Entrepreneurs unite: Real estate meets beer

Posted: May 12, 2014

Mary Harris needed a steady stream of income to help pay the cost of sending her young son to Chestnut Hill Academy. So she found a property to buy and renovate, one where she could become a landlord for the first time.

When she had her first child at 40, Harris said, she realized that "I had the entrepreneurial drive, and I wanted a property I'd be excited to see everyday."

"Plus, my son was born in 2006, and I needed to pay his tuition" starting in 2012. "From an investment standpoint, I need the income for the next 16 years, and being a landlord makes a lot of sense as passive income.

"It's a good way to invest versus letting my money sit in a bank account not earning anything," said Harris, 47. "It's a way working-class people can make money on their money."

She struck gold in 2010 with 7101 Emlen St., a multifamily residential building in Mount Airy with street-level commercial space originally zoned to be a restaurant. (An outpost of the Philadelphia-based Tiffin chain of Indian restaurants sits just next door.)

After buying the building for $185,000, Harris, who lived around the corner, reached out to neighbors and local businesses. Prospective tenants kept falling through.

She had already invested about $75,000 to rehab the two upstairs apartments, for which she ultimately found renters, as well as to finish the floors in the commercial space and paint exteriors and interiors. But the commercial space sat vacant for a year.

Until Scott Wikander came along.

A former television editor for Discovery and Comcast programs, burned out on the long hours and nonstop lifestyle, Wikander wanted to open a start-up beer, barware and brewing-supply shop he planned to call Malt House Ltd. With his own business, the 42-year-old Gulf War veteran could make his own hours and also help his wife care for their baby daughter, Katherine.

Harris showed Wikander the empty space. He fell in love with the tin ceilings and mahogany floors, envisioning a place "where early 20th-century pre-Prohibition bar meets mercantile exchange."

"I painted the walls and ceiling myself in brown shades, like mocha and chocolate, much like the flavors you can add to home-brewed beer," Wikander said recently, surrounded by bags of malt labeled "Barley," "Vienna," "Belgian coffee," and "Biscuit."

Wikander and his father built display tables out of old doors, refinished an ancient wooden radio found in the basement, and reused an antique glass display case.

He keeps Malt House open late, until 8 p.m., especially for 9-to-5ers who can't get there until after work.

"I've been a craft-beer guy from before it was called that, and host home-brewer clubs here, as well, and I could never get to the stores in time when I was working downtown in a regular job," he said.

In the back, he outfitted a brewing kitchen, replete with bags of Irish moss and bottle caps, where he can teach classes and host the Mount Airy Society of Homebrewers ("it's known as M.A.S.H."), which meets at Malt House monthly.

To supplement her income as a certified social worker, Harris and her brother-in-law had rehabbed and then flipped residential buildings since the late 1990s, about one per year, on average.

But 7101 Emlen was her first experience buying and holding an income property. Among the renovations she made to the building were installing a new roof, updating basic electrical and plumbing systems, and converting the heat to electric baseboards from gas.

She used contractors to gut the kitchens and bathrooms in the apartments (one 600 square feet, the other 550 square feet). Other, minor repairs she does herself (wood putty on the doors, fixing points on the exteriors).

She's discovered she prefers having tenants over "the stress of flipping houses, waiting on contractors and carrying a mortgage while a property lies empty. And getting into real estate is a good way for a savvy woman to have a business without leaving the house a lot."


earvedlund@phillynews.com

215-854-2808

@erinarvedlund

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