It is hard to believe that it has been almost three years since I was in the shoes of this young couple, looking for a house in the Detroit area. Of course, our house hunt, and our whole relocation, was unplanned. And I never would have dreamed of inviting the camera crew of House Hunters along, but this brave couple did! The real estate market is heating up as fast as the weather here in the Motor City. Here is my story that was published in the Arts & Leisure section of the Detroit Jewish News last week.
Jeff and Michelle Bortnick were quickly outgrowing their Northville condominium.
For the first years of their marriage, Jeff ‘s former bachelor pad suited the couple nicely, and it was walkable to many of the town’s trendy amenities. But now they were a family with a toddler taking her first steps and needed a home with a backyard in a neighborhood with other kids.
Michelle, who grew up in West Bloomfield and is a teacher at Hillel Day School, wanted to move closer into the nexus of the Metro Detroit area’s Jewish community. So the couple narrowed their focus to neighborhoods in Huntington Woods, Berkley and Royal Oak.
Because Michelle grew up watching her father and grandfather constantly tackling projects around the house, Michelle had her heart set on an older home that she could customize with a bit of TLC.
“I love older homes,” says Michelle, 30. “I love the wood floors, the character and the charm. I’m not scared of taking on a fixer-upper.”
“I love new,” says husband, Jeff. As a co-founder of New Home Experts Realty, a realtor for buyers of new construction homes, Jeff and his partner, Louis Bitove, know their way around an architectural blueprint.
“You can still have charm in a new house,” Jeff adds.
Curious to know what they chose? Tune in to HGTV on March 18, when the couple’s home-buying experience will be featured in an episode of reality- TV show House Hunters.
A guy who didn’t even like being in front of the camera at his own wedding, Jeff was cajoled by Michelle and Bitove into sending in an audition video to House Hunters.
“We made a video of us showing off my expertise in new-home construction — plus our personalities” says Jeff.
“There was some friendly squabbling to show off our differing opinions and tastes in what we want in a home,” says Jeff.
“Lou was also included to be my ally in trying to convince Michelle that she wanted a newer home.
Within days, I couldn’t believe it, but they called us back to tell us they were sending out a filming crew from L.A.”
Jeff says he appreciated his business partner tagging along forthe filming.
“Lou was the voice of reason,” says Jeff. “He kept asking Michelle if she was worried about mold in older homes, and wouldn’t she like a shiny new home much more?”Michelle said that bringing a camera crew along for three weeks last August while looking at homes was not always, “but mostly a lot of fun.
“They took a lot of time adjusting their equipment to get just the right kind of light, but the crew was a lot of fun and they kept us laughing.”
Although the timing coincided with one of the worst floods in the area’s history, “the flood did not become part of the episode,” says Jeff. “To stay true to the feel of House Hunters, where sometimes you don’t even know what city or town a show is shot in, the focus is always on the characteristics and qualities of the property.”
With experience working for new-home builders, including the Toll Brothers and Centex Homes, Jeff can look past a bad paint color to determine a home’s worth and livability.
“I think we were chosen to be on the show because I can look at a home’s structure. If I don’t like a layout, I [know which walls] could come down [to create] a more open plan.”
Michelle’s favorite part of the experience was the fact that the camera crew filmed her daughter’s earliest forays in walking.
“We now have this time capsule of our daughter walking with a big smile through our empty new home.” Jeff and Michelle Bortnick’s episode of House Hunters debuts 10 p.m.
Wednesday, March 18 on HGTV. Visit hgtv.com for a complete schedule of additional airings.
The weekly Photo Challenge this week is: change:
It’s kind of spooky, because a big sign of change JUST popped up on my property. Today.
I knew the sign was coming up today from our realtor. I’ve known for over two months. It still is a shock.
But still, it seemed as if it came out of nowhere. No knock on the door. It just sprouted up like a mutant spring bulb.
To me, this is a big life changing event, selling one’s house. And to me, being Jewish, there are usually rituals associated with life changing events.
But trhere was no ceremony, no blessing for putting up a sign as in Judaism, when there is a blessing for putting up a mezzuzah on one’s door.
