Talking to Amy Haimerl about ‘Detroit Hustle,’ Community, and Spending $400,000 Renovating a House

Talking to Amy Haimerl About ‘Detroit Hustle,’ Community, and Spending $400,000 Renovating a House

Photo credit: Eugene Kim, CC BY 2.0.

Last week, I shared a New York Times story about Amy Haimerl and Karl Kaebnick, a couple who had moved to Detroit to buy a house and ended up spending $400,000 on the renovations.

Moving to a Less Expensive City to Buy a House Isn’t Always the Best Idea

The NYT was telling the financial side of the story, but I thought there might be more to it than that. I reached out to Amy Haimerl and asked if she’d be interested in talking to The Billfold about her experiences moving to Detroit and renovating a home with her husband—as well as her new book, Detroit Hustle: A Memoir of Life, Love, and Home.

ND: So I want to talk about Detroit Hustle , and I want to talk first—I mean, I know a little bit about your story from the New York Times piece, but I’m curious why you and your husband decided to move to Detroit.

AH: Why Detroit specifically, or why we decided to leave New York?

I suppose those are two different questions!

We didn’t expect to leave New York. We’d always talked about it in the way that New Yorkers always do, this idea of a “warmer/better/something else/cheaper place,” but we never actually expected to do it.

Then I got a fellowship at the University of Michigan for mid-career journalists that brought us to Ann Arbor for nine months. We fully expected to go back to Brooklyn at the end of that. But it was our first year of marriage, it was almost like a honeymoon, and at the end of those nine months we realized that a lot had changed in our lives. Hurricane Sandy had hit the East Coast and just really devastated our home neighborhood of Red Hook, and we didn’t know how we could go back, with grand piano and dogs, and live on the first floor and worry about flooding again, and it just seemed like the time in our lives to try something new, together.

So we started looking. Where would we go? For us it came down to Detroit or Oakland, California. I had job offers in both cities. We just fell in love with Detroit. There’s something about the city—I don’t think either of us can tell you what that is, any more than we can tell you when you meet your spouse and fall in love and for some reason you just know that’s the one. That was Detroit for us.

So I know that you bought this house and you thought it would cost the $35,000 you put down and $150,000 in renovations. When did you figure out that this was going to be a much more costly project than you anticipated?

That’s an important point. We paid $35,000 for the house, and we always knew that the full project was going to be about $300,000. The contractors were never unclear about that. We thought it was going to be between $100,000 and $150,000 in the first phase; we could get it habitable and we could live in it and then there would be further phases where we would do continuing things.

We had no idea how we were going to come up with that money. We assumed—like, in most places you would get a mortgage or you would get a construction loan to do it. Detroit’s a very different kind of real estate market because everything has sold for so low for so long here because of the foreclosures. You can’t get appraisals. There are no comparable sales, so even if banks want to lend, they can’t. “I’m sorry, you want to put $150,000 into a house we think is going to be worth $50,000 when you’re done? No. Even if you bring dancing monkeys, no.”

So we figured we had at least enough cash to get us to the habitable phase, after cashing out our 401(k)s, and that we would just figure out the rest of it somehow. We didn’t know how.

What I would tell everybody is: as much as you think you can do it in phases, a project like this, everything’s a puzzle. Everything’s dependent on the next thing. If you’ve already opened up the walls because you need to put in all of the plumbing, electrical, and heating that doesn’t exist in a house like this, do you not put in the insulation at this point? Do you re-open the walls later? No. You’re like “crap, well now I have to find the money for insulation because we have the chance to do it now.”

Okay, we want to have doors for the bedroom. If we want doors for the bedroom, we need the casings, and the casings require all the trims, and all of a sudden it just sort of… the project, all of the puzzle pieces start to connect, and you wind up not being able to do it as easily in phases. It’s just cheaper, in the long run, to do it all at once, and we had to figure out the money as we went along.

It turned out to be $400,000, so it was still more than we ever expected, but it was also just one of those things that you figure out. We didn’t do much in terms of luxuries; most of the money, people would be surprised to learn, is inside the walls. Most people are thinking about a house where they can go in and turn on the lights. That implies that there is power, or any kind of light fixtures for those lights to turn on inside of. This house had none of those. We needed to come up with 24 interior doors. You think if you just go to Home Depot and just buy a door, a nice, not a cheap but not an expensive door, it’s a couple hundred bucks. Times 24. You need new light fixtures for every room. You want nice ones, not necessarily cheap, but you need—we wound up needing, like, 60, not including cans, for the whole house. At $200 a pop. It just starts adding up in ways that people don’t expect.

Did you initially view this homeownership plan as a way to save money, or was that part of the calculation?

