Pioneer women: Friends team up to flip houses on the Cape

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Ethel Furst (left) and Becca Schulman Havemeyer started Beach Plum Properties.
Ethel Furst (left) and Becca Schulman Havemeyer started Beach Plum Properties. Craig Anderson/Anderson Digital Imagery

The idea for this fledgling development firm was born on a Cape Cod beach, so Beach Plum Properties is an apt name for it, a nod to the iconic wild shrub that bears small plums in the dunes — a persevering plant in a tough environment.

The owners, Ethel Furst and Becca Schulman Havemeyer, have been in each other’s lives for decades. Havemeyer went to high school in Newton with Furst’s children. Furst and her husband are close friends with Havemeyer’s parents. For several years, their families have owned homes next door to each other in Orleans.

“Over the years, Becca and I sat on the beach many times talking about space and design, texture and beauty. We’ve always shared this similar interest in renovating homes,’’ said Furst, a retired school principal who lives in South Boston and Orleans. Eventually, the duo decided to act on their spirited conversations and go into business together.

Renovating homes wasn’t new territory for either woman; both had previously bought and flipped houses. But not all of the tradespeople they reached out to were accustomed to working with women, particularly women who were not licensed contractors or interior designers.

“Because we were different than typical developers, some subcontractors didn’t want to work with us. After a while, we developed a thicker skin,’’ Havemeyer said. “We valued tradespeople who were open to working with us.’’

Havemeyer and Furst actively sought relationships with women vendors, and they were disheartened to find that there were few of them. (UMass Boston’s Labor Resource Center has reported that women accounted for only 5 percent of construction work hours in Boston in 2015.) Their bookkeeper is a woman, however, and their engineering firm is woman-owned.

The living room in this unit they updated has a reclaimed-wood sliding barn door and built-ins. —Craig Anderson/Anderson Digital Imagery

Furst began dabbling in real estate in 2007. She bought property in Orleans on which she built a house that sold for a profit just before the market crashed in 2008. While she found the deal-making exciting and interesting, it was a big challenge. “I truly enjoyed the project and process,’’ she said, but “I found the pressure of being involved in the project alone, making all the decisions and carrying all the financial responsibility alone very stressful. . . . It is so much more enjoyable with a partner.’’ The market at the time wasn’t favorable for her taking on another project, she said.

Havemeyer, who has a background in corporate community relations and running nonprofits, renovated homes she owned with her husband in the South End. In 2011, when the couple and their two children relocated to La Jolla, Calif., Havemeyer fell in love with the West Coast design aesthetic. “I also gravitated toward older homes and neighborhoods with diverse architecture.’’

“I liked the concept of combining the design ideas of the West Coast with New England sensibilities,’’ said Havemeyer, who bought a home in La Jolla that she renovated and flipped. “I managed the process with the contractor, and I loved being involved in every aspect.’’

By mid-2015, however, Havemeyer and her husband were back living in the Boston area and spending summers in Orleans, having “missed the East Coast too much,’’ she recalled.

“At that point, I realized I wanted to get involved in a residential project that could have a positive impact on the community,’’ Havemeyer said. “Ethel and I are both interested in how spaces work for families.’’ So it seemed natural for Havemeyer to approach Furst to go into business together.

“I was delighted and intrigued,’’ Furst said.

By September 2016, Beach Plum Properties had acquired its first property: a two-family on a quiet dead-end street near Ridgeville Beach in Chatham. “The house was in tough shape. While it had been well loved by a multigenerational family, it was in a lot of disrepair — built with a lot of DIY that wasn’t exactly sound,’’ Havemeyer said.

Unlike some Cape-area developers who build homes that dwarf the lots upon which they sit, Havemeyer and Furst took a different approach. “Rather than a massive single-family home on the lot, we felt the need to build a really lovely, thoughtfully created beach home,’’ Havemeyer said. The partners opted to keep the existing 2,000-square-foot two-family footprint but update.

“There’s a lot of flexibility in a house like this,’’ Furst said. “We figured one family could buy both units, or they could be purchased as separate condos.’’ One of the units is being offered for sale with the property’s two outbuildings — a shed and a greenhouse, which have been updated. Unit A is on the market for $399,000; Unit B (the one with the two outbuildings) is priced at $449,000; as a single property, the home is priced at $799,000.

The exterior of the home before it was updated. —Plum Beach Properties
The refurbished exterior includes a new roof and new siding. —Craig Anderson/Anderson Digital Imagery


The greenhouse. —Craig Anderson/Anderson Digital Imagery

To be sure, the property, which was put on the market after the renovation was completed in April, is not your typical builder-grade renovation. “We didn’t want to sacrifice style and taste just because we were working within a budget,’’ said Havemeyer.

Each two-bedroom, two-bath unit features an open floor plan with attractive built-ins that offer storage and sliding reclaimed-wood barn doors. The flooring in the main living spaces has the look of wood, but it is actually 12-by-44-inch porcelain-plank tile. “It looks like reclaimed hardwood, but has a lot more durability,’’ Havemeyer said. “We thought the material made sense for these hard-working beach houses that’ll likely see a lot of action from sandy feet, dog paws, and heavy rolling luggage.’’

The original kitchen in this unit was dark and dingy.
The flooring in the main living spaces has the look of wood, but it is actually 12-by-44-inch porcelain-plank tile. The space has custom cabinetry, stainless-steel appliances, and stone countertops. —Craig Anderson/Anderson Digital Imagery

They updated all of the systems and added central air. As one can expect with any renovation project, there were challenges. The house has been reconfigured several times over the years. They had to get rid of wiring and piping on the second floor.

“When you watch the HGTV shows of these home renovations, it looks very romantic, simple even,’’ Furst said. “But this isn’t for the faint of heart . . . you can’t be a person who finds a surprise paralyzing, because a lot of unexpected things will happen. When the builder calls to report that a problem has been discovered, you often have to make quick decisions.’’

Furst and Havemeyer are selecting the location for their next residential endeavor; a new build on the Outer Cape they will start when their first property has sold. The project will be a homage to the mid-century modernist movement and will feature, Furst said, an “innovative green building practice,’’ though the business partners are keeping the details under wraps for now.

Jaci Conry, a regular Globe contributor, writes about design and architecture and can be reached at [email protected]. Subscribe to our newsletter at