Buying their first home, millennials put down roots in Grand Rapids

Buying their first home, millennials put down roots in Grand Rapids
Buying their first home, millennials put down roots in Grand Rapids
GRAND RAPIDS, MI — If walls could talk, this classic ranch-style house at 1111 Worcester Drive NE would tell how a procession of first-time home buyers began their dream of a first-time home here.

Built in 1965, the exterior of the brick-faced ranch with a hip roof has remained largely unchanged despite a series of first-time home buyers who have moved its walls, applied fresh coats of paint and added their personal touches.

Their story is one that is playing out for many millennials attempting to become home owners in one of the nations hottest real estate markets. Houses in the $120,000-$200,000 price range dont stay on the market long and usually attract multiple offers above the asking price, according to local real estate agents.

Located on a tree-lined street halfway between downtown Grand Rapids and the Knapp Corners shopping center, its now home to Justin Riggs, a personal trainer, and Ashley St. Louis, a school teacher and sports journalist, who bought the house last year.

Riggs and St. Louis bought their 52-year-old ranch-style house for $170,500 last year. Its located on Worcester Avenue NE, a quiet sycamore-lined street halfway between downtown Grand Rapids and the Knapp Corner shopping district, which has attracted supermarkets, movie theaters and restaurants.

The couple enjoys entertaining friends in the cozy kitchen with a fireplace and on the deck overlooking the back yard. A wedding date is set for this summer.

St. Louis, 29, is a second-grade teacher in Belding and weekend sports reporter at Fox17. A native of St. Ignace in the Upper Peninsula, she taught in North Dakota and Tennessee after graduating from GVSU. Riggs, whom she had met after college, convinced her to move back to West Michigan.

Riggs and St. Louis purchased the home for $170,500, paying more than the asking price and making an offer immediately after their initial walk-through.

They are part of the reason, a real estate research group, concluded West Michigan will continue to be the  hottest real estate market in the country this year. 

Their house on Grand Rapids Northeast side was listed on a Friday. Alerted by their real estate agent, Riggs and St. Louis, who were out of town, rushed across the state two days later, walked through the house and made an offer above the asking price.

Grand Rapids is ranked 17th in its share of households under age 35 – the benchmark for millennials, according to Trulia. Coupled with a fast growing job market, West Michigan has become a mecca for young families wanting to buy a house.

Broker Ryan Ogle, president of BluHouse Properties and president of the Grand Rapids Association of Realtors, said first-time buyers also have to be prepared for disappointment when they compete against dozens of other like-minded home buyers.

CoreLogic, a national real estate research firm, recently concluded Grand Rapids is still an undervalued market.

Located in a desirable neighborhood without being too expensive, the house on Worcester Drive NE fits into the market as an ideal starter home. 

Despite the competition for houses, a recent study by CoreLogic, a national real estate research firm, concluded Grand Rapids still offers first-time home buyers an opportunity to achieve their dreams.

Fifty-two years ago, the house fulfilled the dreams of John and Elizabeth Butkiewicz, a couple whose blue collar earnings gave them the wherewithal to buy a newly constructed house in a new subdivision.

Having worked in the coal mines of Pennsylvania as a teenager, John Butkiewicz arrived in Grand Rapids with his parents and seven siblings in the late 1920s, according to his nephew, Pete Butkiewicz, who recalls attending family holiday celebrations at his uncles house.

John Butkiewicz attended Davis Technical High School and learned to become a tool and die maker. At Wolverine Brass, he was one of the companys top toolmakers, skills that earned him an exemption from military service during World War II. 

They encourage their young home buyers to get creative in their offers. Parents may be able to provide help with a down payment or make an offer that waives appraisal or contingency fees.

Wolverine Brass made plumbing fixtures from a giant factory at 620 Monroe Avenue NW. During World War II, it made parts for airplanes and tanks. It closed in 1986 and is now used as an office building. 

Poortenga, a millennial himself at age 31, said Riggs and St. Louis are typical of first-time homebuyers in an age where reality television extols home ownership.

“With all his work, he was very methodical with anything he was doing,” said Phil Butkiewicz. “He was very clever.” Elizabeth, who worked in the offices at Wolverine Brass, became his second wife. 

