You can burnout on anything

The last major thing I did myself in the Sullivan House was paint my new office. I finished it the morning of my wedding, so that we could finish moving furniture around for the family brunch I was hosting in our home the next morning. I’d also just finished several cosmetic upgrades in our half bathroom downstairs so it looked a bit less beat up.

That was a year ago November 11.

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It begins anew: masonry, electrical, painting, flooring, plumbing, and more

It’s been a long winter. After the closing, we sort of meandered about, walking through the house with bewildered looks on our faces. When everything needs fixing, and everything is a project, you don’t know where to begin.

We had to break down the house into “10-year, 5-year, Major Now, Minor Now, and Maybe” projects. We don’t have much of a renovation budget; it’s really nerve-wracking when you read some of the other blogs and comments from people who are renovating Detroit homes and seem to have endless capital with which to renovate. Those people are not us. That joke that goes around, based on those ridiculous home renovation TV shows: “Meet Dave and Brittany. Dave is a professional shellfish polisher and Brittany is a part-time lettuce grower. Their budget is $9 million.” never hit closer to home.

In an ideal world, we’d just point every contractor to the house, hand over our debit cards, and say “do your thing”. Unfortunately we don’t have the financial situation to allow that sort of creative freedom.

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Into Detroit… again

It’s been quite a while since we’ve had an update here. Admittedly, a lot of it has to do with the slowdown on actual renovations of the Sullivan House; looking back, we did so much work so quickly that it becomes a blur. We accomplished an amazing amount of renovation in a very short time, and most of that was driven by necessity. However, once you no longer have an urgent need, momentum drops quickly. There hasn’t been much going on, therefore there hasn’t been much to write about.

We do, however, have some pretty big news for 2018.

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Refinishing home radiators

I’ve learned a lot about refinishing old home radiators this year and thought I’d share some of my hard-won knowledge. Our project involved refinishing original 1899 radiators with ornate details and some replacement radiators added or swapped over the life of the home. In all, we refinished all eight hot water radiators on the first floor this year using a variety of techniques depending on their weight, style, and location.

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It started with “floors and trim”

There were two big goals for 2015: Refinish the floors & trim, and restore the north facade of the house. We decided we’d split them into two phases: floors & trim in the spring, facade in late summer. But as spring arrived, things got more complicated than that. As usual.

If you’re refinishing the floors, that’s the time to refinish the radiators, right? And if we’re making the first floor look great, we might as well do the stairs. And we should probably fix those doors. And the windows. And if you’re hiring a window expert, they better look at those attic windows ASAP, right? Soon, you’re disassembling an entire floor and your projected costs have grown 50%.

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My place in Detroit

I recently read a thoughtful article by an 18-year Detroit resident about the folly of youth moving to a city down on its luck. Much hay has been made of the influx of young people to Detroit lately, and as a 28-year old home buyer (now 31), I fit fairly neatly into that pile. The author shares portions of an idyllic letter he wrote as a 25-year old to then-Mayor Dennis Archer and squirms as he tries to reconcile his present-day perspectives with the ones he brought with him in 1996.

I’m here because, like the author, I wanted to live in a place that wasn’t done being built. I am, at my core, a builder. A place like Detroit is irresistible because it just screams out the opportunities for a builder. And indeed, I quickly found my little corner on which to build. I have a grand vision for my little corner, and on this corner my ideas and efforts are boundless.

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“Different times, Lincoln”

That’s what my neighbor Alex replied when I said I was surprised about the attention real estate in Woodbridge is getting now.

Last week, a house in Woodbridge a couple blocks away listed for $9,000 in an apparent foreclosure. It’s a brick facade and fully intact (with original trim) with 5 bedrooms, but needs a kitchen and bathroom gut. It’s 2200 square feet, so a bit smaller than the Sullivan House, and probably needs 30 grand in renovations. No garage or anything else in the backyard. Hell, I’d buy it for $9,000 tonight without even looking at it.

