A second home doesn’t have to drain your bank account. One intrepid New Englander reveals how she landed her perfect waterfront getaway for less than $200,000.
Some people like their vacation houses big—equipped with every convenience and luxury. But photographer Lynn Karlin has a different idea. At her tiny lakefront home near Belfast, Maine, she can drop in without fanfare, take a dip, read by the fire, and dine under the stars–then hop in her car and head back to town worry-free. It’s a Thoreau-like approach to weekend living, a minimalist sort of R&R.
Typically, a simple getaway isn’t so simple to achieve. While property is expensive in itself, furnishings, taxes, and plain old upkeep can turn what was once a retreat into an endless source of worry.
Then again, maybe not. Karlin is eminently practical, something she learned, no doubt, while building her commercial photography career in New York in the 1970s. Originally from Queens, she became the first female staff photographer at Women’s Wear Daily, traveling the world and capturing the likes of Jackie Onassis and Princess Grace. A stint at the New York Times Magazine followed. Forever ready for an assignment, she perfected a light and nimble journalist’s lifestyle.
But Karlin harbored an insatiable agrarian fantasy. On a visit to back-to-the-landers Helen and Scott Nearing’s farm in Harborside, Maine, in 1983, she discovered the beauty and solace of coastal living and decided to drop anchor. She quit her job, sold her New York home, and began farming with her husband, using her camera to document the many moods of rural Maine. Their beautiful book, Maine Farm: A Year of Country Life, published in 1991, captured that time.
A year later, Karlin separated from her husband and landed in Belfast, establishing herself as a garden and interior photographer for magazines. Almost immediately, she began to plot her weekend escape. Her initial attempt at a second home–a camp about 45 minutes away–didn’t work out. She didn’t visit often enough to justify the cost. “I learned that I had to have a place nearby,” she says. So for almost three years, Karlin hunted for a better spot.
While searching, practicality (and frugality) guided every decision. “Keep it simple,” she continually told herself: no computer, no TV, no frills. An avid swimmer, Karlin wanted a place on a quiet lake. And because she wanted to be at the pond’s edge, she needed an existing camp grandfathered into that location. (Newer houses have to be built at least 75 feet back.) It also had to be small, to keep taxes down.
In 2007, she found a property that met all those criteria, and at a price well under $200,000. Even better, it was surrounded by much larger properties, affording the cabin privacy at no cost to herself.
But it wasn’t perfect. The interior of the 400-square-foot 1904 home was clad in plywood, and the big, inoperable picture window overlooking the lake lacked charm. What’s worse, the sleeping loft was cut off visually from the water, making it feel claustrophobic. And the house’s foundation was compromised; she would have to jack it up to create a more-solid footing. In fact, many of Karlin’s acquaintances advised her to tear the place down.
No way, she decided. Spending about $30,000 to improve the tiny camp, she and her longtime partner, Barry Way, first removed the plywood to expose its joists and had the entire interior whitewashed, brightening it considerably. Then she updated the electrical system and swapped the single window for five wood-framed double-hungs (her highest-ticket item) that open to let in the fresh air; to get a wraparound porch effect, she installed an additional pair on either side. She replaced the bedroom wall with an arts-and-crafts balcony built by her carpenter, Jack Ruth. Now at night, she can see the moon and stars reflecting off the lake.
Karlin has sacrificed certain creature comforts–though to hear her tell it, they’re hardly sacrifices. One critical affordability decision was to eschew indoor plumbing. Karlin chose to keep the existing outhouse rather than pay to install a well, pump, and septic system. “I want to live lightly on the land,” she explains, “so I carry out my dirty dishes instead of washing them.” She brings potable water in from Belfast, and on hot days, she fills her custom outdoor shower with heated water from the stove. Made of a galvanized metal chicken feeder welded to a watering-can spout, it hangs from a tree and holds enough for two comfortable showers.
Keeping costs down also meant forgoing a heating system. Karlin’s house isn’t insulated, but it does feature a cast-iron propane stove, which, she says, “takes the chill and damp out of the air” on cold days. Because the house lacks plumbing, she doesn’t need a generator, either, which is just as well: “I don’t like the noise,” she says. When the electricity goes out, there are always candles.
Karlin also carefully culled the furnishings that came with the place, keeping the wicker loveseat and chairs (freshened up with a coat of white paint) and discarding much of the rest. She added more pieces, found at her favorite antiques stores, auctions, and flea markets (see the accompanying sidebar, opposite).
One decor trick she learned from her many years freelancing for House Beautiful and Country Living was to use side tables and lamps to make a place warm and cozy. “They eliminate dead spots in the room,” she notes. As she gives the tour of her petite cottage, she points out details: an oar she repurposed as a railing; the push-button electric stove from the 1950s that came with the house; the wood-framed chalkboard above the kitchen sink. “Surround yourself with things that you love–not valuable things, but things that make you happy,” she says. And that’s certainly how the little place on the water feels, a few miles from everything, quiet and peaceful. For Lynn Karlin, it’s the perfect carefree, low-budget escape.