It begins: 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.

FLOORS:

It’s tricky because you want to do the floors before you move anything in, but you also want to make sure you do other work that could damage the floors even further first. So, floors must be somewhere in the middle: We want to do the most destructive work first, and paint, before we get the floors restored.

Measuring Wood Floors

Randy Penhorwood measuring floors for restoration quote

We decided to work with Randy Penhorwood from Penhorwood Floors again. He did an amazing job at the Sullivan House and truly has a passion for old wood floors. He came in, did some floor-whispering, and left excited about the quality of wood, the patterns, and his ability to make things shine again. His quote was extremely reasonable and we didn’t hesitate to say “go for it!”. Schedule is undecided so far, pending how all the other jobs line up.

PAINT / PLASTER / WOOD

Last month, Nicole found a contest hosted by Motor City Paint in partnership with the Detroit Historical Museum. The contest was to name 25 new colors that Motor City Paint was releasing. They are inspired by historically accurate colors of Detroit and are focused on restoration projects like ours.

We went to the Historical Museum one cold Saturday afternoon and spent 20 minutes writing down super goofy names because I’m dumb like that. The contest had three components: The person with the most Facebook likes would win a $1000 grand prize house-painting package. Another $1000 grand prize would be given out to a random person who entered, and then the 25 people whose color name ideas were chosen would each receive a $50 gift card from Motor City Paint.

Paint Color Naming

Old Yogurt was a favorite

I posted the contest entry on Facebook and shared it with my friends and associates. It was mostly for laughs, as you can see.

A month later, I got a Facebook message from Brian, the Motor City Paint guy. We won the “most likes on Facebook” part of the contest. To say that I was shocked is an understatement.

As it turns out, the $1000 grand prize is worth far more than that, because the $1000 covers labor: Motor City Paint is providing all the paint for free. What an incredible gift!

Motor City recommended one of their painting contractors, Lakeside Paint & Plaster. We will be meeting with them shortly to discuss initial work. Since the prize is free labor, we were thinking of getting the more costly and difficult painting done by experts; possibly the hallways, banisters, and stairways as well as the small parts of the exterior that are painted wood. Bedroom and other easier painting is stuff we can do ourselves.

Motor City Paint color swatches

Checking out the offerings at Motor City Paint

We picked up a swatch book from Motor City this past weekend and started the arduous and stressful task of color choices; we have no solid plan yet but whatever colors we choose have to go well with the dark natural wood that already exists in the house.

MASONRY

Lincoln had excellent work done by RC Marsack, so we didn’t hesitate to call him back for our own projects. Turns out, this is a big one.

The entire front walk, the decorative brick pillars in front, the front porch steps and slabs all need to be repaired or replaced. The chimney needs work, both fireplaces need to be repaired, and the back porch (which is mortared stone) is in significant disrepair. The exterior finish (pebble dash) has cracking and even some gaping holes on all four sides of the house. The main slab of the front walkway is a solid piece of limestone that needs to be canted away from the home (currently it is sunk towards the house, which is great if you want rain to pour towards your foundation, but we’re not like that). Ralph spent a solid hour walking around with a clipboard, discussing various projects with us. We came to the conclusion that the only way to do it is to do it once and do it right. The quote came back and while we were prepared to see a big number, it’s still shocking when it’s right in front of you in black and white. Ralph does good work, though, and for the amount of labor that needs to be done his quote was quite reasonable, so we’re going to proceed.

ELECTRICAL

We got a personal recommendation from a trusted neighbor that Dave Munroe from Caledonia Electric was the way to go. The house is currently a (bad) combination of knob-and-tube and some modern wiring, all hooked into a relatively new 150 amp breaker panel. It looks like some work had been done in the last ten years but not all of it.

Dave came out for an initial consultation, agreed with our spitball assessment that the electrical system was questionable, and let us know that the first step should be mapping out which breakers control what. We could either pay him to do it or do it ourselves. We opted for the latter.

Testing circuit breakers

Nicole was super excited to be stationed at the breaker panel

So it was that we ended up on a Saturday afternoon, flipping breaks and yelling across the house at each other.

Testing light sockets

Brian was super excited to be stationed at the light sockets

We got most of the breakers identified, but one serious conundrum popped up during our exploration. I was standing in what will become the office; the room off of the main room. Nicole flipped every single breaker, yet the lights never went out. Convinced that either I was being an idiot or she was, I yelled down at her to try again. Same result.

I asked her to flip the main. The lights went out. Through a process of elimination and logic-problem solving, we finally discovered that two entirely separate breakers had to be turned off to get the power to cut out… a wiring problem for the ages. Breakers 8 and 12, we hate you.

HOT WATER AND PLUMBING

Another problem to be solved is replacing the old 50-gallon water tank with the broken temperature control wheel. We opted to go with the trusted Soley Heating & Cooling. We have an appointment with Kim Soley soon to get a quote on converting to tankless as well as testing the central air unit and making sure the furnace is clean and in good working order.

Overall it’s been a busy month, and yet it feels like nothing has been “accomplished”. Kyle, my son, has moved in to be a caretaker of the house while we renovate, and he’s been doing a good job of cleaning up the remnants of past occupants. It feels a bit more “lived in” and we can start to see where one day it will feel like a home… our home… but for now it’s just basically an overwhelming project that is starting to be broken down into one to-do list with expensive quote attached after another.

