Charlie Duggan has the Midas touch when it comes to houses in the South Avondale area. His company, Avondale Turn LLC, has taken dozens of vacant or even abandoned houses and turned them into beautiful homes.
“When I moved here, I would drive through the neighborhood and wonder, ‘What’s going on here? Is there a nuclear waste dump under here?’” he says, sitting in his business, located in a stone house at 3731 Fifth Ave. South.
A Tennessee native, Duggan moved to Birmingham in 1995 after marrying his wife, Sarah, who is from Birmingham and owned a bungalow in Forest Park. He worked downtown and drove through the South Avondale area regularly. Then a neighbor, Chris Boehm, convinced him to get involved with efforts to make changes in Avondale.
Duggan began locating properties, buying them and rehabilitating them. His office was the first house he bought. “There were weeds up to the windowsills,” he says.
He soon located other houses nearby that were in need of attention. “They were empty and falling apart,” he says. “These houses were selling for such low prices at the time. The first house we bought was $18,000.”
Duggan says cleaning up the houses has helped clean up the neighborhood. He tells of one house, located across the alley from his office, that was occupied by a man who didn’t own it. It had a huge hole in the roof, and evidence suggested that the occupant was selling drugs from it.
“We bought the tax lien and fixed it up, and now it’s a gorgeous house,” he says.
Duggan calls himself “kind of a tree-hugger. We recycle everything we can.” He tries to return the houses to the way they looked when they were built, including removing vinyl siding, repairing or replacing wood siding and installing new wood-framed windows if the houses have metal-framed ones.
Duggan and his vice president, Drew Stewart, often have to scramble to find the building materials they need. He searches the Habitat for Humanity Restore on Crestwood Boulevard for appropriate replacement materials but says the Birmingham area needs more stores that sell used building materials.
One option is to work with owners or contractors of houses that are being demolished. Duggan says he sometimes can get usable wood siding that way. He helps others as well, including a homeowner who wants vinyl siding he is removing from a project.
Duggan’s finished projects resemble the results on television renovation programs. “We put in concrete and granite countertops and finish off hardwood floors,” he says. All houses also have high-efficiency heating and air conditioning systems, but Duggan preserves many architectural details on the older homes.
“We’ve probably renovated 35 houses in 16 to 18 years,” Duggan says. “We have 15 pieces [of property] right now,” he says. All of the current properties are within six blocks of his office.
While he generally focuses on houses that will become homes, one of his latest projects is a house at 4116 Fourth Ave. South that has been rezoned for use as a professional office. The interior includes the bells and whistles of the other houses, including a full kitchen with granite countertops. Duggan says zoning would allow a tenant there to combine an office with living quarters.
The painstaking work included stripping six layers of paint from the brick fireplace. The result was bricks that still have some remnants of the paint, giving them an interesting combination of color and texture.
One thing that makes Duggan proud is that his company hires teenagers from the neighborhood to help work on the houses, paying them while they learn to do construction work. He says he works with the staff at Avondale United Methodist Church to find youths who want to work.
Duggan sees a bright future for Avondale, particularly with the new businesses that are going in. He credits Avondale Brewing Co. with setting things in motion, but he is also excited that owners of the Melt food truck plan to open a restaurant in a former gas station building at 41st Street and Fourth Avenue South. He says residents like the fact that they can walk to restaurants and other businesses, including grocery and drug stores, if they don’t want to drive.
The majority of Duggan’s tenants are connected to the University of Alabama at Birmingham — mostly medical students, interns and doctoral students. He says they sign two- or three-year leases for the time they will be in Birmingham. That also reduces the turnover among his tenants.
“When we put up a house for rent, it rents immediately,” he says. He recalls listing a house for rent in April and getting 72 inquiries within an hour or so. It turned out that it was “match day,” the day when medical students around the country learn where they will be going as interns and begin scrambling to find housing.
“If we find someone who wants to buy a house, that’s good, too,” he adds.
Duggan also owns two vacant lots and says, “I’ll give a lot to anybody who wants to build a cool new house on it with a new urban theme.”
The house plans would have to be for a “green” home. He says, “Stone is great. Wood is great. Plastic is not great.”
Duggan, who has a degree in real estate and urban planning from the University of Tennessee, was vice president of resort management for Spinnaker Development Corp. and based in Hilton Head, S.C., before moving to Birmingham. His “bread and butter business” is Duggan Property Services, which negotiates property tax evaluations for property owners around the nation. Duggan works with government officials to set property valuations that are used to determine real estate taxes.
“Avondale Turn is more fun because you have so much to sell,” he says. “It’s a long-haul deal, but it’s worth it. I like working down here.”
Duggan also runs Woodlawn Development Investment Corp., which worked with Region 2020 several years ago to buy and renovate 20 houses in Woodlawn. He still owns three rental properties in that venture but found buyers for 17 of them.
Meanwhile, he is constantly looking for more houses to buy in Avondale. He’s working to find information on a group of four foreclosed houses in the neighborhood. Asked what direction Avondale Turn will take when he runs out of properties to renovate, he says, “We’ll keep pushing out to Woodlawn.”
But Duggan adds, “There’s still plenty of work to do here in South Avondale.”