My first day househunting in Detroit, I met my realtor, we’ll call him Greg, in front of our first prospective home on a cool, clear March morning. We were in the heart of Detroit’s historic Boston-Edison neighborhood (previous post on Boston-Edison here), former home of Henry Ford and other titans of the Motor City, but now a slightly forlorn district of beautiful old mansions and friendly homeowners trying to fight off the decay gripping Detroit. I was looking at foreclosures. There were plenty to choose from – the homeowners were losing their fight.
Greg and I walked up to the front door, he pulled the key out of the special lockbox used by realtors to show empty homes, and opened the door. Then, as I got ready to walk inside, he led me back out into the yard and proceeded to show me the exterior, before finally heading inside. The next place, the same process – open the front door, then walk away. Finally, after witnessing the same thing at a third home, I asked Greg what he was doing. Why he was opening the door, but then walking away.
His reply was both sheepish and honest. “You get a lot of crackheads and copper thieves hiding in these places. The last thing you want to do is walk in and get between them and the exit. So I always open the front door, make some noise, walk around the house, and then go in. It gives them time to get out without getting into a confrontation.”
And he wasn’t kidding. As we looked at places, both that day and on future weekends, it was far more common to see giant holes in the walls, where thieves had ripped out the copper piping, than it was to see a house that remained whole. It was so bad citywide that the police started warning scrap metal dealers not to purchase used copper piping unless they knew for sure it hadn’t been stolen. Anytime we saw a place that hadn’t been stripped, we knew it was either fresh into foreclosure or had especially vigilant neighbors.
The crackhead hideaway problem was nearly as bad. While we never came upon any them, we saw plenty of evidence of their passing, usually in the form of an awful stench from room corners they’d designated as toilet space (since the water was off and the toilets had all been smashed in the quest for copper). Nearby was usually a pile of old clothes, food wrappers, and used syringes. The latter of which quickly convinced me to start wearing boots anytime I went househunting in the city.
We didn’t find a house that first day, nor that first month, but I did learn a lot about househunting foreclosures in Detroit. Always leave time and an exit for the thieves and crackheads. Never expect much plumbing. Assume any home with perfect walls is fresh into foreclosure or has hyper-vigilant neighbors. I’d learn even more over the coming months, the subject of a future post.