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Why the Curbly House?

by on Aug 21, 2017

I’m not sleeping all that well. I wake up in the night – the sound of thunder, my kids coughing, a truck going by – and when I try to go back to sleep, my thoughts run wild. Will the kitchen cabinets ship in time? How are we going to pay to move that ventilation duct we unexpectedly found? Why isn’t that house down the block selling?

These are the sleepless thoughts of someone in the middle of a house flip. The obvious question is: why? Why do it? It’s a risky proposition: you take a house other people didn’t want to buy, make some improvements, and then try to sell it again (presumably to some of those same other people). It might not work. It might cost too much to rehab. It might not sell. It could take too long. There are all kinds of things that keep you wondering, late at night or any time of the day, whether this is really a such a great idea after all.

So what are my reasons?

To be clear: buying, fixing up, and reselling a house is a for-profit enterprise. We’re doing this because we hope to make a profit. But there are lots of other ways to try to make money, and many of them are less risky and complicated than this one. So although that’s an important factor, when I sat down to really think about it (ok, lied down, since it was like 4am), I realized there were bigger ones.

First, I think Alicia and I have always been fascinated by transformation. I remember going on long walks with her, way back when we were first dating, and usually the topic of conversation was the homes we saw along the way. We loved imagining how we’d improve the run-down ones, or marvelling at the ones that had been immaculately renovated. Then, when we bought our first house, we spent all our nights and weekends doing what we could (with almost no budget) to improve it. In fact, the very first memory I have of that house is of Alicia and I, bundled in sweatshirts on a cold April night (the heat was off), gleefully stripping wallpaper from the bedrooms.

So, though it’s not necessarily the reason you give to your banker (hey Corey!), transformation is the first reason this project appealed to me. When Jon approached me last year with the idea of flipping a house and documenting it on Curbly, I think the transformative possibility was what really drew me. To smell the plaster on demo day, the sawdust as new walls get framed up, and watch new paint spread throughout a home, refreshing everything it touches.

After all, it had been four years since we finished our Curbly House project, and I guess I was just starting to get that remodeler’s itch (wait, that sounds gross). What I’m saying is, this year has been full of transformations, everything from hiring M.E., to moving offices, to Alicia starting her own (marvelously intrepid, inspiring, and successful) business, Niche. It felt like the right time for me to grab on to a project that embraced our ability, as creative humans, to effect transformation in the world.

Carpenter work at home renovation.

A person is in the ladder and removing doorstep wood with tools.


Community is the second reason this particular project makes sense to me. Jon and I searched for houses high and low, all over the Twin Cities, in just about every kind of neighborhood. Weirdly, the house we settled on is only six blocks from where I live. Maybe that’s a bit of a cop-out, or maybe it’s out of an abundance of caution (it’s easier to work on something nearby). But I love the idea that we’re improving a home in my own community, thinking carefully about what we need to do to make it functional and beautiful for a new (or existing) family to live in. Because that’s what we’re thinking, every step of the way: how will this work for the next owner? Does this improvement or repair make sense? Does it cost too much (pushing the sale price out of range for many people)? Or are we going too cheap (increasing our profit at the expense of the buyer)?

Having the house in my neighborhood means there’s a great chance I’ll be able to meet (and maybe even know) the people who buy it. And that means I want to be proud of (and stand behind) all the choices we make during the renovation. That doesn’t mean we’re building a Shangri-la there; at the end of the day we’re working on a budget, and trying to make smart, economical choices within those constraints. But I want to be able to talk to the next owners at the park someday, and not feel like I intentionally skimped on something, to their detriment. A community is a balancing act between the individual, and those he or she lives among, and this house renovation has many of those qualities as well.

A room under construction with a full silver garbage can of wood pieces.
Demolition and initial framing were finished this week.
Note the duct on the right: surprise! That wasn’t supposed to be there.


A third reason why – despite a few nights of wheels-spinning sleep deprivation – I’m really excited and optimistic about this project, is partnership. It’s telling that I didn’t come up with this whole thing on my own. It was only when Jon approached me, offering a distinct skillset and a well-thought-out plan, that I felt comfortable enough to take this on. A partnership is crucial on a project this complicated, risky, and rewarding. You don’t want to go it alone, if only because it’s really important to have another person there to check your ideas.

Last week, I was on a road trip to Glacier National Park with my family. But the Curbly House renovation was moving ahead, with lots of questions needing to be answered, contractors met with at the house, and deadlines to be met. Thankfully, Jon was here, keeping things going forward, while I was avoiding grizzlies on our hikes through Glacier (“Hey bear! Heeeey bear!” – you want to make plenty of noise on trail so you don’t surprise them; Ayla and Zev chose singing ‘Despacito’ loudly, with questionable lyrics).


Renovation  work going on an apartment.
You can start to see where the new kitchen will go.
A large peninsular will be on the right, separating the kitchen from the dining room.


And finally, excitement. It’s easy to forget what kind of work really gets you excited, and even easier to let stress or worry mask that feeling. But the truth is, I get really inspired and excited about home renovation projects. I’m not sure I can fully explain why (maybe I don’t need to), but I just love seeing walls come down, seeing the house get messy, and then watching as everything starts to get better again. It’s like walking on a tightrope; kind of terrifying – will I get across?! – but also thrilling.

So. That’s my self-sleep-therapy session for today. Thanks for reading along (hope I didn’t keep you up).

What’s your big project this year? Something you’re working on that doesn’t let you sleep (in a good way)? What are your reasons for doing it? I’d love to hear them in the comments.

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