Chicago's Merry Band of Homewreckers
After the Auction, They're Ready For Auction
By Dennis Rodkin. Special to the Tribune.
Published: Thursday, July 21, 1994
Saturday mornings, the Homewreckers Club arrives early. Members come armed with crowbars, hammers, shovels and impressive toolbelts. By 8:30 a.m. they have already lined the block with their vans, station wagons and pickup trucks, and they're tramping around in the back yard, peering in windows, pointing out to each other how easy it will be to rip the front door right off the place. The sun is barely up, the neighbors even less so, but these people are ready for action.
Or, more to the point, ready for auction. The Homewreckers Club, officially known as the Murco Rehabbers Network, is a merry band of Chicago-area homeowners who spend their Saturdays pillaging old houses about to be torn down. By the end of the day, they'll have carted away any scrap of a house they might be able to use in their own home-renovation efforts. They show up early so they'll have lots of time to check out the house's floors, cabinets, mantels, appliances, shrubs-even its lightbulbs-before the whole place is put up for auction, piece by piece, starting at 9 a.m. Everything but the structural walls and ceilings is fair game at a Murco auction.
"They'll take it all; the bushes, the windows-they'll take a nail out of a board if it's the kind they were looking for," builder Milt Meiselman said on a recent Saturday morning as he watched the club reduce a ranch house in a plush section of Lincolnwood to a stripped-bare carcass. Meiselman had bought the 2,400-square-foot house with designs on knocking it down and putting up a new one at least twice its size.
A demolition crew was scheduled to arrive Monday morning, but this Saturday onslaught of homewreckers was an effort to reduce the volume that would eventually get trucked off to a landfill. The auction, which would net Meiselman about $2,000, would defray part of the demolition cost of $20,000 to $25,000. "It's found money for me," he said. "If they weren't here, all this stuff would just go into the dump trucks." That would include the 30 white metal kitchen cabinets that one homewrecker bought for $375, three rooms of off-white carpeting ($110), the faux marble mantelpiece ($105), the bathroom mirror ($12), and even perennial hostas in the side yard that were still only mid-spring sprouts ($4.50 a clump).
A homewrecker who buys anything has until just 5 p.m. to remove it from the site, so within seconds of the auctioneer yelling "Sold," out come the tools.
At 9:50 a.m. at the Lincolnwood auction, one homewrecker was pulling out two bathroom windows, another was removing a toilet, and two more were bidding on a mirror. Outside, a couple was busy digging up a 30-foot stretch of interlocking brick pavers. The first load had their station wagon sagging like a swayback mule, but they had paid just $180 for at least $800 worth of brick. With the money they saved, they could afford to have the car's suspension checked afterward. A few minutes later, another couple was lashing the dryer they bought for $50 into the hatchback of their Honda, which appeared to be about the same size as the appliance.
Half the fun is in the destruction. At a recent Murco sale in Park Ridge, a man crouched down with a crowbar to yank the vintage baseboards off the living room walls. His 3 1/2-year-old son, meanwhile, carefully aimed Dad's hammer at the walls, swung and punched an apple-size hole in the plaster. Then another, and another. "Daddy, we're making a big mess," the boy said between whacks at the wall. What the heck-paid professionals would arrive a few days later to take down whatever walls Junior didn't demolish.
A little work, lot of savings
"These old houses are goldmines," says Eric Turner, a dedicated homewrecker who is rehabbing a house in Deerfield with his brother. A regular at Murco auctions for three years, Turner says he trimmed the second floor of his house with storebought trim for about four times the price he paid on trim for the first floor that he picked up at a Murco auction. "It's not brand new out of the wrapper," Turner says, "but you can do a little work to make it look right when you've saved so much money."
The spiritual leader of the Homewreckers Club is Jodi Murphy, president of Murco Recycling Enterprises, which conducted 39 demolition auctions in 1993. Murphy is by far the most popular of her outfit's three, sometimes four, auctioneers. She jokes and clowns with bidders, while not at all subtly goosing their bids upward. "Half the reason to come out on Saturday is to see her at work," says Terri Beverly of south suburban Worth. Beverly and her husband, Terry, do the homewreckers' circuit most Saturdays. "Jodi's jokes are what gets everybody going in the morning," she says. Terry Beverly points out that Murphy's shtick is doubly effective: "She gets the prices way up too. It's always better to bid with the other auctioneers than with her if you want to get a really low price."
