Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Stuart Neighborhood series.
David and Emma Engerer are a young couple buying old houses in Kalamazoo's Stuart Neighborhood.
He’s 28. She’s 22. He's from metro Detroit. She's from Austin, Texas. They met while he, she, and her dad were at a skateboarding contest in Houston. (Yes, dad was skateboarding.) Now Dave and Emma live in the Stuart Neighborhood and renovate houses.
“They are like a breath of fresh air,” says Gary Wark, president of the Stuart Area Restoration Association.
“Whereas before, we had landlords that weren’t in the neighborhood and didn’t pay as close attention to things and they (their properties) got run down, they (David and Emma) are buying rentals in the neighborhood and rehabbing them,” Wark says.
David and Emma Engerer are restoring and renting homes in the Stuart Neighborhood. They also live there, which neighbors say is preferred when it comes to landlords.
The couple is among a number of younger people who are buying or renting homes in the historic neighborhood just west and north of downtown Kalamazoo. And they are excited about it.
“I really just think it’s the love of old homes,” David Engerer says when asked what would motivate two people who were miles apart and headed for other careers to invest in a neighborhood where many houses are more than 100 years old.
Pushing forward with a plan
Home fix-ups are rife with challenges, says David, who does most of the restoration work himself, with the help of his wife. “But you’ve got to see what the property could become and see what it is now. And then just don’t take your eye off of what it could become. Just keep pushing forward to that vision and you will make it one day.”
David and Emma married in October of 2019, less than a year after he graduated from Western Michigan University and after his father encouraged him to buy an older house in Kalamazoo, renovate it, and use the income from tenants to cover the mortgage. Emma had graduated from high school in Texas, was doing Christian missionary work, and was headed to community college, with an eye toward becoming a physical therapist.
The home built in 1895 has many historical details many of which were lovingly maintained.
“I wanted to go to school for special education and physical therapy and do physical therapy with young people with special needs,” Emma says. “But I still just wasn’t sure.”
She was open to the idea of working on houses, however, when it was presented by David.
They bought an American Foursquare stucco house at 821 Kalamazoo Ave. not long before they married. The house was built as a single-family residence in 1910 but had been used as a rental property for more than 100 years and, in the 1920s, was converted into a duplex (upper and lower). Over the years it had not been well maintained.
“It had foundation issues with water,” David says. “It had a bad roof. It had plumbing issues, electrical issues. … It had lots of abuse from the elements.”
“Have you seen the movie ‘Money Pit’ with Tom Hanks?” Emma asks, with a laugh. “That’s what the house was.”
When they first toured the home the Engerers were surprised at how the historical elements of the home had been maintained.
But surprisingly, it had tenants and the structure of the house was great, David says.
Getting the ball rolling
“I remember thinking we had plans to get married and he was like, ‘I think I’m going to start looking at houses,’” Emma says. “And I said, ‘What?!’ because houses in Austin, it’s just so expensive to buy a house. You just have roommates or live with your family if you get along with them, for as long as you possibly can.”
She was enamored with pictures of large, intricate, and beautiful houses David sent her from Kalamazoo and says she was shocked that “they’re not like $1 million.”
Then she remembers him saying, “We got the house,’” Emma says. “And I was like, ‘OK. I have no idea about any of this. But let’s go.”
Since then, the couple has purchased two other 19th-century homes in the neighborhood and have their eyes on another. One of their purchases is their own home, a 4,000-square-foot Queen Anne Victorian house at 418 Stuart Ave. Called the French/Allen House, it was built in 1895 and has four bedrooms, 3.5 bathrooms, some stained-glass windows, a sweeping veranda, and an interior originally appointed by Chicago-based department store magnate Marshall Field.
Stained glass windows are found in many places in the home.
It was the home of Dorr French, an attorney who once served as justice of the peace in Kalamazoo and later as city attorney. In 1928 it became the home of Harold Allen, who was vice president of First National Bank and later served as a statistician and corporate secretary for The Upjohn Co.
That huge pharmaceutical maker merged with Pharmacia AB in 1995 and in 2003 was acquired by Pfizer Inc.
“The house was listed,” David says. “We went through it on a tour, kind of knowing it was too expensive (more than $300,000). But when we went through it, our jaws dropped.”
During other home tours, he says, they were used to seeing homes with their original features covered up or painted over. Of their Stuart Avenue home, he says, “I could not believe how well it was preserved.”
He says they made a successful bid on the house later, when the asking price dropped. He and Emma bought the house in May of 2020 and are doing interior upgrades, such as replacing old galvanized steel pipes and plumbing, replicating door mouldings, and re-doing bathrooms. But all of that is being done with an eye toward maintaining the historic integrity of the house.
David Engerer gets advice from his father about how to restore historical homes. Here he reads from a historical document about the house.
“It’s terrible when people buy these old homes and eliminate all the original charming features,” he says. “They gut it and they don’t keep any of the original features of the home.”
Welcome to the neighborhood
David says he lived in a dormitory during his freshman year at WMU in 2011. During the following years, he lived in apartments in the Vine Neighborhood and loved its multi-family homes.
