Discover the Immense Appeal of Small Cottages

Metro Detroiters looking for a peaceful getaway are embracing the big joys of tiny getaways
small cottages
Dawn and Chris Jacobs’ 450-square-foot retreat in Holly offers stunning views of Spring Lake. // Photograph by Beth Singer

It’s the middle of the week and interior designer Tiffany Edison is contemplating her next getaway. Edison, owner of Birch Design Associates, is heading to the 1,200-square-foot 1955 log cabin-style retreat she and her husband recently purchased in Webster Township, not far from their home in Ann Arbor.

The busy designer is a pro at spotting small-cottage potential. It was just three years ago that she put her skills to work on everything from the kitchen to the sleeping spaces in her previous cottage on Portage Lake in Dexter Township. That cottage, built in the 1940s, measured 764 square feet.   

When Edison bought her first cottage, she had no idea how comforting such a small space could be. Since then, her mini-retreat has come in handy for escaping everything from Ann Arbor’s hustle and bustle to COVID-19. Because she knew how beneficial casual and relaxed cottages are, especially for her merged family of five children, deciding to buy the red cabin, situated on a canal off the Huron River, was a no-brainer.

Less than an hour from Edison’s port is another wee wonder, where interior designer Dawn Jacobs and her husband, Chris, take in the beauty of Holly’s pastoral offerings.

“I [enjoy] sitting on my picnic table working, looking out to gorgeous surroundings and serene Spring Lake,” says Jacobs, the owner of Artichoke Interiors in downtown Holly. Her 20-by-20-foot retreat is about 450 square feet (there’s also a splendid loft, where the master bedroom is located). Jacobs says the cottage is “pretty much one room, with the kitchen and living room all in one space. I call it a ‘view with a room.’”

“I like the idea of small, more intimate getaways,” says interior designer Denise Seifferlein. As owner of D’Avignon Interiors in Clarkston, she’s worked on a variety of projects and says that if she were designing a second home, it wouldn’t be immense.

Designers, homeowners, and those in the real estate business are finding that little equals big. Small waterside getaways provide the feel of an escape without the headaches and expenses that come with purchasing large second homes.

Mark and Christine Kilmer, sales agents for Heritage House Realty Oscoda-AuSable, sell lakeside homes from Tawas to Black River (from about 800 to 3,000 square feet) in northeast Michigan, and the ones on the small side right now are selling faster than the speedboats that zip around the region’s inland waters.

“We’ve just about sold out everything on Cedar Lake [in Alcona County],” says Mark, a longtime real estate agent and entrepreneur. “If agents up here don’t make it now, they never will. If it’s on the water, it’s gone.” 

From her professional and personal observations, Realtor Suzanne Walker of Max Broock-Birmingham notes that buyers are more excited when they’re buying second homes that are on the smaller side. “They’re more affordable, and less money is spent on upkeep,” Walker says.

Tucked away on northeast Michigan’s Little Island Lake sits an enchanting updated cottage where fresh, watery blues (on both the exterior and indoors) mingle with peaceful neutral hues.

“It was a plain brown cottage, both inside and out,” interior designer Seifferlein says. She was called on by its homeowners to transform the cottage, located in National City, about 15 minutes west of Tawas City, into an inviting getaway.

“My husband wanted a small, nice house that’s turnkey,” the wife explains. She and her husband bought the cottage in 1995 and started its transformation about five years ago. “Denise [Seifferlein] is awesome. She figures out her clients’ personalities, and that’s hard to do.”

Indeed, the designer whipped the nondescript brown bungalow into the beauty it is today, while retaining all of its endearing qualities. “We had an upholstered headboard made for the master bedroom, and all the window treatments and throw pillows were custom-made,” Seifferlein says. The color inspirations came from fabric patterns that included blues in the main living space and eclectic oranges and blues in the guest bedroom. The rest of the cottage was furnished modestly.

“The family has enjoyed the place for snowmobiling and boating, but now they want it to be cozier, welcoming, and to use it for entertaining their friends,” Seifferlein says. She worked with a local contractor to add height and square footage to the main living space, and they added more windows to “bring the outdoors in.” She also added a front entryway. “Before, there was a door that opened to the driveway; now there’s an entryway to the home.”

Like Seifferlein’s project, Edison’s Dexter Township oasis needed a dose of curb appeal. When Edison bought the bungalow-style cottage, it was white with black shutters. “I had it painted light gray with white trim and selected cobalt blue for the shutters to add a pop of color,” she says.

small cottages decor
Designer Denise Seifferlein used watery blues and peaceful neutrals to transform a plain brown cottage on Little Island Lake. // Photograph by Jeff Garland

As for the interior, she sensed she could turn it into a delightful retreat. “It had lots of paneling, including wood on the ceilings. I knew that when I painted all the paneling white, it would look sharp.” The stark white of the space is broken up with a bold cement floor tile throughout the kitchen and first-floor bath, featuring a geometric pattern of white, navy, and turquoise.

Small-cottage owners and designers are often some of the first to discover that luxurious appointments don’t necessarily create the perfect getaway. “The goal for the [Little Island Lake] cottage wasn’t to bring in high-end things, but to create a space that maintains that cozy feel the homeowners wanted,” Seifferlein says.

Homeowner and designer Jacobs admits she had entertained the idea of making her mini-retreat in Holly larger and grander, and perhaps turning it into her family’s main home. “But then you don’t have a getaway anymore,” she says, “and we love that feeling of leaving home to go to the cottage.”    

Designers stress that to maintain the carefree nature of small getaways, homeowners should aim for function first, and then beauty.

For example, Seifferlein says, “We only put rugs in the bedrooms, so there’s a cozy spot for feet when getting out of bed. Most of the home’s flooring is a light, maintenance-free, wide-plank-engineered wood flooring that doesn’t show dust and is easy to clean. The biggest issue in small spaces is storage, so we [added] a pantry and a stackable washer and dryer in the utility room to allow for more in-house storage.”

Jacobs says her tiny Holly chalet’s greatest appeal is the view: “With the entire back of the home all glass, you just see water and trees from the inside.”

Back in Ann Arbor, ideas are taking shape for Edison’s vintage red cabin. “I’m looking forward to making some great changes,” she says. “It already has its rustic cabin vibe and is taking on a good feeling.

“These smaller cottages are carefree and easy to clean,” she adds. “I didn’t want a ‘lake home.’ This is fun and easy, and you don’t get upset when people track sand in.”

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