So I think we initially thought, when we decided to move to Detroit, like everybody we were excited about the cheap real estate. We had the very naive idea that we would be able to cash out our 401(k)s, renovate a house, and while we wouldn’t have any retirement savings we also wouldn’t have a mortgage.

That didn’t turn out to be true. Obviously we have a mortgage now, we have housing costs, so that was a bit naive. I think there are houses in Detroit you could do that to, but there aren’t many that are move-in ready. It is possible but difficult to find real estate stock here that either “isn’t so far gone that it requires a massive investment and rehabbing” or “is move-in ready and you need a mortgage to buy it.”

So that was naive on our part, to think that we would have this dreamy, expense-free life. Other people who are maybe handier or can do the work themselves may have a different experience. They always say “your mileage may vary.” That’s definitely the case here.

Now I want to ask you about your book, because from what I understand your story is not “we moved to Detroit and spent a bunch of money on a house.” It’s more like “we moved to Detroit and became part of a community.” Is that correct?

Yes, very much so.

So what prompted you to write the book, and what do you think are some of the biggest benefits of your move?

I mean, I’m a writer, so certainly that’s part of it that I can’t get away from, but I didn’t think I was going to write a book, initially. I started a blog because I have friends and family all over the country—I’m originally from Colorado—and the blog was sort of an easy way to keep everybody abreast of this project. They were all very interested and supportive of us coming to Detroit, but a little “what is this crazy house you’ve taken on?” and they wanted pictures and updates.

So it started out as a blog, and then it became a way to also document the challenges of the Detroit real estate market. How to find homeowners insurance on a house that’s vacant; that’s an entirely different kind of insurance product that almost nobody will issue in Detroit. I was finding all of these questions that I couldn’t get answers to, and I figured that a ton of other people must also be having them. How do you actually pay cash for a house? Do you just show up with a suitcase full of money? The answer is no.

So the blog became a spot for all of that. Then people kept asking “are you going to write a book?” and there was so much interest and this was in 2012, even before the city went through bankruptcy, and this idea of people being able to move from expensive coastal cities to someplace cheaper/warmer/better/whatever… I put together a book proposal, and I pitched a number of agents, and I found somebody who would represent me, and she sold the book to Running Press.

I thought the book was really going to be the story of Karl and I renovating this house. I did have this deluded idea in my head that despite the fact that we have zero construction skills, we were going to do this house project ourselves. We bought a project that was too big for that, so we did wind up absolutely having to have contractors. If the project had been smaller, maybe like a kitchen renovation, maybe we would have spent more on the purchase price of the house but we would have been able to do more of the renovations ourselves.

So in doing all of that I started figuring out that this book wasn’t really going to be just about the story of rehabbing the house, because we have amazing contractors, and that’s kind of boring. “Yep, so every day our contractors showed up like clockwork, they’re our best friends, we love them, house is gorgeous, the end.”

It really became a story about what it’s like to move to someplace new. What does that mean? How do you go from where you were to being part of where you’re going? That’s a very complicated scenario. Who is an us and who is a them? Who is a local and who is a newcomer? A lot of the book is about that, as well as issues of gentrification, the complexities of race and class, that all come with the idea that “you’ve gone somewhere that you see as cheaper.” Usually that’s why people are thinking about these cities, right, because they feel priced out of expensive cities.

Well, I’ve been on the other side of that. Before Denver was the sexy place that it is now, it was a great cheap real estate town that people from Texas and California used to love to come to and drop down crazy money for houses. They’d be like “It’s so cheap! It’s only $150,000!” and those of us living there—like myself, a fifth-generation native—were all “Thanks, you just jacked the prices up again. I’m so glad that it seems so cheap for you, but this is still expensive for here, and you don’t understand the differentiation.” It creates that tension.

My book is about being on both sides of this equation: the excitement of coming somewhere new and wanting to be there, and also the resentment of newcomers coming and not understanding what your impact is having on the ground.

And on that note, my very last question. Without giving the whole book away, what is one piece of advice you’d give people who are looking to move to a lower cost of living area?

The joking advice is what my dad always gives: “Don’t be an asshole.” That usually is the best. But really, just say “hi.” Marsha Music is a great poet in Detroit, and I quote her poem [“Just Say Hi! (The Gentrification Blues)”] in my book.

So being friendly, just saying hi, being a part of the community—not expecting yourself to go in and change it or for it to change to meet your needs. Expect that you’re going there because you like it, so let it be that, instead of suddenly needing it to be like wherever you came from, just cheaper.

Listen more than you talk, and just try to be a good neighbor. Be a part of the community—and be a part of what you came to, not just what you wanted it to be.

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