A homeless Detroit man bought an abandoned house for $1,500 and spent 10 years renovating it for his wife. Here’s how he did it — and what it looks like now.

Michael and Cynthia Gray.

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Michael and Cynthia Gray.
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Michael Gray

  • In 2009, Michael Gray, a native Detroiter, bought an abandoned home from his nephew for just $1,500. He moved in as soon as he bought it.
  • Before purchasing the home, Gray told Business Insider that he was homeless and living in his niece’s basement.
  • In 2010, he began a nearly 10-year renovation process and transformed the home room by room.
  • In an interview with Business Insider, Gray explained how he turned the home into a livable space for both him and his wife.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Michael Gray is a native Detroiter.

At 67 years old, he spends his weekdays working as a machinist in Bowling Green, Ohio, and his weekends at his home in Detroit with his wife, Cynthia.

The story of their four-bedroom home dates back to November 2009, when Gray bought it from his nephew, who is a real-estate broker, for just $1,500.

Before purchasing the home, Gray was living in his niece’s basement. He told Business Insider he was homeless and that despite having a college degree, he was unable to find work in Detroit.

Gray told Business Insider that after getting hit by a car in 2008, he used some of the settlement money to buy the property. He moved in the day he bought it with nothing but an air mattress to sleep on. At the time, the home was in bad shape. According to Gray, it was infested with mites, spiders, and mice – not even the toilet worked.

Now, nearly a decade later, the home is unrecognizable. He chronicled the home’s transformation in photographs and compiled the photos in two hard-copy albums, which he mailed to Business Insider. In a phone interview with Business Insider, he explained the work that went into renovating his home.

Keep reading for a look at the transformation.

Do you have a similar home-renovation story? If you want to share your story, email this reporter at lbrandt@businessinsider.com.


Michael Gray’s house is in Detroit, right outside the University District. It’s about 1 mile from the University of Detroit Mercy.

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Google Maps

Detroit was once home to the booming auto industry. In the 1950s, the auto industry started declining, and companies started moving out of the city. By the 1960s, people were leaving Detroit in droves.

In 2013, the city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection. Now, more than five years later, more and more people are investing in the city.

Just consider the entrepreneur Dan Gilbert, the billionaire founder of Quicken Loans. As Business Insider previously reported, after Gilbert moved his company to downtown Detroit in 2010, he started the real-estate firm Bedrock. Not only is Quicken Loans now one of Detroit’s largest employers and taxpayers, but as of 2018, Bedrock had also invested or allocated $5.6 billion in roughly 100 properties in downtown Detroit and nearby neighborhoods.


Gray documented the entire renovation process in two large photo albums, which he mailed to Business Insider.

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Michael Gray

He bought the house in 2009 for $1,500 from his nephew Sylvester, who is a broker for Global Property Investment Group, a commercial real-estate agency.

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Michael Gray

Sylvester told Business Insider that his office buys real estate, sells real estate, renovates properties, and rents properties.

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The kitchen before renovations began.
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Michael Gray

Global Property Investment Group acquires properties from a variety of different sources, including asset managers, the Detroit Land Bank Authority, and the Wayne County Tax Auction, according to Sylvester. When properties don’t fit into the company’s business model, they are sold to independent purchasers, which is how Gray came across the house.

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The bathroom before renovations began.
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Michael Gray

Gray told Business Insider he has been living in the house since the day he bought it and that he started renovating it in April 2010.

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Wires hanging from the wall before renovations began.
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Michael Gray

“In Detroit, if you’re not there, or you don’t have someone there, someone will come in and take your stuff. It’s gone in a matter of 15 minutes, gone,” he told Business Insider.


When he first moved in, the house was infested with mites, spiders, and mice.

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The old crawl space behind the master bedroom.
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Michael Gray

He wasn’t even able to use the toilet. “The plumbing wasn’t working. We were not able to use the toilet at all,” he told Business Insider.

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Michael Gray

He slept on an air mattress upstairs and started renovating the house room by room.

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Michael Gray

Before buying the house, Gray told Business Insider he was homeless.

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Michal Gray

“I had been going through a rough time in my life,” he said. “I was staying with my niece and sleeping in her basement.”

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The process of moving the bathroom wall back a foot to make more room.
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Michael Gray

Even with a college degree, Gray told Business Insider that he wasn’t able to find a job in Detroit.

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Michael Gray

Gray graduated from Spring Arbor University in 1986. He double-majored in English and psychology. While he was living in his niece’s basement, he told Business Insider that he worked as a day laborer.

“I also began to craft my rehab skills working as a laborer for guys who were fixing up homes to rent,” he told Business Insider.


But in 2008, his life changed. While riding his bike, he was hit by a car. Using money from the settlement he received from the accident, Gray was able to purchase the house.

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The demolition of the ceiling in the living room.
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Michael Gray

His wife, Cynthia, who at the time was his fiancée, was there through it all. “My wife had been with me through thick and thin, and I told her that I was going to give her a house that she would be really proud to keep, live in, and show off,” he said.

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Michael Gray

When describing the renovation project, Gray called it a complete rehab. “I tore everything out, all the way down to the studs,” he said.

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Michael Gray

Gray said he did about 80% of the labor himself, including the flooring and the painting. His vision was to “make it a family home forever.”

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Michael Gray

He learned how to do most of the work during his time as an administrative assistant for a construction-management company in Michigan.

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Michael Gray

“I was on a project in Monroe, Michigan,” he told Business Insider. “When I was part of that renovation team, I watched the guys, I asked questions, and I said, ‘I can do this.'”


And for the work he couldn’t do himself, his friends, who were qualified to do the work, lent a helping hand.

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Michael Gray

They helped him install, along with other things, the drywall, the electrical box, a new furnace, a hot-water tank, and central air.

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Gray overseeing the roof replacement.
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Michael Gray

Gray told Business Insider that the hardest part of the renovation process was fixing the broken beams in the ceilings.

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Michael Gray

On the flip side, he said the easiest part was the tiling. “It was hard work, but I enjoyed doing the tiling because if you put a lot of love into what you do, your floors reflect a lot of who you are,” he said.

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Michael Gray

The major parts of the renovation process were completed in July 2012. However, Gray is constantly improving the home; at the moment, he’s working on upgrading the basement. He plans on finishing it by next year.

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Michael Gray

When he neared the completion of each room, Gray would stain, sand, and polish everything. “She had picked out the paint she wanted for each room and, after the drywall went up, I put the primer on and painted. I was closing out the rooms as we completed them,” he told Business Insider, referring to Cynthia.

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Michael Gray

Cynthia was in charge of decorating.

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Michael Gray

“That was for her. She shopped ’til she couldn’t walk anymore,” he told Business Insider.

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Michael Gray

The home now has three bedrooms and one bathroom.

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Michael Gray

There could be four bedrooms, but they decided to convert one of the rooms into a walk-in closet.

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Michael Gray

Here’s a close-up of the newly renovated crawl space. So far, Gray told Business Insider that he has invested about $70,000 into the home.

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Michael Gray

Gray works as a machinist in Bowling Green, Ohio. During the week, he lives there in an apartment. He joins Cynthia at their home in Detroit on the weekends.

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Google Maps

On November 2, they celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary.

Michael and Cynthia Gray.

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Michael and Cynthia Gray.
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Michael Gray