Dinero And A Dream

August 29, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — How does a young couple pocket a couple hundred

thousand dollars in the span of a few years by investing in real estate? Well, there’s the easy way and there’s the hard way.

The couple might convince a bank to lend them an exorbitant sum of money, find a house in a hot market, do everything they can to make the payments for two years (the minimum occupancy period necessary to avoid capital gains taxes) and sell the place for an astronomical profit.

Or, the couple could find a run-down, trash-filled commercial building in a depressed area, pay cash for it, and spend their evenings and weekends for the next several years wading through sludge.

Ayin Valdes and Mabel Carrillo decided to take that route.

“It was disgusting,” said Valdes, 36, of the early cleanup stages of their seven-year renovation project of the Rumsey Building on Grandville Avenue SW. “There were huge holes in the roof. The water would just come in and flood the basement, from the second floor down. You really had to be careful where you’d step.”

Since the building had essentially been vacant for three decades, clearing the basement was a filthy, laborious task. The storm drains would overflow, Valdes said, filling the basement with a slurry of decomposed wood, loose debris and other foul-smelling substances. Because an exterior entry to the basement had also been filled with years’ worth of refuse, there was no way to use power equipment to clear the mess. The archaeological sludge dig had to be done the old-fashioned way: with shovels and lots of sweat.

This is not how most couples like to spend their honeymoon.

Carrillo, now 26, recalls the excitement and optimism she and her husband felt in the early days of the project, shortly after their 1998 wedding.

“I think it’s the mentality of the 18-year-old. You think you can just do everything,” she said. “It was just crazy. And thinking back on it, I don’t know how we did it all.”

One way they didn’t do it was by taking out a monstrous rehab loan and contracting out the work. In the last seven years, the couple has invested more than $300,000 of their own money — a few hundred dollars at a time. They have also done nearly all of the renovation work themselves. If that weren’t enough, in between sludge-shoveling and paint scraping, they have managed to start up a successful translation business and stay on speaking terms with one another.

‘What did I get into?’

It seemed like such a good idea at the time. Carrillo and Valdes met in 1997, while she was studying at Grand Valley State University and he was working on a master’s degree and doing translation work for the Hispanic Center of West Michigan. He quickly realized two things. First, he decided he could offer better service by starting his own translation business. Second, he realized that he wanted Carrillo to be his wife.

They dreamed of their future life and talked about going into business together — both speak Spanish and English with native fluency. They planned what their first home would be like. At the same time, they kept eyeing a dilapidated brick building in the neighborhood where Carrillo grew up.

“We were thinking we would need a place for the business, and we’d driven by this place so many times. We thought it had a lot of potential,” said Carrillo.

“It was like a gem in the rough,” Valdes added. “And initially, I think that whole mentality of knowing that you’re young and you have the initiative and the drive, it just kind of gets you in a bind. Because once you get into it, you’re like, ‘Oh, my God. What did I get into?’”

Despite the trepidations and lost sleep, the couple had the drive to continue the project. Valdes said that his family’s flight from Cuba to the United States might have had something to do with his willingness to stick with the project, even when it seemed impossible.

“Looking back, when I was young, one of the things that I remember most about Cuba — and these are the things that matter most to children — is that I never had any toys. I never had things that kids want. As far as the entrepreneurial aspect, I think that’s what drives a lot of immigrants that come to this country. They want to become better, or they want to do better, than they were in their country. And the atmosphere that we have in this country allows for that.

“So I think that has always had a role to play. I always wanted the toys. I always wanted more. And coming from nothing — we had nothing when we arrived — makes that fire burn even hotter.”

After seven years, Valdes’ biggest toy, the building, is almost finished.

The Blueprint

After hauling 10 40-yard-dumpsters-full of trash out of the building, Valdes and Carrillo found themselves with a clean slate. They initially planned to build a grand loft apartment for themselves upstairs and use the main floor for their business. After crunching the numbers, they realized they preferred the cash flow generated by rental units upstairs and multiple retail spaces down.

The couple has created four two-bedroom apartments on the second floor of the building. The loft-style living spaces have the same feel and quality of many of their downtown counterparts, but with a lower price tag — they will rent for $600 to $650. One unique feature available to the units’ future inhabitants is Internet-based access to the building’s series of security cameras. The high-tech peephole allows residents to check the stair and hallway leading to their units, as well as scanning the exterior of the building and the rear garden courtyard.

On the building’s main floor, Valdes and Carrillo have carved out three separate spaces. In the right rear area is the office of their business, Associated Language Consultants. On the left side, running the entire depth of the building, is a 2,400-square-foot retail space. As with the apartments, Valdes and Carrillo are carefully considering who will be the right fit for the space.

In the front right corner of the building is the couple’s reward for all of their hard work: more hard work.

Recognizing that there were several small businesses in the immediate vicinity and very little selection of inexpensive, quality dining, Valdes and Carrillo decided to open a café. They wavered as to whether they’d run it themselves or lease the space to someone else. In the end, they compromised. They will own the yet-to-be-named café, but they are going to hire an experienced coffee aficionado to manage it and, eventually, roast coffee on site. Valdes looks forward to offering some ethnic specialties, like Cuban sandwiches and his mother’s recipe for flan (Spanish custard).

The couple recognizes that starting the café might add substantially to their workload, but they seem excited nonetheless. Valdes predicted an October opening.

Clean Slate

Valdes just laid the last slate tiles in the coffee shop floor. The matte gray stone squares put a symbolic end to the long road to restoration.

The couple decided on the slate floor several years ago and began shopping around. They learned that the tiles would run about $5 apiece. With over 1,000 square feet to cover, that would certainly add up. Not dissuaded, they began to watch for sales and eventually stumbled upon the tiles at a Home Depot clearance sale. After hitting four Home Depot stores, the couple had enough to finish the floor. They paid $1.50 apiece.

Of course Valdes chose to install the tiles himself. After everything else he’s done, why waste money on a flooring installer? And in a manner once again befitting of Valdes’ and Carrillo’s style, he decided to lay the tiles on a 45-degree angle, instead of the traditional square-to-the-walls technique. Now that the job is done, the floor looks fabulous, even though the installation, like the building project itself, ended up being more expensive, more difficult and lengthier than the couple imagined.

Yet for Valdes and Carrillo that seems to make the job all the more satisfying.    

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