For devoted “Fixer Upper” fans planning a visit to Waco, it seems too good to be true: the chance to stay several nights in one of the homes that Waco home renovation/design couple Chip and Joanna Gaines fixed up for their HGTV cable television series.
It’s true, though, for nearly half a dozen “Fixer Upper” homes, whose owners have them listed on online property rental services VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner) and Airbnb. Those listings have drawn guests from coast to coast; expanded an aspect of Waco’s hospitality business; added destinations to the map for Waco and Magnolia Market visitors; and, in some cases, opened the door to new business opportunities.
The Gaineses themselves tapped into the potent combination of “Fixer Upper” popularity and the convenience of online booking when they renovated a McGregor house into a bed and breakfast named the Magnolia House. Mere hours after online reservations were made available to fans in February, the Magnolia House had booked customers throughout 2016.
At least six other “Fixer Upper” homes could be found listed on VRBO and Airbnb earlier this month, although the owners of one were in the process of downplaying its “Fixer Upper” connection: the Gorman House (season 1, episode 2), the Mailander House (season 1, episode 12), the Shotgun House (season 3, episode 12), the Barndominium (season 3, episode 11), the Chicken House (season 3, episode 18) and the Mid-Mod House (season 2, episode 11). The Harp House (season 1, episode 11) will join that number next month. Most were listed as renting from between $250 to $350 a night.
Although none of the homeowners contacted for this story had intentions of renting rooms or their houses for Airbnb or VRBO guests when they bought their homes, the prospect of a “Fixer Upper” client flipping a newly renovated home immediately into rentals is causing the Gaineses to consider changes for season 5 applicants.
“We have no problems with our clients’ interest in using sites like VRBO and Airbnb to rent out their homes. In fact, we get it. But we are going to be more strict with our contracts involving ‘Fixer Upper’ clients moving forward,” Magnolia spokesman Brock Murphy said in a statement.
“We want to honor our national viewing audience. We want to do remodels for clients’ homes. That’s the true intent of our show, and we want to ensure that does not get lost in this new vacation rental trend. What started off with perfectly understandable intentions could cast a shadow of a doubt on the much bigger picture, and we are going to do our best to protect that moving forward.”
Ironically, the popularity of “Fixer Upper” and the unexpected celebrity it brought to houses and homeowners led some to turn over their properties for vacation rentals and move to another house.
Three years ago, Dave Morrow left a career teaching civil and environmental engineering at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California, to move to Waco, where his bride, Dr. Marla Hendricks, had a successful veterinary practice at Crossroads Animal Clinic.
They wanted a home close to Cameron Park and its mountain biking trails and found, with the Gaineses’ help, the Mailander House on North Fifth Street, built in 1910. But as the couple settled in, they found they weren’t alone. Cars with rubbernecking passengers would drive slowly by. Some would stop and people would get out for selfies with the house as backdrop. A few bold ones would come to the door and ask if they could look inside.
The polite, but unbidden attention led Morrow and his wife to renovate another house in Central Waco for their use and turn their Mailander House into a vacation rental. They’ve had guests from as far as California, New Jersey and Minnesota.
“They’re mostly women in their 50s and tend to be big ‘Fixer Upper’ fans or Baylor-oriented,” Morrow said. “(The home’s interior) is very Zen. We keep it like Joanna does — no clutter.”
Morrow also throws in, for those who are interested, a healthy dose of Waco history and information and Mailander House rentals come with use of mountain bikes for nearby Cameron Park. He often drops by Magnolia Market to chat with out-of-town visitors and sing the praises of his new hometown.
“Folks are nice here. People are respectful. It’s very easy to be accepted here,” he said. “I look at the Magnolia effort almost like Disneyland. It’s clean, a family place and where you can let your imagination go. . . . The Silos are providing a new vision of what Waco can be.”
Public attention to Clint and Kelly Harp’s “Fixer Upper” house on North 15th Street, and also to their Harp Design Co. shop next door, caused them to move their family of five (three children ages 3 to 9) to a house in another neighborhood after about a year in their “Fixer Upper.”
“We love that house. It’s such a great house. It’s not like we didn’t want to live in it,” said the 38-year-old Clint Harp, a frequent collaborator with Joanna Gaines on “Fixer Upper.”
Harp said he never felt “Fixer Upper” fans’ attention threatened their family’s safety, but the proximity of his shop kept his business always on his mind.
“I remember looking out the window on a Saturday in May, a great time to be playing with my kids, but I was worrying that there weren’t any cars in the (shop’s) parking lot,” he recalled.
Moving away has allowed some needed separation between work and home.
“I feel like (the Harp House) is not ours, but in a good way. I don’t want that to stop,” he said. “It’s such a fun thing. It’s brought joy to people and I love that.”
Converting the Harp House into use as a vacation rental has meant another round of home renovation for guest use and convenience — separating connected bedrooms and adding a hallway on the second floor, redoing a half-bath in the back of the first floor, and the like.
Future guests may be familiar with the Gaines’ work in the Harp House, but that only covered a few rooms. The Harps, as other “Fixer Upper” clients have too, finished out the balance of their five-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath house.
Change in plans
For Charmaine Hooper, who owns the Gorman House with her husband Chuck Codd, vacation rentals weren’t on the radar when their “Fixer Upper” transformation was complete. They had planned to lease space in their house for a day care, but nine months into the project, that plan changed, leaving them with an empty five-bedroom, three-bath house.
