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A Bristol Cottage in Progress

The Riley family brings new definition to what's homemade in their labor-of-love East Bay home

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There’s a reason they say things that appear to be “too good to be true” usually are. Carol Riley couldn’t shake that age-old cautionary mantra when she and her husband saw an ad in the newspaper for a single family home for rent in Bristol that was near the water — and affordable.

They had good reason why they didn’t have high hopes. Carol called the number listed with the ad and listened to a simple recorded message: “If you’re calling about the house, drive by. If you’re still interested, leave a message.”

“We didn’t have any money but decided to go look,” says Carol, adding that the apartment they were renting with their four children was less than ideal. “I thought, ‘I’m hardy! I’m willing to take on any project!’”

When they scoped out the joint, the couple was pleasantly surprised, albeit skeptical. The house was simple but picture perfect. Carol said it looked just like a child’s drawing with a path leading to the front door flanked by two matching trees. “I loved it from the moment I saw it,” she recalls. They decided to park and look in the windows. Things appeared to be in decent, if messy, shape. Mount Hope Bay was a short walk away and the surrounding neighborhood was charming. There had to be a catch. “So I called the police and asked if there was a lot of crime in the neighborhood,” says Carol. They laughed.

The Rileys hadn’t heard from the homeowner so she called the number again. And again. And many more times until she got a call back. Admittedly, she says, she may have worn the homeowner down, but it paid off. Soon the family found themselves packing their Providence apartment and resettling on a quiet street in America’s Most Patriotic Town. After a thorough cleaning, the family’s first order of business was freshening up the space with new paint. Carol and her son Michael tackled the unsightly faux wood paneling in the 1949 cottage. It took a good 10 coats to cover, as the paint kept getting absorbed. The Rileys were undeterred. “I’m a hard worker,” says Carol proudly. And they never stopped improving the home. Within five years, Carol and Mike bought the home, making the two-level, four-bedroom cottage their very own.

With no shortage of home improvements ahead of them, is was a blessing that Mike and Carol work as a dynamic duo. Carol is the visionary, never looking at things for what they are, but for what they can be. The home’s original wood floor, for example, was desperately worn, so Carol took a floor sander and got to work. Once done, Mike took over the refinishing process, step by step. “We physically did the whole thing ourselves,” adds Carol proudly. In the kitchen, Carol took the floor to a whole new level: she painted it hot pink. “I actually forget that it’s hot pink now and people walk in and are like, ‘Wow!’” It was a decision that, like all of her design choices, sounded just fine by Mike. From the time the two of them have been together, Carol has been a visionary. Hardly ever can she pass a piece of furniture on the side of a road without inspecting it for potential. “For me, it’s instant beauty. When I look at something, I can see what it will be, not what it is in the moment,” she explains. Carol could never count how many pieces she’s revived with new paint, new fabric and new stuffing, and with Mike’s help, she’s lopped off or added legs or arms to chairs and tables. “I’ve had friends drop off chairs on my porch that you’d be ashamed to even send to the dump,” Carol says with a laugh. “But if you didn’t have to pay for it, you have nothing to lose by playing with it.” One chair, she said, was so old and worn, the original horsehair stuffing was falling out from every which way. Having sewn and knitted her whole life, Carol got to work, transforming the piece into an eye-catching favorite. “It has turned out to be a fabulous little chair,” she says. “It’s good enough for me.”

Sewing, she says, is her passion (“I have more fabric than God,” she quips) and she’s taught the skill, along with knitting, to all four children and even Mike. Years ago, Carol had a store in Newport and when her son Patrick would tell customers he helped knit the dresses, they’d hardly believe the young man. Mike taught them how to operate all the tools in his workshop. “You have to teach them the skills,” Carol says. “We were ahead of our time. We were upcycling 20 years ago. People didn’t get it and now, it’s like everybody is doing it.” But not every piece Carol creates or reinvents is meant for their quirky cottage (although if there were room, the case might be different), so she launched Bristol-Cottage.com, which showcases her purses, dresses, pillows and other creations. An artist at heart, the site allows her to indulge her passion for working with a variety of fabrics, including her favorite vintage fabrics.

Four years ago, the Rileys opened their home to guests, listing rooms in their cottage with AirBnB. Visitors consistently comment on how warm and welcoming the home is, crediting Carol’s self-described “farmhouse chic or classy junky” décor, and many have returned over and over.

Though imperfectly perfect in every way, Carol says nothing in her house is ever really done, and that is fine by her. “I come home and I love when I walk through my door for the fact that every single corner of this house, my husband and I created,” she says. “Sometimes we have to pinch ourselves.”