Detroit dreaming

Can you read the graffiti on the garage across the street?

Looking out over what used to be a grand balcony. Can it be restored?

I have a dream sometimes — my most common recurring one, actually — that I find in my house a room or entire wing that I didn’t know was there. It’s always thrilling — I’m so excited to find it, and there’s almost always treasure of some sort. When I wake up and find that I’m still in my little cottage with no rooms yet to discover I’m a little sad.

House hunting in Detroit feels like that dream. You don’t know what you might find behind that blank facade, behind the broken or boarded up windows. We ran through a big, rambling, freezing cold and dark house yesterday on Churchill. Most of the windows were boarded, but the pale winter sun streamed through some, lighting up the amazing fireplace and built-in bookshelves in the living room(s) (it was a two-story duplex). Look past the green shag carpet, drifts of peeling paint, and it could be a magnificent house. It even still had a water heater and all its electrical wiring! It’s so hard to comprehend that this entire house — easily 4,000 feet — is listed for $6,000. Such a low cost, but so much possibility!

The house dream is supposed to mean something like finding a new side of yourself, or exploring untapped potential. That’s a lovely thought, but is easier said than done. At 39 and 41 with a mortgage and two dogs, we’re fairly locked in to our lives. That’s not to say we can’t make changes, but we’re so far down the road we’re on it would be difficult to really veer course at this point.

We looked at a hundred year old house yesterday that’s had a fire. The first floor was a black, charred shell. The investor-owner who bought it as he snapped up houses in the Virginia Park neighborhood says he bought it on accident. He’s treating it like the rest of his properties though, restoring it to a fine home. His crew is tearing it down to its studs, exposing the bones of the house, but hopefully leaving the heart. He’ll sell it to us if we want, handing over an opportunity to transform the shell into something beautiful — a home.

So this dream of buying in Detroit isn’t just about Detroit, although much of it is a burning desire to become part of this endlessly intriguing city. It’s also about what you can do that’s just not possible anywhere else. I don’t just mean the potential for reward on your investment. That’s kind of the least of it (although thinking of two rental incomes is nice). No, it’s the chance to — in a literal, physical sense — transform something big. If, through work and love, I can make a house more than it is today, maybe I can do the same for myself.

We look awfully excited. We’re either optimistic or foolish. I’d like to vote for optimistic.

Post script: We were interested enough in the Churchill house with the fireplaces to make an offer. Then in the course of our “investigation” (read: snooping) on the street we found that the fellow buying up properties already made an offer — for more than the listed amount. “You won’t win a bidding war with me,” he said. And it’s ok – I like the guy. And he’s the one who will sell us the shell and the dream.

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