Artist transforms 3 alley houses

DREAM HOME

Rehab: A Ukrainian immigrant brings an artist's eye for detail to the rehabilitation of Baltimore houses. He sold the first two

the third is a keeper.

April 16, 2000|By Charles Cohen | Charles Cohen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

After surviving the rough-and-tumble real estate market of Ukraine, Ruslan Naida wondered if he had the nerve to plunge into the free and hazardous world of Baltimore's rehab trade.

With money from the sale of his grandfather's house in Kiev, he sank $15,000 in 1997 in a beleaguered fixer-upper on Portugal Street, an obscure corner of Fells Point. He rehabbed it and sold it and made a little money. He bought another house and did the same.

Today, he lives in his third home since coming to America -- a house in the 400 block of Durham Street in Upper Fells Point. This house is not for sale. Naida has built up enough equity to live in his own home and fix up another.

Equity and capital are not terms that Naida would use. As an artist, Naida likes to contemplate life's grayer areas. "This is my dream house," said Naida, whose winning struggle with English is an endearing trait. "I need time to face myself. I need time to ... what you say ..." "Grow," said his fiance, Lucy York, completing Naida's thought.

"Yeah, I need time to grow," he said.

What he lacks in furniture -- a love seat is all that occupies the living room -- he makes up with paintings and sculptures, which are displayed throughout the house.

Naida's waxed, spindled mustache pays tribute to his Cossack heritage, and his powerful handshake underscores his jovial personality.

Naida, 31, came of age during the last days of the Soviet Union. The government put him through art university, where he specialized in sculpture. In 1993, he came to the United States as a curator for the first exhibit from Ukraine, which had just broken from the Soviet Union.

Naida hadn't intended to stay in the United States. But it didn't take him long to see the opportunity in this country. After attaining his green card, he tried to live in Manhattan and learned the difficulty of making ends meet as an artist -- especially in New York.

"It would help to be very rich," he said.

Facing the financial realities of being a starving artist, Naida decided to try his hand at real estate. Living in Washington, he watched the restoration work in places like Georgetown and Alexandria, Va. He saw that rehabbing a home was much like an art project. His first challenge was to raise some money to buy a house.

"I could not make enough money here to start in real estate," he said. "I was just an immigrant with no credit."

In 1997, Naida returned to Kiev to sell his grandfather's home. By this time Ukraine's real estate market had become a breeding ground for organized crime. Their technique: Threaten the seller with violence and force the owner to sign over the house for no money. Naida, however, found a legitimate buyer who would pay for his grandfather's home in U.S. dollars. Still wary, Naida conducted the transaction at a neutral apartment surrounded by friends for protection.

"He was good guy; I was good guy but nobody knew it," he said. He returned to America with $70,000, but found that homes in Alexandria or Georgetown were beyond his means. Then he heard about this city up north where homes in need of rehab were selling for below $40,000.

For a man weaned in the communist system, he has produced a successful track record, although there are a couple of habits from the old country that he can't shake. For one, he doesn't believe in mortgages. "If you owe someone, it's like stone over you," he said.

Secondly, he believes in salvaging to save on material and he does most of the work himself. When he needs a ladder, he doesn't go to the hardware store, he makes one out of scrap wood. He made his own molding and rebuilt fireplaces using bricks at hand. He also turned attics into third floors by literally raising the roof.

He has developed his own signature style. Once he sells a house, he turns around and buys the next property he's been eyeing that very same day. He's found that offering cash is a nice introduction for a seller refusing to negotiate.

By the time he purchased the house on Durham Street, this alley house developer discovered something truly American -- the love affair of homeownership.

Naida set upon his now routine task of expanding the alley house.

He built an addition onto the back of the home, turning a pantry-sized kitchen into a cozy dining area. He turned the third-floor attic into the perfect study, complete with a two-tier crow's nest deck off the stern.

He was able to squeeze a hot tub into the bathroom and decorated the walls in a blazing orange hue. It wasn't long before Naida started to think of this project as an artwork in progress, a piece he could not part with right away. This time, it wasn't a house to sell for profit. It was personal.

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