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

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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My first year in Detroit

A lot happened over the last year. A lot of great, exciting things. Today marks one year from the day that I moved into my new home, the city of Detroit.

I started out in a 270 sq/ft studio apartment in a very eccentric building downtown called The Leland. I was severely overweight. I had no job and I was struggling to get by on unemployment. I did what I had to do to hustle and get by, while I volunteered my time trying to help a start-up get off the ground. My opportunities started to wear thin, and things were looking really grim. My car died and I had to rely only on my bike and our antiquated public transit system to get around. Then, I realized that my unemployment benefits were coming to an end.

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Setback

For the last week or so, we’ve been sanding, prepping, spackling, and priming the front foyer and front main hallway of the house.

It took four days and nine coats of primer to turn the formerly pink plaster walls white:

Primer on walls in Sullivan house

White walls!

It was exciting. The walls were old plaster, dyed pink from some previous wallpaper (most likely), and a bunch of us put a ton of work into patching, sanding, and priming them. It took nine coats of primer (two of PVA primer and seven of Killz) to get to these smooth white masterpieces, ready for painting.

The hallway complete, we started sanding and priming the round tower room in the front of the house yesterday. Perry and Kyle helped prime and we got one coat on the entire room.

Today Lincoln, Nicole, and I returned to continue priming. I poured the primer and got ready to apply a second coat to the foyer.

That’s when I noticed the blister.

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Turning a house into a home

As the months drone on, with some weekends bringing big improvements and some none at all, we find ourselves in a rut. “Going to the house” becomes something of a chore. It’s just a thing we do, as the passions fade and the work never seems to end.

Some days, we go to the house and do almost nothing at all except walk around looking for something to do. The most miniscule things derail us: Oh, a wire didn’t get run, oh a tool was lost, oh we didn’t buy a tool we needed, oh we’re waiting for this… or that… or this…

Since this project began, one thing has been consistent: The times we really got a ton of work done were the times we were motivated and kickstarted by friends and family; when people show up to help, things really move quickly.

The rut manifested as the house becoming a job, or a “project”, in our minds. Other than ploddingly slow progress on the bathroom and kitchen, it still hasn’t felt like much more than a big job site. The things we do are things that don’t accelerate the move-in date. We repair walls. We move stuff from one room to another in a large-scale game of musical chairs. We do landscaping. We run network cables. We’re not contractors, and our expertise isn’t in things like HVAC systems and electrical.

What we needed was a morale boost.

What we needed was a party. Continue reading

Cleaning up Woodbridge with the AmeriCorps

AmeriCorps board up 5259 CommonwealthThe other day a flyer was rubber-banded to our porch. I assumed it was either a grass-cutting pitch or a politcal thing, but it was neither; rather, it was a flyer asking for volunteers to come help with a “board-up” on the next street over.

A board-up is when a group of people get together to board up an abandoned or burned-out house and clean the lots. On the north end of Woodbridge, there were a couple of burned-out houses, and they were not only eyesores but also places where people could get hurt.

But why?

Why board up an abandoned home? Why cut the grass? Why trim the hedges and pick up the trash?

It sends a clear signal: We care about this neighborhood. We care about what it looks like. We care about the way people treat our block. We care about the way homes are treated here, even if they’re not ours. Continue reading

Living in the Motor City with no car

Biking on the RiverfrontFor most of the time that I have lived here in Detroit, I have not had a car. This seems to blow a lot of people’s minds who see this city as being the antithesis to the car-less lifestyle. After all, we are the Motor City, home of the Ford Model T and the Chevy Camaro. Modern Detroit gave life to the American Dream, a place where two and a half kids, a white picket fence, and a car in every garage are practically required for social acceptance.

Things changed a lot when I first moved here. During the first couple of months I started walking around Downtown, getting to know the lay of the land. Luckily we had a very mild winter, with very little snow. Most of the time a winter coat, hat, gloves and some insulated hiking boots were plenty enough protection to battle the elements. At some point I realized that I could get around a lot better if I had a bike, so I picked up my bike that had been stored at my parents’ house for nearly 15 years, fixed it up and started venturing further out.

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The blessing of the Icrontic community

Icrontic and IntoDetroit

Just some of the crew that showed up to help this week

This past week has been a blur, and it almost defies explanation to people who don’t know us or our friends yet.

If you haven’t seen it yet, you should check out our page “About IntoDetroit“. It explains a lot about where Lincoln and I come from and what the Icrontic community is.

The best way to say it is this:

The Icrontic community is the greatest group of friends that have ever formed up around a website.
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Taking the good with the bad

Often, when you read about all the “moving to Detroit” hype, the optimism flows like hot butter down a biscuit. People will stress and emphasize how amazing, how wonderful, how beautiful Detroit is.

While all of that is true, there is also the elephant in the room: People try to overcompensate for Detroit’s downfalls in their writing. It’s almost as if by pushing how wonderful everything is, they can hide the negativity.

It’s only natural. How else are we to be expected to make the best of a bad situation? We’re fighting a war of perception with people who desperately, for one reason or another, want us to fail.

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