made new construction attractive.
“I wanted to live close to work, live close to school for all the events and walk to a football game,” said Allison Nys. “I love sports.”
As long as they are ripping into a Queen Anne-style home, the Nyses will add other improvements, including a security system, since Mike works at Kenco Security; a master bedroom with a spa bath; a central vacuum system; a high-tech sound system and a wi-fi thermostat they can control from their smartphones.
Last week, the couple put their Lockwood home up for sale and when that equity is freed up, they’ll start rebuilding their Laurel house.
Billings architect Jeff Kanning, a partner at Collaborative Design Architects, said remodeling projects, like the Nyses', have kept his firm busy during the lean times.
Economic trends, good and bad, hit Montana about a year after the rest of the country. That was true with the national housing crash, although the effects across Eastern Montana were mild due to relatively scarce subprime lending and stable home values.
Kanning’s firm designed three custom-built homes in 2006, the last building peak in Billings, a city of just more than 100,000 residents.
During the down years of 2009 and 2010, the firm designed one new home each year, but that trend has reversed.
“The permits for new housing have taken off again and that has to do with cheap money,” Kanning said.
Through March, the city of Billings issued 103 permits for single-family homes, up from the 62 permits for the same period last year. That’s a 66 percent increase.
The value of the home projects rose to $87.8 million, an increase of nearly $38 million.
Half of the business at Toad N Willow, a home design and furnishing store in downtown Billings, is new homes and half remodeling projects, according to owner Laura Mettler.
“I think people are realizing, ‘I’m 40 years old. Do I want to build another house? No, I don’t think I want another 30 years of mortgage payments,’ ” Mettler said. “Some remodels can be just as nice as getting a new house.”
Those thoughts mirror the Nyses' decision to remodel the former Carrie and Abraham Erb home in Laurel.
Their Lockwood home on a large lot went on the market last week. When that sale is completed, the Nyses will tackle their major remodeling project where the living room with a nearly 10-foot ceiling will become the kitchen.
With his experience in installing home security systems, Mike Nys knows the challenges of remodeling and jokes about asking for help from “This Old House,” a popular home remodeling show on PBS.
“This is a perfect project for them,” he said, “but they are in Massachusetts and we are not.”