Bigfoot houses: The new trend in metro Detroit's compact communities

As soon as Mike and Alina Hammoud saw the property on the corner of Bonair and Sexton streets in Dearborn Heights, they knew it was the perfect place to raise their young family. They also knew they had to tear most of it down as soon as they bought it. The circa-1920s ranch was cute and in a great neighborhood, but the Hammouds had bigger ideas.
"We fell more in love with the lot than the house," Mike Hammoud says. "It's nearly an acre, which is nearly impossible to find in the area."
The Hammouds are raising three young sons and did what so many other young couples are doing to stay living comfortably in Dearborn, "bigfooting" their house. Bigfooting involves purchasing a smaller, older house on a city lot, razing it, and building a bigger, more modern home on the lot.
The Hammouds did everything but tear down the 1,400-square-foot house on the property they purchased in 2013. First they dismantled the structure down to the studs on the first floor, then rebuilt it up to a 4,000-square-foot building with four bedrooms and four bathrooms on two floors, adding a third-floor fun room for their family.
With three young sons, the Hammouds, who are both Arab-Americans and Dearborn-natives, wanted to stay in the community they have grown to love.
"We like to be close to the city," Mike Hammoud says. "Dearborn has a unique relationship to being an Arab-American. We like it here and want to remain a part of the community."
The Hammounds are far from alone. There are numerous young couples in Dearborn with growing families or plans to make one who love the city, but not necessarily its housing stock. Often they will see a century-old house with three bedrooms, one bathroom, and 1,300 square feet as inadequate when it comes to meeting the needs of their growing families.
"A lot of families in Dearborn are a lot larger than your average American family," says Ali "Bulldog" Abdallah, a Dearborn-based real estate agent with RE/MAX Team 2000. "They are usually 4-5 kids, and the kids don't leave until they get married."
Traditionally, young families in metro Detroit looking for more space have moved out to the fringes of the region. Many Arab-American families in Dearborn, however, are either significantly adding onto the city's existing homes, turning duplexes into single-family homes, or just razing the old structures in favor of building newer, bigger ones on the lot.
Abdallah has brokered a lot of these sorts of deals so extended families and close friends can remain close to one another. They often include more than doubling the square footage of the house on a property, making room to accommodate kids, parents, and visiting relatives.
Their parents were often living the classic American immigrant story of fathers working blue collar jobs and mothers staying at home to raise the family. These first-generation kids are now well-educated professionals and business owners with both spouses working. That equals more disposable income to do more with their housing. Abdallah says he often sees young families purchasing properties for a few hundred thousand dollars and bigfooting them with $1 million homes.
"We're starting to see a lot more of this," Abdallah says. "It's definitely a trend...There are always projects going on. There are always people building."
Mike Hammoud is one of them. He used to teach construction in high school before starting his own construction firm, Vision Construction, in 2005. He does a lot of bigfoot housing, either razing and replacing homes or significantly adding on to existing ones. The rebound of the economy is recent years has only accelerated the pace of this building.
"Last year and this year has been chaos," Hammoud says. "It's way up. We do at least four a year."
Royal Oak
When people talk about bigfoot housing, they usually have cities like Royal Oak in mind—posh inner-ring suburbs with vibrant downtowns. Young families who want to live in an urban environment will gladly pay a premium to build the home of their dreams, and in many cases, bigfooting is an easy choice.
"The city is really turning over with a lot of younger demographic that wants to live here," says John Farhat, a Royal Oak resident and real estate agent.
Farhat recognizes the bigfooting phenomenon, but he doesn't like to call it that. The Coldwell Banker Weir Manuel agent sees these sorts of deals happen all the time, but the ones he brokers are designed to fit into their community.
"We do a lot of the trying-to-blend-into-the-neighborhood thing," Farhat says.
Bigfoot housing is infamous for standing out. Often it replaces a small house on a uniform block with a structure that is 2-to-3 times larger than those around it, and much more contemporary in design. Neighbors tend to react poorly to the change and lack of conformity.
Farhat, who does numerous bigfoot housing deals a year, says that his new homes are usually designed to match the neighborhood's aesthetic. Think architecture more in tune with what was designed a century ago, but sized big enough to accommodate 21st century urban family needs. These aren't anything like a typical exurban McMansions.
"I bet I could count on one hand the number (of new houses) that are larger than 3,000 square feet (in Royal Oak)," Farhat says. "2,500 to 3,000 square feet is the sweet spot."
Farhat says the original bigfoot houses started springing up closer to downtown Royal Oak, but the trend is now spreading throughout the city. On average, Farhat brokers 15-20 bigfoot housing deals a year. "That is probably not even 5 percent of what's being sold and built in the market," Farhat says. "I'm just a sliver of the pie."
He doesn't know how many happen citywide each year, but estimates it is easily in the hundreds, perhaps as high as 500.
Often it will take anywhere from 6-18 months for a bigfooting to take place, depending on how fast the builder builds. The process starts with purchasing an older house, typically for between $100,000-$150,000, and ends with building a new one, which often retails for about $500,000. The option is becoming increasingly popular, Farhat says, because of the rebounding economy and low interest rates. "People are jumping over that starter home because money is so cheap."
The houses that end up coming down are usually the dregs of distressed property. Houses that are forlorn foreclosures or previously owned by senior citizens and coming out of probate. Most of the time they haven't been updated in several years or even decades and are in dire need of a lot of TLC.
"They are incredibly dilapidated, falling apart," Farhat says. "Ninety percent of what we take down can't be brought back."
Ann Arbor
Not all bigfoot housing is replacing old single-family homes with larger single-family homes. Near downtown Ann Arbor, bigfoot housing usually entails replacing small rental houses with dense multi-family developments.
The Main on the Park development plans to raze two old rental houses at 542 and 548 N. Main St., a few blocks north of downtown Ann Arbor. Four townhomes measuring about 2,500 square feet each are set to replace them. Each townhouse is expected to sell for about $1 million.
Kingsley Parkside is replacing a dilapidated house at 214 W. Kingsley, a few blocks northwest of downtown Ann Arbor. A 4-story, side-by-side duplex was set to go up in its place, but, the plans have been adjusted to make it a triplex. Both developments are in near-downtown areas that have been rezoned to allow for denser housing.
"The innovation is to bring the allowed higher density to a smaller lot, whereas most urban developers focus on larger projects," William Davis III, co-developer of Kingsley Parkside, wrote in an email.
Jon Zemke is the news editor for Metromode and its sister publications, Model D and Concentrate. He is also a community developer in Detroit working primarily on renovations of multi-family housing.

All photos by David Lewinski.

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