Detroiter Finds Redemption in Corktown Renovation Project

There was a dead dog in the basement. The foundation was cracked. Eight layers of shingles were stapled to the roof, and the chimney basically fell from the sky like a ton of bricks – quite literally.

A little more than a year ago, Scott Robichaud bought a fixer-upper in Corktown, just west of Downtown on the corner of Bagley and 10th Street. "Fixer-upper" doesn't quite paint the picture of Robichaud's new house, er, structure. More like it was falling apart, vacant, and the New York-based bank that owned it could have cared less.

Since then, the 29-year-old electrical engineer has gutted the home, straightened the foundation, removed and replaced the shingles and buried the dog. (Not all his discoveries were that scary. He also found out $95 stashed in the wall which, at the time of its stashing, would have been worth about $1,400).

The house had issues

It's been quite a process since a year ago May when he closed on the house for around $20,000. There were the physical issues of the house – the structure, walls and roof (pretty much the entire thing) – but then there was also the paperwork, and more paperwork, and more paperwork.

First he had to get the house from that New York bank. Then he had to get his own bank loans, then the permits to do anything, then there was the title companies, the Historical Commission and the city, and insurance companies (insurance on a vacant house isn't cheap), and, finally, any tax break applications.

Like the Neighborhood Enterprise Zone (NEZ) Historical Property tax credit he applied for. The NEZ tax credit basically allows you to only pay taxes on the original value of the house at the time of purchased for 12 years. So, no matter what Robichaud puts into it, he'll only have to pay taxes on its value at the time of purchase. Of course, he has to receive the NEZ designation first.

"I applied in January," he says. "It takes about eight months. It's a bunch of paperwork, and then I have to go see a lady in Lansing, then City Council. Now everything with (the mayor) went down, so I hope I don't have to wait longer."

On top of that, there are rules for historically designated homes. The windows have to be wooden, the siding has to be specific, the shingles need to be a certain type, and, depending on when the house was built, you're only allowed certain colors for painting. Robichaud is lucky, he says. He gets to choose from a palette of 21. "Everything is reddish brown or grayish blue. All the colors have –ish after them."

"Sometimes I think I've bit off more than I can chew," he says, leaning up against one of the beams inside what will eventually be his kitchen. "At times I love it and at times I hate it. It's not easy."

Ultimately, he says, it's worth it. "I wouldn't do it if I didn't love it."

Help from his friends

The house is a shell right now. There aren't any walls, just a mixture of original and freshly cut beams where walls should be. And, like some honky-tonk bar's dance floor, sawdust blankets the knotted planks of wood that will, some day soon, become the floor to Robichaud's kitchen, living room, and dining room.

A gang of 16 came out to help him gut the place shortly after he got it. And, right now, you have to walk up a makeshift ramp in the back of the house to get into it. The front porch has been removed. And sunlight pokes in from spots around the windows and exposed slats in the wall that haven't yet been completely secured from the outside.

He's kept a blog about the process and the transformation of his house. He calls it Redemption in Corktown. And, when reading it, Robichaud's words, "It's not easy," should come to mind at least 100 times.

Renovation, revival, revitalization, or redemption – whatever you want to call it – is never easy.

The house, in his words, was "jacked up" when he walked through it with a friend back in February of last year. He checked out houses in other neighborhoods, mostly Woodbridge ("Those houses are giants," he says), but nothing seemed to fit until he ran into this 1,800-square-foot homestead in Corktown that dates back to 1860.

"I saw the house and I sat on it for a week," he says. "It was something I was looking for and I didn't want a slumlord picking it up, so I got it."

Robichaud has poured about $34,000 into his 150-year-old fixer-upper and is looking to pump another 70 grand into the place. He and his pals are doing almost all of the labor – hammering in every nail, placing every beam, climbing every ladder and removing every piece of rotted wood. As many as 16 of his Habitat for Humanity buddies (where he earned most of his building chops) have been out on the property at one time helping, and sometimes it's just him, a hammer, and a box of nails.

"Scott has taken on a particularly challenged piece of property," says Tim McKay director of the Greater Corktown Development Corp. and 27-year Corktown resident. "His youth and vigor is really great to see. And he's doing such a comprehensive job, which is a good sign in this struggling economy."

McKay says that what Robichaud is doing on that corner isn't new to Corktown but important.

"To see private investment like that in Corktown is great," he says. "And what attracts Scott and myself to this place, beyond the community itself, is that property value hasn't suffered. It still makes financial sense to invest into Corktown. We're doing something right."

McKay owns a four-family flat on Sixth Street that dates back to 1906, which he's currently in the process of renovating. He lives with his wife in two of the units, he rents out another unit, and the last unit, he says, will be available for renting in the next few months. When it's all said and done, about $180,000 will be invested into the building.

In the last several years, McKay says, Corktown has seen a number of other projects – major and minor – pop up. In fact, this September HGTV is coming to Corktown to film a show called "My House Is Worth What?" Two renovated properties are going to be featured in the program, he says.

So, Robichaud isn't alone in his thinking. He's following a path that other trailblazers have cut before him, and others will surely follow. And he's got great back up. Robichaud's got a posse. He's got helpers — people he's following and people following him.

And in October, he'll be done. Corktown will have another story to tell, Detroit will have another house renovated, and Robichaud will have a finished home to live in – a two story, three-bedroom, Victorian mid-century house. It'll have a porch and steps and walls and a floor and a basement and a chimney and… well, you get the picture.

Tips from the man with the hammer: Scott Robichaud shares his thoughts and advice on how to tackle a Detroit home rehab. Click here. To read his blog, which details the progress of his home, go here.

Toolkit tours: Robichaud's completed house is a scheduled stop when the "toolkit" tours make their way to Corktown on October 12.

Terry Parris Jr. is a regular Model D contributor and edits our In The News section.


Scott Robichaud's new home

A before picture of Scott Robichaud's new home

A work in progress

Tim McKay, director of the Greater Corktown Development Corp.

Photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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