The Hot Seat: Phyllis Bobb and Emilia DeVitis

reclaimed home hot seat

Welcome to the Hot Seat, where we interview people involved in real estate, architecture, development and design. Introducing Phyllis Bobb and Emilia DeVitis, bloggers and owners of Reclaimed Home, an architectural salvage and antique store in southern Crown Heights. Bobb has been blogging about renovation, upcycling and recycling vintage items at Reclaimed Home since 2007. She’s also a longtime Brownstoner commenter who goes by the username “rh.” She teamed up with her good friend DeVitis, a visual artist and studio manager, to open their shop in April.

Brownstoner: Where do you live, and how did you end up there?

Phyllis Bobb: I live in the southwest corner of Bed Stuy or “Bedford Corners Historic District,” as some like to call it. In 2003, my husband and I sold our Park Slope home and moved upstate to our weekend place in Ulster County. After a year of living in the woods, we decided that wasn’t for us but we still didn’t want to return to the city just yet, so we moved to Beacon, thinking that there was more going on.

I got involved with real estate up there and started looking for an investment property. After a deal in Newburgh fell though (thank heavens!), I started looking closer and closer to the city…Rockland County, Yonkers…The Bronx. Then my husband said “What if you look in Brooklyn?” And that was the beginning of the end of Beacon for us. We bought the two-family house as an investment, full well knowing that one day we would return. And so we did a couple of years ago!

As far as how I chose Bed Stuy, I just drove around the affordable areas to get a feel for them. A lot of my research came from Brownstoner. Back then, it was Bed Stuy, Crown Heights, Greenwood Heights, Gowanus and Sunset Park. Going south of where we were in South Slope (15th Street) would have been a step backwards, so I literally drew a radius around lower Manhattan and went for the 15 minute commute. A train only.

Emilia DeVitis: I’ve lived in Bay Ridge for a year now. I had lived in Manhattan since 1987, but the rent just got too expensive. Bay Ridge was the cheapest I could find in Brooklyn and I actually love it there.

BS: Can you talk about how the blog first began?

PB: The blog actually started when I finished my Bed Stuy renovation. There wasn’t enough time to do it during. At that point, I had 3.5 DIY renovations under my belt (Beacon was half finished) and I was looking for my next career, having semiretired from photography, my day job. The blog started as the face of my new business venture, which was selling repurposed items online and at markets. And of course that came out of my experience with restoring older homes. My first market was the Brownstoner Salvage Fest, and I remember that my blog had just launched around that time.

After the jump, Phyllis talks about the advantages of being in Crown Heights, her favorite salvage spots and how to avoid being ripped off while renovating. 

BS: What made you decide to open the storefront in Crown Heights? And what drew you to the neighborhood?

PB: First and foremost, affordability. Second, I wanted to be in an area with historic homes that still need work. This part of Crown Heights has exceeded my expectations as far as being a hub for neighborhoods that are both rapidly changing and already established. The storefront is located on the border of Prospect Heights, a block from the Botanic Gardens, only most people don’t realize how close it is because Carroll dead ends between Washington and Franklin. It’s in Crown Heights, but also accessible to PLG, Bed Stuy, Prospect Heights, Ditmas and Park Slope.

There are a lot of apartment buildings around here, which I thought wouldn’t really be my clientele, but it’s actually worked out great as far as furniture and vintage home items as so many new people are moving in. The shop is on a dead end street across from the police station. I wanted to be in a low traffic area so people can load and unload. I didn’t think there would be any foot traffic, but I’m pleasantly surprised that there is. Not like being on Franklin, on the trendy side of Eastern Parkway, but more than I expected.

BS: You mention on your about page that you’ve been renovating and flipping houses. What’s been your most interesting or challenging renovation?

PB: Well, there was only one intended flip. The rest was Hubby and I getting bored with our homes and their locations after finishing each renovation. I’d have to say that the most challenging and stressful was my first strictly investment property in Rockaway Beach. I closed in August of 2012. Two months later, I was watching an underwater Rockaway burn on the news, wondering if I had just lost our entire savings.

Of course, there were others who lost so much more and some who lost their lives, so who am I to complain about my stressful experience? At the end of the day, I was lucky. When I was finally able to get some gas in my car and get over the bridge, the neighbor across the street said to me “You’ve got some water in your basement.” I was like “That’s it? I’ll take it!” I didn’t know if the house would still be standing. “Some” water was six feet but it was only about $30,000 in damage, which was less than I had expected.

Anyway, it was my first renovation without my husband, although after Hurricane Sandy, he was there working every weekend with me to make up for lost time and money. I knew from the inspection that the house had some issues, but it seemed mostly cosmetic work that I could do myself. Of course when you start taking down some moldy sheetrock and realize there’s rotted wood behind it, then it turns into structural. So yada, yada….I have too much integrity to be a successful sleazy flipper.

At the end of the day, what was supposed to be a cosmetic three-month flip turned into about 10 months and the market had tanked after the storm. I put it up for sale or rent in June of 2013 and had only renters contacting me. The house is taking care of itself now and the tenants are renewing for another year while I keep my fingers crossed that there won’t be another “100-year storm.”

As far as the most interesting renovation, Rockaway was probably the most fun. It’s a frame house with no details so I didn’t have to do a proper restoration like I did in the Bed Stuy brownstone or with the Beacon Queen Anne. I was able to get more creative. I funked up the Beacon house too with Bradbury wallpaper and ornate light fixtures. I loved that house! I wish I could’ve transported it back to Brooklyn.

