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In the new book Cheap Old Houses, authors Elizabeth and Ethan Finkelstein (the minds behind the addictive Instagram account and website by the same name) collect some of the most thrifty old real-estate buys—then restorations—in the country. In this excerpt, they tell the story of Detroit-based Kamaria Gray and Dakarai Carter and their $110,000 home, which has enough space to transform the yard into a community garden. 


Roots are important to Kamaria Gray and Dakarai Carter of Detroit. It’s fundamental to their past—they met while working at a nonprofit guiding youth on how to cook healthy, fulfilling meals using fresh fruits and vegetables. A part of the program even allowed students to get their hands in the dirt and grow their own ingredients. The passion for learning how to cultivate food and community was important, and they both knew this interest would be a through-line in their future lives. So when they heard about a cheap old house for sale with a small greenhouse and an acre of land, they began thinking of ways the property could be a gardening-based conduit to growth and connection with the neighborhood. They bought it for $110,000.

The house is their way of establishing roots, too. It has been a staple of their East Side neighborhood since it was built in 1948, replete with five bedrooms and period details scattered throughout. And it’s their first home together, both as a couple and as a family with their new baby, Cozi.

They love their vintage kitchen. A beadboard chair rail bands around the room, culminating at the giant bay window with its deep shelf and a scallop-front metal radiator cover. On top of the shelf is a menagerie of plants basking in sunlight.

Throughout, there are details large and small with throwback vibes: the original built-in vanity station in one bathroom with circular salmon-colored floor tiles, the curlicue newel post, the patchwork of parallelogram tiles in the entryway, and the genuine oversize doorbell chimes hanging in the hallway, awaiting repair.

And then there’s the open-ended display of vintage wallpaper. In the dining room, there’s an embossed square pattern in a muted shade of pink. The foyer has a pattern of beige-colored rosebuds tucked inside gold diamonds. In Cozi’s room, a dainty vine pattern with green tendrils cursives across a cream-colored background. The belle of it all is the bold green and turquoise cameo pattern splayed across the living room, equal parts grounding and explosive with color.

Kamaria considered removing the wallpaper when they first moved in, but no longer. They relish the playful pattern, and it’s important to preserve the multitude of layers that make up their house. “There’s another layer of butterfly wallpaper peeking through the holes,” she notes.

Butterflies hover on the outside, too, as Kamaria and Dakarai continue to build up garden beds and other infrastructure as part of their urban homesteading dream. To a certain degree, the backyard gardens are meant to grow food for their family, but also to directly address the scarcity in local resources that afford them and their neighbors access to fresh food. “We do most of our grocery shopping outside of the area we live in,” says Kamaria, “and we don’t believe that to be fair or necessary. With all this land, it only made sense to create a solution to the problem.”

They emphasize the opportunity to use the house as a gathering space to teach others how to grow their own food and live a more sustainable life. “It’s not every day you come across a house with a greenhouse and an acre in the city of Detroit, especially in a neighborhood like ours,” says Kamaria. “We feel it’s only right to share our good fortune with our surrounding community.”

Cheap Old Houses book cover
Cheap Old Houses by Elizabeth and Ethan Finkelstein, Amazon ($31)

Reprinted with permission from Cheap Old Houses: An Unconventional Guide to Loving and Restoring a Forgotten Home by Elizabeth and Ethan Finkelstein. Copyright © 2023. Published by Clarkson Potter Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Photographs copyright © 2023 by Kelly Marshall.