Before and After: A Run-Down New Jersey Cottage Was Totally Transformed

Before and After: A Run-Down New Jersey Cottage Was Totally Transformed

We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Square feet
Sq ft

Name: Courtney and John Achilli
Location:  Jersey Shore, Central New Jersey
Size: 3,500 square feet
Type of Home: Single-story cottage
Years Lived In: 7 years, owned

House tour cover

Can't-Miss House Tours Straight to Your Inbox

Keep up with our latest house tours each weekday with our House Tour of the Day newsletter

In 2014, we purchased a cottage called Content. The original architect and owner, Charles Leland, was from a long lineage of hoteliers and began construction on the property in 1882. Mr. Leland named his quiet refuge “Content” (pronounced: /kənˈtent/) meaning (adj): in a state of peaceful happiness. He was artistic and inscribed cups, dishware, and signage with “Content” (original merch!). The house is rich in lore and steeped in scandal:

  • It was said Mr. Leland did not like the prying eyes of the public. Closing off the world in the center courtyard, he enjoyed his coffee in his underwear.
  • In the early 1900s, the property is said to have been used as a brothel. Carriages were said to pull inside the courtyard, allowing patrons to remain unseen. Small, odd-shaped windows remain, which could have been a pass-through for money. 
  • In the 1960s, the property was seized under eminent domain. The entire home was cut into sections and rolled via a custom rail system across the street, allegedly utilizing government funds to do so. Legal action ensued.

After a four-year search of unique properties on the Jersey Shore, we previewed the cottage — which sat vacant for several years — and finally acquired it through a bank-owned, foreclosure auction. The cottage was sold “as is,” and had been looted of all metal and copper pipes, had no running water or heating system, and exposed electrical wires, but maintained nearly all of the historic, architectural details. There was also a resident family of raccoons entering and exiting through an unsealed chimney. During the first visit with our realtor, despite all the obvious neglect, we instantly knew that we wanted to own it. One step into the pad-locked, broken front door, we looked at each other and said with disbelief, “This is it.”

As newlyweds and first-time homeowners, it took us nearly six months to come up with a restoration plan. We lived with Courtney’s parents during this time, saving money and working on the property in the evening, after our full-time jobs and on the weekend. Luckily, we are both extremely handy and completed nearly all of the renovation projects ourselves — with the help of necessary professionals along the way. John is a self-taught woodworker and Jack of all trades, and I (Courtney) am a design enthusiast. We honed our individual skills to bring Content back to its former glory and feel honored to be the current stewards of this incredible property. We could not imagine keeping Content to ourselves.

Apartment Therapy Survey:

My Style: Modern Americana with Vintage Vibes. The cottage embodies a quirky, modern Americana design blend of mid-century, vintage, and original historic details. We have nine-foot exposed wood beam ceilings in a variety of wood and colors, wide-plank pine floors, 10 custom brick fireplaces, and over 50 original lead glass windows in multiple designs.

Inspiration: I (Courtney) absolutely love vintage pieces, thrift store sifting, flea market finds, and roadside treasures. There is no shame in my roadside game! Aside from the mattresses and linens, nearly all of the furnishings within Content are secondhand.

I also love mixing different design styles and tying them all together with a primary color palette, adding interest through art and decor inspired by folk culture, nature, and nostalgia. I love how each room is individually designed with its own style and attitude, but I strived to create a cohesive feel throughout the house. Each room feels like part of the complete story we are telling about the house through design.

Favorite Element: Our favorite element is the center courtyard, which is very unique to the area. Based on an 1884 New York Times article written about Content, we learned the design was inspired by Leland’s travels to Central America and Cuba, and his admiration for the hacienda style home. 

More recently, we have had visitors say the courtyard reminds them of their own family’s homes in Korea and Turkey, which share a similar layout. As unique as the courtyard is to New Jersey, it has a way of being culturally unifying, not to mention a great place to share a cocktail with new friends!

Biggest Challenge: The biggest challenge within Content is positioning furniture aesthetically and functionally around so many architectural elements. Each room has a floor-to-ceiling fireplace, two-interior doors (the house originally connected railroad style), an exterior courtyard door, and at least four double-hung windows. We are constantly tweaking and moving furniture around. It’s refreshing and a nuisance at the same time, but never boring. It’s also a great way for me to justify thrifting new pieces and redecorating on a regular basis.  

Proudest DIY: We recently re-renovated a space within Content. Originally, the camp room was used from time to time for friends and family. After several years of underuse, we decided to rethink the functionality of the space and designed the room into a deluxe suite experience for guests; creating an en suite private living room, seating area, and breakfast bar.

We are most proud of this DIY because we allowed ourselves to envision an already aesthetically pleasing space differently. We allowed ourselves to reimagine the use and function of a space that was otherwise undervalued, and were able to provide guests with an elevated experience. 

I love that we were able to reuse many of the existing furniture pieces and decor, in a new way, keeping the cost of the project primarily to the build of the new breakfast bar.

Biggest Indulgence: Energy efficiency was by far the most significant investment. Content was originally built as a one-season, summer cottage, so aside from the decorative fireplaces, heat or the ability to contain heat, was not a concern.

