Get to know the duo behind HGTV’s ‘Bargain Block’ and Nine Design + Homes, who are revitalizing the city house by house.
BY JACLYN TROP
In January 2017, Keith Bynum spent his 30th birthday on a redeye from Denver to Detroit, but he wasn’t coming here to party — he was coming to flip houses. “I was randomly following this house-flipper on Instagram, and one day he posted a story saying that he was flying to Detroit,” he says. “Then he posted that he had purchased 10 houses and had a revenue stream of more than $1 million. I thought, ‘Hmm. Interesting.’”
Bynum saw 12 houses, placed offers on two, and bought one.
Now, five years later, he and his partner, Evan Thomas (who’s not the Instagram house-flipper mentioned above), are renovating their way through the Motor City — and doing it for television. The charismatic duo, who live on the city’s west side, star on HGTV’s “Bargain Block,” which follows the couple while they flip houses in Detroit. The nine-episode series debuted in April 2021 to feature Bynum as designer and Thomas as carpenter as they transform ramshackle plots in Northwest Detroit into stylish starter homes. The show racked up more than 20 million viewers in its first season — what Loren Ruch, the senior vice president for programming and development at HGTV, classifies as “a hit” — and will return for a second season this summer.
“Their love for Detroit is palpable,” Ruch says. “It’s rewarding to see the home buyers who purchase their properties find happiness in the new homes and experience a sense of community in a city that has a rich and diverse history.”
Working and living together for the last nine years has given the twosome plenty of time to develop a relationship and a rapport that translate to the small screen. Bynum likes to push boundaries, describing his style as “eclectic, guilt-free luxury.” Thomas then tones down Bynum’s vision and helps bring it to life.
Bynum and Thomas met in 2013 in Colorado, where they lived at the time. “I got on Match.com one day, and Evan was the only other gay guy there,” recalls Bynum, 35, the fairer of the pair, with blue eyes and a quick smile. “I don’t remember who winked at whom.” Adds Thomas, 34, the taller and slightly more serious of the two, “It was the only Match date either of us went on.”
Thomas, originally from South Dakota, was completing his doctorate in physics at Colorado University – Boulder. Bynum, a Texas native with an MBA in Entrepreneurial Development, had just sold a successful home décor company with three retail locations.
They joined forces flipping houses in Denver — Bynum even landed an episode on HGTV’s “Tiny Paradise,” a show featuring small homes in idyllic locations — until that Instagram house-flipper put Detroit on Bynum’s radar.
After packing up their life in Colorado, they moved into a “cute brick house that looked really nice on the out-side,” Bynum recalls. They purchased the property, south of the Eight Mile Road and Livernois Avenue juncture, for $12,000.
But when they entered, they were greeted by roach bodies piled six inches deep in the kitchen and a faulty plumbing system. “I was standing in the dining room with two suitcases and a dog, just crying,” Bynum says. “We ended up living in an Airbnb for two weeks.” Embarking on a “massive learning curve,” they got the home in livable shape within a month and sold it soon after for $64,000.
Meanwhile, HGTV came knocking with a new, budget-oriented concept. “They knew that we were flipping houses here, so they were kind of into that,” says Thomas. “What they were really interested in is that we were on such a small budget and still making a decent design impact.”
Thus, “Bargain Block” was born. The pair have since flipped nearly 30 houses in Detroit proper — including a farmhouse and a schoolhouse — showcasing their eye for thrifting and penchant for handmade design. They have also designed a handful of homes for clients in the suburbs.
Bynum and Thomas buy low, renovate on a budget, and sell … low, to first-time buyers looking to spend less than $100,000 on a starter home. They renovate the houses for less than $45,000 apiece — at least, that was their budget for the show’s first season — with accessory and furniture finds from local thrift stores including Restore in Farmington Hills. They also use low-cost materials, such as the poured concrete countertops that Bynum proclaims in one episode “hit price, style, and function.” In the upcoming season, “Bargain Block” fans can expect to see the duo “with a lot of the same fundamentals that [they] have come to know and love, but with new, fresh elements and elevated design,” says Emily Mayo, who works with the pair.
When it comes to their renovation efforts, Bynum and Thomas decided to zero in on two Detroit neighborhoods, on the west side between Six and Eight Mile roads, after noticing the stark difference in real estate prices above Eight Mile. “The same houses that sell for $200,000 on the Ferndale side were going for $1,000 on the south side,” Thomas says. “You don’t have that anywhere else in the country.”
Now entering their fifth year in Detroit, Bynum and Thomas have established a relationship with the Detroit Land Bank Authority, which works with developers and community organizations to provide affordable housing and has helped the pair acquire properties. They’ve also built a social circle that expands with each house they renovate.
“We make an effort to talk to everybody we see,” Bynum says. “Having extra eyes on a house that’s under construction is always good, but we also talk with the neighbors about what they want to see in a house on their block.”
They enliven the neighborhood, says Detroit Realtor Shea Hicks Whitfield, a central character on “Bargain Block,” who met Bynum and Thomas when she was cast on the show. “We instantly clicked, and now they’re like my baby brothers,” she says. “We probably have way too much fun at work. It’s the most fun you can have in an abandoned house.”
Last year, Bynum and Thomas fortified their presence in the city with Nine Design + Homes, a retail store and showroom they opened on Grand River Avenue. “I have this weird habit of opening a retail store everywhere I go,” Bynum says. “It’s like a comfort blanket. That was one of my first priorities when we moved to Detroit.”
The 10,000-square-foot workshop and showroom reflect his passion for thrifting, with vintage-looking displays under a disco ball and a papier-mâché bird suspended from the ceiling. Customers are drawn by the chance to find pieces inspired by the show — and in some cases, that appeared on TV, especially Bynum’s cedar-slat art that he recreates for the shop. Bynum and Thomas also have plans to sell their own merchandise and expand the Nine Design brand. “It’s a nice, eclectic mix of things that I love,” Bynum says. “I find fun things that I love and put them together.”
You can catch Keith and Evan on Season 2 of Bargain Block on HGTV, debuting this summer 2022. They will also be featured in Season 3 of HGTV’s Rock The Block airing Spring 2022.
21616 Grand River Ave., Detroit
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