Home At Last:

A couple's journey through Detroit's real estate maze



Michelle Diggs and Scott Dillon found a house in Detroit they could call their own - but it wasn't easy. Below the couple details the problems they encountered during their search, and dispenses some valuable advice to other would-be homeowners looking for house in the city.


Home hmmmmm

- by Michelle Diggs

After moving from coast to coast to center to coast, Scott and I finally found each other and a city that felt like home. As we dug deep into our wanderlust-ing hearts, the idea of settling down and buying a house emerged. Unfortunately, the idea wasn't accompanied by a how-to manual. How to buy a house is something you should learn in high school, not the school of life.

Rule #1: You don't have to put an offer in on every house you look at.

After living in cities where the median home price is $750,000, Detroit seems crazy cheap, even if neither one of us is steadily employed. The first "house" we put a bid on is now boarded up. The neighbors finally got hold of the owner in the suburbs and threatened to sue if the dealers and squatters weren't kicked out.Seeing all the potential in this place, we put an offer in immediately. I stayed up late lamenting the thought of putting the resident drug dealer and his dog out on the street. Repairs you say? I didn't even think of the repairs that this five-apartment "house" needed. Windows, heating, electricity - not to mention the foundation. Thank God they didn't accept our offer.

Rule #2: Don't believe the hype

With our freshly minted home-seeking experience in tow, we moved on to the next house. (Note: Without a real estate agent you need to know your stuff. Agents are trying to make a buck too, but they can spare you a huge headache in dealing with selling agents like Mr. M). Mr. M proudly showed us a lovely little house in a lovely section of town that seemed just right. We ignored the brown stuff on the walls that was supposedly left by a huge cockroach infestation. We ignored the fact that the walls and ceilings were buckling from a "burst pipe". We ignored the fact that after redoing the house we would end up living in a one-bedroom apartment and renting out the rest.

The one thing I couldn't ignore was the flimflam shim sham of Mr. M. The king of the bullshitters was always smilin' in my face and talking out of the back of his head. Thank God, Scott had the patience to call this grown man's daddy to get the deal done. Six months. It took six long months of chasing people down, working out paper work and getting the right 'i' dotted right. Standing outside Avalon Bakery thirty minutes before we were supposed to close, my head took over: I murmured to Scott, "I can't do it".

Needless to say I had to make the calls: to the bank, the mortgage company, the loan officers, the insurance company and finally to Mr. M. I told him right over the phone that I was really, really, really sorry.

Rule #3: EVERYONE has a different opinion

We were driving around to find an apartment. Our two cats were bouncing off the walls of our small apartment and the charm of our "high rise" over-looking I-75 had warn off. Apartment hunting sucks and Scott wasn't happy about lining someone else's pocket (again) with rent money. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a for sale sign. We jumped out of the car, called the number and were inside the house within an hour. Mr. M was back... in a slightly smoother realtor shell. "Oh yes the owner is motivated and ready to sell". He told us the price and it was right for us. There was no kitchen, the bathroom looked like it was covered in marshmallow cream and the recently added 'addition' needed to become a 'subtraction' - but everything worked. Me being the hard nose bargainer in the family, I asked, "Do the plastic mini-blinds stay?" "Why yes, they do!," said Mr. M II. "Ohh Scott, can you believe it, a house with white plastic mini-blinds?"

The next day the seller upped his price by $25,000. Can you say Detroit bargaining tactics.

We brought in all kinds of "experts". The heating guy said our boiler was so old our heating bill would be about half our mortgage. He was right. The home inspector basically told us to burn it to the ground and start over. We ignored the old sub-urban coot and wrote him a fat enough check to take his negative vibes elsewhere. Scott, with nerves of steel, dealt with the flimflam for two and a half more months. Liens were on the title, the IRS became involved, contractors who were never paid popped out of the woodwork, etc...

Finally, we got the call: "Friday December 13th we can close". Wait! I screeched Friday the 13th. We can't. Feng shui-ites and Hollywood movie watchers know it's not good ju ju. I got out my numerology book and added up the numbers. Wouldn't you know 12-13-2002 is an auspicious day after all.

Post script:

It's been 2 1/2 months and we have been working on the house a lot. To us it looks great. We have a kitchen and a toilet that flushes. All I know is that the girl from Kansas had it all right. Tonight and every night there is no place like home.


Home at last!


Be it ever so humble - by Scott Dillon

I don't have ruby slippers to emphasize the point, but I can vouch for the fact that it took a Dorothy-like trek to find our way home. The search lasted about a year and required all the virtues that Dorothy and her companions sought from Oz.

Michelle and I moved from San Francisco, one month after 9/11. Neither of us are huge breadwinners but we were fresh from spending anywhere from $700 to $1,000 to rent a 'bedroom' in an apartment or a 'basement studio' with rats and no direct sunlight in S.F.. The idea of owning one of the huge and gorgeous architectural gems from Detroit's rich past for a similar mortgage was more than enticing.

The way Michelle and I went about looking for a home could easily be read as the how-not-to-manual for house-shopping. We made a lot of mistakes, and hopefully if you're looking for a home you'll be better informed than we were AND not feel too compelled to call us 'dumb asses' when you see us on the street - at least not too our face.

And in the end, the gods took pity on us and we got lucky to find a place we we're really happy with.

"If I only had a brain"

First mistake, we didn't spend the time to find a realtor we could trust. I thought you could just fill in the blank: "Buying a home is like ..." - accept it really isn't. It's unlike anything else. Buying in a city like Detroit, with its ever-changing tides of economic development, is like trying to hit a moving target, as you try to factor in issues like crime rates, schools and city services. Add in the multitude of loan choices, the inevitable wrangling over price and condition, the home inspections, the possibility of the seller having liens on the property, the high-wire choices that swing decisions based on thousands of dollars in a matter of minutes .... There were many times we would have benefited from another's council. Here's the catch, though: There's a good chance you won't be able to locate that person.

