The search was difficult at first, she said, and they decided to take a break out of frustration. But a few months later, their restaurateur friend emailed to say that she had found them the perfect place: a two-story, roughly 2,900-square-foot shophouse with 16-foot ceilings and an interior courtyard.
A shophouse is a style of 19th- and early 20th-century architecture that is still found across urban Southeast Asia. The buildings have two or three stories, with a shop on the ground floor, and typically feature an interior courtyard. Early renditions had wooden shutters and decorative moldings, while later ones adopted more of an Art Deco look, with simpler geometric designs.
The 1890s shophouse that Ms. Eckhardt and Mr. Hagerman saw had been used most recently as a tailoring shop. The business was no longer running, but its red, white and blue sign with the tailor’s name, Ah Tong, was still hanging beside the entrance.
The couple liked the house partly for its history, and partly because it was a few doors down from street-food hawkers and some quirky shops, including one that sold only eggs.
“It felt like a place we could kind of dig into,” said Mr. Hagerman, who has photographed hawkers and markets across Southeast Asia. (He and Ms. Eckhardt occasionally contribute to The New York Times.)
Within about two hours of seeing it, they had purchased the house from the tailor himself for about $150,000, at current exchange rates, Ms. Eckhardt said. The purchase was freehold, meaning the couple acquired ownership of both the building and the land beneath.
But because much of the house’s wood was rotten, it required a substantial makeover.
They decided to renovate it in a way that would respect the house’s history, she said. The first contractors they spoke with did not understand that vision, but they eventually hired Cheah Teck Seng, a wiry builder in his 60s who had grown up in a George Town shophouse and seemed to have a genuine appreciation for the style.
Mr. Cheah began replacing wood flooring and structural beams with recycled local hardwoods. He also hatched ideas that had not occurred to his clients — using discarded granite from a municipal drainage project, for example, to make a patio for the garden behind the kitchen.
There were multiple hiccups. Ms. Eckhardt mismeasured a cabinet frame and a worker cut a stainless steel countertop incorrectly, costing the couple about $2,000.
The project also was delayed by more than a year, and its total cost, about $75,000 at current exchange rates, was about 50 percent higher than Mr. Cheah’s initial estimate.
But the price still seemed reasonable, and they were impressed by Mr. Cheah’s enthusiasm, work ethic and design instincts.
“A wonderful experience, which nobody ever says about their contractor,” Mr. Hagerman said.
The result, completed in 2013, was a home whose ground-level foyer, living room and kitchen had polished concrete floors and exposed wiring. The open-plan layout evokes the feel of a factory.
But the wood floors in the second-level bedroom and office, along with some teak furniture that the couple bought in Thailand and Myanmar, add notes of coziness. And other elements — including the tailor’s sign, which still hangs outside the front door, and the original roof tiles — pay homage to a century of history. (Ms. Eckhardt said that a prohibition on altering facades in George Town is generally not enforced, but they chose to preserve theirs anyway because they liked it.)
Ms. Eckhardt said that she thinks of the house’s aesthetic as a perfect cross between the ultramodern “Singapore remake” look and a “George Town theme park” style that oozes nostalgia.
The interior courtyard creates seamless transitions between indoor and outdoor environments, she added, and the ground floor, which does not have air conditioning, feels cool because the courtyard creates a natural breeze.
The couple recently moved to the Piedmont region of Italy. Ms. Eckhardt said they had felt an urge to try something different after 20 years in “urban Asia,” and they also wanted to be closer to their parents in the United States.
Their George Town shophouse is now on the market, mostly furnished, for the equivalent of about $692,000, or roughly $239 per square foot.
Prices for heritage shophouses in George Town, the capital of the Malaysian state of Penang, rose “drastically” after the city was named a World Heritage site in 2008, said Lee Wen Tat, the senior vice president at the Penang office of Savills, an international real estate firm.
He said that the average transaction price for such George Town properties is now about $460 per square foot, up from $65 to $75 before 2008.
Mr. Lee said that about 70 percent of the buyers of George Town heritage properties are from Singapore and that most shophouses are converted into boutique hotels or rented for commercial use.
The property market is now soft across Malaysia, including in George Town, he said, as prospective buyers wait to see how investment laws may change after a general election that must be called by August.
Since October, Ms. Eckhardt said, her shophouse has been rented on Airbnb. “Would have moved it with us if we could have,” she said.
One of the house’s best perks, Mr. Hagerman added, is its proximity to the fishmongers, tradesmen and noodle hawkers who work nearby. He said that he and Ms. Eckhardt were always fascinated, in particular, by the egg shop down the block.
“It is literally an egg shop,” Ms. Eckhardt said one afternoon at the house, laughing. “It is nothing but eggs, floor to ceiling, from the front of the shop all the way to the back.”
Mr. Hagerman said that on a typical day he liked to walk into the shop and ask, as a joke, “Do you have eggs?”
The shopkeeper’s reply was always the same, he said, and never ironic.
“Yeah,” he recalled her saying. “What size?”