She’s The One
Rebuilding a Beautiful, Vacant Historic Detroit Home (Episode 2)
“There are cities that get by on their good looks… Detroit has to work for a living.” — Elmore Leonard
Brandon and I decided to rely on two things to help us find a home. Our moped family with their deep knowledge of the city, and Zillow. We used the Zillow app to draw boundaries around neighborhoods we were interested in, bracket prices we were willing to pay, our desired square footage, age, and of course a garage. We’d drive through suggested neighborhoods from moped friends during the week to get the feeling, then visit open-houses we’d find in the neighborhoods we liked on the weekends.
We began in January of 2016 and after a few months of searching and a few dozen open houses later, we learned 3 things:
- Detroit home flippers don’t know what they’re doing.
- You can find a home in Detroit for under $20,000, maybe even $1,000… but you don’t want it.
- Finding a stable, connected neighborhood in Detroit can be hard, but when you find one, don’t let it go.
A few neighborhoods started to stand out in our minds pretty quickly, and once the conversation of proximity to work and future potential proximity to work for Brandon came into the conversation, a few neighborhoods rose to the top. We went to open houses every weekend and immediately determined that horizontal glass tiles in kitchens and bathrooms will be this decade’s shag carpet and harvest gold. The quality of work in most of these homes was pretty poor. One old colonial home in particular I remember had re-used cheap ultra modern faucets in the bathrooms, and rather than installing new bathtubs, the contractors had built them out of leftover flooring tiles. So instead of a nice, comfortable tub to lay in, you had a jagged-edge stone and grout box with a drain drilled in the bottom. Quality, craftsmanship, and good aesthetics, were missing from most homes we looked at, and the worst part was you’d be paying for work that you’d want to tear out and re-do literally the day you’re handed the keys.
There were also some horror stories. One woman told us that in her new neighbor’s home, once they signed their mortgage and got the keys, they discovered that all of the outlets on the walls were dummies, and the home they’d just bought had no electrical running through the brand new walls to the outlets. They learned that after the brand new water heater and boiler in the basement were “missing” after the home was “broken into” the weekend before closing. That same contractor who flipped the home became impossible to reach after their closing.
Brandon and I were getting frustrated. No one made the decisions we’d like, no one was building anything with quality, and even if you were willing to pay more, it was hard to find a home done right… everything was done for cost purposes only in the city. We thought maybe a project would be for us. Something dated, but livable, and cheap enough that we could make our own decisions on renovation and layout.
Right place, right time
I received a text from my former college professor, letting me and my former classmates know that he was going to be in town, and asking if we’d want to meet him for dinner. I said yes, and that night I headed downtown to meet him. I was the first one to arrive, and so my professor and I began talking. He was in Detroit to visit his siblings and mother. He’d grown up in Detroit and his mother had to leave their childhood home due to her health. I brought up that Brandon and I had begun our own home search and my professor’s eyes perked up, “Where are you looking? In Detroit?” I told him we were, and he asked me what neighborhoods we’d been looking at.
I started listing some off that we’d visited, “Boston-Edison, Sherwood Forest, East-English Village, University District, …” He stopped me, “University District?! You should buy my mom’s house!” After some more conversation, we arranged to have him show me and Brandon the house that weekend. Apparently, even though his mother had left over two years ago, they hadn’t put the house on the market yet. She believed her health would return and she would just move back in, but my professor said that that likely wouldn’t be able to happen. “It needs some work,” he said, “but if you’re looking for a project, this is a great one!”
Love and anxiety at first sight
The outside of the home looked beautiful from the street when we met my professor there to check it out. The lot next door was theirs as well, his mother had been an avid gardener and it showed. It had become overgrown from being left alone for two years, but it had beautiful trees and plants everywhere, large magnolias blooming in the back yard, and had the only fenced in yard in the neighborhood, which really made it stand out.
The house was a lot to take in. There was so much potential, and so much character. The carved and sometimes curved plaster ceilings were in great shape, but so many rooms were utterly destroyed. We learned that a bathroom pipe on the 3rd floor had burst two years ago after his mother moved out, and flooded the home for over a week in the winter until the family realized what had happened. As a result, 1/4 of the home was destroyed, namely the kitchen, breakfast nook, one bedroom, and bathroom and had to be taken out down to the studs. A lot of work, and certainly not livable in its current form, but a blank slate. But this house, we learned, would be more than just a restoration and construction project. It came with free stuff too!
My professor let us know that if we wanted the house, the contents came with it. That might seem like a pleasant offer to a lot of people. Who turns down free stuff? But we quickly saw that the house, and especially the 2-story attic, were utterly full of stuff. His mother had been a school teacher in her day and for 30 or so years of teaching, she must have never thrown away a piece of paper. A large set of steel shelves roughly 9 feet tall sat in between the gabled roof of the attic and was so full of books and paper, we realized later on that it had punched through the sub floor in two places and was resting on the plaster ceiling of the master bedroom. If the gabled roof hadn’t been in the way to stop it from completely tipping over, the whole thing would have collapsed onto the floor and likely broken through.
You couldn’t see the floor in almost any part of the attic. Due to the piled boxes and paper bags full of stuff, you couldn’t make it more than 3 or 4 feet into the attic which empty was the size of the entire footprint of the house. Things weren’t piled nicely either, boxes looked like they’d been hurled on top of one another, probably because you had no where to walk to properly place things anymore. The second level of the attic was even worse. Shredded boxes and bags full of chewed paper from the colonies of squirrels that were using it to build nests inside the attic. My professor was encouraging, “You never know what you might find in there!” Brandon and I were skeptical.
We left the house and decided to think about it for a few days. After months of searching for the right place though, we both agreed that this house spoke to us. It was in the right place, the neighborhood was beautiful, friendly, and stable, the timing of the whole thing seemed perfect, it allowed us to make the right kinds of decisions on our own, and it might be in our price range. After a day or two of conversation, we decided to let my professor know that we wanted the home. I think after showing it to us, he’d assumed we had been scared off, but he seemed excited at the prospect, and let me know he’d talk to his mother and family.
A few weeks and a 2-hour “interview” with his mother on the extent of my gardening abilities later, and we were on our way to the next phase… financing a non-livable home in Detroit!
Surely, the City of Detroit would have programs to help people like us move back into the city and restore a vacant historic home!