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Communing with a historic home

Sometimes I wander around the house and just look at things a little closer. I’ve learned some tremendously interesting things by doing this.

For instance, the “public” areas of the house (main rooms on the first floor) have a style distinct from the “private” areas (kitchen, second floor), right down to the hardware and door patterns. Tonight, my mind focused on the bead pattern that repeats on the main stair case in wood *and* on all the door knobs and plates in the public areas.

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The value of being young and stupid

I’m working on putting together a photobook of our work on the Sullivan House. It’s gotten to the point now where I have trouble conveying the energy that’s gone into its restoration when giving a tour. I have all of these photos on Facebook and elsewhere and no way to show them to someone who’s physically in the house. Every tour is different because it depends on what I happen to remember at that moment and what the guest is interested in.

Woodbridge House in Detroit interior

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The decision to mortgage

Most folks don’t get to decide whether to get a mortgage. If you want a house, you need a mortgage, full stop. My situation was a bit unusual. I managed to buy the house for cash, then used money from friends & family and signature loans to complete most of the repairs. The house means a great deal to me, and many more folks than me have invested their time and money in it. Allowing a bank to put a lien against it, especially after our nightmarish experience with the Beierman Ave house, seemed really risky.

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The “polar vortex” descends on the Sullivan House

After our New Years’ guests departed, a new unwelcome guest arrived. Michigan was enveloped in the heart of the polar vortex that descended from the north in early January, sending temperatures plunging into the danger zone. With it came more than a foot of snow, dumped over the course of three days. For a week, most of our attention was focused on finding and blocking drafts in the house, and trying to stay warm.

The month of January broke the all-time record for snowfall in Detroit, set in 1908, with over 37 inches records. On February 1st, to celebrate, it dumped another inch. A week later, another foot. Yesterday, it came down again. All the stores are out of shovels and salt, and our snowblower broke last year and cannot be resuscitated. You could sum our experience as: 5 guys, 1 shovel.
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An hour with Tony

He was willing to sell. Then he wasn’t. Now he was again. So with an envelope of cash, I set off to the east side to meet a man named Tony to right a wrong.

Well, sort of. The “wrong” was one of the two major wounds inflicted on the historical quality of the Sullivan House before I bought it. One was the floor joists in the carriage house being cut. More on that in a minute. The other: its missing stained glass window. I’d tracked it down and thought I had arranged to buy it, but Tony’s sentimentality for the window made him back out. Some unexpected bills brought him back to the table.
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Party in the fallout shelter

My basement is a fallout shelter. The 1950s yellow and black sign, complete with radiation symbol, points the way down the dank stairs. At the bottom, a short metal door surrounded by crude metal flashing. The walls around you are damaged and irregular. You feel a sense of claustrophobia grow as you descend to and thru the passage.

What you find on the other side is a cross between a serial murderer’s lair and a scene from the television series Hoarders. Walls built of scrap wood and paneling surround you. A confusing circle of doorways, long missing their doors, leads you thru the damp basement across filthy cement floors and under thick cobwebs. Thousands of feet of galvanized pipes and wires run this way and that, the remnants of eleven decades of revised decisions.


Pieces of old musty cabinetry, spare tools, and years of junk surround you. An empty frame here, a frameless mirror there. One room is floor-to-ceiling filled with junk, accentuated by two 1970s porcelain toilets side by side in the middle. Coal and mold stains on the brick foundation walls and columns, creepily illuminated by a few old pull chain light that mysteriously burn out with alarming regularity. Everything seems wet from water seeping thru the walls. Radiator pipes are everywhere and you duck between them, narrowly missing the disintegrating cloth that covers a think layer of asbestos.

This is that basement. The one every horror movie warned you never to enter.

So I decided it’s where we should throw a 4-day party.

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Taking DIY up a notch

On Saturday, Aaron and I attended an all-day workshop presented by the Michigan Historic Preservation Network. It was for historic property owners and covered topics like wood window restoration, lead dangers, plaster repair, masonry, and weatherization. They also handed out a Resource Directory of folks who do restoration work in the Detroit area. Man, where was this two years ago!? It was like being casually handed a treasure map. I’ve already emailed a company to get a quote on facade repairs.

