Journalist, Author & Detroit-Home Renovator

Major Detroit House Update: Finances, Walls, Roof, More!


View from inside the attic before the new sheathing goes on.

Holy wow! Things are moving forward at a head-spinning pace over at the Detroit House.

This very morning we got our final rough inspection which means we can have … WALLLS!

That’s right. We’re finally at a point where we can see the physical progress, not just know that it’s all important stuff that lives behind the walls. There was a flurry of activity when we first bought the house because the contractors were demoing the insides, taking out all the old lathe and plaster to make way for running the plumbing, electrical, heating, etc. Then the framing started happening and it was exciting to watch things take form.

But then… renovation doldrums.

Sure, Karl and I felt like we were making an obscene number of ready-fire-aim decisions about things like exterior doors and kitchen cabinets, but the physical structure itself wasn’t changing much. The contractors were dealing with issues like how to tie in the roof lines and brick up the South wall. The sewer backed up. Where will we vent the kitchen hood, etc. etc. But it wasn’t picture-taking actions.


You can see where the contractors have torn down the old eaves and started framing in the new ones. The old wood was barley nailed on and or rotted away. So, we started over.

Then, last week, everything started changing. They had to completely re-do the eaves, which wasn’t fully expected. So we got to watch as the old boards came off the house, and the new eaves — sans squirrels, nests and other things I don’t want to know about — went up. And the contractors started cutting the new dentils, which are different than lentils, I’ve learned. Lentils go in soup; dentils go on houses.

Yesterday, the furance went in and the roof started coming off. I stopped by the house at 11 a.m. and most of it was stripped, laying like ugly confetti on the tarped-off grass. What they discovered under all the layers of shingles is that the previous roofers did a *really* poor job. So, we’re having to resheathe the roof before laying shingles. But that is to be expected in this project. I feel like I’m a broken record, saying, “Well, it’s already open we should do it right. What’s another X dollars?”

Stacy has taken to calling the house “Matilda, that greedy bitch.”

Pretty much.

We were supposed to move in this Sunday — finally — but it was going to mean living with one power outlet and no running water. The roof would (fingers crossed) be done, but there would be no front or back door; those are still just plywood.

We were able to get another two weeks at the temporary apartment. Everybody says we’d be super brave to move into the house in this condition, but I actually feel super guilty not roughing it. The final decision to say put came down to the contractors: They were pretty emphatic that it would save them a lot of time if they weren’t tripping over us and the animals. We want to make their lives as easy as possible because they are working sunup to sundown, six days a week.

So now we’re shooting for October 15, with the plan that they can shoot in the insulation by the end of this week and starting hanging and finishing drywall by next week. That would mean, power, water and walls by our new habitation date.

Despite those nice-sounding amenities in a house, I’m really struggling with the fact that we’re not in the house camping. It makes me feels so privileged. Which I am, to be doing this; but I haven’t always been. I grew up so very, very poor. But today, I’m squarely middle class and can afford to pay others to do the work. Meanwhile, my mom is having to work at J.C. Penny’s, my brother is worried about feeding his family, and my father is living in trailer in Montana.

In that context, the fact that we’re writing checks, rather than doing it ourselves, is a constant source of stress and self-loathing. And I hate myself even more for feeling relief that we’re not yet living in the house and don’t have to do all the work ourselves.


We nearly cried the first time we saw Matilda with all of her windows in. This is what she looks like with those horrible boards off of her eyes.

I fully believe in supporting small business. And our contractors are a fantastic small, family Detroit business. I love them so much. They are amazing and I think we will continue to be friends long after the Detroit House is finished. I don’t begrudge them any dollar I pay them. (In fact, I keep harassing them to bill me.) I mean, if people hadn’t been willing to pay my small business dad, where would we be?

It just feels weird to be the one who can afford to financially support small businesses because it’s just never really been me or my family. When I’m at the house and they are working, my first instinct is to help or to clean or to fetch or do *something* that proves I’m a valuable human being. (I hear my grandfather telling me, “Don’t just stand their holding your teeth.”) They laugh at me and, I’m pretty sure, just would like me to get out of the way.

