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Buying an old house in Detroit: Our comment of the week

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Michelle & Chris Gerard

We’re all about keeping it real here, whether it comes to the cost of living in the city or nightmares when buying a house. People still can’t believe how cheap real estate can be in this city compared to others, and many readers daydream about bringing old houses back to life, but there’s so much more to the story.

Our reader Chris mac yall kept it real with us last week when we asked about moving to the city. We received a number of thoughtful comments on that post, and found this one particularly insightful and worthy of its own post. Feel free to add to the conversation about living in the city and/or buying a property in the comments below.

"...We’ve been struggling to find a home that is worth spending the money on to purchase and renovate up to 21st century living standards of durability, indoor air quality, energy efficiency, comfort and life quality. I feel there is a great amount of "irrational exuberance" for homes in the city that are in the less distressed, safer neighborhoods (Villages, East Boston Edison, Midtown, University/Sherwood).

Although I respect these homes, their architectural character and their relative affordability comparative to many other major cities, the reality is nearly all of them still need extensive renovations or basic maintenance that has been neglected for decades. Haggard roofs and water damage, wet basements and failed/missing gutter systems, old inefficient mechanical systems, hodgepodge wiring and plumbing, no air sealing or insulation as Detroit homes were mainly built pre-1950s and prior to considering thermal comfort/energy efficiency, along with overall floorplan layouts and kitchen/bath designs that do not conform to modern living.

I happen to be in the energy efficiency/green building field, so i know a fair amount about homes work and how they fail. Although I’m enthusiastic that homes are selling and people are clearly willing to make an investment in the city, I am concerned that my fellow millennial buyers may not be as educated on the maintenance and true cost of ownership of these 80 year+ old homes, and may only be looking at first cost of purchase, not factoring in things like high energy bills in cold winters and necessary ongoing maintenance costs into their plan for owning a piece of the Detroit Dream. Thus, i somewhat fear a "hipsterpocalapyse" may one day rear its head, whereby all of these young folks with more dreams than common sense of owning/maintaining buildings may struggle in the future to balance the cost of repairs, their mortgage, property taxes, etc.

Furthermore, I wonder how many people are fully aware of the ramifications of 2.4% income tax levied on residents, which will add between $1000-3500/year for middle income earning families. Not an inconsiderable amount when one must balance all of these other responsibilities.

Regardless, I still plan to purchase a home in Detroit, but am doubling down my effort to ensure I make a rational decision and to not simply jump into the hype pool with everyone else. Part of me wants to believe the good times are really fully back, but just like hard times have befallen the American economy before – which especially hits hard here in Detroit – it could happen again. Thus, i’m going to do my best not to overextend myself and my family in this potentially irrationally high sales environment.

I recommend you all do the same… do the math of how much will it really cost to live here, and what you might need to factor in in terms of energy bills, repairs/maintenance, life expectancy of your current roof/mechanical systems, and for goodness sakes… do not avoid taking care of the water management issues at your building if you have them. The number one cause of premature decay of Detroit’s beautiful building stock is deferred roof maintenance and basement/foundation water issues gone out of control. Water damage will not only destroy your investment by rotting out the building, but it will also cause mold/mildew-based respiratory issues that will harm you and your family.

Detroit needs healthy, sustained investment… it’s great people want to move here and I encourage it. It is a great city that could one day be awesome. But be realistic too… step 1/4-1/2" mile out of Woodbridge, University/Sherwood, the Villages, etc and you’ll see there is A LOT of work that still has to be done. Considering this, nothing is a given. Please make a wise, healthy decision based on your love of being here and contributing to this place, not just a large monetary investment that may not seem so tenable in more trying times."