Published on October 8, 2019

Renovators_Notebookfeature Pin It
Photo by Rich Combs | Imagery by Madeline Montoya

In Renovator’s Notebook, homeowners open up about the nitty-gritty of their remodels: How long it really took, how much it actually cost, what went horribly wrong, and what went wonderfully, serendipitously, it’s-all-worth-it-in-the-end right.

When Rich and Sara Combs, the married couple behind one of Airbnb’s most dreamy (and Instagrammable) rentals, the Joshua Tree House, set out to start their second project, they knew exactly where it would be. “People joke, ‘You want to live in two deserts? You’re ridiculous,’” Sara says. But when they stumbled upon a dilapidated five-bedroom adobe inn in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, just 30 minutes outside of Tucson (a city Rich calls “the next Austin”), they were confident it was just the place for Posada.

The origins of the building are still a bit of a mystery to the couple, but they think it started off as condos for employees at the nearby Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum, an outdoor learning center teeming with the state’s wildlife (think: skyscraping saguaro cacti, like the kind you see in cartoons; roaming coyotes; and javelina pigs). What they did know when they closed on the 38-acre property in October 2018 was that they had a lot more to do than just give the place a fresh coat of paint (although that was definitely a must, too). The dining room didn’t have a floor, the exterior needed nearly endless patching, the roof had seen better days, and the kitchen didn’t yet exist. 

imagePin It
Courtesy of Rich and Sara Combs
imagePin It
Courtesy of Rich and Sara Combs

But the bones—including ceiling beams made from reclaimed railroad ties—were there. They moved fast so that they could start renting it out as soon as possible. The renovation was a lesson in collaboration with both each other and outside vendors—and ended up being a year’s worth of adding tile to bathrooms and scouring the Internet for furniture and kitchenware from local makers, like HF Coors and ceramist Ursula Basinger

The result? A cozy, sunken living room for movie nights; a sunny shared kitchen; an outdoor firepit; and five effortlessly cool suites, each with its own fireplace, kitchenette, linen sheets, and endless desert views. But beyond all the stuff, it just feels like home. “When we found this property, we were head over heels in love, and we said, ‘We’re doing it, we don’t care; we know it’s going to be crazy but we’re doing it anyway,’” Sara says. “We didn’t even know too much about the community here at the time, and it feels so warm and supportive. People just want to help each other—it’s a feel-good place.” We spoke to the duo about what else they learned along the way.

imagePin It
Courtesy of Rich and Sara Combs

Doing It Solo Is Scary, but Worth It

Sara: When it came time to finance Posada, we saw two routes: take on investors and have an easier time through the renovation process, but ultimately lose control of the project, or figure out how to make it work on our own and have long-term ownership and control of the project. We chose the second route, figuring the short-term discomfort and stress would be worth the long-term freedom. Though taking that path was the hardest thing we’ve ever personally experienced, we would do it all over again. 

We take on every role, although Rich tends to deal with more of the business stuff and I’ll lean toward more of the marketing side of things. Our true love is design; that’s where we started all this. But a natural part of starting your own business is you have to take on all of the responsibilities. 

imagePin It
Photo by Margaret Austin Photography
imagePin It
Courtesy of Rich and Sara Combs

A Traditional Mortgage Isn’t Your Only Option

Sara: The biggest pain was financing—figuring out how to pay for all of this, because the property was in disrepair when we first acquired it, so we couldn’t get a traditional mortgage. We had to get creative; we got a hard money loan for this year, which added a lot of stress. That was the only way to do it, though, so we had to go for it because we love this place. Now we’re so, so close. The financing is probably going to end the day of our opening party, so we’re going to have to have a few drinks!

imagePin It
Courtesy of Rich and Sara Combs

It’s Okay to Outsource

Sara: We are big DIY-ers, but this property is so big that we needed help. For example, we hired a painter the first week of November, and he painted the whole exterior, the entire interior, patched everything—and he’s still doing touch-ups. With other projects, like our houses in Joshua Tree, we did all the work ourselves—we realized we can do it, but we’re a lot slower. For Posada, it made more sense for us to put our time into things where we could be earning income, so we could then pay for these projects and get things running a little bit faster. We couldn’t afford to have this take years to renovate.

imagePin It
Courtesy of Rich and Sara Combs

Roll With the Punches

Sara: The roof was torn up for about six months, and through that process we learned a lot about both roofing and patience. They’re also patios, so we now understand what it takes to lay rooftop tiles down—getting them level with layers of sand is something that hadn’t occurred to us would be so difficult! We also discovered that, for our building specifically, leaks may not always be related to the roof itself. All of our old beams were acting as channels for water, funneling in rain during every storm. It baffled us for so long before we finally figured out what was happening!

imagePin It
Photo by Tim Melideo

Go With Your Gut

Rich: We’ve been together since we were 15 years old, and we’ve developed our sense of style together. Generally, we like the same things and we both genuinely have that gut instinct. 

Sara: It’s a part of the process for us to be in the space and feel it out. We’ll be in there together throwing out ideas, like, “What if this were here; what if that were there?” And then the other person will say, “No, I think it should be here!” It’s a back-and-forth, and as soon as we hit on that one layout or whatever it is we’re choosing, we both go, “Yeah!” We just feel it. 

imagePin It
Courtesy of Rich and Sara Combs

Add Something New to an Old Space

Sara: The floors in the kitchen are original, but we put new tile in the dining room. This was a spot where we thought, We’re going to have fun. We ended up going with Fireclay Tile’s Fallow style, which showcases an arch, such a Southwestern feature seen throughout the building. Fireclay lets you create custom colorways for its hand-painted tiles; we chose ivory and sandstone. It’s nice to put your mark on something, to show where it has changed. We’re telling the story of where we put life into this building.

Reserve a suite at the Posada here

imagePin It
Renwick Brown, Warm Hearth, and White Sand by Dunn-Edwards; Double Basin Farmhouse Kitchen Sink in Ash by Native Trails, Inc., $1,945; Santa Barbara Pendant Lamp in Natural by Serena & Lily, $398; Vigo by Fireclay Tile, $25 each; Terra Surface Light in Bone by Cedar & Moss, $169.  Imagery by Madeline Montoya

See more stories like this:
My $40K Exterior Remodel Was an Unexpected Lesson in Landscaping
A $1,000 Shiplap Ceiling Transformed This Dated ’70s Home
What Happens When You Renovate a 150-Year-Old Brownstone?

Discussion