Long before The Property Brothers were popular, Julie and Chuck Vriesema were buying homes no one else wanted and turning them into bright new spaces.
In fact the couple started flipping houses unintentionally. When they were first married, they had a home on Michigan Line which they were fixing up to live in. When a farm came onto the market, the couple decided to sell the Michigan Line home and made a profit.
Years later, the Vriesemas were facing a major life change. Their pig barn had burned to the ground and they couldn’t afford to start again. They decided renovating old homes for profit or flipping might be just the right move.
But it wasn’t easy. “When we started, we called 20 or 30 agents, but no one would help us,” says Julie, noting at the time very few people flipped houses.
Julie would comb the real estate papers looking for that first home to renovate. “You are trying to find the ugly house on a nice street in a great neighbourhood.”
Eventually, Real Estate Agent Steve Park called with a home in Bright’s Grove.
“Steve was the only one who called us back… It took months to get our first house.”
Financing was also a problem. Without another income, they didn’t want to lend the couple the money for the home. Instead, a private lender helped them buy the home so they could get their start. Then the bank put up the money for renovations.
They got down to work with Chuck doing the interior construction right up to drywalling and Julie designing the interiors and painting, including mudding and sanding the drywall.
They also took on help, Julie’s nephew, so they could work quickly. “We do everything ourselves because that’s how we make our money
“It’s hard to make money if you hire everything out.”
The Vriesemas did a couple of flips in Sarnia but then ran into medical problems. Chuck needed major knee surgery and Julie slipped and fell on the ice suffering a serious concussion. They needed months to finish one of their homes and watched the seasons change – not an idea when the best way to earn profit is to renovate quickly and sell quickly so you don’t pay mortgage payments and carrying charges on an empty home.
After completing a number of homes in Sarnia, the Vriesemas found it was harder to get the type of home they needed to make a profit in Sarnia, so they turned their sights to Windsor – a market where the real estate was a little cheaper and there were a lot more fixer upper homes on the market.
The lived in Plympton-Wyoming, and travelled to Windsor
It was taxing on them and their family. “We worked from 7 am to 11 pm or 12 am every day,” she says. “We were working from Monday to Friday and we would sleep, work and eat, sleep, work and eat.”
And the neighbours of the fixer-uppers would watch in awe as they sat on their front porch. The Vriesemas were told by neighbours how excited they were to see the finished product since they’d been tempted to buy the home themselves just to bulldoze it.
Julie understands why some people were amazed that anyone would buy the unkempt buildings. “Often, we get into a project and think ‘what on earth did we do?’” she says.
Such was the case of one of the Windsor homes. Julie was still recovering from her head injury and had lost most of her sense of smell when they’d purchased a small home.
When the Vriesema’s took possession and went in to begin work, Julie knew immediately something was wrong with the home which had belonged to a horder and a cat owner. She walked in, took one whiff and thought “What on earth did we buy?”
When they tore up the flooring, they found out. “There was laminate on the floor, under it was all wet and orange and yellow. It was all animal urine.”
After a lot of bleach, the work on the home continued.
The Vriesema’s often find surprises – a small home with six layers of shingles, a home which had been on fire and very often, burn marks on studs because homeowners have left live electrical wires in the walls.
“We fix it the way we would want it done, so it’s done correctly and it’s done safely.”
And Julie admits sometimes when she’s renovating, she has to be “reined in a little” when she starts coming up with expensive ideas. She says one of the biggest lessons she’s learned is “to not get too carried away; to remember it is not your personal home. You have to appeal to the general public.”
The Vriesema’s, who moved back home but continue renovating homes in Windsor, say it is a lot of long hours but they love what they do. And they say, it is not a job for everyone. “A lot of people are interested in what we do because of all the TV shows…It looks like an easy way to make money and sometimes it is, but sometimes it isn’t. We’ve won big and we’ve lost big on houses.”