Juan Carlos Barcia, 40, originally a graphic designer from Ecuador, never thought he’d be fixing up homes, let alone one after the next. When he first came to the U.S. in 2005, it was to get married. He had met his future wife a year and a half earlier when she had traveled to South America on a missionary trip.
Barcia followed his bride-to-be, Tupelonian Stephanie Rhea Barcia, who was in the midst of a one-year internship at a photography studio, to Boston. But work in his field was hard to find. So, he freelanced a bit and then got a gig helping to remodel the home of Stephanie’s boss.
At first he was clueless. “I went outside looking for a two-by-four. I didn’t even know what it was,” admits Juan Carlos with a smile.
But the work had whetted his appetite and he was eager to learn more. What originally had been a coincidence soon turned into a full-time vocation.
Six months later the couple moved to Tupelo where Stephanie started her own photography business. With two self-employed people in the family, one of them a foreigner with no U.S. credit rating, getting a loan to buy a house proved impossible. Two years later, the couple had saved up enough cash to buy their first fixer- upper, a condemned house in east Tupelo.
It was a huge task, which involved replacing the roof, flooring, electric wiring, the plumbing (both done by a professional), the kitchen, the bathroom, all windows and doors. Nevertheless, within two months, the place was ready to be rented.
Since then the couple has fixed up and remodeled a handful of homes around Tupelo, all of which have been rented. “We flip to rent,” explains Juan Carlos. Nothing they restore ever gets sold.
“Because we’re both self-employed, we were thinking, ‘what are we going to do for retirement?’ If we work on the houses now, they’ll be mostly paid for by the time we retire and we’ll be able to live comfortably,” adds Stephanie, 40.
The trick, Stephanie says, is to buy a house that comes with a garage apartment or is a duplex. “It’s a win-win situation,” she says. “If you don’t mind living modestly you can fix up your own side while renting out the other side.”
Six months ago, the couple bought their seventh house at 537 Walnut Street. The house was originally built a few years after the deadly tornado devastated Tupelo in 1936 and comes with its own concrete tornado shelter sunk into the yard.
After a major overhaul, which included many moved walls, the result is an eye-catching 2,400-square-foot home in Downtown Tupelo, surrounded by a mature garden, which the Barcias inherited from the previous owner. Inside, many of the original old features have come back to life; others have been added from previous remodeling jobs, like a door casing around the entry to the dining room and the patio doors that had originally belonged to another old house.
But the most unusual feature are the walls. When stripping the old wallpaper, the Barcias found it had a backing like cheesecloth that had been hammered to the wooden walls. And not just with a few strategically placed nails. “There were hundreds and hundreds of nails everywhere,” Stephanie recalls.
At first, Juan Carlos tried prying them off with a claw hammer. But the process left dents in the tongue-and-groove horizontal wooden boards. That’s when they decided to leave the nails in and paint over them. But there was still the cheesecloth issue: Small bits of it were stuck under the nails and would not budge. So, Juan Carlos took a small blowtorch and singed the scraps off. The small black marks around the nails were soon covered with white paint.
Well, not that soon. “It took us a while to find the right white,” Stephanie admits. Too beige looked dirty and too white looked blue-ish.
Originally, only a two-bedroom house, the house grew when the couple converted the large attic into habitable space, replacing a small, pull-down ladder in the kitchen with a proper staircase in the dining room instead. This move added 600 square feet to their home, enough for two bedrooms and a full bathroom upstairs.
“We need that extra space for when my family comes to visit from Ecuador,” says Juan Carlos. His extended family of five often stays for several weeks when they come to Tupelo.
What brings the house together is not just its clever remodeling that turned a dark interior into a bright living space flooded by natural light. As a professional photographer, Stephanie has a keen eye for detail and has collected an array of eclectic décor that meshes surprisingly seamlessly with the house’s farmhouse style: an old typewriter in the spare bedroom, an oversize letter “B” atop the fireplace mantle, and the gramophone, inherited from a family friend, the late Anthony Herrera, who played the villainous character of John Stenbeck on the television soap opera As the World Turns.
With the remodeling undertaken so far and by converting the attic space into livable square footage, the couple has already doubled the purchase value of their home – all in less than a year.
But the Barcias are not yet done. The laundry room is still in the making; the stairs to the upstairs need to be finished, as does the master bathroom. Eventually, the couple will add a sunroom at the back of the kitchen. And the plan is for the patio doors in the dining room to open directly onto a porch.
But already the house oozes plenty of charm and quirky sophistication, just like its new owners.
Story by Sandra Knispel // Photos by Stephanie Barcia