Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).
There are few housing styles that evoke such an emotional response from buyers.
March 1, 2009
At a time when the economy boomed and industries began mass producing architectural elements for affordable prices, home owners became fascinated with a variety of styles that fell under the umbrella term “Victorian.”
Named after England’s Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 to 1901, the look of the homes varied widely—from the kooky Second Empire mansion featured in TV’s “Addams family,” to the more straight-laced Carpenter Gothic home that Grant Wood painted in “American Gothic.”
Despite their differences, houses of the Victorian genre shared an optimistic spirit, manifested by complex rooflines, rambling front porches, detailed ornamentation, and asymmetrical layouts. These design idiosyncrasies appealed to a growing number of constituencies—developers trying to outdo one another with curb appeal, construction professionals showing off skills with emerging technologies, and home owners displaying new wealth and individuality, says architect James B. Garrison, an associate principal at the New York-based architecture firm RMJM.
As a real estate practitioner, your role is to help buyers and sellers understand the Victorian home’s variations so they can evaluate their options in the marketplace. You also benefit from the knowledge of how to best remodel, furnish, and stage Victorians for resale. Some buyers may also seek advice about building a Neo-Victorian house.
A Time When More Was More
In Victorians’ heyday, generally said to be the 1870s-80s, elaborate ornamentation signified an owner’s wealth and status. Many equate this golden age with French Second Empire homes with mansard roofs and applied ornaments.
“Sometimes every square inch sometimes covered and it became an anything-goes architecture style,” says Miami-based designer Marianne Cusato (www.cusatocottages.com) and co-author of Get your House Right (Sterling, 2007). “Previous constraints were thrown out the window.”
These homes also had larger rooms with bigger windows and higher ceilings, and were among the first to have modern conveniences such as central heating and indoor plumbing, says Garrison.
Regional variations diminished as railroads delivered parts far and wide and as an increasing number of catalogs informed home owners of styles previously not known beyond their borders. “It was the first time you saw the same house built in San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston,” says Garrison.
After the Civil War and the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876, the American Shingle, Stick, and Romanesque variations replaced the European-inspired Italianate and Second Empire in popularity, says Garrison, author of Houses of Philadelphia (Acanthus Press, 2009), which has an 1885 Queen Anne on its cover.
By 1900, most Victorian-era homes lost favor, replaced by Colonial Revivals, which “celebrated American history but were also a reaction to immigration,” says Garrison.
Practical for Modern Families
In the 1960s and 1970s, Victorian-era homes regained followers, who found the style’s optimism and quirkiness appealing, says Garrison. “They also worked well for modern families because of their spacious interiors,” he says.
If your buyer is interested in Victorians, experts say it’s important to pay attention to the details on the inside and outside—especially if they want a home with authentic features.
- Study what’s on the surface. Because few rules governed what was stylistically correct, many Victorian-era homes reflected a free-for-all exterior, says Cusato. What matters most is that the proportions of parts—windows, doors, siding, porches, brackets—share a complementary scale. Windows were among the most important features since glass had become easier to ship and was another status symbol, Cusato says. Any additions should have been added in the right scale and place. “You wouldn’t want a three-car garage to be a dominant front feature,” Cusato says.
- Check beneath. Advise buyers to consider hiring an expert to examine the home’s bones to know if the structure is intact—that no termites are dining on porch railings—and that no lead paint, asbestos, radon, or mold lurks, Cusato says.
- Caution about upkeep and changes. While it’s easy to be charmed by a Victorian-era home, Duffy warns that it’s important to advise buyers that it can be pricey to keep the home in working order. But Jacob Albert I, an architect with Boston-based Albert, Righter & Tittmann, who’s also active with the Society for Architectural Historians, says the homes can be easier to make energy efficient than many 1950s modern houses because of solid walls and good infrastructure. He believes it’s important that remodeling reflect the home’s original design. “We’ve remodeled to remove unsympathetic details and put back something more in the home’s spirit,” he says. Homes in an historic district must heed other guidelines.
To help sellers present their listing in the best possible light:
- Be sure systems are a go. Rhonda Duffy, salesperson with Duffy Realty in Atlanta, says an older home in any style should always be presented in working order, with functioning appliances and energy-efficient windows and HVAC systems, unless it’s being sold “as is.” But even then, a seller should provide information on how the buyer might make it more functional, says Duffy, whose Web site offers useful tips.
- Play up historical significance and greenness. People buying older housing stock like the idea of being connected to a prior era when homes didn’t come from the same cookie cutter, Duffy says. She advises sellers to share a home’s history by building a story. “I have owners write a letter to buyers telling details about who lived there and what occurred in the home and neighborhood. They might research at an historical society. I also tell them to print it up with photos and allow lookers to take a copy,” she says. Garrison recommends emphasizing that the available supply is small and getting smaller. In addition, he says, “There’s nothing greener than keeping an old house.”
- Stage properly. In showing the house, Duffy advocates focusing on special features and making sure rooms aren’t overcrowded, which is a tendency of Victorian-era homes. “You don’t use as many furnishings and accessories as you would if you lived there,” she says.
While Victorian-era homes are not the most common style to replicate today, there are some exceptions. Shingle houses have become prevalent in coastal vacation communities such as New York’s Hamptons because they connote a leisurely bygone era.
Folk Victorian farmhouses have been built in traditional new development neighborhoods to provide old-fashioned, affordable charm, says Georgia Toney, a certified professional building designer who helped develop the Vinyl Siding Institute’s Designing Style guidebook. The element that stands out most as the hallmark of a modern Victorian home is a front porch. “It immediately says the house is part of a community,” says Garrison.
Whether new or old, Victorian homes have charm and a historical connection that’s uncommon in architecture today, writes Witold Rybczynski in his book, The Look of Architecture (Oxford, 2001). “They remind us of who we once were. And of who we might be again, for old buildings also inspire,” he says.