I just opened up my heavy, ancient oak door this morning to let my kid get on the schoolbus, and there it was. This to me is clearly a sign of change.
If you have ever sold your home, what were your feelings the first time you saw the sign on your lawn?
Okay, April fools! We’re really not refugees. But during this very weird week of “vacationing” in extended stay corporate housing, you can say we are a family in between states.
This week, the kids and I joined my husband to live in a hotel just outside of Pontiac, the blight-stricken city just outside of Detroit where General Motors has relocated him.
The hotel is just across the street from the abandoned Silverdome, the former home of the Detroit Lions until 2002.
This stadium cost $55 million to build in 1975 was auctioned off in 2009 for $583,000, property and all.
That’s about the cost for a starter home in the Boston area.
I’ll talk about housing in the Detroit ‘burbs in a minute, but back to the Sonesta:
We are in the company of other GM families in our situation: spouses living here on a temporary basis and commuting back “home” (wherever that is) on the weekends. Wives and children also spending their spring break here in hopes of finding their next home. Only problem (and it’s a big one): there just are not that many homes here on the market that are worth living in.
So many of us are scrambling for the same properties in the same subdivisions. We talk in terminology like “foreclosure” and “short sale” and “HUD ownership” over the breakfast buffet in the common dining area.
Our first room was a bit – fragrant. The previous guests liked to cook with a LOT of cumin and turmeric and the pungent aroma invaded our nostrils the minute we entered. The hotel manager claimed that the room was ionized yesterday when we were out for the day house hunting, but the stench was that of “the beast.” Like Jerry Seinfeld’s car that could not be purged of the B.O.
Then, there were the roaches.
Yes, it was starting to feel like home more and more.
So, after I woke this morning to find a tiny cockroach crawling up the wall of my bedroom, I demanded the front desk to be switched from our cumin-encrusted suite to a smell free, cockroach free one. So now I am sitting in a much better suite.
I may have to like it for a few more months into the summer.
Yesterday, our realtor, sick with a horrid cold, greeted us at the first property.
Now, as we get ready to list our home (no, I can’t call it that anymore. It’s our house. A house. An investment.), we fret about the chipped brick on the front porch stoop. Or the grouting around the kitchen sink.
When I saw these properties, listed for way more than my house could ever fetch, I wondered, “WHY am I killing myself about the clutter?”” The hardship that the previous owners must have faced, to walk away from a house with an underwater mortgage, was evident with each cracked door, torn off sheet of wall paper, or appliances ripped from the wall:
Still, there are friends who have settled happily here, who have transplanted themselves to Detroit, who gave us shelter from the house-hunting storm to feed us not one home-cooked dinner but TWO, and show us around the neighborhood that they are glad to call home.
So, I will still hold out hope. It’s early. Too early to settle for a house that will need months of work before it can even be lived in. Come May, I’ll start to panic. There’s got to be a house out there somewhere that will be our new Detroit home.
On my latest trip to Wegmans, my shopper’s club card failed to scan after many attempts to swipe it though the machine. It seems I have used this card so many times I’ve worn it down. Now, if a girl’s Wegmans shoppers club card no longer functions, I guess that’s another sign that it’s time for me to leave town.
Here is my final column in the Democrat & Chronicle. Thank you to all the readers, including the cashiers at Wegmans who recognized me with my groceries, who all made me feel like a celebrity.
Tomorrow, we head to Detroit for a “vacation” of looking at houses that are already pending a sale, houses that just went on the market only days ago.
Maybe at least this time, we won’t get a flat tire on the way.
Never underestimate the power of a smile. If you attended a CenterStage show at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Rochester in Brighton, Cora Holliday’s smile from the box office booth was almost as unforgettable as the performance.
For the last several years, Cora was box office manager for the theater. When she sold me tickets to shows, we always chatted about how rehearsals were going and how excited she was for opening night as she browsed her computer screen to find me the best available seats.
“Even if you came to just one play at the JCC, you would remember Cora. She just had that way about her that made everyone feel special in her presence,” said Ralph Meranto, director of JCC CenterStage.
