ELKHART — Petronila Corrales doesn’t have a Christmas tree at her home.
There aren’t any red and green decorations, wreaths or other yuletide flourishes.
Still, she’s definitely got Christmas spirit — for the first time since coming here from Honduras 12 years ago she lives in her own home, a dwelling in Elkhart’s older south central core that initially cost her just $526. That’s the best gift she could hope for.
Decorations and other Christmas trappings are absent “because I have the home,” she said. “It’s a present ... It’s a present that God gave me.”
Corrales, currently on leave from her work filling in as temporary help at area factories, made the winning bid for the home — the $526 offer — in a 2010 property tax sale. The prior owners had more than a year’s worth of delinquent taxes, leading to the home’s listing in the sale, and when they didn’t pay off the overdue amount in the yearlong grace period that followed Corrales’s bid, she became the owner.
It’s been a tough process renovating the home, which had — and still has — its share of bumps, bruises and flaws. The Elkhart Truth has visited and reported on Corrales’s efforts along the way, documenting the working-class immigrant’s unconventional route to home ownership.
Now, though, she’s finally achieved the end goal — she’s actually living in the dwelling, as of early November, about two years after the 2010 property tax sale. She’s no longer beholden to monthly rent payments, cramped apartments, visits from the landlord.
“I’m not worried about a knock on the door, asking for rent,” she said.
She has a place that’s hers, that she can call home.
“My dreams, I’m achieving them,” said Corrales.
She lives in the home with a brother, who’s helping with the remaining renovations. Her adoptive son, daughter and grandson, there part-time as the renovations wrap up, will soon move in full-time, she hopes.
MOLDY, TRASH-FILLED, ROTTED
That’s not to say it’s happily ever after from here on out. Work remains, notably on the rear section of the home, which had suffered heavy water damage.
Indeed, the house, as is, had hardly seemed a diamond in the rough.
On the stripped-down floor in the dining room, a spray-painted message had read “Welcome to my nightmare,” a parting shot, seemingly from the previous tenants.
A corner in the rear of the home, a separate unit in the two-story dwelling, was black with mold due to a leak in the roof there.
The floor in one upstairs section was so weak and rotted that it felt tender, creaky, unable to bear the full weight of a person.
Old clothing and trash littered two bedrooms. “Don’t touch anything here, nothing. It’s dirty,” Corrales had warned her son and grandson while showing the house during an Elkhart Truth visit in September 2011.
With the help of friends and, notably, congregants from Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Corrales has come a long way. She attends services at Prairie Street and church members have donated time and funds to help her whip the house into shape, mostly in the last seven months or so.
Walls and ceilings have been patched, replaced and painted. New flooring has been placed in rough spots. The leaky rear portion of the house has been patched and the rotting section partially replaced.
IN A WAR AND WINNING
Corrales figures it’s cost around $7,000 to get the home to its current state and the remaining work — installation of carpeting, kitchen work, continued repairs to the water-damaged areas and more — will probably require another $4,000. That’s not chump change, underscoring the fact that the price paid for homes at tax sales typically isn’t the only outlay.
In fact, some housing experts caution against the sort of buys Corrales made, in conjunction with a handful of others in south central Elkhart and a group known as the Prairie Wolf Collective.
Homes sold at tax sales frequently have much more damage than meets the eye, requiring extensive work to make them habitable, they warn. The typical buyers at Elkhart County property tax sales are professional investors and landlords well-versed in the process and the potential risks.
On the flip side, proponents say tax sales, approached cautiously, offer a route to home ownership for lower-income people who may not have other means. And Corrales, while daunted before renovation efforts on her home began, is pleased with the results so far.
“I feel like I’m in a war and I’m winning. I feel like I can do it,” she said. “If you try, you’ll get ahead.”