Investing In Vintage Ypsi


Living in Ypsilanti is sort of like a kid growing up in a candy store for Eric and Karen Maurer.

The city has the second-largest historic district in the state, filled with picturesque Victorian homes on tree-lined streets. You want houses with towers and oculus windows? Ypsi has them. How about artistic detailing like gingerbread siding or plaster medallions? Ypsi has more than it knows what to do with. What about big, wrap-around porches and Mansard roofs? They're in Ypsi, and the Maurers own them the way little girls own doll houses.


The couple makes it their business to buy, restore and rent out historic homes in the city. But working (and playing) with these homes is often more leisure than labor. The couple is raising their sprawling family of seven in a 4,500-square-foot mid 19th Century Victorian that drops the jaws of passersby.

Steer the conversation toward restoring historic homes and the couple turns giddy. They bring out pictures of their latest acquisition the way a child shows off a new toy. The Maurers become so excited about these vintage properties they start finishing each other's sentences.

"It can get a little addictive at times," Karen Maurer says. "Which can be our strength and our weakness," Eric Maurer adds.

Numbers

Running the numbers on the Maurers is revealing. Their company, Maurer Management & Properties, owns about 100 rental units in 70 different buildings. Thirty of those are commercial spaces, and are all within a three-mile radius of each other. The buildings range from stately Victorian mansions subdivided into apartments to downtown storefronts with lofts above ground floor retail space.

The Maurers are at the forefront of making downtown Ypsi a 24-hour location by creating new lofts and business space. They've converted a couple of downtown storefronts into residential loft space and are about to begin renovating another this spring when they start refurbishing the
Mack & Mack building.


"Stewart Beal and the Maurers were the first ones to get together and figure out how to make it happen," says Brian Vosburg, director or Ypsilanti's Downtown and Depot Town development authorities. "If it wasn't for them these buildings would be sitting there vacant. These are the buildings other developers passed by. Keeping these buildings is what keeps Ypsi, Ypsi. We have one of the largest historic districts in the state and it's largely intact."

The Maurers’ own home is a mid-19 Century mansion built by a fur trader in a time when Ann Arbor played second fiddle to Ypsilanti’s big money. It was the first home built on the block and had a clear view of sight to the Huron River where now row after row of houses stand.

And the Maurer's little empire is growing. They have reached the point where they own entire blocks of mansion apartments. If a perspective tenant doesn’t like a unit they can check out the one next door and the one next door to that and the next one... until they reach the end of the street.

"They are certainly in the Top 10 of Movers and Shakers in Ypsilanti," says Stewart Beal, a developer in Ypsilanti, "maybe even Top 5. That says a lot."

Hard work and high rewards

Getting to that position of power is not easy, especially via the 'road less traveled', which Eric and Karen enthusiastically took.

The two former Ann Arbor residents (Eric grew up there, while Karen attended the University of Michigan) started with humble beginnings. Eric bought and began restoring his first Victorian at the age of 30 with the help of family. He met, married and started a family with Karen (both were involved with movie making) before Maurer Management became their full-time jobs. Investing in properties with the money they earned at their day jobs, they then invested heavily in sweat equity after "work."

"It's a great wealth creator, but it's not an easy way to make $1 million like the books say," Beal says. "I always joke that I am going to write a book called Making $1 Million the Hard Way."

As tough as the work has been, the Maurers feel it's a constantly rewarding process. They liken it to "an adventure" that you either love or hate --sometimes both simultaneously. Surprisingly, it's the hard construction side "that gets them most excited. Stripping away a building's past, the Maurer's uncover a fascinating history of home and community, reading the layers like the rings of a tree.

As each property reveals its history during restoration, the Maurers have discovered that their passion has landed them somewhere between archaeologist and developer. It’s hardly what they intended.

"You take what comes to you and you make it work. Then you realize you're a historic preservationist," Karen Maurer says. "Making history your home," Eric Maurer adds, quoting their company's motto.

And as if restoration weren't enough, the couple are landlords as well --not the easiest job, even in a college town like Ypsi. They personally manage most of their homes, keeping things up and collecting rent.

It's hardly
glamorous work but it’s something Eric and Karen feel gives them an advantage over competitors. Letting their tenants know that they are there to help select a place or fix a problem or make rent payments work is a level of customer service many renters desire.

"Being a landlord in Ypsi or any other city is a rough business," Beal says. "You need to be available 24/7 and you need to be experienced in a lot of areas. You need to be juggling a lot of balls at the same time.”

Opportunity

Hard work aside, restoration is an adventure the Maurers heartily recommend to anyone who adores classic architecture and doesn’t mind getting their hands dirty. There's something supremely satisfying about returning a neglected home to its former glory.

They point out that the struggling economy has created the best home-buying market in recent history. There are so many houses currently up for grabs that the Maurers see more opportunities than they can possibly take advantage of. They hope others will jump in and revitalize these grand old homes.

"If you can buy now and your family can back you up, now is a great time," Eric Maurer says. "There are a lot of opportunities out there."

Ypsilanti has many of the ingredients that encourage gentrification: Exceptional Victorian housing stock, a major employer in Eastern Michigan University and a pair of historic downtowns. All three were key factors in the Maurers' decision to stake their claim.

And not only is Ypsilanti a walkable community with well-planned neighborhoods, there is a constant need for quality student housing. Beal, a competitor, compliments the Maurer apartments, calling them "consistently above average."

Read any treatise on building creative class communities and a quality rental market is a key component in developing a community that attracts young talent.

"They rent so fast," Karen Maurer says. "People want to be in a historic structure."

"There's more appreciation for it," Eric Maurer says. "For example, lofts. It's not just young people. It's people in their 30s and 40s who appreciate well done apartments. ... I think it's inspiring to people. It's something about the architecture. It just makes you feel good."


Jon Zemke is Concentrate's News Editor. He is also the Innovation and Development editor for metromode.

Karen and Eric Maurers House-Ypsilanti

Brian Vosburg-Director or Ypsilanti's Downtown and Depot Town development authorities

Stewart Beal-Developer

Karen and Eric Maurer-Owners of Maurer Management & Properties

Karen and Eric Maurers House-Ypsilanti

PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVE LEWINSKI
Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer.