I grew up in an older home and swore I'd never again live in an "old house." I thought that living in an older home meant giving up modern conveniences, energy efficiency and a viable floor plan. I had come to equate awkward additions and constant repairs with old house dwelling. Experience has taught me otherwise. Over the last 30 years, I've owned new homes, historic homes and everything in between. I have learned to better navigate the restoration process and to balance the restoration of historic features with the elements that should be replaced with new materials. The questions and answers here are a compilation of firsthand experience and my experience with real estate customers exploring similar opportunities. If you've ever considered purchasing an historic home or if you've just wondered why anyone would, you may find this article interesting. The photographs in this article show an actual historic remodel in Austin, Texas—before, after and a side view that gives a glimpse of transition from old to new.
Q: Why buy historic?
A: History provides perspective for the present. The past is intriguing for good reason. The older parts of town are the foundation for what your city has become. The stories and the secrets of an older home are fascinating. For example, some of the things I learned about my current home are that it once quartered World War II soldiers returning to civilian life; that the front railing of the house had been changed from a flat surface to a round handrail to keep the kids from sitting on it and falling into the flower bed; that the original stone walkway was dredged from a nearby creek bed when newly freed slaves settled in the area in the early 1900s. The stories are endless and never cease to amuse.
Q: Why the hesitancy to purchase in historic neighborhoods?
A: Maybe it’s because the houses are old and repairs are hard to define. Or worse, some houses have been dismally remodeled making it complicated to distinguish the valuable older features of the house. It may also be because some cities have historic commissions that have input into what you can and can’t do. While all this may seem daunting at first, the process is completely navigable. It's often best to start by having an architect sketch “as-built” drawings so you will understand your starting point.
Q: Can I preserve the home’s history and still get the modern home I want?
A: Yes. The goal is to keep the enough of the home's charm and still have the amenities expected for today’s lifestyle. Think in specific terms about how you live and what you really need. Square footage may have limitations, but with a careful plan, you can prioritize what’s most important to you. The way you live, work and entertain will help determine your priorities for such things as closet space, floor plan changes, lighting design, kitchen and bathroom amenities. It's not an all or nothing; you can keep what is special about the house and still get the features and the energy efficiency we've come to expect today,
Q: How do I find a fixer-upper that makes sense?
A: The most important thing is to keep an open mind! Find a committed realtor who knows the neighborhood and can help give you the vision, resources, and budgeting tools you will need. It will take patience to find the right property, so you should expect your realtor to have familiarity with the process and to put in time and effort for you.
Q: How much fixing up on a fixer-upper to too much?
A: Once you have a clear understanding of the current condition of the home and what you plan to accomplish, it’s time to get specific so that you have clarity on timing and scope of work. This is why the option period is important. A reasonable seller should understand this as well.
If you are considering such an endeavor, do your homework, ask questions and focus on enjoying the learning process.