We took the time to perform a home energy audit with a professional to determine the energy consumption and then identify energy efficiency measures. From that, we qualified for a 10-year, zero interest loan from our local energy provider. With this loan we were able to insulate the attic, purchase tankless hot water heaters, plus install a new heat and air conditioning system. We also opted to install mini splits, in the guest suites, that can be individually controlled or turned off completely when not in use. 

This past spring, we repaired and replaced over 30 storm windows. Though a huge financial investment, making Content more energy efficient has saved us lots of money year after year.

Is there something unique about your home or the way you use it? Content is not only a home, it is an opportunity for us to support our family and the community through creativity, relaxation, and celebration. Content was the inspiration for us both to leave our full-time careers in pursuit of small business ownership. Through Content we have partnered with several third-party sharing platforms to create our hospitality brand, Content + Co. 

In addition to the cottage being our primary residence, we also share the property as a guest house for visitors of the Jersey Shore. Due to the unique layout of the house, we have three private guest suites that are accessible from the courtyard, much like a motel, plus communal living spaces that everyone can enjoy. The entire property is also available as a vacation rental for larger groups.

As well as overnight accommodations, we also rent outfitted camper vans for travelers. Though the camper vans are a different format to the house, we love bringing functional design and hospitality together through unique short-term rentals.

What are your favorite products you have bought for your home and why? Our favorite product category has to be lighting. The house did not have lighting fixtures, or wiring for lighting, at all. We purchased and installed all of the lighting fixtures during phase one of the renovation. This was a tedious but extremely rewarding experience as lighting plays a huge role in the overall aesthetic of each room.

In terms of a favorite product, we absolutely love our ice maker! We bought a used counter depth ice maker on FB Marketplace (for a third of the price) from a smoothie shop that was closing down. We essentially designed the laundry room around it, knowing well before we started renovation that the ice maker would have a prominent place within the layout.  

It seems like such a frivolous purchase but we all know how slowly refrigerator and freezer ice machines replenish, so this has been a huge upgrade for entertaining and a wonderful amenity for summertime guests filling coolers and heading to the beach.

Please describe any helpful, inspiring, brilliant, or just plain useful small space maximizing and/or organizing tips you have: As a shared home, used by ourselves and guests, nearly every room is on display and purposeful. There is a very blurred line between our personal and commercial space. Perhaps in a way, this discourages clutter, but is a constant task. We jokingly refer to the daily upkeep of these spaces as “show ready.” During a recent conversation with a friend, she shuddered at the thought of someone showing up to her home unannounced. 

Our biggest advice to others using their home for commercial endeavors, is carve out a private space just for you. Even in a shared space, maintain a private area just for you. Content is not always perfect! We have ongoing projects, mail to go through, and laundry that piles up but we allow ourselves a “back of house” area to live freely within our home, without having to keep up appearances.

Finally, what’s your absolute best home secret or decorating advice? Our best decorating advice is to allow your home to be a true reflection of you. Your home is the safest space to be creative. Ultimately, you want to be inspired by your home for years to come, so decorating with colors, textures, and resources available to you will make the space feel authentically “you.” 



  • Guest Room 1 — Benjamin Moore’s Cloud White, Rockport Gray, Tarrytown Green, Van Deusen Blue
  • Kitchen — Benjamin Moore’s Horizon
  • Guest Room 2 — Benjamin Moore’s Mopboard Black and Horizon
  • Guest Room 3 — Benjamin Moore’s Simply White, Bucktrout Brown, Baby Fawn


  • AGEN Chair Painted Black — IKEA
  • Fringe Garland — Mkono
  • Vintage Handmade Kantha Quilts — Craftintegration
  • Green Futon — Novogratz
  • Bedframe — Tribecca Home


  • Accordion Coat Rack — Homode
  • Waffle Shower Curtain — Creative Scents
  • Round Jute Rug — World Market
  • Water Hyacinth Hanging Plant Basket — IKEA
  • White Plant Pots — IKEA


  • Biology Prints — Curious Prints
  • DOCKSTA Table — IKEA
  • Block Candle Holders — Sziqiqi


  • Vintage Handmade Kantha Quilts — Craftintegration
  • Bedframe — Tribecca Home


  • Grape Wood Decorative Branch — Pisces
  • White Towels — Home and Plan
  • Faucet — Kingston Brass
  • Sink Basin — Kohler


  • Roman Shade Blinds — Arlo Blinds
  • Yellow Velvet Pillows — MIULEE
  • White Curtains — Rose Home
  • Bedframe — Tribecca Home


  • Rain Shower — Moen
  • Sink Basin — Kohler
  • Faucet — Kingston Brass
  • Shower Floor Tile — American Olean Honeycomb Marble Mosaic
  • Mirror — Target
  • Towels — Home and Plan
  • Shower Curtain Rod — Moen
  • Vanity Light — Golden Lighting

Thanks Courtney and John!

This submission’s responses and photos were edited for length/size and clarity.

Share Your Style: House Tour & House Call Submission Form