When she gets a homeowner or builder to agree to a demolition sale, Murphy mails out flyers to some 700 subscribers in the Murco Rehabbers Network. The pun-riddled flyers spell out what the house has to offer, and Murphy always emphasizes that potential bidders should bring the measurements of everything they need.
"If we sell it to you but then you can't use it, it becomes trash again," she says. "So I don't want you to buy it if you're not sure it fits."
At the Park Ridge sale, one Homewrecker couldn't resist bidding on a like-new steel storm door. But Murphy happened to know that his house has taller doorways than the steel door would fit. "What are you doing bidding on a door you can't use?" Murphy asked him. "That defeats the whole purpose if you just throw it away later." He really wanted the door, though, so he vowed: "If it doesn't fit I'll keep it in my garage forever, Jodi. I promise."
Heating up the sales
Before the club shows up on Saturdays, Murphy uses a marking pen to write goofy sales pitches on all the walls. Near some leaded windows, she'll write: "Get the lead out!" Over a refrigerator: "Where frigid is a good thing!" On the living room wall she usually draws a huge, sloppy map of the Earth; in Lincolnwood she marked a blob that was supposed to be Russia, "Hang Tough, Boris Baby!" and something that resembled Florida, "Where you can now afford to go after your great deals with Murco!" The only place you'll find more exclamation marks than on her signs is in her conversation.
"We've found a win-win-win situation," Murphy says. "The rehabbers couldn't get this stuff any cheaper, the owners of the house make a little extra money selling something that's just garbage for them, and the load that goes to the landfill is smaller."
Jim McNaughton, a west suburban builder whose company bears his name, estimates that a Murco sale cuts the debris pile for a single house by at least 20 percent. Meiselman says a house demolition typically generates about 50 truckloads of debris; if both figures are right, each Murco sale may keep 10 truckloads out of the dump.
"The part that still gets me," Murphy says, "is that all this stuff would just get dumped when there are people who can use it. The whole success of recycling is getting an end user for the goods. And we've got users-they're cheap people like me who will come and drag that stuff home."
Murphy and her husband, Patrick, hatched Murco Recycling Enterprises five years ago after discovering a treasure trove of cheap building materials: the fragments of houses that somebody wants to tear down in order to put up a nicer one on the lot. The Murphys, ambitious home rehabbers whose mortgage had tapped them out and left them scrounging for inexpensive materials, found out through a friend that a house in Hinsdale was about to be demolished and the scraps hauled off to a landfill. Being not only cash-poor but environmentalists who worry about overstuffed landfills, they hit on an idea. Why not get in just before demolition and scavenge bits of the house?
Weak wallets, strong backs
"We knew we couldn't be the only poor, dumb, struggling people out there who are strong of back but weak of wallet-people who will go anywhere for a bargain on building materials," Murphy says.
Their first demolition auction, in September 1989, was a big hit.
"We cleared out that house because we had no idea what things were worth. People got the best deals you will ever see at that sale," she says. "But after it was over we felt like we were onto something."
Their idea struck at the same time that potential targets of demolition auctions were multiplying. Since the mid-1980s, suburbs such as Hinsdale and Evanston have seen a rash of teardowns, in which old homes give way to bigger ones on the same lots. Nice old houses on the eve of destruction are loaded with the materials rehabbers crave.
"There's a lot of important material to reclaim in those houses," says Patrick O'Rourke, president of Landmark Realty in Glencoe. "It's a shame to see the old doors and the three-piece moldings going into the trash. You're not going to pay for that kind of millwork, or for new cut-glass doorknobs, anymore, but if you can pull it out of an older place that's on its way down, that's a bargain for everybody."
Back in Lincolnwood, by 10:30 a.m. two homewreckers were dismantling the garage door, another two were pulling down the kitchen cabinets and two more were taking down woven blinds from the sunroom.
In a bedroom, one couple was busily pulling up the rug, while a man followed behind them prying baseboards off the wall. Outside, dirt was flying as seven people were digging up the hostas, rhododendrons and barberry bushes they had bought.
Feeling the pain
The only clear loser in a Murco auction seems to be the lower-back muscles of club members. After half an hour smashing walls with a sledgehammer so he could let loose the faux marble mantelpiece he had bought, a tall, muscular homewrecker was swinging the hammer with decidedly less emphasis.
And on the front walk a few minutes later, the woman whose husband had driven away a load of paving stones in their beleaguered station wagon tried to unkink her back as she confided to a passerby that she hoped he could borrow a friend`s truck for the next load.