Most of the 'talent" are plying their trade out in the burbs and aren't familiar with Detroit (and probably flat out think you're crazy to buy here to begin with). Those we found familiar with the city, seemed to have their be$t intere$t inevitably tied to what they were showing. It's a rought way to start, but taking the time to find a like-minded individual who knows what you want and what you can afford - in dollars and time- will only help you. And it costs you nothing anyway.


There are deals to be had, especially if you can feign disinterest. People have been sitting on their property for years in this city. Any sort of interest in their for sale sign and of course they'll be looking to get P-A-I-D,. Given the decades of inactivity in Detroit's real estate market, who wouldn't?

The first place we looked at in the fall of 2001 was a five-apartment building in the center of the then fast developing mid-town. Without really knowing what we were looking for we called the listing agent and set up an appointment to see the building. We thought it would be unoccupied but it wasn't. There was a constant foreboding question of "where was the dog", which we never saw and two of the five apartments were occupied: one by a lone squatter, the other by a family of 4 (with 3 kids). We made an offer but they asked $25,000 more than we offered. Even if they had accepted it, we wouldn't have been able to put people out on the street anyway. As of today, the building is still on the market.


The next place we made an offer on was in the Woodbridge area and this one was unoccupied. At first the realtor seemed incredibly accommodating. Michelle viewed the place with a friend and despite its run-down condition she was interested in the property. She did her best not to show it.

It actually required an enormous amount of fixing up. No problem said the loan officer of our bank. We have just what you need. A 203k! A what? A 203k, is a loan sponsored by HUD from the federal government which backs the bank's loan to you for the purchase price AND the fix up costs -- all wrapped neatly into one mortgage knot and bow. Sounded great. But you know that saying - believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.

After we offered less than the seller was seeking, the listing agent suddenly couldn't be seen or heard. He missed appointments and never called us back. It literally got to the point of my driving up to his offices in Southfield to demand - on the spot - my initial deposit money back. I was angry at the listing agent's continued indifference; I may have mentioned the Better Business Bureau. Amazingly, my rampage shook his secretary up enough to call the absentee listing agent's boss. One I didn't know he had. It was his dad, the actual listing agent.

Crazily enough, through his Dad, we ended up negotiating an acceptable offer. The experience harkened memories of the principal's office where his son was offering an apology while we were signing documentation for the accepted offer. In the end, I had taken everything too personally and allowed myself to get caught up in the emotions of buying.

Now all we had to take care of was the loan - that 203k thing that sounded too good to be true. Which it was - sort of. Because it's a government sponsored loan, you have a lot more hoops to jump through: All the proposed fixes have to be itemized and accompanied by detailed estimates from contractors (something their not always inclined to provide for free).

Ironically enough for low income loan, it will cost you more out of pocket money than a conventional loan to close. Because of its specialized nature, the home inspection and property appraisal (both required by the loan) were about $700.00 more than we would have spent had we gone conventional. In the end, it was too much of a project and we backed out of the deal. That house, too, is still for sale.

" ... there's no place like home."

During our search we were staying at a residential hotel downtown. We had a gorgeous view of I-75, complemented by the constant growling drone of cars streaming past our window. We had lived there for about a year and it was time to move out - and on.

This time out, we 'employed' a realtor who was integral and earnest (read, new to the job) and... completely unfamiliar with the City. We had exhausted our options with classifieds in "The Monitor" and by that time our mystically intuitive approach to finding a house had begun to wear around the edges of our desire and initiative. We had a friend whose place behind the D.I.A. we liked. We offered to take it off his hands and, politely, he balked at our offer.

Still, we liked the area behind the D.I.A. and decided to look around for a place to rent. The area around our friend;s place was blocked off for construction, so I turned to drive away when Michelle, spotted a For Sale sign three house down. We called the listing agent but because we weren't comfortable with the greenness of our current realtor we decided to do our own negotiations.

This was the last example of why our first mistake is the biggest. Had everything gone as planned, I probably wouldn't be writing this article. Though, he had no incentive to be, the listing agent turned out to be nice and competent. Unfortunately, it was the seller that didn't have his things in order. Though we were ready to close five days before our closing date it turned out there were numerous liens on the property that had to be cleared up before it could be sold.

Again, we didn't anticipate that this could happen, duh! It took us 55 days after our initial closing date to close on the property. During that time, I called the listing agent or title company every day for 3 weeks to make sure that the deal was being properly baby-sat and not allowed to slip through the cracks. Meanwhile our Indian-summer-fall turned into winter. Issues such as winterization became very relevant. Because I couldn't trust the seller to take care of these issues on his own, it was up to me to make sure that he had incentive to get it done. What he didn't do, I knew, would surely fall back on us when we did close. Having an agent to take care of this would of helped.

We finally closed in December, appropriately enough on Friday the 13th. There's another entire article wrapped up in what we've learned since becoming new home owners the last 2 months. Still I'm knocking the heals of my plaid yahoo slippers together everyday in thanks for what we've got. A home.



<< Michelle Diggs loves living in Mayberry with her two cats, dog and husband. She tries to keep out of Barney Fife's hair and makes cookies like Aunt Bea. You can contact her at: artpimp@411gallery.com.

>>Scott Dillon spends his spare time 'wondering' the streets looking for the newest version of this inner cities vibe. He takes all potholes personally and tries never to become a partner in Detroit-itis crimes. Please write him - with all fuming rages against potholes - at: scott@personedesign.com


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