Born again: Former home of downtown Sandusky church now a spacious Airbnb getting rave reviews

It’s not as if Michael Cox had been in the market for a church.

“Well, my wife and I and brother are Perkins people,” says the Columbus-based attorney, who lives in Delaware with wife Jacquelyn, during a recent phone interview. “We grew up (there) and graduated from (Perkins High School), so we spend a significant amount of time in Sandusky throughout the year but particularly in the warm weather.”

The couple, along with Michael’s brother, Matt, became the owners of the former First Congregational United Church of Christ in downtown Sandusky in the spring of 2021, after it was abandoned as a house of worship. They paid $225,000, he says.

“We’ve kept an eye out for real estate or buildings … and obviously that church there is an unbelievable building as far as architecture and history and location,” he says. “We weren’t looking for anything in particular when we bought it, but we really liked the building.”
Guests can cozy up in one of the property's bedrooms. (Photo courtesy of Michael Cox)
While the Coxes own long-term rental properties elsewhere, they’ve turned the church into an Airbnb, a listing that offers three baths, five bedrooms and a whopping 16 beds.

“We’ve got, basically, four to six bedrooms, depending on how you kind of divide it out – enough to sleep 16, which is the max that you can do on Airbnb,” Cox says. “And that is basically the ground level and the whole second floor. But then on the ground level, you also have the sanctuary, which is, you know, huge.”

According to the listing, the sanctuary serves as an optional event space. It won’t be rented to another party during your stay, but you must rent it in addition to the living space if you want to use it.

The first step in turning this church into a hotel of sorts was getting the property rezoned.

“Originally, this and many other churches in the city are zoned as public facilities,” says Alec Ochs, an assistant planner in Sandusky’s Community Development Department. “What that means is it's designed for public use – so our government buildings are zoned that, our police stations, our churches, etc.”

Because the building has historical significance, the city didn’t want to see extensive changes made to its exterior. With most of the alterations planned for the interior, both he and Cox say rezoning it for business use was a smooth process.

“Anytime we can get the applicant to ‘yes’ and meet all of our guidelines, it is a good experience for everyone involved,” Ochs says. 

While a church finding a new life as an Airbnb seems pretty unusual, the idea isn’t completely out of left field.

“Transient rental is a huge trend right now, especially in Sandusky, but it’s sweeping the nation,” Ochs says. “We’re seeing this everywhere – old industrial buildings as an example of a popular one I’ve experienced.”

Another trend: Empty churches

“Many churches are closing, unfortunately, and finding that new identity to save them has been a challenge for a lot of cities, especially during COVID,” Ochs adds. “Finding a tenant to revitalize them and give them a new life, new purpose, while also preserving the historic context of the outside, is rare. This is a very unique project.”

The Coxes had hoped to have it ready to be rented in summer ’21, but couldn’t transition the property that quickly and experienced what Cox characterized as the typical “growing pains” of a new venture.

“And so then last year, we rented it pretty consistently through the summer months,” Cox says. “So we’ve got one full season behind us and then, of course, are heading into another one.”

Most of the business has come during Sandusky’s busy season – a pipe bursting during the cold stretch around Christmas made the property unavailable to rent for a while anyway – but the hope is for it to be more of an appealing year-round offering. A key to that, he says, is renting it to teams visiting Sports Force Parks at Cedar Point Sports Center.

“Hopefully, over time, we’ll catch on to that crowd and get some Sports Force traffic through here and be busier in the winter.”

Depending on when you want to book the space, the cost may be listed from about $650 per night to more than $750, with a minimum number of nights required during peak times. Cox says if you compare that with what you’d pay in some hotels to sleep 16 people, “you should be way ahead.”

The family also hopes to do more with the former church, as the basement is not being utilized. 
Sun shines through the sanctuary of the former First Congregational United Church of Christ. (Photo courtesy of Michael Cox)
“My wife does a lot with art,” Cox says. “We were hoping to do art classes, art camps – something art-related down there to make use of that, but really we’ve been so focused and busy with the Airbnb, so far we haven’t had a chance to really focus efforts on (that).”

Another idea is to renovate the basement for it to be rented as a temporary office space with desks, copiers, internet service, etc. 

“Really, we haven’t settled on what we’re going to do with the rest of it, but we’ve got to do something with it,” he says. “What’s lying there now is just dormant space.”

As for the Airbnb – which, by the way, offers plenty of parking spaces and room for campers and boats – the feedback has been positive, he says, backed up by highly positive reviews on the listing.

Truthfully, he says, they didn’t know what to expect.

“We were not overly confident that it would be a hit, but the people who have stayed there have overwhelmingly loved the place,” Cox says. “I mean, the location is great. We’re basically four blocks from the boats to get to the islands, four blocks from downtown. So it’s very walkable to everything that you want to do.”

Ochs, for one, is happy to see the transition work.

“I liked this project a lot, especially from a historic-preservation standpoint,” he says. “This is a perfect example of all the boxes (being) checked: building’s historically preserved; new use, which is another economic driver for downtown; and all around it’s a very mutualistic benefit for the city and the owner.”