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A Dollar and a Dream
by Peter Soscia
The lot of the urban homesteader
You can buy this house for one dollar. Seems like a proposition anyone would take an advantage of but truly the Buffalo Urban Homestead Program requires a certain type a person. The program has been around for almost four decades but only since the housing crisis has light been shed on the program. The simple fact is no one can actually purchase a home for a dollar. Buyers must pay closing costs and all houses available in the program are several thousands-of-dollars away from being move in ready. However, what can be purchased for a dollar is the prospect of financial independence and a rewarding project that could last a lifetime.
“Financial independence,” is what homesteader Zoey Tuppen, 25, said attracted she and her partner, Tom Lester, 26, to the program. “We really liked the idea of actually owning our home as opposed to the bank owning our home and us paying them off,” said Lester. “We had moved back to Buffalo from California, kind of joking about the idea of buying a house for a dollar. When we got here I actually started looking at them. I was getting lists from the city of Buffalo and looking around at blogs and information, eventually I found a house that we liked in a neighborhood that we liked with a few people around the area already doing homesteading, so it just seemed like a good idea.”
Expectedly, the properties available in the homestead program are not always in the best neighborhoods, something Lester took into account when looking for properties. “I’ll put it this way, Hamlin Park was the nicest neighborhood that I was looking at homesteading in, by far,” said Lester. “We’re on the cusp of a nice neighborhood, and the more time I spend here the safer I feel really.” The couple owns the third dollar house in their Hamlin Park neighborhood, and they feel the support of other nearby homesteaders is also an attractive feature to the neighborhood. “I felt really comfortable because we have other neighbors who are homesteading or bought their house through the city auction. We’re all below the age of 30 so it feels good to have that sort of bond around. We’re now apart of the block club so everyone seems really welcoming when we first got here,” said Tuppen.
It took the couple roughly three months of searching to find the property. “We were originally looking at some huge three-story houses but they either had already been purchased or had been torn down. It was disappointing, but it ended up being a blessing in disguise, because anything else would have been more than we could handle, “said Tuppen. The two eventually decided on a one and half story Florida Street home. The homestead program requires buyers to fill out an application with the city prior to purchase the home. “We had to show that we had steady income and $5,000 already saved. After that we had to make a list of all the improvements we planned on making,” said Tuppen. As excepted when purchasing a city owned property, the list of improvements was a lengthy one. “We needed to fully redo the electric, all the plumbing needs to be redone, the roof doesn’t leak yet but probably only has a few years left in it, the front porch needs to be completely redone,” said Lester. “We’ve made some structural changes as well to support the walls and the second floor. We have house about three-quarters framed out to the way we want it.”
Since purchasing the home June of 2014, the couple estimates they’re a little over $2,000 into the project so far, saving money by personally doing all the labor. “We have a lot of sweat equity in the project,” said Tuppen. Since the weather broke the two have spent over 20 hours a week gutting the inside of the home, filled up two dumpster containers full of old plaster and lumber from inside the building. They have also been able to keep costs down by hiring a family friend to redo the electric. “We definitely couldn’t have taken on this kind of venture without knowing the right people with the right skills set to help us,” said Tuppen.
When all is said and done Lester estimates their investment being under $35,000. While the couple hopes to be living in the house by the end of summer, they don’t plan on having all the improvements done by that time. “We’re hoping to do this all out of pocket and move in with things still being pretty barebones and let the improvements happen over time. We may have to eventually break down and take out a home improvement loan for the roof though,” said Lester.
Once a house is move in ready, buyers are required by the homestead program to occupy the home for three years, but Lester and Tuppen plan on staying much longer. “We have some pretty nice perks here. Our home is located next to two vacant lots, I purchased one at auction for $800 and once our house is up to code we can purchase the other lot for just a dollar because it’s homesteadable as well,” said Tuppen. “It’s going to an awesome side yard when it’s all done.”
After a lot of hard work, the couple hopes to have a home that is almost completely customized to their liking for under $35,000, a great investment for a young couple looking to start a life together. While they would recommend the homestead program to others, they understand that it takes a certain type of person in a certain situation to make things work. “It depends on the person. Most of us joke that we didn’t do this necessarily because it was a good idea. We were just really motivated to take on this project, to fix up and own our own home. All of the houses in the neighborhood are 100-years-old at least, so they are going to need a lot of work and time put into them, so you need to ready for that. I wouldn’t recommended doing this only based on finances,” said Lester.
While the City of Buffalo was unavailable to comment on the program, more information about property available through the Urban Housing can be found on the City of Buffalo’s website: www.ci.buffalo.ny.us/Home/City_Departments/RealEstate.
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