I’m So Cheap, I Vacation in Detroit
Vacation homes are marvelous things, if you can afford the upkeep. A smart person, who is not rich, acknowledges this, faces facts, and goes about their business. But not having an actual home is probably what got me into trouble.
For ten years, I have been skating around the five boroughs of New York City, upping stakes with every rent increase, constantly in search of the cheapest solution. Whenever I’ve given the slightest thought to home ownership, the requisite costs have stopped me in my tracks.
Then, after crash-landing in my thirties not long ago, I stopped thinking in terms of home ownership and more about putting down roots. No money? The solution seemed simple enough: Buy a vacation home somewhere nobody else wants to vacation.
Searching the internet with terms like “Cheapest Real Estate In The World,” I quickly found myself inundated with information about Detroit. Did you know that the median sales price for homes in the city recently dipped below below $10,000? You do now. Imagine that. For a house. That’s 1920’s pricing. Maybe cheaper.
Anyone, it turns out, can afford a little piece of Detroit nowadays. All you need is a little cash and a penchant for accepting the things you cannot change. As in, there are no guarantees that your home won’t quickly become completely worthless, instead of just mostly. You’ll also need to accept the fact that your rather exorbitant city taxes are in no way an indicator of the level of city services you will receive, which is to say that you may receive none at all.
Let the record reflect that when my search began, I already knew plenty about Detroit. It has been nearly ten years since my first visit to the city; I have been going back ever since. The affair began with a dare from my since-retired editor, who found my earliest stabs at travel writing tediously positive. Name the destination, I loved it. (In my defense, I was in my early twenties.)
“You like everything,” she mused one day, passing me a fancy invitation that had been sent out by the Detroit Convention & Visitors Bureau. Please, it said, come learn more about our fabulous nightlife and casinos.
My editor thought the assignment would be just the thing to cure me of my youthful exuberance. Unfortunately for her, I loved Detroit. Also, I did not die, which impressed my friends.
The resulting story turned out terrible. How do you tell everyone how wonderful Detroit is, without them assuming you have completely lost your mind? Unable to solve this dilemma, I remember handing in a story that told readers precisely nothing.
Nearly a decade later, I find it difficult to communicate just why I love the city.
It’s not for lack of trying. Whenever anyone will listen, particularly these days, with Detroit’s troubles all over the news, I chew their ear off.
Do they know about the Detroit Institute of Arts, with its stunning Diego Rivera murals? What about the beautiful summers, or Saturdays in the historic Eastern Market district? How about that Michigan beer, that Detroit-style pizza, the annual electronic music festival on the Detroit River. What about the nearby Great Lakes? Yes, the nightlife really is that interesting. And all within an hour’s flight of New York. And did I mention that the locals are half-crazy but mostly harmless, and always amusing to talk to?
People who’ve never set foot in Michigan generally don’t know any of these fun facts. Upon hearing them, they generally tend to nod politely, the way one does at an insane person sitting across from you on the subway.
Pouring over real estate listings for beautiful homes at amazingly low prices, I realized that instead of going somewhere else and having conversations with people about Detroit, I should probably just do everyone a favor and go there.
Because Detroit is one of those cities where everybody seems to know everybody else, it took about three hours to find something. Stopping to visit a friend one morning, I mentioned that I was in the market for a place –- maybe a rental for now, just to get my feet wet.
Within an hour’s time, I was driving through Detroit’s bombed-out Cass Corridor district, punching the number of someone who was looking for a roommate into my cell phone, worried that I was about to do something really stupid.
At the very least, I was curious to see the inside of an old Detroit home. Minutes later, I was knocking on the door of a Victorian duplex that dates back nearly 100 years, if not more.
The home is one of the star attractions, architecturally speaking, of a typical Midtown block that includes a recently completed (and half-empty) loft development, a bunch of vacant lots, at least one spectacular abandoned structure and a couple of handsome apartment buildings that appear to still be partially inhabited.
The rental turned out to be a share, but I immediately found myself liking the girl in charge of the house. Move in, she said, and I wouldn’t just be getting a bunch of roommates. I’d be making new friends. A talented artist, she moved here from North Carolina for no really good reason, beyond the fact that she wanted to. My kind of people.
By week’s end, it was settled — the total monthly bill for a bedroom deep inside the monstrous 4 BR, 1.5 BA home, was just $450 a month, including utilities.
For that kind of money, a friend wisecracked later, I should have just bought a house.
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