Here’s How One Woman Went on Vacation — And Bought a House

published May 23, 2023
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Exterior of blue house with white trim. Large lawn with turquoise chairs around a fire pit

In October 2020, in the wake of a canceled peak COVID-era trip, Mary Lou Stufano and her husband booked an impromptu trip to White Stone, Virginia. It was their first visit to the area, just a few hours from their then-home in Lynchburg.

They sat outside enjoying the crisp fall air, the local Virginia seafood, and taking in the sights and sounds of a new-to-them region. And, as I know all too well, a trip like that can quickly turn into a Zillow scroll, which turns into targeted emails with properties in the area. Who doesn’t still receive updates on the real estate market from a vacation years ago?

“I got a Zillow ad, and thought, that’s pretty, let’s drive by just to see it,” Stufano recalls.

Something about the 1891 farmhouse cottage in the ad caught their eye. They hadn’t planned on looking at real estate that weekend, but the couple has moved states and cities multiple times over the years, renovating multiple historic homes along the way. They figured it couldn’t hurt to contact the real estate agent. “We’ve done things spur of the moment before,” Stufano says.

The next day, before heading back home, they found themselves standing in a neglected farmhouse, surrounded by water damage, fire damage, and a myriad of other intimidating prospects. Most people probably would have turned around and walked right out the door, especially without a plan already in place to tackle a fixer upper (or at least a pre-existing idea that they might be interested in moving to the area). In an alternate reality, this home on a charming point just minutes from the water might have gotten snatched up by a developer, bulldozed, and turned into a shiny new house.

But Stufano, who has a background as a home stylist, was sold. She and her husband put in an offer and, for less than $80,000, the house — and all of its issues — was theirs. A lover of history and design, she’d fallen in love with the area’s charm. “It has the best of our favorite places — Sanibel, Charleston, and Maine — combined, but with a more comfortable, quaint feel,” explains Stufano. Bringing a farmhouse back to life seemed like the right way to honor it.

Throughout two long years of renovations, Stufano got to know her newfound home, and getting out to explore was a welcome respite from the rustic conditions at the house. When one of her grown daughters came to visit, she commented she could see outside from the living room where she’d placed an air mattress to sleep. You could call it true open-air living. But piece by piece, the home came back together. Stufano has been in touch with relatives of the people who once owned the farmhouse, and they’ve been delighted that the home was not just saved, but restored.

Throughout the home, Stufano maintained most of its original floor plan and incorporated touches that acknowledge its history, from the original wainscoting from the porch ceiling being used as a wallcovering above the fireplace mantels to a tray decoupaged with layers of wallpaper found upstairs in the bedrooms. There is even an antique baby portrait that resides in a bedroom. Until Stufano finds a descendent, she doesn’t feel right just giving it away.

Does she have any regrets about impulse buying a home in the midst of a pandemic while on vacation? It doesn’t appear that way, as she’s embraced the slower pace of rural life and even found another outlet for her love of history in her work at nearby Colonial Williamsburg. And throughout those two long years of renovations, Stufano drove past another farmhouse in need of saving, just a half hour across the river. With this one, which is slightly larger to accommodate her family, she committed to living in the area full-time. Now, she rents out the two-bedroom farmhouse cottage to visitors to the area, some of whom may end up deciding they’re ready to make the same move.