Behind that smile, Cora was fighting diabetes, a battle she succumbed to on March 13. She was 50. Even after having her second leg amputated, Cora’s positive attitude never faltered as she planned to soon be driving and yes, dancing on her prosthetic legs. The JCC in January held a fundraiser in her honor to offset her medical bills and to retrofit her car.
A celebration of her life is planned for 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 3, at the Jewish Community Center, 1200 Edgewood Ave., Brighton. Donations in her memory can be made to the JCC or the National Kidney Foundation, 15 Prince St, Rochester, NY 14607.
Thanks to all who shared stories
Goodbyes are tough. I have been dreading writing this final column for weeks now, but it is time for me to focus on my family and our big move to Detroit.
To all the readers and all who made my job so easy by pitching me story ideas over the last three years, I thank you. I especially want to thank the Democrat and Chronicle for helping me find my voice in reporting on all the local heroes in our midst. It gave me such a sense of connection and belonging in Rochester to know that this column helped raise funds and awareness for so many of the causes that you support. It truly has been a privilege to write it each and every week.
I will be sticking around for a few more months, so say hello if we bump into one another in the Pittsford Wegmans. You also can follow my Motor City musings and adventures at my blog atwww.stacylynngittleman.com or @slgittleman on Twitter.
Starting next week, please welcome Missy Rosenberry to this column.
A graduate of Cornell University, Missy has lived in the Penfield/Webster area with her husband and three children for 11 years. In addition to writing this column, she is a teaching assistant for the Webster School district and a part-time karate instructor. Please send her the latest happenings in your town to firstname.lastname@example.org.
As for me, it is time to plan my life’s next chapter. Once I get to Detroit, I hope to find a writing gig as good as this one.
I also look forward to making many new friends in a city poised for an economic and cultural renaissance.
I hope to take part in Detroit’s gardening movement as it sets to turn its urban blight into the world’s largest urban farm.
And when new friends ask me where I am from, after living here for 13 years, I have earned the right to proudly declare, “I am from Rochester!”
Last night, in a frenzied attempt to make me fall in love with a house he saw in Michigan, my husband tried to email me a video of a property he walked through yesterday.
He wants me to fall in love with this house, because by the time I get to Michigan next week to begin our house hunting in earnest, this house, with the right square footage in the right neighborhood in the right school district, may already be sold.
After the video failed to arrive in my email inbox, and our Skype call kept freezing because of a poor connection, we gave up and said good-night.
I shut my laptop. As I tried to get to sleep alone again, against my yoga teacher’s teachings, some thoughts entered my head.
I have to use up the flour in my cabinet before Passover.
I also have to use up that jar of tomato sauce so making Pizza for tomorrow night’s dinner would be the perfect way to use up both flour and sauce.
But that means I will have to mess up the perfect feng shui of my empty kitchen counters.
Kitchen counters usually littered with – appliances like toasters and electric can openers, of all things, and a FRUIT BOWL.
And now I want to clutter the pristine emptiness of my vast kitchen counter space with a
of all things?
I mean, who keeps things on their kitchen counters?
Everyone, unless you are selling your house.
Who makes their beds each an every single morning??
No one! Unless you are trying to sell your house.
(And my mom.)
Today, if the sun stays behind the clouds, as it does on most Rochester days, my realtor is coming to take photos for the listing.
But, after the National Public Radio report I heard this morning – the first thing that entered my ears after waking from my fitful sleep — I’m wondering how hard we really have to work at this house selling thing after all.
To sum up the report – houses are selling insanely fast. So fast that if you want to find that house, you may find yourself checking your Zillow alerts at 2 a.m.
Guilty as charged.
Oh yeah, spring has sprung today and that means it is the very beginning of house hunting season. This year, the spring house buying/selling frenzy started weeks before the calender heralded the March 21 arrival of spring, even as the snow keeps falling.
I write this as I wait for my realtor to come take those fantastic photos of my house that has floor-to-ceiling 1920’s charm.
I write this as I wonder if I am going to find a house in Detroit that will speak to me, that will make me fall in love with it hook line and sinker as I did with the house I am dwelling in right now.
