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I toured 3 abandoned Detroit homes that are being auctioned off for $1,000 — see what buyers can expect

Summary List PlacementDuring a recent trip to Detroit, I saw many neighborhoods filled with homes that were dilapidated and boarded up. These abandoned homes point to the city's complicated past. Detroit was once known as a city of industry. In the mid-1900s, people flocked to the Midwest for jobs in the auto industry, and the population boomed. In 1990, there were just over 1 million people calling Detroit home, but by the turn of the century, that number began to drop. In 2000, there were 951,270. Fast-forward to 2020, there are now only 670,031 people in Detroit.  People left for a variety of...

Detroit land bank authority yellow house with boarded up windows

Summary List Placement

During a recent trip to Detroit, I saw many neighborhoods filled with homes that were dilapidated and boarded up.

These abandoned homes point to the city’s complicated past.

Detroit was once known as a city of industry. In the mid-1900s, people flocked to the Midwest for jobs in the auto industry, and the population boomed. In 1990, there were just over 1 million people calling Detroit home, but by the turn of the century, that number began to drop. In 2000, there were 951,270. Fast-forward to 2020, there are now only 670,031 people in Detroit. 

People left for a variety of reasons, including factories closing, racial tensions, white flight, and the 2008 housing crisis. 

As employment opportunities declined, some properties went into foreclosure due to unpaid taxes or mortgages, and they were left abandoned. Today, some of these buildings remain empty and now stand in ruins. 

In the last decade, the Detroit Land Bank Authority started auctioning off these abandoned homes for as little as $1,000.

The Detroit Land Bank Authority is an organization that works with the local government to sell these homes to buyers. In 2014, the City of Detroit, Wayne County, and the State of Michigan started transferring ownership of the homes to the Land Bank. 

“It was an effort to consolidate a mass of publicly owned properties within the city of Detroit,” Alyssa Strickland, the assistant director of public relations and strategic initiatives at the Detroit Land Bank Authority, told me. 

The homes go up for auction on the Lank Bank website, starting at $1,000. When the auctions close, the average homes sell for just under $5,000, but some could reach $50,000. A buyer is then expected to renovate and restore the home to livable standards within six months to ensure it doesn’t remain abandoned under the new ownership. 

Strickland said the bulk of the Land Bank’s remaining inventory is “modest, single-family homes under 2,000 square feet.”

I decided to tour a few of the $1,000 homes to see what buyers can expect. The first was this property in the Little Field community.

When I pulled up to this house, I was surprised to find a structure almost completely hiding behind a wall of greenery. 

I had to enter the house through the back because of the broken front porch and boarded-up front door.

The vegetation at the back of the house was even more alarming than at the front. 

When I stepped inside, I entered a crumbling kitchen.

At that moment, I realized these homes aren’t just abandoned — they’re also completely ruined by time and weather. 

The living room was completely boarded up and dark.

The doors and windows on the first floor of each Land Bank house are boarded up, so no one can break in and squat there. It’s a practical move, but it definitely added an eerie feeling to the unusual home-buying experience. 

On the second floor, I found two bedrooms, but the walls were completely black from a past fire.

Each of the rooms had holes in the floors, walls, and ceilings. 

The bathroom was torn to pieces. At this point, I realized just how much work it would take to bring one of these homes back to its former glory.

Strickland said buyers must try to finish renovating before the six-month deadline, but the Land Bank is lenient. 

“The vast majority of our buyers require an extension,” Strickland said. “That’s fine as long as they continue to make progress on the property.” 

Otherwise, the Land Bank reserves the right to take the property back from the owners. 

The second house I visited just sold for $5,000.

Although the windows were boarded up, the house looked in much better shape than the first one. 

Once inside, I found a kitchen with no appliances, countertops, or even a ceiling.

In the right corner, there were pills all over the floor, and they continued throughout the rest of the house. 

The living room was void of light, but the fireplace caught my attention.

Although the windows were boarded up, I could still see the beautiful fireplace with leaves flowing out of it. For the first time during my tour, I could easily see how the house might come back to life with this beautiful, brick fireplace as the focal point of the room.

The paint along the staircase to the second floor was peeling off the walls.

I stepped on paint chips all over the run-down house. 

The hallway at the top of the stairs was in terrible condition, too.

I imagined the cupboard at the end of the hallway could easily be fixed up as a nice vintage feature in this home. 

