Trey Bartosh says Oak Cliff is a perfect neighborhood for those who enjoy fixer-uppers, but the principles apply everywhere
When Trey Bartosh arrives for our meeting, he shuffles out of an old truck and brushes the dust from his denim and T-shirt. If he weren’t in the middle of a huge city, you might mistake him for a cowboy.
But the dust on Bartosh isn’t from the ranch; it’s from the ranch-style house he’s working on. He may not be a cowboy, but he’s a pioneer of another kind: A long-time Oak Cliff resident committed to renovating the neighborhood one house at a time.
In recent years, Oak Cliff has undergone something of a boom in the gay community, attracting urban GLBT singles and couples who prefer the lived-in look to the pristine new developments that pepper the suburbs, but who can’t afford tony addresses in the Park Cities or M Streets.
But when Bartosh moved there in 1985, it wasn’t quite so popular among guppies.
“The demographics have changed certainly it has become more of an accepted inner-city neighborhood,” Bartosh says over a coffee at the Nodding Dog caf? in the Bishop Arts District. “It’s more of an alternative community to a lot of the rest of Dallas creative, open and accepting. And it has a more realistic mix of society than the Wal-Mart homogeneity you find elsewhere.”
In part, its appeal has derived from real estate opportunities. Prices have continued at a sustainable incline “as opposed to the boom-and-bust in other areas of the city,” he says.
And Bartosh is one of the reasons why.
Bartosh doesn’t just live in Oak Cliff, he helps others live here as well through his business renovating older homes. He’s not just a run-of-the-mill handyman, either Bartosh has a degree in environmental design from Texas A&M University. He not only can fix things, he can tell you what deserves fixing.
While many dilapidated houses might need to come down, Bartosh says the benefits of renovation are palpable.
“Many older homes [in Oak Cliff] have the kind of craftsmanship and materials we can’t get anymore,” he says.
“Today, most people can’t afford to rebuild at that level.”
Buying a fixer-upper, in fact, “is actually a good way to get finer quality craftsmanship-wise than if you bought new.”
The difference is the grunt-work involved. New homes typically boast the latest in everything appliances, electrical, plumbing, heating and air conditioning, etc. Not so the fixer-upper, and it takes a certain kind of person to tackle a defective house especially in what some might consider a dodgy neighborhood.
“Oak Cliff is for the entrepreneurial-minded,” he says.
“It’s for people who appreciate old homes, aesthetics and value the beauty of the terrain. It’s for people who like living in villages where people talk to their neighbors and are there for each other.”
But those who like the camaraderie of old-growth neighborhoods should expect to spend time and money creating their dream house.
One advantage to renovation is that, because homes are in less-than-stellar condition from the outset, the initial purchase price is lower than for a similar new home often substantially so. You will probably have to put in more money to get it to your liking, but you can parse those costs out over time.
“Renovations are great if you can’t afford to do it all at once,” Bartosh says. “Do it as a progression, never buying more than you can afford.”
But buying an older home does require doing a lot of homework. “It is not as straightforward as buying a new house,” Bartosh readily offers.
Bartosh refers, half-jokingly, to the “7 Ps” of construction: “Proper preparation and planning prevents piss-poor production.” Don’t jump in with both feet before making sure the water’s in the pool. Here are some of his hints for making the right choice:
Think before you act. “Take time to get to know the house and how you really live,” he says, and make renovations based on those observations. If you are planning some significant renovations such as putting on an addition, especially if you are borrowing money, consult with an architect or builder pay for some advice (usually from $300 to $500) before signing a 30-year mortgage.
Inspect. Always have a professional inspection and get someone who is old-house savvy versus someone who does newer construction. It’ll be the best $150 to $300 you spend.
You can do some minimal inspecting on your own to evaluate whether you should even both with an offer: Is it electrically safe? Get an electrical tester and use it on your walk-through. How’s the plumbing? Turn water on to see if it comes out rusty. Notice any painted brick? That often means the foundation needs repairs, as do any structural cracks in masonry. Wood shingles under composition shingle may require re-decking to bring the house up to code, and that can cost more than you bargained for.
None of these signs mean you shouldn’t buy the house, but they should influence the size of your offer and what you can afford or what you can live with.
Don’t get emotional. Homes, especially older ones, ooze character, and often have charming nooks, quaint moldings and delightful architectural touches. Don’t let those sway you too much.
“Do not let the emotional charm and character woo you into a bad purchase,” Bartosh says. “Ask: What work is needed to be done and what will that cost? Talk to neighbors make sure you’re not paying too much for something.”
Be on the lookout for bargains. Shag carpeting? Old fixtures? Tasteless color choices? Don’t let those scare you off.
“As a general rule, little-old-lady houses are the ones you want to get,” Bartosh counsels. “They may look less appealing but they are probably quite sound.” And because many people can’t see beyond cosmetic shortfalls to the underlying soundness, you might get a good deal.
Overall, buying an old home is a balancing act between what you can afford, what work you’re willing to do and what kind of life you want to live. Bartosh is a believer in the spirituality of homes “How other lives are remembered in a building,” he says. “What is a stucco wall worth that has lasted 80 years?”
Your answer may indicate whether you’re right for renovations and whether renovations are right for you.
This article appeared in Defining Homes Magazine on November 9, 2007