Monday, February 13, 2006

Five Years of City Living!

Five Years of City Living!

On Friday morning, February 9, 2001, I closed on my first house. It was at 3822 Indiana in the Marine Villa neighborhood.

Ironically, the closing itself was in Clayton at First American Title Co. I bought this c. 1884 "flounder" house for $9,900 cash out of foreclosure from an Orange County, CA firm called Option One Mortgage.

It took the weekend to get myself actually living there, because the front door didn't have a proper lock, but only a padlock. Of course, you can't lock a padlocked door from the inside, so I wasn't comfortable staying there overnight. My brother put new locks on the rather battered front door, and then I started living there probably on Sunday or Monday night.

Previously, I had lived in my parents' house in South County; my mom has lived there continuously since 1970. During the school year, I lived in the honors college dorm (a former convent) at UMSL from 1997 to 2000. And I lived in the Eduardo dos Santos Residence Hall at the University of the Western Cape, near Cape Town, South Africa, from July to November 2000.

Also, there was no electricity or heat in my 'new' abode. The garage had burned down several months earlier - with a stolen car inside - so the electric and phone lines came down with it. Newspapers stuck to the floor inside the house and a slightly charred odor suggested homeless folks had built a fire there.

AmerenUE wouldn't come out to put up a new line to the house unless the city electrical inspector signed off on the pre-existing electrical service. So, I paid for the inspector to come out, but he said it was too far gone. I had to get a new service installed.

I got a pretty good deal on a new circuit breaker box and weatherhead from Southwestern Electric just around the corner on South Broadway. But it still wasn't until May that I got the juice turned on. Eventually, I replaced both the front and back doors of the house; the replacement four-panel insulated steel doors I bought at the now-closed Hill-Behan Lumber. Admittedly, they weren't historically correct replacement doors, but neither were the previous doors probably dating from the 1950s or 60s.

Anyway, I wasn't a very good nor efficient rehabber. I don't really know how to do much of anything, and I was too hesitant about getting and hiring contractors. I learned some lessons from that project, I think. Living in a house while trying to rehab it is pretty difficult. So, I tried moving into a tiny little 1950s four-family "ranchette" apartment nearby, at 3912-B Illinois. But that didn't really help. I still was too hesitant to do anything with the place. Sometimes being careful with your money is not the best thing.

Most of the houses on the 3800 block of Indiana and the nearby 2200 block of Chippewa date to the 1880s. However, this section of Marine Villa is not located in any historic district - neither the long-standing Benton Park national historic district whose southern boundary is Broadway between I-55 and Jefferson; nor the new Gravois-Jefferson streetcar suburb national historic district. So I wouldn't be eligible for historic tax credits for any work I did.

Anyway, I eventually sold that house in July 2004 for $12,000; and it's since been flipped again. For our current house, a c. 1898 two-family, we paid $54,000 from an older South Asian fellow who was selling off a bunch of his rental properties across South St. Louis and I think even his own house.

We paid 20% down to avoid PMI, and then promptly spent at least that much on a new roof and new central waste stack. It seems to have been worth it.

For all the problems we've had with this house, it has a bit more historic charm because it hasn't been quite as badly battered as the one on Indiana. Details like an art glass window, pocket doors, and decorative brickwork near the cornice line are part of what make 1890s houses really special. Hopefully we will eventually convert the place to single-family, unless we get fed up with rehabbing and decide to move to a single-family instead once we have more income. At least this one is eligible for state historic tax credits.

Historic preservation is incredibly important; but really hard to do on the ground-level. And when you have four left thumbs like I do, it costs a lot of money. I can try to do some things myself; but if it gets too complicated I'm likely to screw it up badly and spend even more to pay someone else to finish the job right.

The culture of newness and of constantly moving on is just so strong in this country. In Europe, 500-year-old buildings can still be found in many cities. Here, 100-year-old buildings are routinely demolished.

Anyway, I don't know what the future will hold for my family, but I hope we continue to reside in an historic home - at least pre-1940. While it can be costly in some ways, the benefits are well worth it.

1 comment:

Rick Bonasch said...


Hang in there, and keep your spirits up on owning an old-city house.

You sum up the situation well, and your points re. rehabbing and living in a house at the same time are well-taken.

Getting off on the cheap and quality rehab do not usually go hand in hand, especially for most of us with otherwise regular work.

Who wants to spend all their free time working to rehab their primary residence? It's bad enough just taking care of a place that's already in decent shape...

Nonetheless, everything's relative.

It sounds like you're still living in places that are much lower cost than the average St. Louis area house, and if your rehab work qualifies, you can still get a Missouri state income tax credit.

To buy a home in your mom's south county neighborhood would probably cost three or four times what you're paying to live in the city, so you've got a lot of room to work with, and still come out ahead financially.