Thursday, March 29, 2007

More on "Flip This House" in New Haven

Let’s face it, Hudson Street in New Haven has seen better days, as it sits humbly in old age alongside the New Haven Armory and New Haven Correctional Facility.
But this little street with houses on one side has also seen worse days, and it seems to be coming back. At 8 p.m. Saturday, one of its success stories will be featured on national television.
New Haven home-renovation company CT Homes LLC will serve as one of three "casts" for this season’s "Flip This House" on A&E channel, and one of the five homes you can see them "flip" (buy, rehab and sell for profit) will be a humble little makeover at 92 Hudson St.
On a mild late-winter day recently, Lori Parks of CT Homes LLC and a camera crew are waiting for her young telegenic colleagues to breeze in for an open house at the property.
Parks handles sales for the busy East Street company, but this day she’s also baking cookies and putting out veggies (little tricks of the trade). She expects the home to be sold within a day (in truth, the weekday open house seems staged for reporters and the producers’ cameras).
"This is probably the cheapest house we’ve every done," says Parks, as a visiting agent shows a pair of prospective buyers the tiny (700-square-foot) house that was picked up for almost nothing and lists for $119,000.
Yale alum Nathaniel "Than" Merrill, 29, whose name may ring a bell to football fans because he played for Yale and briefly for the Chicago Bears, started the business three years ago, calling in his childhood friend Paul Esajian (a builder) from their native Fresno, Calif.
Paul’s brother J.D. (the only one over 30 years old, at 33) came East to join the fledgling business as project manager, and the crew was off and running — scoring successful rehabs to the tune of 104 houses last year in the Greater New Haven area, according to Paul.
Steve Kantor, a top "Flip" producer from Departure Films of New York, said upcoming episodes will feature CT Homes’ rehabs in West Haven and Bridgeport (as well as different casts in Texas and Atlanta). It’s really about the people doing the "flips" — in this case, the real-life CT Homes staff.
"We spend a lot of our energy following our subjects," says Kantor, accompanied by two other film-crew members this day. "We think of the genre as a docu-soap. I’m interested in the characters and how they interact."
This lively group was chosen because, aside from Parks, it’s a boys club of sports-loving pals with marquee looks who are making money. Their East Street offices at Foundry Square employ 14 people, including a full-time cook and in-house masseuse, says Park.
Almost an hour into the open house, the rest of the young entrepreneurs, including Konrad Sopielnikow and Jeremy Black (a former model tasked with finding good deals), arrive in two cars.
"The posse just showed up," says Park, as Than and Co. are miked up before approaching the house.
In reality TV, there are spontaneous moments ("J.D,, this is nice!" says one of the guys as he surveys the near-final product) and there are interviews and entrances that are reshot a couple of times to serve the story line more effectively. ("Count to five and enter the room," instructs Kantor, with camera in hand.)
"Flipping" can be a societal curse if it’s mishandled or eliminates bargains for low-end buyers, but in this case it seems to be saving rundown properties for purchase by new buyers.
"We prefer to sell to owner-occupants," says Merrill, "not investors. But once you get over three units (three-family and up), it’s tough to do that."
The A&E show (8 p.m. Saturday) will be good publicity for not only CT Homes, but New Haven itself, says Merrill, whose company has carved out a niche in the area of blighted and vacant properties by buying them cheaply and turning them around. (It also does more expensive homes, too.)
Is Merrill anxious about local competitors seeing how CT Homes spins its real-estate magic?
"I’m not really worried about that," he says. "We buy and sell to them, too; it’s a networking business."
In fact, there is big money to be made showing others how to fix up and flip or "wholesale" properties. Merrill and Paul Esajian run consulting seminars and sell DVD courses in places like Orlando, Fla., under the name Fortune Builders Inc. That’s when they’re not sprinting around to a dozen properties around New Haven.
But doesn’t the housing downturn (pushed by failures in sub-prime lending and a softening market) mean that "flipping" is getting very dangerous?
"It means more time finding buyers," says Merrill, a political-science major in college. "You can expect properties to sit longer. You may need to spend more in marketing to buyers. Financing can be tougher to arrange. ... But we have a system in place and we try to run it as organized as possible."
Paul Esajian, who attended the University of California-Davis, says price points are much higher in California.
"New Haven is a great city for us," he says. "We’ll come into blocks that are 100 years old and have deficiencies. This house was gutted," he says, pointing to the newly painted walls, hardwood floors and a new kitchen inside 92 Hudson St.
"It was a learning curve," says Paul Esajian. "We won’t take a project if we can’t buy it right. We like it when we don’t have to skimp on the budget."
Like Merrill, Paul Esajian is still bullish and confident despite a worsening real estate market. And he sees social benefits in what his company does.
"Every time we’ve started on a bad block, in a couple of weeks I’ll see people working on their homes. It’s not because of us necessarily, but we’re part of a momentum. ... I’ve noticed it too many times."
Joe Amarante is the Register TV editor. Send e-mail to See his blog at


Jacqueline said...

Than Merrill one of these guys on this show is not an honest person! I actually have heard him speak. I wouldn't trust him with five dollars!!!

Mrs. Malakar said...

These guys are every girls dream! Besides the fact that they are drop dead gorgous, they are hard working, smart, loyal, and do soo much for the community. Other guys should look at them and try to be just like them! They are so down to earth yet they work so damn hard!