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Resources for renovating your historic Detroit home

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Thinking of renovating your home this year? Here are some resources to get you through it.

The tops of three homes in Woodbridge. There’s the tip of a turret and roofs. Some vines grow outside the windows.
Homes in Woodbridge.
Photo by Michelle Gerard

You just bought an old home in Detroit. Congratulations! Now comes the hard part.

Owning an old home is a never-ending task. And if you live in Detroit, you probably own an old home—around 97 percent of Detroit’s buildings are over 50 years old. Many parts will likely need updating. When was the roof last replaced? Has there ever been water damage? Is the plaster or paint peeling? What about the window frames? How old are the plumbing and electrical systems?

But don’t let those questions intimidate you. The joys of owning a piece of history can far outweigh the challenges of maintaining it. We spoke with Alissa Shelton, executive director of Brick + Beam, to help understand those challenges and better connect readers to resources to make sure their home stays in good shape for the long term.

Here are some tips we came up with.

Do research

If you’re buying a historic home, it’s worth knowing the home’s history. When was it built? Who designed it? Who lived there? Getting an intimate picture of the home’s and neighborhood’s past can help you understand the design choices that were made and better inform your own renovation choices. It can also be a rewarding experience and better connect you to the place where you live.

Fortunately, we’ve got a step-by-step guide for doing the research yourself.

Is it in a Historic District?

It’s essential to know if your home is in one of Detroit’s many local historic districts. If it’s in a neighborhood like Boston-Edison or Indian Village, any changes you might make to the exterior have to be reviewed and approved by the city’s Historic District Commission.

These districts are in place to ensure that the character of a house and neighborhood are maintained even as owners with different tastes come and go. But they do require extra steps, time, and potentially money. And if you try to sidestep the requirements, you may be issued a fine.

A three-story brick home with mansard roof. A black metal fence wraps around a large, grassy yard.
A mansion in Brush Park.
Michelle Gerard
Are there funds available?

Unfortunately, there aren’t many financial resources for people looking to renovate a historic home. If it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and requires significant rehabilitation, it might be eligible to receive federal historic tax credits. Many Historic Districts overlap with one of Detroit’s 52 Neighborhood Enterprise Zones, which give homeowners a 15-year tax abatement.

The Michigan Historic Preservation Network offers loans of up to $15,000 for historic buildings that require repair of systems that threaten its integrity.

Homeowners can also apply for funds that address specific home repair needs. The Michigan Saves Home Energy provides loans of up to $40,000 for energy-related projects. Liberty Bank offers a non-traditional mortgage loan that allows new owners to finance both the purchase and restoration of a home in one of Detroit’s Hardest Hit Priority Neighborhoods.

The city of Detroit offers some resources as well, including a 0 percent interest home repair loan. Homeowners with children can get up to $19,000 for lead abatement through a city grant program.

If you’re going to DIY

One obvious way to save money on otherwise expensive home repairs is to do it yourself. Even if you’re not that handy or have little experience in carpentry, it makes sense to take on some jobs.

For those who need to learn, there’s lots of classes available. Brick + Beam offers a variety of workshops on tuckpointing, painting, weatherizing, and much more for under $12. The Detroit Training Center hosts weekly home improvement workshops—a single three-hour session costs $70, but there’s discounts for purchasing more. The University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions initiative published a free home repair resource guide with lots of useful information on accessing resources.

See if your neighborhood has a tool library, like the one on East Warren, that lets residents borrow tools for a small fee and hosts classes. And of course, there’s always YouTube.

If you’re hiring a contractor

Many jobs on historic homes require specialized work, and you’re likely going to need a contractor at some point in the process no matter how skilled you are. But good, reliable contractors are notoriously hard to come by in Detroit nowadays. There’s lots of people fixing up homes, and many are busy with work.

Brick + Beam has an ever-growing list of contractors, though it’s careful to say that it doesn’t review them. The best resource is probably still word of mouth. Ask your neighbors for a reference. Block clubs and neighborhood associations often know who is best. For example, the Historic Boston-Edison Association provides a list of contractors recommended by residents.

In the end, this kind of work is very context depended, requiring some trial and error. But if you’re able to successfully maintain your old home, it can be a source of pride for the rest of your life.