Fixing Up Old Small Homes In Cities

There was an article in the New York Times on March 7, 2015, that mentioned that there are 800 or so abandoned homes in the Bay Area city of Richmond. I think that fixing up run-down homes in less than opulent cities is one of the most viable, practical, and economical things that people wishing to create their own shelter could do in these times.

In fact, I make a point of shooting photographs of small homes in cities like Richmond, San Leandro, Hayward, Vallejo—nearby places where (some) neighborhoods are run down, but hopefully not infested with drug dealers and crime. I guess it’s a balancing act—if you can find a neighborhood that is on its way up, instead of one that is dangerous and has no hope for the future.

Detroit, for example, has scores of well-built small homes in decaying neighborhoods.

I sort of have a fantasy about fixing up an old place and planting a garden and making friends with the neighbors, who will be pleased that someone is improving their neighborhood. Having a house party and inviting the neighbors. People respond to positive action. It could work.

This will be one of the main subjects in our forthcoming book, Small Homes.

Photo by Peter DaSilva for The New York Times

About Lloyd Kahn

Lloyd Kahn started building his own home in the early '60s and went on to publish books showing homeowners how they could build their own homes with their own hands. He got his start in publishing by working as the shelter editor of the Whole Earth Catalog with Stewart Brand in the late '60s. He has since authored six highly-graphic books on homemade building, all of which are interrelated. The books, "The Shelter Library Of Building Books," include Shelter, Shelter II (1978), Home Work (2004), Builders of the Pacific Coast (2008), Tiny Homes (2012), and Tiny Homes on the Move (2014). Lloyd operates from Northern California studio built of recycled lumber, set in the midst of a vegetable garden, and hooked into the world via five Mac computers. You can check out videos (one with over 450,000 views) on Lloyd by doing a search on YouTube:

16 Responses to Fixing Up Old Small Homes In Cities

  1. I really like your thoughts here. I used to read Sunset magazine but have switched to Mother Earth News. I enjoy the articles about one-block dinners where neighbors work together to source a meal from their unique crops. Take down the fences between small lots and everyone has more. Plant a garden and some perennials and suddenly there is a community space where people work and play together.

  2. Lloyd, I really like your idea, both to purchase run down homes/having the party…nice.
    but (dam that but)

    these are things that I would worry about/try hard to check out first, and it is not always easy to check.. I would mostly put these concerns under

    (headache to remedy/expensive to remedy) – not impossible, but…
    -lead in paint
    -toxic industry in area
    -previous owners / tenants – what did they "dump" there?
    -of course, as you mention, crime/gangs/etc
    -if one phone emergency services (ambulance/fire/police) is it an area "that they take a while to get to?)
    -why did the neighbourhood end up getting run down in first place? – often it is an environmental concern

    however, if above can be safely negated, yup, love the idea.

  3. One of the things I love about Philadelphia are the very small homes and very small streets. After a huge boom in the 19th century, Philly underwent a decline in population. Unlike NY, which doesn't have very many pre-1800 row homes left, Philly has many – and a huge stock on 19th Century row homes because there simply wasn't enough people to merit destroying the existing stock. Many of the homes are Trinity (very small) or workman's rows. I write about the little row homes in Philadelphia all the time on I am thrilled to hear you are including this in your upcoming book. Please let me know if I can be of any assistance. Best – Suzanne (

  4. We sort of did that at the former drug house we rehabbed next door to us. It's been years in the doing, as we had the time or money, but now it's a gallery for my paintings, our guest house, and where we have our garden (more sun there.) And yes, it DID inspire the neighbors and the area is looking up!

  5. I'm a big fan of the little house I am working on one right now most people just want a bigger house so they can have more stuff and that usually ends up being they have more debt

  6. So many great homes here in the Detroit Metro, so many more bad people that make it impossible to love these wonderful dying homes. I breaks my heart. I drive by thousands of empty ruined homes. I wanted to buy in Detroit. After you get robbed and mugged a person thinks twice. This is in all cities in many ways. Ghost towns to come. Sad

  7. Then we have the other groups of concerns:
    1. Cost—Can you purchase reasonably low? Cost and type of materials to repair.
    2. Permits and area restrictions. Rules may demand a return to a specific value or force demolition. Some rules will not permit use of less than new materials.
    3. Time limits. Can you complete remodel within a designated time limit? or you are allowed no limits?
    4. How much can you do or hire out?
    5. Pass inspections?

    Some of these obstacles can be conquered. It would be helpful if you can collect a group of 'willing to remodel' folks, a sort of COOP, that can get together to remodel homes for each one in the group or for a less fortunate group of needy folk. Some bigger corporations would obtain the property to demolish and rebuild for alternate high income purposes and you may find competition here.

    Good Luck.

  8. At one time Portland Oregon promoted inner city rehab. They would sell a home, abandoned and in of repair/rehab, for $1 to people that promised (I imagine there was a contract of some sort) to live in the home once rehabed for approximately one year (please anyone correct me if I am wrong). This was a marvelous idea. Doesn't this type of incentive exist today in any of these cities mentioned?

  9. Hey Lloyd, Great topic for a whole book- what to buy, where to buy, how to buy, how to remodel , permits, learning plumbing, on and on. To the two comments above that mentioned some of the concerns, potential problems, etc.- yes, yes, yes. You need to have your ducks in a row, be prepared, be knowledgable, and realize that your marriage could be at risk. Also figure out financing, income, again on and on. But hard work pays off. And if there are drug houses in your neighborhood, get to be friends. You may get lucky and they will watch your back.
    By the way for the last couple of days I cannot get Shelter Blog to load.

  10. Good luck with Richmond. It's been a dangerous dump since I was a kid (and that was a very long time ago). I cd suggest almost any place else but here to revitalize old homes.

  11. A wonderful topic, Lloyd. Many folks are doing this now in Buffalo, NY, on both the City's East and West sides. I just purchased a 100-year-old cottage at the City's tax foreclosure auction. It's small as Buffalo houses go (1100 sq. ft., no basement) and it needs a good bit of work, but it's solid, and it's in an emerging neighborhood where exciting things are happening as new homeowners and new small businesses settle in.
    Yes, there are challenges. But if you're thinking about doing this, don't let naysayers scare you off. Find a neighborhood where other good people are making a difference, and join them.

  12. not on topic, but something you may want to know about..

    It Sounds Like Congress is Set to BAN Large Capacity Water Heaters

    ….Might want to hang on to yours…if you have one, or buy one now if wanted

    large-capacity water heaters from a ban set to go into effect next month

    Beginning April 16, a U.S. Department of Energy rule will essentially ban manufacture of electric resistance water heaters with a storage capacity of over 55 gallons, usually used in rural areas

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