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Let the sunshine in

I’ve been having more frequent conversations with my nextdoor neighbor, who has shed more light on the history of my house. For instance, the three trees along the street in front of our houses were planted by the previous owner. He’s told me stories of how homes on our street traded hands. And just the other day, he told me about the missing window in my stairwell.

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An abrupt reversal of fortunes

Back when everything went to hell on closing day, I can’t impress the importance of this passage enough:

After some back and forth with my family, it became apparent we had made a grave error. I had many thousands of dollars less available than we thought. My careful plans and budgeting evaporated, buffers transformed into impossible shortfalls.

By “many thousands” I meant “tens of thousands”. It was an epic accounting error that I never truly overcame. One day, I’ll write down my own thoughts on how the middle class is locked out of Detroit. For now, the aforelinked article is great reading. The short version is: how the hell are you supposed to get affordable loans to fix a house when you can’t take out equity against it because it needs repairs? You don’t.

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The little things you ignore

I bought the Sullivan House over a year and a half ago. We’ve renovated the kitchen and bathroom, had chimneys repaired and removed, dug out the foundation, had new rain gutters installed, and painted the entire interior. Hundreds of man hours and tens of thousands of dollars have been poured into this house.

Today, I finally picked the mailbox up off the porch and hung it with two screws.

Spring breaks

When the weather finally broke, it did so with conviction. Two weeks of perfect weather announced spring’s overdue arrival. At the Sullivan House, it meant open windows, and open doors. The safety gates I installed at both sets of porch stairs plus a backyard privacy fence means the dogs get free range from the front porch to the backyard in warmer weather.

As plants and weeds started poking out of the ground, we quickly pivoted priorities to landscaping before it could get out of control. Our mantra is low-maintenance. Anyone who visited us frequently in Warren knows how overwhelming that yard was (double lot, huge hedges, huge beds, and a pond). We can tackle projects, but everything falls apart when it’s time for regular maintenance. We all hate mowing the lawn. Overgrown lawns and hedges were hallmarks of our previous home.

So my plans to sod our backyard disaster here didn’t ring true. We still had ivy around the perimeter and the south side of the yard was still mostly covered by it, but it was largely crushed by the backhoe and subsequent foot traffic in the central part of the yard. Thistles had come last year in force and it took days to beat them back. Sod seemed the obvious solution, but I felt like that much more lawn would put us back into motored lawnmower territory.

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Closed windows

The neighborhood has felt different to me since the boiler started its work this fall. A summer of work on the front porch and with open windows made me feel connected to the neighborhood. I was inundated with neighbors saying hello. I felt like neighborhood crime was an aberration – who could commit theft or assault when the neighborhood was overflowing with concerned citizens?

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To Hell and back: A year later

An incomprehensible amount changed in the year and a day since everything went to Hell. I fell in love. I became a Detroiter. I own a toolbox now, am a mean hand with a drill, and can coat a wall in drywall mud like a pro. I’ve painted walls 35 different colors, met dozens of new people, and vaulted over fences to answer cries for help. I have a contractor, an electrician, a boiler specialist, an attorney, a mason, and a hundred volunteers. We bought a stake in the city and brought a house back to life. Everything is different, and so, so good.

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Microsoft Store coming to Detroit

A job posting on Microsoft’s Careers page lists a position open for “Store Manager” in Detroit, Michigan. This is interesting because while many new restaurants and bars have opened, there’s been a dearth of new higher-end retail shops in the city for the last several years—especially downtown. According to the Detroit Free Press, Moosejaw is the only “significant” new retailer to open downtown since CVS in 2006.

