News & Features

Professionally Lit

Whitefish’s Pretty Lights is a one-man business lighting up the holidays, one building and tree at a time

WHITEFISH — Austin Elm was standing on a ladder, about halfway through clipping a string of lights to the gutter on the office building at Mountain Harbor when he looked at the first light he’d attached and sighed.

It was crooked, or it wasn’t spaced correctly; regardless, it wasn’t in perfect alignment with the rest of the lights and needed to be fixed.

“Yes, I’m a perfectionist,” Elm said, laughing as he took a break from the ladder to gather more supplies. “You almost have to be.”

Straight lines of shining bulbs, festive ornaments, and perfectly illuminated trees: these are the hallmarks of Elm’s professional Christmas decorating business, Pretty Lights.

Pretty Lights has had a presence in the Flathead Valley for about four years, when Elm and his wife Betsy moved to Whitefish. They had two kids then, but now have four, ages 1 through 7.

“We moved here and I have been doing this ever since,” Elm said.

The company’s roots are in Minot, North Dakota, where Elm and three business partners started hanging lights professionally but more as a hobby, he said, without a definitive business behind their efforts.

They decided to get more organized in 2012, Elm said, and Pretty Lights became an official business.

Initially, the business served the Minot area, and then grew to add a division for Bismarck, North Dakota. When Elm moved to Whitefish, Pretty Lights came with him, though he’s still a one-man light show, with help from family when it’s needed.

At Mountain Harbor, the HOA hired Elm to decorate the main sign for the area, the office building, and the boathouse. He estimated that about 95 percent of his clients are residential properties, with business decorations only accounting for about 5 percent.

When it became clear he’d be running Pretty Lights in Whitefish, Elm started pounding the pavement looking for customers, and quickly filled up his schedule. He decorates buildings and landscaping of all shapes and sizes, renting the necessary equipment, such as a boom truck, if he doesn’t already own it.

Customers have varied reasons for hiring a professional to decorate their homes for the holiday season, he said. Some can’t climb ladders safely or don’t have another person there for safety purposes; some don’t like heights; some have been nagged to get those lights up for so long that paying someone else to do it is worth the money.

Prices are determined by the linear footage of coverage. Typically, home decoration costs between $200 and $600, Elm said. That covers installation, maintenance in case anything happens, and takedown in the spring.

Everything is set to a timer, so the client doesn’t even have to worry about turning the lights on and off. Pretty Lights typically uses its own lights that homeowners then keep and store at their home, Elm said.

And from the free estimate to the takedown service, Pretty Lights is capable of operating largely independently from the homeowner.

“No one ever needs to be home for us to do anything,” Elm said.

Being the only person working in the Whitefish branch means Elm’s client list is limited, but he said it also means he’s dedicated to his existing customers, and won’t take on more work if it means diminishing that dedication.

As for the actual decorating itself, Elm lines the fronts, sides, peaks, and ridges of all types of buildings, but the most difficult of all lightning challenges?

“Trees,” he said, and immediately followed up with, “I don’t know why trees are so hard.”

Then he figured it out: It’s because the branches rarely conform to those satisfying, perfectly straight lines.

For more information on Pretty Lights, visit or call 701-340-2658.