DIY OTR: What it takes to make a decaying old house a renovated, historic home

Workshops encourage owner-occupied home ownership

CINCINNATI – Jim Uber felt a bit like a pioneer when he bought a condominium at Trideca Lofts in Over-the-Rhine about six years ago.

It wasn’t unusual for him to see yellow caution tape around a crime scene near his condo, across the street from where The Lackman bar is now located. One night after The Lackman opened, a homicide occurred on Vine Street, just a couple blocks north of his home.

A crowd of about 30 people walked out of the bar and watched the police for a while before going back inside to continue drinking, Uber said.

“It kind of told me that people understood that this was a place that was transitioning, and it would continue to be that way for some time,” he said.

The reaction gave Uber confidence that people would stick with the neighborhood as its redevelopment continued. And it gave him and his wife, LotuSh Chang, the courage to be even more pioneering and purchase a 3,000 square-foot building near 15th and Elm streets to renovate for themselves.


“We love living here,” he said. “If you crave authenticity, it’s everywhere here.”

For years, people who crave that authenticity have been buying old buildings in Over-the-Rhine and redeveloping them into the homes where they live. But that work isn’t easy or cheap. Many of the decaying, old buildings in Over-the-Rhine need expensive repairs just to stabilize them, and the rehab projects can be filled with surprises.

To help potential buyers understand what it takes to make an old building into a home, the Over-the-Rhine Foundation is launching a spring workshop series called Owner-Occupied OTR . The workshop will offer tips on selecting property, figuring out financing and navigating the requirements for historic properties and historic districts.

Creating Community

The foundation has created the workshop because it views owner-occupied renovation work as a critical part of preserving the historic fabric of the neighborhood, said Tom Hadley, a foundation board member.

“To really create community and create sense of place, you need people who live there and invest and take pride in the neighborhood,” Hadley said.

And those people need to fully understand what kind of project they’re undertaking before they jump in, he said.

“This isn’t the place where anybody can flip stuff and make a buck,” said Anastasia Mileham, vice president of communications for the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., or 3CDC. 3CDC has redeveloped scores of properties in Over-the-Rhine since 2004, including a 2011 project known as Park Haus.

For Park Haus, 3CDC sold single-family homes to individuals and helped them finance the redevelopment of the properties. The goal was to help create comparable properties that would make it easier for other property owners to get traditional financing, Mileham said.

Financing Hurdles

Even so, financing remains one of the big challenges for people who want to redevelop properties in the historic neighborhood, said Margy Waller, who is renovating a property on Magnolia Street in Over-the-Rhine and will be one of the presenters at the foundation’s workshops.

“It’s sort of amusing in a way,” said Waller, who paid $84,500 for her building and estimates she will spend between $16,000 and $60,000 on the renovation.


“People really think everybody down here has it great, and properties are selling for so much money.”

Waller pulled cash out of her retirement account to buy the building she wanted and then started looking for a loan to repay herself and cover the renovation costs.

It’s still difficult to find the kind of comparable properties that banks look for to finance real estate loans in Over-the-Rhine, she said, because there still are so many buildings that are decaying.

She finally got the financing she needed from the Cincinnati Development Fund, a non-profit lender that has been working with first-time developers in Over-the-Rhine for many years.

“They really understand the neighborhood,” Waller said. “They also understand what it’s like to work with someone who’s a first-time developer.”

Uber, who also will present during the foundation’s workshop series, also got his construction loan from the Cincinnati Development Fund, he said.

Appraisal Problems

But he ran into trouble when it was time to get a mortgage to pay off the construction loan and the $60,000 in credit card debt that he had racked up in the two years it took to make his home livable.

“We were ultimately successful with Stock Yards Bank, and they were great to work with,” Uber said. “The appraisers were completely ridiculous.”

Part of the problem was that Uber’s property had been divided into a duplex, even though it was originally a single-family home. (Uber’s brother lives in the first floor unit. Uber and his wife live on the second and third



Because of that, the appraisers insisted that it could only be compared to other duplexes, and there weren’t many of those nearby that had been renovated to the extent that Uber had renovated his property.

“The process went for over four weeks,” he said. “But you do have to be prepared to be persistent. It was stressing me out. It was stressing out my wife. Because we didn’t have any way of paying off this construction loan, let alone our credit card debt.”

Fortunately, Uber didn’t run into many unexpected surprises in the rehab itself. A civil engineer by training, Uber had a good sense of what kind of shape the building was in before he bought it, he said.

There was a ceiling beam supporting the roof that he discovered was cracked. But that fix only cost between $2,500 to $3,000, he said.

“That kind of stuff, you can’t sweat,” he said.

Rehabilitation Devastation

Waller ran into a major unpleasant surprise during her home renovation, she said.

When her demolition crew pulled up the carpet in the building she bought, the hardwood floors were covered in thin sheets of plywood known as “lauan.”

“Whoever had put it in had put nails ever inch,” she said. “The guys who were doing the demolition, they looked at that and said, ‘It’s glued on. We can’t get it off,’” Waller said. “And I was devastated.”

Waller had envisioned her new home with the original hardwood floors restored throughout.


Fortunately, her contractor took a look and gave her hope. He told her: “We have a guy who can get this up.”

A single construction worker spent four days crow barring the lauan throughout the upstairs and downstairs, revealing the original floor underneath.

Her contractor will need to patch the floor in several places, and the color won’t be uniform once it’s finished, Waller said. But that’s fine with her.

“Every day, I learn something new,” she said. “And the hardest part about this is I don’t know what I don’t know.”

To register for the Owner-Occupied OTR workshops, go to Sessions will take place over three Saturdays starting April 12. Registration is $35 before April 4 and $50 after that date.

To read more stories by Lucy May, go to . Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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