Microsoft Retail Store Interior

Image from

The job posting claims the location is Detroit, Michigan. Sometimes, this means metro Detroit, but I think in the case of Microsoft Careers, they actually mean Detroit—they list other Michigan cities specifically (such as Southfield, as shown in this job search). It’s reasonably safe to assume that a retail store opening in Troy (say, at Somerset Collection) would say Troy, MI. Furthermore, a listing of other Microsoft retail stores around the country shows that in other large metropolitan areas, such as Los Angeles, the individual cities are indeed shown on the listings. Continue reading

A shooting in Woodbridge, and why I don’t feel unsafe

2013 shooting in Woodbridge, Detroit

Tonight, at least ten shots were fired from an SUV, and a man was killed on the sidewalk, about a thousand feet from my front door.

Lincoln jumped up from his chair and ran downstairs, asking if we had heard the commotion (we didn’t). He heard the gunshots and saw the SUV speeding south down Avery.

I called Wayne State Police and was told by the dispatcher that they already had several calls about the incident and they were on it, and did I have a description of the vehicle? I did not and they thanked me for the call. By the time I hung up, there were four police cars arriving on the scene; this is less than five minutes after the shooting. Both Detroit and Wayne State Police were on the scene, and EMS was on its way.

I immediately went to a private Facebook group for our neighborhood and asked if anybody knew what happened. Within moments, responses started flooding in. Continue reading

The pub comes alive, or, “suddenly, a dining room”

The last unfinished area in the living space of the house was the dining room. I’ve taken to calling it “the pub,” and its full name (courtesy of its five sponsors) is the “Mighty Worriers Mead Hall.” I really like its position at the rear south corner of the house, out of the normal traffic flow between the front and rear doors. It has very heavy wood trim and crown molding (including wood beams across the ceiling) that immediately made me want to style it on a classic British pub.

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Some parts of the city are a warzone, and the bad guys are winning

Goldengate Street, Detroit.

Detroit is fascinating, wonderful, and terrible. We’ve had our share of ups and downs, and we hear gunshots at night, and there are car thefts and vandalism on our street, but none of us have any regrets about where we’ve moved, and so far at least, the positive far outweighs the negative.

But it’s not like that for everyone. We’re lucky that this neighborhood is among the safest in the city. We’re lucky that we have neighbors that watch out for suspicious activity and that watch out for each other. We’re luck that when we call the police, they show up immediately. Other parts of the city are not so fortunate as us.

A discussion on Reddit today reminds us that while positive growth is happening all over our city, other parts are a terrifying warzone, and the bad guys are winning. We can’t close our eyes to this and pretend everything’s okay—it’s not. Not by a long shot.

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Getting stuff delivered in Detroit with Konbini

Konbini employee delivering groceries in Detroit

Yesterday I was followed by a Twitter account named @Konbini_CC. The words jumped out at me immediately: “Detroit’s Delivery Service”. I dug in a little deeper and discovered that Konbini is a service that promises home delivery of sundry groceries and packaged food items anywhere in our neighborhood as well as Corktown, Lafayette Park, New Center, Downtown, and Midtown.

A few things really stood out and they are things that I believe will make this work:

  • The items themselves are reasonably priced and available in individual quantities.
  • The entire system is all e-commerce and you can use debit or credit cards
  • The delivery fee is reasonable
  • They deliver until 3am

This is a novel idea for a small business, and it’s one that I think will work in this area. It’s like other quirky, modern small businesses (such as Detroit Greencycle curbside recycling pickup in Woodbridge) that have popped up to serve the burgeoning group of connected consumers in these growing areas of the city. Continue reading

Have you thought about tearing it down?

These days, when I get the frequent “How’s the house going?” question, my answer is that our remaining big-ticket items are the rain gutters, siding, and carriage house. I have a contractor hired for the gutters, the siding is on tap for summer 2013, but the carriage house is a story unto itself that I only tell if they really want details.

One of the last wooden carriage houses in Woodbridge

If I recite the carriage house’s litany of problems and recommended repairs (a long list of structural reinforcements), the inevitable next question is, “Have you thought about just tearing it down?”

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