Riggs, 27, is a native of Monroe in Southeast Michigan who got a job as a personal trainer at MVP Sportsplex after graduating from Grand Valley State University.

Their new house was one of three in a row built that year in a new subdivision located on the citys expanding Northeast Side, according to city records.

“Sometimes, buying a home can be difficult and stressful,” he said. “Thats why you want to have a good agent. You need help navigating through that process.”

With a cozy brick fireplace in the big kitchen and hardwood floors, the white brick house with black shutters included a master bedroom with an ensuite bathroom and a two-stall garage.

When John Butkieiwicz retired from Wolverine Brass in 1972, he built an elaborate woodworking shop in the basement of their home, Phil Butkiewicz said.  

The only hitch: Riggs and St. Louis were in Southeast Michigan for the weekend and the seller had set Sunday noon as the deadline for taking offers.

“It was almost like a small factory down there,” his nephew said. “He ended up teaching wood working at the community college.”

In 1996, after 30 years, the house was sold. Elizabeth had died three years earlier at age 82. John was 86 at the time and was living in a nursing home, where he died 10 months later.

Their real estate agent, Ben Poortenga, saw the listing went it went online on a Friday afternoon. He called St. Louis and Riggs immediately.

First-time home buyer Lucinda Fedewa was single when she bought the house in July 1996. The purchase price was $97,500.  

“I loved the kitchen and the fireplace,” Fedewa said of her first impressions.

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Justin Riggs and Ashley St. Louis count themselves among the winners in Grand Rapids hot real estate market.

She removed the walls between two bedrooms at the back of the house to make a large master bedroom. She added French doors that opened to the deck and hot tub she had built behind the house.

“I told them its a nice place. Its a great area. Its pretty much everything they were looking for in a home,” Poortenga said.

Peter and Jessica Geerling also were first-time home buyers when they paid $138,710 for the house in the spring of 2006.

Like a growing number of millennials, buying a house has become a big part of their plans to establish roots in West Michigan.

When they walked into the house for the first time, Jessica Geerling recalls she was put off by the flowered wallpaper and the 1980s décor. 

She had her heart set on a fixer-upper in East Hills, an older and hipper neighborhood near Eastown.

“If we wouldnt have made that offer, we wouldnt have got this house,” Riggs said. “We couldnt sleep on it.”

“They told us, This house is in really good shape. The woman who owned it took extremely good care of it. Its going to be very low maintenance.”

“If you wait until you have enough money to buy a house, then youre never going to buy a house,” Riggs said.

Encouraged to look beyond decor which could be replaced, Geerling said she focused on the hot tub outside the master bedroom. 

They ended up repainting the walls and the bannister leading to the basement. They removed carpeting to expose the hardwood floors. 

They added a tile floor in the kitchen and pendant lamps in the dining area. They discovered the fireplace in the dining area was perfect for entertaining, Geerling said. 

As for the hot tub, they ended up taking it out and expanding the deck. “We never used it. It was too high maintenance,” she said with a laugh.

They sold the house when Jessica became pregnant with their second child. The two bedrooms on the main floor became a limiting factor.

The Geerlings sold the house for $128,000 in 2012. The housing market was depressed, and Jessica Geerling estimates they lost about $20,000. 

She justifies the sale price because of the good deal they got when they built a new house in Jenison.

The next owners also were first-time homebuyers. The house was 47 years old by then.

“It was a cute house when we got it. It was well styled for the time,” said Cassandra Haller. She and husband, Dr. David Haller, became the fourth owners of the house in 2012.

“We saw it as an investment opportunity,” Cassandra Haller said. “We were tired of paying rent and putting money into something we would never see back.”

Cassandra Haller, who works for a company that stages homes for sale, said she was able to develop her passion for interior design as they redecorated the house room by room.

Besides repainting, she converted the front coat closet into an alcove with a cushioned bench, shelves and coat hooks. 

They repainted and remodeled the kitchen, adding a new backsplash and hardware to the cabinets. They updated the hardware on the doors, replaced the garage doors and re-landscaped the yard.

“We have really fond memories of that house,” she said. “I think it taught us a lot about ourselves and our interests.”

Like the previous owners, a pregnancy provided the Hallers with the need to have a larger house.  

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