The House Flip Hustle Pt. 1

Should You Buy a House in Grad School?

Sometime during the early summer of 2020, with the Covid-19 pandemic having just ground the world to a hault (and having cost me my first post-college job in a slew of layoffs), my good friend Z.S. and I began hatching a scheme. Just a few months before, I had been accepted into an accelerated Master’s program at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, the very same institution at which Z had matriculated the year before for a Ph.D. in comp sci. The discussion, as I remember it, went something like:

Me: “Hey, we’ve been the very best of pals for almost 11 years at this point. What say we give living together while we’re in school a go? Split the rent, share the dishes, and turn wherever we wind up into a total geek fest for the next few years…”

Z: “Naturally. Although I’ve actually been thinking of buying a house for my next place, renting is passé. I’ve got the money saved for a down, and it would probably be cheaper than renting if we can find something affordable. Plus, Madison appartments aren’t ferret friendly, and I know you wouldn’t want to get rid of your little Pnin.”

Pnin lounging on bed.
"When you've got it, flaunt it!" ~Pnin, 2020

Now, at this point, I had actually spent nearly a year and a half working for Z’s uncle as a contractor, racking up skills and expertise in everything from finishing basements, and remodeling bathrooms, to plumbing, electrical, appliances, too… (I’m convinced this jingle may just manifest itself in my final moments, a Rosebud for the 21st century).

Me: “What if we bought and flipped? You know, spent weekends and holidays finishing a basement or something. I’ve got the tools and knowledge, you’ve got the cash. You’re on the hook for another 3-4 years and I’m on it with you for at least 2. That should be plenty of time to work on something while we live in it. At the end, we split the earnings and if we’re lucky we can take a good chunk out of our student loans. Not to mention mortgage rates are practically at rock bottom. I think it could work!”

The funny thing about pushing a small boulder down a hill is that they have a proclivity for dislodging larger and larger boulders until you’ve all but spawned a veritable avalanche. And words, regardless of what you may have been told about their being “softer” than sticks and stones boulders, can start some awfully nasty avalanches.

Fast forward to July 29th of that same year. Z and I stood on our newly purchased front lawn, with our newly purchased house and newly purchased Himalayan heap of hazardous garbage left oh so generously on the curb by the previous tenants.

Large pile of garbage on curb.

Not pictured is the ouija board that mysteriously disappeared from the pile after our first night.

This would constitute the mise-en-scène for the next several years of our life (minus the garbage which was whisked away by the wonderful City of Madison, who deserves great credit for its bi-weekly large item collection program). We had purchased a house without ever seeing it in person, through realtors we had never actually met in a part of town we were both unfamiliar with from people we didn't know. And despite all that, the world lay before us. All we had to do was step inside. Besides, that pile of trash really did stink.

Unfortunately, in case any of the previous foreshadowing was lost on the reader, the condition of the inside of the house was akin to the curb. At this point, I think a description of the previous owners is appropriate, as it might shed some light on the interior condition of this house that lacked exactly that.

In the process of closing on the house, Z and I were able to meet the soon-to-be previous owners – a couple for whom the sanctity of marriage (and the mortal sin of their ongoing divorce) might just have been an excuse to get on god’s bad side.

The man was a tall, scraggly fellow whose lithe biker beard battered about his bosom in the turbulence of the air-conditioned room. His face gave off a sunken appearance, with gaunt cheeks and a few teardrop tattoos just below his eye (I’d like not to think what these might mean in prison parlance). On his arm – a large tattoo of a shirtless Marilyn Monroe type with extensively augmented breasts, wielding a bloody chainsaw that was in the process of being used to decollate some demonic dude. In introducing himself, he was quick to point out he worked in “a type of biolab.”

The woman, clearly the instigator of the divorce, was of similar ilk but of opposite shape. Sprawling across the nearly foot of visible cleavage (with perhaps twice that much unseen) was a multitude of small bats, blood teeming from their dagger-esque teeth. Her face was crowded with piercings and pockmarks, and it would be she who, upon splitting the payout from the house, would collect the extra cent, claiming with vehement pugnacity that it was “for everything he put me through.” Turning to Z and I, “Don’t dig in the southwest corner of the yard,” she warned. “That’s where all the animals are buried.”

The two had modified the house in a fashion similar to their own bodily modifications. Think neo-gothic satanism in style, with low-hanging chandeliers, blood-red and royal-purple walls, none of which had been painted to completion, and thick window shades that obfuscated the tattered floors and hole-ridden walls.

Behind the house, we were met with a wall of green more densely overgrown than any terrestrial landmass yet to be discovered, with towering, pernicious thistles, creeping vines, and a slew of sapplings, each of which was clawing their way past the others, determined to be the victor who reached the sunlight (The first major project had been identified). Surely this backyard constituted its own ecosystem, a host of flora and fauna that had yet to be taxonomically binned. Later, a neighbor would tell us it hadn’t been mowed in over 10 years, and it would shortly become clear that the privacy fences enclosing the yard were there less to protect their owners’ privacy and more to block the unsightly mess.

The bathroom, whose limescale-impregnated beige walls gave the appearance of some long-forgotten form of structural leprosy, was newly remodelled, as the former owners were quick to point out. “It’s so beautiful in there, don’t you think?”

In the basement, an uncut gem ready to be finished, we found several boxes of books, the likes of which included “Naked Vinyl” and “Pagan Rituals,” along with other oddities such as a cutout of Ninja Gaiden that occupied several feet of cobweb-encrusted wallspace.

Okay, I’m waxing poetic (although I would argue everything I’ve said is at least 95% accurate), but you get the idea: a 3-bed, 1-bath, 1107 square-foot shitshow that cost us $164,000 and would leach from our pockets around $1100 a month in principle, interest, taxes and insurance. The schoolyear started in around 3 weeks, and we had our work cut out for us.

I think this is a good place to give it a rest for now. Hopefully you feel as daunted as did Z and I. But rest assured, in the next post things will start to get better. They certainly couldn’t have gotten much worse.

1 / 14
South-facing view of backyard
Lovely, isn't it?
2 / 14
West-facing view of backyard
Welcome to the jungle, we got fun and games!
3 / 14
Pnin being a derp on a pedestal fan
Pnin was quick to adapt to the new surroundings
4 / 14
My room, pre move-in
Believe it or not, I kept this paint in my room
5 / 14
Z's room, pre move-in
Z, however, did not keep the demon scribbles all over the wall
6 / 14
Kitchen Maroon Paint
The maroon was another early casualty
7 / 14
Pan view of kitchen
Unfortunately I never snagged a pic of the chandelier we got rid of :(
8 / 14
Bathroom shower coated in limescale
Try as we might, the limescale couldn't be cleaned. Go figure!
9 / 14
Bathroom floor was built incorrectly
The linolium sheathing was clearly an upgrade over the similarly-colored tile.
10 / 14
Strange man taking from our garbage
There's talk of strange folk abroad. This one is digging through the garbage on our curb.
11 / 14
Roof chimney in state of disrepair
Could that be a crustose/saxicolous lichen growing on my chimney cap??? Magnificent!
12 / 14
Roof vent in state of disrepair
More things that don't look right
13 / 14
We needed a trailer for the move and the flip, so I bought one, told Z to start filming, and hitched a ride to his place. The banjo I supplied myself.
14 / 14
Rebuilt trailer packed for my move
Little did I know the tarp would be wholly inadequate for the upcoming rainstorm. Adios, cherished belongings!