ORLANDO, FL — So-called “ zombie” houses are the unfortunate result of the flood of foreclosures that occurred when the housing bubble burst in 2008. In some cases, houses were abandoned by their owners and ignored by the banks, leaving them to decay as homeowners around the property helplessly endured the growing blight on their neighborhoods.
Florida has one of the highest percentages of zombie houses in the country, partially due to the state’s lengthy foreclosure process.
But zombie houses also represent an opportunity for rehabbers looking to take a calculated risk such as Keith Ori, CEO of Parhelion Homes and cast member of FYI and A&E Network’s “Zombie House Flipping.” Parhelion Homes buys, renovates and re-sells between five and seven houses in the course of a year.
Ori found one such prospect on Copeland Drive in Orlando’s historic district. Originally built about 1925, the 3,000-square-foot home had been vacant for five years and was badly in need of repair. With four bedrooms and three full bathrooms, plus kitchen, laundry, and other living space, the house was one of the few in Orlando that also had a basement.
Tankless tops the list
When the crew began to think about improvements a gas-fired tankless water heater was one of the first things that came to mind. “Because it’s in the historic district there was easy access to the gas [lines] from the street,” Ori explained.
Parhelion Homes works with a group of dedicated, professional contractors. “There are flippers that do all the work themselves, but those aren’t career-minded people,” Ori said. “I know how to swing a hammer, but everybody that works for me knows how to do it better… so I do what I’m good at and I let them do what they’re good at.”
Along with his plumbing and piping contractor, Emerald Plumbing of Orlando, Fla, (www.emeraldplumbing.net) Ori chose to install a Noritz Residential NRC98-DV-NG vented for indoor use.
“We were aware of the Noritz brand and its reputation for versatility and reliability,” Ori said. “Noritz had the ideal product to use in the scenario we were dealing with..”
Ori and the rest of the Zombie House Flipping crew renovate with an eye toward energy-efficient solutions. The Residential NRC98-DV-NG is an Energy Star-rated appliance with a DOE Energy Factor of 0.91. And of course, tankless means no standby losses.
In fact, the real estate listing for the house at Copeland Avenue included specific mention of the tankless water heater, and Ori said that’s far from accidental. “It unquestionably adds value to the property. When people buy a house, they’re looking at the value of the house and the equity. But the second thing that people look at is what it’s going to cost them to own.”
Another reason they chose the Noritz was to reduce the time and complications of the installation. The NRC98-DV-NG can be installed with PVC or CPVC. The less costly, zero clearance plastic piping enables vent runs up to 62 linear feet.
“It gave us a lot of different opportunities,” Ori said. “You can approach it from a variety of different directions… you don’t have to go through all sorts of Rube Goldberg type solutions to figure out how to vent it safely. It’s just very simple and intuitive to use.
History to deal with
Part of the renovation challenge was the five years the house had been abandoned; but the other part was simply the 90-plus years the house had been standing. In all that time owners had come and gone, almost all of them making their own repairs, additions and modifications.
“It literally had every type of plumbing that’s been used in the United States since 1925,” Ori said. “There’s one run of pipe in the house that went from cast iron to copper to PVC to polybutylene to CPVC to PEX all within three feet! It was the most insane thing you’ve ever seen.”
The copper piping proved to be in surprisingly good shape, given how long the house had been empty. The polybutylene needed to be remediated. All told, it meant an extensive repiping job. Ori and Emerald Plumbing decided to go with a flexible piping solution.
“Zurn PEX was a great choice for repiping,” Ori said. “It’s semi-flexible and allows us to get into a lot of spaces a more rigid product wouldn’t. We wanted to not blow up all the plaster in the house.” Most of the walls in the house are plaster on wood lathe, not drywall.
Another issue when renovating a historic house is how far to pursue authenticity. Homeowners want their modern conveniences, but many buyers of historic homes want décor that evokes the building’s period, and that extends to the faucets and fixtures.
For the master bathroom, Ori wanted to do something special. While finding fixtures original to the 1920’s would have been cost-prohibitive – and probably not up to code -- he found a selection of brass reproduction fixtures from Kingston Brass.
But for the bathtub he managed to track down a piece from 1949, still stamped with the proud name of the American Standard Radiator and Sanitary Corporation. To finish the job, some sections of the PEX piping were sleeved in brass to give the vintage look of exposed piping.
“It’s been my favorite bathroom that we’ve ever done anywhere,” Ori said. “My wife is actually angry that I can make something like that to sell but I can’t give it to her.”
Ori couldn’t be more pleased with the overall outcome. “We won the 2017 City of Orlando historic preservation award for the work we did here.”
The family that bought the house has owned it for several months now, and they’ve had glowing reviews for the performance of the Noritz unit and the entire plumbing system.
And as for Ori, he and his crew are about to start filming their third season of “Zombie House Flipping” on A&E. “Some of the houses we have on deck for season three are larger and more comprehensive than anything we’ve done before. There should be some pretty good stuff to come.”