BS: Where are the best places to find salvaged pieces in and around the city?

PB: Oh, Eddie Hibbert is my go-to guy. Then there’s Vaccaro’s. If I’m out looking for something, I’ll do Vaccaro’s and Build it Green in the morning, then hit Eddie when he opens. I still prefer the original BIG in LIC because they have better prices.

The one good thing about living upstate all those years is that I know where to go. I have some pickers in the Beacon/Newburgh area, but that’s more furniture than salvage. If I’m on a major salvage search, I’ll go to northern New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut. I do like to hit the Habitat Re-Stores, but they mostly have newer building materials. Zaborski’s prices in Kingston are hit or miss, but they are lovable characters and they certainly have the inventory.

Right now we have more furniture than salvage at the shop because that’s what has been selling and it’s a small space so we can’t even try to compete with the larger salvage places. What we’re doing (and by “we” I mean my co-worker Emilia and I) is offering a shopping service. People let us know specifically what they are looking for, supplying dimensions and everything, and if we come across it in our travels, we text them photos and pick it up if they want it. Sometimes we might even find it online and it’s still less expensive for them with our added fee plus shipping than, say, buying it with some of those big name salvage places in the city. Not that we don’t love them. We just can’t afford them.

We also don’t buy locally and turn it around for a higher price in the shop. That would be weird, someone seeing a door at Eddie’s for $40 and then us charging $200 for the same door. If we’re buying locally, it’s usually something that we end up restoring or repurposing.

BS: We’re sure your experiences with renovation and upcycling/recycling furniture have taught you quite a bit about interior design. What kind of advice would you give to someone who’s renovating an older home in Brooklyn for the first time?

PB: Well, I’m not really an interior designer, I only play one on my blog. So, not to step on the toes of any industry people, but….I’m all about the DIY. If you don’t know what you’re doing, people will rip you off. It may be your architect or plumber or painter, but someone along the way is going to take advantage of your naiveté, so you should learn about your house and its workings. I’m experienced and I still get ripped off! But I don’t let it go too far. I’ve fired a lot of people after only a day.

If you’re hiring someone, know what you are looking at so you can judge whether or not it’s good work. I hired a few contractors from online rave reviews and I thought their work was totally shoddy. Learn the basics, like the fact that you need to prime before painting. Hello? Yes, I’ve seen contractors try to go around this step! Know that it’s not OK for the crew to leave their trash behind. I had a licensed electrician’s assistant steal a Sawzall from our basement, so I’m not talking about day laborers I pick up from Home Depot.

It’s so true that renovations take twice as long and cost twice as much. Try not to stress out about it. There WILL be set backs and surprises no matter what that inspector told you. You’re going to open a wall or floor and find that you need to point some bricks or sister joists or change out pipes. Just be happy that you uncovered those things before they got worse.

Here’s where I do my shameless plug and let you know that we’re going to be offering DIY classes and coaching, so you should put yourselves on our mailing list!

BS: Now for your favorite places: your favorite Brooklyn neighborhood, favorite spots in Crown Heights and Bed Stuy, and favorite Brooklyn building.

PB: Bed Stuy, of course! It still feels like a real neighborhood and I’ve been welcomed as part of the community even though all the old timers on my block are selling up and moving on. Now I’ll be the old timer. I do still have a soft spot for Coney Island as I spent my teen years there. It’s nice to get back to “real” Brooklyn sometimes.

I love my Saraghina. Also just discovered that I can sit outside with my dogs at Bed Vyne Brew, so that’s a plus. At work, I often get take out from Chavela’s but I’m not really crazy about waiting on line for dinner there. There’s definitely a shortage of good restaurants in these areas. Gotta admit that I often end up in other neighborhoods for dinner.

I love the Loew’s Pitkin and Erasmus High School. My dad went to Erasmus so I took note of that building even before I started to appreciate architecture. Some of my favorite structures aren’t special at all but mean something to me personally. The Maple Street Shul is a tiny box of a building in Crown Heights/Flatbush. A few years ago I found out that there’s a plaque with my great grandfather’s name on it as he helped build the shul. So, that’s pretty cool that my forebear’s name is on a building. I call it “my building.”

ED: I would say my favorite neighborhood is Brooklyn Heights — it always has been. I’m really liking the people in Crown Heights. It’s a very old Brooklyn feel, as is Bay Ridge. I love the Gingerbread House in Bay Ridge and also all the brownstones around Bed Stuy and Park Slope.

Check out previous Hot Seat posts.

2 Comment

  • Montrose Morris

    Great interview of two of my favorite people! I met Phyllis years ago through a Brownstoner gathering, and we’ve been friends ever since. She has plugged events I’ve been involved with, and supported all of the landmarking efforts in Bed Stuy. She and her husband are great hearted, generous and funny people, and I’m proud to know them. We were also buddies selling at the Flea in its early days, and I met Emelia at the first, and only, Brownstoner Salvage Fair, where we roasted in the sun like eggs on blacktop, but we made money! I’m so happy this new venture is successful and I wish you all the best!!

  • rh

    Aw, thanks! You’re one of my favorite people too! But didn’t we meet at the first flea? I guess you can call that a Brownstoner gathering.