Words of advice for Detroit home renovators, from ...

Words of advice for Detroit home renovators, from a first-time flipper

He thought the North End rehab would cost $30,000. It ended up being closer to $80,000 and took months of hard labor.

Before and after photos of home renovation project in the North End neighborhood of Detroit.

Renovating a home can teach you a lot — about carpentry, navigating city hall, the neighborhood you’re working in. That’s all great. But those lessons are typically much more expensive the first time around. 

Though he spent more time, energy and money than he expected, Yusef El-Eses certainly doesn’t regret the experience of renovating a home. In fact, he plans to do it again. 

El-Eses moved from Florida to Metro Detroit about two years ago for work and decided soon after that he wanted to renovate a house. “A friend did a rehab and flip, and it just seemed so cool,” El-Eses said. “I had no idea what I was getting into.”

He and a partner eventually settled on a house on Englewood Street in the North End, which they bought in a private sale for $35,000. “When we started, we thought we had a good roof, foundation, electrical, plumbing — that it would probably need a couple months,” El-Eses said. “But then we found that none of it was any good.”

Courtesy Yusef El-Eses

They took it down to the studs, filling eight dumpsters in the process, and converted the classic-looking North End home into a 1,500-square-foot, three-bedroom residence. They finally put it up for sale in August. It’s currently listed for $208,000. 

Gut renovations aren’t at all uncommon in Detroit, a city that’s looking to raise $250 million to demolish and secure 16,000 homes. But in order to actually add housing, Detroit needs enterprising people to take on the task of renovation themselves. 

If that’s you, El-Eses has some advice. “It’s probably gonna cost more than you budgeted for,” he said. “Especially if you want to get a really good product out there.”

He and his partner figured they’d spend around $30,000 on their home renovation. It ended up being closer to $80,000 and took months of hard labor. 

Courtesy Yusef El-Eses

The easiest way to save money? Do as much of the labor yourself as possible, even if you’re not a skilled carpenter. That may be a fairly obvious tip, but the savings are so great it’s worth emphasizing. 

El-Eses needed to level the home’s backyard and got quotes from various contractors for between $4,000 and $6,000. Instead, he and his partner rented an excavator for $500 and did the work themselves. Other easy ways to save money are by doing demolition, debris cleaning and shopping for materials. 

“I’m not really a handyman, but I can do work,” El-Eses said. 

Doing the work yourself has other benefits. El-Eses said the most challenging part of the rehab was finding reliable contractors — he even got scammed once. 

But perhaps his most important piece of advice is to get to know your eventual neighbors. “There’s a saying in Arabic: ‘Pick your neighbors before you pick your house,’” he said. “That’s the reason why I picked this one. All the neighbors are incredibly friendly and they know the whole neighborhood.”

He bought the side lot next to the Englewood house from an older woman who recounted the history of the entire block to him. Another neighbor was unemployed and down on his luck. El-Eses bought him a cell phone, gave him the keys to the house and paid him to do some handiwork and meet contractors when he was too busy. Eventually that neighbor got hired by another rehabber because of El-Eses’s recommendation. 

“Most people doing this kind of thing, especially if it’s for the first time, are doing it on top of their job,” El-Eses said. “Having folks on the ground is a tremendous help.”

El-Eses added that it’s especially important to develop a rapport with longtime residents given all the attention neighborhoods like the North End are getting. If you don’t get to know them, they’ll probably view you skeptically — and with good reason. 

“I wouldn’t like it if someone moved next to me and did whatever they liked without caring about my needs or wants,” he said.

Despite the challenges, El-Eses is ready to do it again. Right after he closes on the Englewood home, he’s going to start work on a duplex on the same block. It, too, will be a gut renovation. 

“The neighbors are happy with the first house and looking forward to the next one,” El-Eses said. “There’s a couple neighbors on the block that are fixing up their houses. Everyone’s pleased with the future of the neighborhood.” 

Do you know someone rehabbing, renovating, redesigning or doing interesting work on homes? If so, I’d like to talk to them. Please send me an email at aaron@detourdetroiter.com.

Aaron Mondry is the editor of The Dig and a reporter who covers development, housing, architecture, real estate and land use in Detroit. He was previously the editor of Curbed Detroit.