In October 2019, Jessica Nabongo added a major achievement to her CV: she became the first documented black woman to travel to any country in the world.
Then the pandemic struck and his globetrotting lifestyle came to a screeching halt. For the first time in a decade, the travel photographer and influencer behind Catch Me If You Can has spent two non-stop months at his home in Detroit, Michigan.
Nabongo, 37, had no plans to leave his sixth-floor condo, but when a one-bedroom unit on the 14th floor of his co-op building with a better view of the Detroit River came onto the market for $ 65,000, she thought, why not buy another one? The day after the unit’s listing, she made a cash offer of $ 44,000 and got the spot.
“I like to think of myself as a really amazing negotiator,” Nabongo told CNBC Make It. “Considering the incredibly short period and my cash offer, I was able to lower the price and sweetened the deal by telling them I could make a cash offer within ten days.”
The new unit, a 625 square foot one bath, was also a good deal; a bedroom in Detroit is typically worth $ 182,000, according to recent data from real estate company Zillow. “It was definitely a pandemic buy,” Nabongo said.
Before the pandemic, says Nabongo, she would not have bought the second unit, let alone had time to complete a home renovation. When she bought her original condo in 2017, she notes, she only spent 80 days a year there.
Now she sees her home as her “anchor” that keeps her anchored. “It’s just nice to know that I can come home and that I can feel comfortable in a place that is very familiar to me,” she says.
Nabongo divides his time between his two units. She lives and entertains in the newly remodeled 14th floor unit and uses her sixth floor condo as an office and storage space for everything from her Peloton bike to the artwork she collects.
“Travel makes me so happy,” says Nabongo. “But coming home to this space brings me joy like no other.”
Gut-renovate the living space
Nabongo purchased the new unit in September 2020 and began renovating days later with a budget of $ 25,000, including money for furniture and decor. She did “a complete gut renovation” that involved tearing up the bathroom and rebuilding it from scratch, tearing down a wall separating the kitchen and living room, and turning a cupboard into a cocktail bar.
She was “slightly over budget,” she says now, instead spending $ 52,000 in total on bowel renovations. “The renovations were definitely more expensive than I thought,” says Nabongo. “But luckily I had some money in savings, so I was able to afford the house I wanted.”
The condo renovation took nine months and resulted in a few headaches, such as having to change contractors for two months and redo the bathroom tiling due to a leak in the floor below. Pandemic supply chain issues have also meant it has waited longer than expected for furniture and appliances to arrive.
But the cost and the hassle were worth the customizations she wanted, she says, from the walk-in shower to the built-in cocktail bar. “It’s definitely a place that I’m always going to keep, so I wanted it to be exactly what I wanted,” she says.
Bring home travel treasures
There are only a few hundred people who have traveled to as many countries as Nabongo, and his home is filled with unique memories of his travels. “There are so many items that I brought back and really, they are split between the two units,” she says.
Scan her living room on the 14th floor and you will get a taste of his travels. Nabongo has a work of art on the wall of Goree Island in Senegal. “If you ever go to Dakar, you can get huge paintings for a minimal price,” she says. Another framed print on the wall is from Palestine.
The pillowcases on her sofa are handmade by a woman in Uganda. She bought her Persian rug in Iran.
Her kitchen backsplash is made from handmade tiles that she bought in Spain. She has a rare coconut shell on the shelf given to her by the government of Seychelles, the last country she visited. “Coco de mer is actually the largest seed in the plant kingdom, and therefore they are registered by the government,” she says.
Even the bar is very busy, filled with spirits from Peru, Mexico, Vienna and Barbados.
Rediscover the house
As a travel photographer and blogger who’s on the go most of the year, Nabongo says it’s heartwarming to have a permanent place to land. “Homeownership is extremely important to me, just because I want to know that the place will always be there, even when I’m not,” she says.
Spend so much time and energy beautifying your new condo Nabongo enjoyed being home even more.
“The pandemic has definitely changed my relationship with being at home,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh wow, this is so good. That’s why people buy houses and live there quite often.'”
Register now: Be smarter about your money and career with our weekly newsletter