In the Stuart Neighborhood, there are lots of houses that were built in the 1870s when the neighborhood was growing as an attractive community for businessmen and professionals. Some were built to be rentals but many were converted into rental units over the years and saw some decline. That decline accelerated in the 1970s and ’80s and was a catalyst for concerned residents to start the Stuart Area Restoration Association in 1973. Now things appear to be on the rise, with new owners taking pride in the houses, say Wark and local historian Sharon Carlson.
“I’m thrilled that David and Emma have moved into the neighborhood,” says Carlson, who is a Stuart Neighborhood resident and a retired professor of university libraries at Western Michigan University. “We have had others who live here and also own rentals. They are often the best landlords.”
Emma Engerer moved to Kalamazoo from Texas. She says she likes the three seasons that Michigan offers.
Engerer says he and his wife feel accepted and have been helped and consulted by neighbors who recognize what they are doing. “There's a lot of support in doing what you can to make the neighborhood nicer,” David says.
Carlson, who says the neighborhood likes rental properties that are well managed, also says, “I like younger and more energetic neighbors. I remember when I used to get on ladders and paint houses. My back doesn’t let me do that these days.”
In July of 2020, the Engerers bought another house they are working to renovate. At 500 Stuart Ave. it is already a rental property with four tenants, each with a kitchen, bathroom, and exterior entrance. Exterior and limited interior renovation work is being done, David says. More extensive work will be done as tenant leases expire, he says.
That house is one of three Queen Anne-style houses built side-by-side on Stuart Avenue in the late 1880s by George Rickman. All still have their original wrought-iron fences and all are made of brick, which was unusual for Victorian houses at the time. Rickman was a mason and was well known for making brick. The Rickman House apartment building at 345 N. Burdick St. in downtown Kalamazoo is named for George Rickman's sons who built it.
Another Stuart Neighborhood home owned and restored by David and Emma Engerer.
George Rickman lived in one of the three brick houses, at 436 Stuart Ave. It was built in 1887 or 1888 and is known as the Mary Russell House, a woman to whom he sold the house. At some point, it was converted into a duplex and in the 1950s, it was converted into a four-unit apartment house.
Big distances and big coincidences
Emma Engerer describes herself as a proud Texas girl who never planned to leave that state. But after she met and fell in love with David, she says, “I felt God really telling me this is where we were supposed to be. This is where our church is planted. His church is now our church (Freedom Church Foursquare
). He had a ministry here. I had ministries that I worked with in Texas. … God made it pretty clear that we were meant to be rooted in Michigan so I just on blind faith said, ‘Alright, let’s go.’”
David and Emma stayed in touch after they first met at a skateboarding contest in Houston in 2018. It was a contest hosted by a Christian ministry focused on young people. The two became more interested in one another after they discovered that, although Emma lived in Texas, she had been doing Christian missionary work during summers 1,200 miles away at a church that was two blocks from a condominium owned by David's family in Sarasota, Fla. Her family subsequently visited Sarasota and stayed with David.
David's father is a physical therapist who has, for decades, bought, renovated, and rented homes and office buildings in the Northville and Southfield areas near Detroit. None of that interested David as he grew up, so he didn't pay much attention.
Before and during his college years, he was working to become a professional skateboarder. His skills were recognized in middle school when he began attracting sponsors. He is considered a professional snowskater for Ambition Snowskates
. And he continues to have sponsors and travels regularly to do videos and support his sponsors’ skateboarding and snowskating products.
David graduated from Western Michigan University in December of 2017 with a degree in exercise science and was on track to become a physical therapist. But, after learning to do home repairs during two summers jobs at an adult foster care residence here, he discovered he loved the work and he loved old houses.
"Once I got into home renovation I had already made up my mind,'' Engerer says. "Once I fell in love with it, I made up my mind."
David's father is, incidentally, a successful physical therapist. It has helped him fund his own passion for home restoration and he has mentored his son and daughter-in-law. David says he is thrilled with how things have turned out for his son.
Insights on home buying
For others who want to buy and renovate older properties, David says, “having them be money-making properties is a huge thing. It’s really nice to want to be able to do all these things. But obviously, it takes money. So having a property that’s bringing in money, you can put some of it back in and then pay yourself some of it too.”
It helps to have a good relationship with a financial institution, the ability to do home repairs, an eye for good properties, and overall good luck. But David says, “I think the number one thing out of all of that, even more important than the money, would probably just be to have the vision and the passion because if you’re in it for the wrong reasons – only to make money – you’re probably going to be let down.”
While his father helped with the acquisition of their first house, he does not have a financial interest in the others, David says.
“He gave me the insight,” David says. “But he also gave me that courage (to take some risks).”
Emma says, “It’s not like he has just given us everything. It’s more that he’s come alongside us and is kind of guiding our hand, showing us this is how you handle this situation. He’ll kind of tell us or show us one time and say, ‘You go do it now.’ He’s definitely a mentor. He has a huge passion for this stuff so I think it brings him joy to see his son getting into it and having the same passion he does.”
In the meantime, the Engerers say they want to be in Stuart Neighborhood for a long time.
“I know that whenever people move into a new home they say, ‘We’re going to live here forever,’” David says. “But we really do want to. We love the neighborhood a lot. As far as we know we’ll be in Stuart permanently.”
And Emma says she loves Michigan.
“I saw snow for the first time and I get to experience all of the seasons for the first time, not just summer,” she says with a laugh.
Photos by Susan Andress. See more of her work here.