The front porch is sagging, the windows are boarded up and the kitchen sink drains into a bucket. But Mary Castro sees past the blight. She sees quality construction — historic elements like 9-inch floorboards and crown molding — as a starting point for adding value to the world.
Castro's 11 years of flipping properties suffered a setback last year when Dade City code enforcement forced her to demolish one of her residential investments on Howard Avenue. She simply couldn't get to the needed repairs fast enough. She decided to become a landlord and concentrate on reviving another downtown neighborhood.
Before-and-after comparisons of Castro's converted houses are models for urban renewal. She has inspired her neighbors and attracted new investors to the historic 15-block area north of Meridian Avenue.
"Anyone who watches Rehab Addict on DIY knows what I'm looking for," said Castro, 52, referring to a show on the Do It Yourself network about a woman who turns crumbling, old houses into historic homes.
As owner of Magnolia Real Estate Title Company, Castro is prepared to pounce on properties with potential. She recognizes quality elements, knows the right purchase prices and can quickly estimate costs to replace a roof, air conditioning, flooring, plumbing and wiring.
"The older the better," she said. "What you might consider hopeless, I imagine reviving to its former glory. Most investors aren't renovating historically."
She puts in more than sweat equity: She sold her Harley-Davidson motorcycle awhile back to buy the sandstone pavers that lead to her front door and circle her backyard pool. The building officials and code enforcement officers who guide her progress can see the difference.
"I do know that when she's involved, the property will be better than when she started," said building inspector Mike Barthle.
Doug True became a city inspector last October following an Air Force career that included putting out fires in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm. Now he's patrolling Dade City.
"I see the maintained gardens and stone walls and think 'oh my goodness, that owner must be really tired,' " True said. And then he sympathizes with other owners who "once had a lot of pride in that property" but have since let it slip.
Castro has four vacant properties adjacent to Meridian Avenue, ranging from dilapidated to ready for occupancy. When her mother, Shirley Fowler, moved from Leesburg in 2010, she intended to rehab a foreclosure next door to Castro's 13th Street home. But she and her contractor, Bob Larkin, decided it was beyond saving.
"We salvaged a lot of materials from the demolition," Larkin said, "but most was donated to Habitat for Humanity."
Fowler's dream house, which sprung up in its place, incorporated many of the original design elements, including 9-inch baseboards, a corner cabinet and brick on the facade.
Fowler then persuaded her sister and brother-in-law, Charlene and John Austin, to pull up roots from San Antonio, Texas, and retire in Dade City.
They and their son, Jay Austin, bought and rehabbed Castro's 11th and 12th Street bungalows. Soon their busy landscaper will lease another makeover across the street from Castro. Together they harvest vegetable gardens and cultivate dramatic floral beds, feeling safely nestled among five churches that sound daily bells.
"It's contagious," Castro said. "When people don't mind the view next door, they prune overgrowth and use my Dumpsters to clean up. I'm also encouraged by the couple from Wesley Chapel who just finished turning a drug house into a cottage charmer."
Dade City's department of safety service has reduced the number of code violations, from 614 citations in 2006, to 385 in 2011, to 143 so far this year, said safety department secretary Shirley Golladay. City officials credit better patrols and responses by code enforcement to complaints.
"We go on daily patrol and respond to our customers' complaints about overgrowth, trash and vehicles in the right of way," True said.
"At first, we try to put homeowners at ease over violations we can see from the street. We might have to write up a citation or a follow up summons," True said. "But most of the time our suggestions work. I also give referrals to organizations like the Boy Scouts or charities that will help solve the problems."
Castro said she has benefited from important tips about standards, codes and permitting.
"I appreciate their visits," she said. "And I hope they maintain that practice."