An acquaintance suggested listing it on VRBO, which Hooper did after a little investigation. Within a day, she had two customers and a new problem: 10 days to furnish the house before her first guests arrived. Since then, she’s fielded queries from as far as Belgium, England and her native Canada. With room for 12 adults, the Gorman House has hosted groups that come to Waco for weddings, family reunions, business meetings, shopping trips and Baylor University events.
“I’m blown away every time,” she said.
Interest in “Fixer Upper” and the Gaineses’ Magnolia Market, with its iconic twin silos, draws an estimated 20,000 visitors weekly to a downtown area that some city officials and businesspeople are calling the Silo District. It’s no surprise to Waco tourism manager Susan Morton that requests for a tour of Waco sights often include a “Fixer Upper” property.
Mindful of homeowners’ privacy, she limits her “Fixer Upper” stops to the outside of the Magnolia House and the vacated Harp House — pictures, but no trips inside — although the Gaineses’ 2016 purchase of the Elite Cafe and the Dossey mansion on Hillcrest Drive has given her other drive-bys with a Magnolia fingerprint.
In a city where tourist traffic typically swelled during football season and summertime, McLane Stadium, Magnolia Market and their surrounding development have evened the past ebb-and-flow to a higher level year-round, Morton said.
That increase in visitors translates into a rising demand for places to stay and while some may think the growth of Waco vacation rental spots might encroach on hotel and motel business, Morton says there’s room for both. Hotels and motels can handle large groups and travelers needing a place to spend a night; while bed and breakfasts and vacation rentals provide personal, individualized service with a homier atmosphere.
Waco’s hotel and motel occupancy rate presently averages about 70 percent, she said, among the highest in the state. The addition of four new hotels to the Waco area in recent years had little impact in lowering that rate, Morton noted, adding there’s still a need for more hotels.
“People are coming from farther away and staying longer,” she said. “Waco’s been a family destination for some time. It’s inexpensive, family-friendly, located in the middle of the state and without the big crowds and lines you see in other cities.”
Thanks to the relative ease and low cost in setting up a vacation rental property for Airbnb or VRBO, more Waco sites are popping up on those online listings, with “Fixer Upper” and Magnolia shopping joining Baylor football and graduation as selling points.
But would-be proprietors may not realize they need the city’s permission to operate legally. Vacation rental operators need a city permit, gained through a process of application to the Planning Services department, a public hearing, consideration by the Plan Commission and approval by the city council, Director of Planning Services Clint Peters said. Once approved, they also need to charge and collect a 7 percent hotel occupancy tax.
Peters estimated about a dozen bed and breakfasts and vacation rentals have the necessary permits, which are reviewed and renewed annually, with several presently in process.
“Honestly, I think the ones not operating with a permit don’t know they need one,” he said. “It’s a new frontier.”
In some cities such as Austin and San Francisco, the mushrooming growth of vacation rental properties has led to clashes between rental operators and neighborhood residents over issues such as noise, parking and property values.
But “we really haven’t received any complaints,” Peters said.
For one Waco “Fixer Upper” couple, their experience with VRBO and Airbnb rentals is leading them into an entrepreneurial move to more property rentals, even as they downplay their house’s “Fixer Upper” connection. Josh and Jill Mayborn Barrett, owners of the midcentury modern house the “Mid-Mod Home,” renovated in season 3, found new business opportunities.
An unexpected change in Josh Barrett’s job status shortly after the two moved in with their children led them to rent out their house on VRBO and Airbnb for the occasional weekend as a way to bring in some extra income.
The frequency of rentals increased as they discovered interest in their “Fixer Upper” extended to fans as far as California, Oregon, Chicago and New York City. It took work — picking up the family and staying at another Waco property to accommodate guests sometimes got “cray-cray,” Jill said.
But the personal encounters with guests proved rewarding if sometimes surprising. Josh recalled one man who treated his wife fighting cancer to a “Fixer Upper” stay, while another set of guests invited the Barretts to dinner — in their own house.
“It was really weird,” he said.
For Jill Barrett, who founded the Baylor-area coffeehouse Common Grounds and ran it for 19 years, attending to guests’ personal needs and interests opened her eyes to a business opportunity, what she calls boutique VRBOs.
In her eyes, creating a temporary home for visitors is part of a continuum that includes their love for their own home and family and their work with Hospitaller House, a transition residence for women trying to break out of addiction.
Josh Barrett now works in insurance and real estate and the couple plan to relocate to another Waco house, upgrading their Mid-Mod House, which sleeps eight to nine adults, for expanded vacation rental use.
They foresee adding other renovated properties as VRBOs as they can. At the same time, Jill Barrett is working to turn a warehouse in the Silo District into an antique market with home furnishings, vintage finds, antiques and possibly a beer and wine garden.
She has been friends with the Gaineses since her days with Common Grounds — a lawn service that Chip created once mowed her yard — and shares a love of design with Joanna, as well as their entrepreneurial sense.
Respect for the Gaineses’ work with Magnolia and a desire to protect their brand is leading the Barretts to downplay the “Fixer Upper” connection as they expand into more VRBOs, but Jill Barrett can’t help riffing on one of their phrases.
“We want to make Waco more hospitable, one house at a time.”