In the bedrooms, the paneling had fallen off the walls onto the charred flooring.

Although most of the bedrooms were derelict, all three were great sizes. 

The bathroom was in bad condition as well.

Just like the kitchen, the bathroom had various pills scattered across the floor and countertops. 

Back outside, the next-door neighbor said this house has sat abandoned for over 10 years.

He explained that he’s lived on this block — which has a few abandoned, boarded-up houses — for 50 years and watched as people left the neighborhood. 

“We’re waiting for a new body of people who want to see change,” he said. “Change is coming.”

The third house I visited was located next to a public school and just sold for $94,000 after a bidding war during the auction process.

Strickland said the location of this home might have been the reason for the price to reach over $90,000. 

The home’s kitchen was just as empty as the others I viewed.

At the very least, this kitchen had workable countertops. 

The living and dining rooms were dark spaces, but they had a lot of potential.

Although the window was boarded up in the living room, I was surprised by its massive size. I could imagine natural light flooding the room once it’s renovated into an open-concept home. 

The hallway to the back bedrooms was drenched in an ominous blue light.

When I looked up, I noticed the entire roof was exposed because of a fire, and a blue tarp was covering the gaping hole above my head. As sunlight came through the tarp, it flooded the walkway with blue light.

The back bedrooms were basically shells of former rooms.

The caution tape that hung throughout the house made it feel like I was walking through a crime scene.

After touring some of the homes for sale, I met up with one woman who bought a home through the Detroit Land Bank Authority.

Cynthia Reaves runs JGA Property Group, a real-estate development company in Detroit, and decided to buy a two-family home in the Bagley neighborhood through the Land Bank.

In 2019, she bought the house for $52,000 through the auction process but then got a 50% discount because her mother used to work for the city. 

During the auction process, Reaves said she ran into issues.

Reaves said she feels she was a victim of an investor group trying to bid up the price — she doesn’t believe the home was worth $52,000.

This is a common complaint Detroiters have about the Detroit Land Bank Authority. According to Curbed, many Detroiters have complained they cannot buy the homes they want in the neighborhoods they want through the Land Bank. Some Detroiters claim the Land Bank favors out-of-town investors and developers who price gauge the auctions. 

Strickland said this isn’t the case. She said, “Seventy-one percent of our buyers are Detroit residents at the time of purchase, 74% are Black, and 64% become homeowners through their Land Bank purchase.”

She added, “We’re very proud of how these numbers demonstrate that the Land Bank is succeeding in creating accessible pathways to home and property ownership for Detroiters.”

Reaves also said the renovation process would be difficult for somebody with little to no experience.

“There are very few people who can take on these projects and get them done according to the code,” Reaves said. “You have to follow the city of Detroit code requirements, you have to follow the permit requirements, and for many individuals, that is a burden.” 

Strickland said the Land Bank has developed programs to help with these issues. For instance, they now offer discounts for certain Detroiters, and they have partnered with Home Depot for exclusive discounts to help offset the cost of renovation. Strickland said the compliance department also works closely with home buyers to navigate the tricky permit process. 

 

After spending $75,000 on renovating and restoring the house, Reaves now rents it out to tenants.

Reaves charges her two tenants between $1,100 and $1,400 on rent.

“I love it because both of my tenants were so excited to have a house,” she said. “They call it their forever home.”

Reaves’ home is one of more than 4,200 homes purchased through the Detroit Land Bank Authority that are now renovated and occupied.

As I walked through the renovated house, I almost forgot this home was once a dilapidated building.

Even though Reaves had to outbid an investor group, battle permit problems, and renovate on a tight budget, she was able to turn this formerly dilapidated house into a beautiful home and a great investment that she says ultimately benefits the larger city of Detroit. 

“It’s important to the revitalization of the community,” Reaves said. 

After touring these homes, I realized the Detroit Land Bank Authority has the power to shape the future of Detroit — if it’s done right.

If the Land Bank continues to offer these abandoned homes to Detroiters and help them through the process, it could help further Detroit’s larger revitalization process. 

From the few homes I toured, I could see there’s potential in each of them — all that’s needed are people who are willing to turn these houses into homes again.

“Detroit is a very vibrant city. There are pockets of beauty and wonderful homes that people can have for reasonable prices. Where else can you buy a brick home for $1,000?” Reaves said. “Come on in. The water’s fine.”

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