Six years ago we moved to Midland, Michigan, and I’ve been a real estate developer for the last five years. I actively serve on boards, committees, and organizations in Midland. I am very involved in housing and neighborhood revitalization here. Yet I hadn’t had any luck getting a shovel in the ground on a development. Projects may snowball for a bit, but always seemed to fall apart for one reason or another.
May 19, 2020
Two Midland County dams that were privately owned and operated and desperately in need of repairs failed. Billions of gallons of water from two lakes destroyed the town of Sanford and spilled into neighborhoods in Midland. Ten thousand residents were safely evacuated. Nearly $1 billion dollars of damage was done.
A month later, I was working to assess how residents and neighborhoods impacted were moving forward. Our community was already short on affordable housing units, now stable neighborhoods were gutted. As the roadside debris had cleared, for sale signs now littered the curbs. Homes that sold for $150,000 recently were now selling for $50,000, as is, noting their flood damage.
As I was wrapping up work and preparing to attend a preschool reunion in the park for my son’s class, I messaged an area realtor inquiring on who was buying homes in flood-affected areas. He mentioned one I should look at and we made plans to meet at a property in 15 minutes. With two kids, my husband, and preschool picnic supplies loaded up we headed to Westwood Village.
Building missing middle housing in Midland has been a goal of mine for 2 years. Design plans for modern sleek units sit in folders on my computer and have been collecting digital dust as they couldn’t come to fruition. How did I not know this adorable set of buildings existed 5 miles from my doorstep?
Originally built in 1973, these charming courtyard condos ooze character. It was clear on approach they had been well-loved by their owners. Bird feeders, patio decor, and what was left of their personal touches made it obvious we were walking into the shell of homes full of memories. Each building has 5 attached condominium units ranging from 1500-2200 square feet. Two buildings, 10 total units. They sit nestled in tall trees off a quiet section towards the end of Main Street. Two miles from downtown, connected by a simple street and the Pere-Marquette trail. Next to Northwood University and two blocks from the high school my children will attend.
So what does a developer do when they find a little slice of heaven they didn’t intend to cross paths with? First and foremost, a good realtor is key. Thankfully, our realtor was able to answer many of our questions. It’s important to be able to gather all of the necessary information, but also trust the character of the source. It was clear my husband and I could trust the information we received and greatly respected the realtor’s character in how he represented the 10 sellers. Disaster causes trauma. I watched my best friend’s house burn down beside her two years ago and that may have been the easier day compared to the demo, insurance paperwork, grief, and rebuild that ensued. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind on the pain the homeowners of Westwood Village were going through.
At the preschool picnic, I was the mom slightly glued to her phone looking at the original property deed. My husband, Anthony Acosta, is a designer who handcrafts custom lighting at his company, Distressed Design. Modern design was his background in architecture and engineering from the University of Miami. Between being yelled at by our son for embarrassing him in front of his entire class (I offered to put ketchup on his hot dog for him. What was I thinking? He’s clearly a man now who doesn’t need parental guidance), Anthony and I were thinking about whether we could take on this redevelopment and I was texting my father to see if he’d want to invest with us. After the picnic, we told my mom about it over margaritas and took her over to show her the property. She lives in a condo nearby. We knew with the character of the building, location, and response from our investment partner and marketing test subject, we were in.
Our realtor began drafting the offer while we did our research. The immediate information I found necessary was:
- Why were they choosing to sell rather than renovate?
- What will the permit and renovation process look like for properties in a floodplain?
- What conversations have taken place with the City?
- What were the prior sales prices?
A realtor is one source of information on this, in addition, I utilized the city’s geographic information system (GIS), did internet research on each address for it’s past listing, asked a colleague at the city for their thoughts on the property, pinged colleagues across the country with experience in disaster recovery and flood damage, and fell asleep that evening reading floodplain policies.
We hear that the offer is well received but the owners got an additional offer that’s higher, but the buyer intends to demolish the properties. Run some back of the envelope financial analysis. Call an environmental specialist colleague and discuss whether a Phase 1 or Phase 2 is warranted. Involve a trusted contractor with experience working in Midland to get their take on the renovation potential as well as costs. Daydream about what the end goal looks like. Fall in love with a vision, mid-century modern Midland meets sexy scandanavian design. Think about how necessary missing middle housing is to Midland right now. If I spend a bit more, can I still create a quality redevelopment, attract young professionals, families, and keep retired locals wanting to call Westwood Village home? Amend the offer.
(Sidenote: I do not recommend skipping or glossing over the environmental history of a property ever. We did not pursue a phase 1 or phase 2 and that’s a risk. The property’s long history of being residential use added to our safety. It is also located on the north side of the floodplain and not downstream of any local manufacturing that could have put our soils at risk of contamination. Also, this is likely the first and only time the words sexy and Midland have ever been used in a sentence.
Offer accepted. 14 days to close. All cash.
Submit a limited liability company filing to create the entity needed that will hold the property. Begin gathering insurance quotes (property insurance that includes fire, flood, etc and a builder’s risk policy for the renovation). Continue property research. Revise proforma. Reach out to the building inspector for discussion on properties. Contractor begins estimating the renovation costs and plans to get back in for further measurements. Put down a non-refundable deposit. Title work gets ordered.
Review construction estimate and permit application, approve for submission to city. Leave for a week’s vacation.
Days 7 – 12
Continue building design inspiration… it has to be cute… chic… sexy… serene. It has to be on budget. Additionally, lots of documents for the existing homeowner’s association and materials start rolling in but most everyone is on vacation. In researching the property’s history, I find out it was developed by a former chairman of the Dow Chemical Company and was intended to be 200 condo units. It was the first condo building ever built in Midland but the developer passed one month after the deed was issued and only the first two buildings were ever completed. The remaining land was sold off and became a neighboring set of condos.
Meet with our real estate attorney. Discuss all of our questions on the existing homeowner’s association, draft the appropriate documents for transferring that entity to us, send it to the sellers. Final review of all closing documents. Continued discussion with the realtor in relation to whether we are clear to close and all homeowners have received their insurance settlements. Arrange for all wire transfers of funds.
10:42am we receive a notice our limited liability corporation was approved by the state and notify the title agency so all 10 sets of closing documents are amended.
11:00am arrive at the closing knowing all documents are being changed and wait patiently because we’re very thankful they changed everything last minute and kept us from having to file a quit claim deed later.
11:25-11:30am Sign a LOT of paperwork.
11:35am Drive over to Westwood Village and show my father what he’d just invested in sight unseen. His first words, “These are cute!”
12:00pm Our contractor meets us there, we discuss the renovation plans and head to lunch to continue the discussion.
3:45pm Pick up the closing papers, keys, and materials.
Pour through homeowner’s association documents going back to the 80s. Receive approval of our first building permit application. Sign onto a line of credit to cover the cost of construction. Here we go.
Go social and post that pride on Instagram @jeniferacostadevelopment