Post-college I became friends with pawn shops and payday lenders just to get by. I needed to join the “professional” class without the money or the family resources to really belong. My first job paid me like $20,000 per year, but it thrust me into highest echelons of Colorado Springs society. (I know, highest echelon and Colorado Springs might not really belong together…) So I always felt like I had to dress a certain way, act a certain way so nobody would know I was an interloper to their ranks. To all the world I know I look like just another wealthy white girl, but really I’m still just a girl from a trailer in rural Colorado who thought she’d grow up, marry the neighbor boy and live in his chicken coop. (True story.)

So I am conflicted by how to internalize jumping so many rungs on the class ladder in one professional lifetime. And being in Detroit, where there is so much poverty, it’s hard to feel comfortable with the privilege I now enjoy. Yes, I’ve earned it; I’ve worked my butt off. And I didn’t have any family advantages behind me other than my parents’ work ethic and and constant refrain that I would go to college even though they had no idea how it would happen. I was lucky in the parents department and that has made all the difference. But that is sheer luck in the life lottery.

Sorry to run you all down the class rabbit hole my brain has been lounging in. Feel free to ignore and go back to the pretty real estate porn.


The view from my new boudoir. Karl has the same view, same windows, same light, from his piano room, but on the first floor.

Anyway, I haven’t updated you all on the finances lately, so here’s where we stand as of today. We’ve been surprised by how all of the incidentals add up. Yes, we know the budget would be big for things like new cabinets or reroofing or rebuilding the South wall. But damn, buying a house without any doors or light fixtures is a terrible idea. Those add up — especially if you want something better than first-apartment quality.

To date we’ve spent $159,011.09.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Escrow: $1,500
  • Purchase/closing costs: $34,359.99
  • Vacant property insurance: $1,034
  • Half-down deposit on Kelly windows: $13, 500
  • Payments to contractors: $74,964.53
  • Temporary apartment rental: $5,006
  • Property taxes: $2,872.25
  • Island counter and kitchen pendant lights: $1,526.40
  • Washer/Dryer/Double oven: $4,525.88
  • Dishwasher/Fridge/Range/Microwave: $5,035.32
  • Guest bath sinks: $464.36
  • Deposit on kitchen cabinets/counters: $8,100
  • Backdoor: $150
  • Lighting: $3,499.21
  • Stripping front and back doors: $636
  • Master bath vanity: $100
  • Faucets for kitchens, bathrooms/master bath sinks: $759.83
  • Side door — purchase and strip — and boudoir light fixture: $977.32

Oh, and tack on a new used car to that total. The lumber-delivery truck backed into the Saab last week and crushed the radiator. The car was already on it’s last wheel, so we had to let her go. We donated it to charity and bought a 2005 Subaru Outback. Now I feel like an uber Ann Arbor bobo couple. Talk about class anxiety.

2 Responses to “Major Detroit House Update: Finances, Walls, Roof, More!”

  1. Donna Terek

    Darlin’, stop feeling guilty. You are saving a piece of history. This is a very worthy activity, esp. in an environment where so many wonderful structures have been left to disintegrate. And in the end you will have a beautiful home in a terrific neighborhood for under 200 grand. How many people can say this? ( and class mobility? It’s what your parents worked so hard for and is what our America is all about, no?)
    All this angst is about growing up. I went through the same stuff when PJ and I started out in our “haunted” house in 1995. I actually loved it in its derelict state because it seemed more like a play house, not a center entry colonial someone’s mother have lived in. Never having owned a home before, I was still kind of an economic adolescent. I’d never had to be so responsible. I felt guilty about each home improvement. I missed the sagging canvas covering the cracked plaster. I missed the water stained wall paper even as we peeled it from the walls.
    I started to feel guilty for not doing all the work ourselves — until I met neighbors who’d been self remodeling for over 10 years and were still only on the first floor.
    Bottom line: don’t feel guilty, be grateful. And when it all gets too much come on over to our place and check out the never-ending job of loving an old, old house. You are doing the right thing. Try to enjoy the process. Pat yourself on the back a little. You will be very glad you did this. Some day!

  2. haimerlad

    Thanks, Donna. That is really helpful/wonderful advice, especially coming from you. I can’t wait to see your house soon — and have you and PJ over to see ours!


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