Or, am I going to have to settle. Because it is in the right school district. Because it was all that was on the market. Because, unlike the casual looker who is looking for a bigger house in their same town, we HAVE to move.
Tonight, I am going to try my hardest to listen to the sage advice of my yoga teacher and let my breath be louder than my thoughts.
Do you believe that houses have feelings? I think they must. If they are old enough, and if they hold decades of family memories, of laughter and conversations and arguments, and now they are quiet, I think they must.
The house next door has got to feel very lonely this Christmas. For the first time since it was built, in 1925, it stands empty. No tree. No family cooking dinner inside. No rush to open presents. Inside linger memories of 87 Christmases. It must be waiting for the time it will once again be loved and lived in by another family.
My neighbor sadly passed away shortly before Thanksgiving.
The first time I met Charles “Bud” Strobel; he knocked on my door and politely asked if he could use my telephone. His was out of service, and he had to make an urgent phone call. At the time, Bud was a real estate attorney working on a house closing. At the time, Bud was 90 years old.
Bud lived to be 102. Bud lived independently in the house that was his wife’s parent’s home for nearly all of those 102 years. He lived a life that set examples for us all to follow. He always greeted us cheerfully from his walkway and bestowed other-era salutations to my children like “Hello chum!” and “How are you, my Huckleberry friend?”
Bud, according to his daughter’s beautifully written eulogy, was very athletic in college and throughout most of his life. Even into his nineties, my husband and I could see a sihlouette of him lifting small handweights through his bedroom curtain.
No matter the season, he took daily walks around the neighborhood. Using a cane and a walker in recent years did not deter him from getting out for a stroll. He drove his car until he reached his mid nineties. He always left the house dressed in khakis and cashmere sweaters to socialize with his friends at the Rochester Yacht Club.
One winter night, his daughter from South Carolina called me, worried that her dad was not answering his phone. Indeed, his car was not in the garage. It turns out that he was out for dinner at the yacht club with his “younger” friends who were in their 70s and 80s.
Bud loved the gardens around his house though he didn’t do much to care for them. That was his wife’s passion. After she died in 1997, her flowers and roses seemed to thrive on benign neglect.
From her bed, as she lay dying, she watched the pink flowers of our crabapple tree bloom. Bud said seeing that tree bloom gave her great pleasure in her final days.
Each spring Bud came out of his house to mournfully gaze at the pink of the tree. We could only imagine he was thinking of his wife as the petals fell to make a pink carpet on the lawn.
I never met Bud’s wife, as we moved here in 1999, the first family to move onto the block with kids in a generation. In some ways, like my gardening, Bud said I reminded him of his wife. He said that she and I were both “demon gardners.”
After the first year of tolerating these thorny barberry bushes that separated our properties, I asked if he would be receptive to removing them and replace them with a perennial flower garden.
In his dry sense of humor, he quipped, “My mother-in-law planted those bushes decades ago. I’ve always disliked them. She’s long gone, so I can’t see why they can’t go now too!”
This narrow garden became a vehicle for many conversations between Bud and I in the summer. Each spring, he would come out of his house and ask me “Hey demon gardner, what are you going to plant this year?” And I would show him my bags of spring bulbs or the perrineals in pots I would plant.
I’m going to miss Bud. He spent the last year of his live living down south near his daughter and he died peacefully there.
The end of Bud’s life means the end of three generations, maybe four, who had memories in that home. Those memories, and the house that houses them, is a hefty bag to unload. Even now, that there is no one in the house, his daughters hung a wreath on the door before heading back south after Bud’s funeral.
Bud was a good neighbor and though I know I was busy with raising my kids for all the years we lived next door, I hope he thought we were good neighbors too.
I don’t know what is going to happen to the house. I don’t know how or when Bud’s family, who live in Texas and South Carolina, will return to Rochester to go through 87 years worth of stuff and put his house on the market. And, after 87 years, the house will need some love and TLC and a good hefty rennovation before it finds a buyer.
So, even though I’m not Christian, all I want for Christmas – for next Christmas – are new neighbors.