Promoting a Home With a Past Life

There are buyers out there for properties that used to be something else, such as a church or a school. Your marketing needs to connect them.

June 1, 2011

It was the Holy Grail of listings: historical features, tastefully restored, with a high asking price.

But seasoned real estate pros John Woodruff and Marcus Miller of Woodruff & Miller in San Francisco knew that to attract the right buyer, they would need to take a different approach to marketing this property.

In 30 years of selling homes, they had not seen one quite like this. Dubbed “Castle on the Park,” the 12-room home (with three bedrooms and 2.5 baths) was not for the average buyer. The former Golden Gate Lutheran Church, a Gothic-revival style building in San Francisco’s Mission District, listed for $7.49 million and had been transformed into a single-family luxury home. Arched windows framed Dolores Park. Stained-glass windows and soaring, coffered, hand-painted ceilings were in mint condition. The garage could comfortably hold between four and six cars, a rarity for urban living. From the deck and the meditation and solarium room were 360-degree views of the city. Chef-quality appliances and fixtures were in the kitchen.

“We did not run a lot of pretty-picture ads,” Woodruff says. “We put some nice eye-candy media on YouTube. It went viral in terms of local REALTOR® conversation — and national REALTOR® conversations too. That seemed to get it out there quickly.”

The San Francisco Film Commission produced the video, followed by a private party at the home that was hosted by Don Julio Tequila. “For one night, they turned it into an amazing nightclub, which got a lot of press,” Woodruff says.

Blogs and Web sites picked up the story behind this listing immediately, sending ripples of interest around the country to architectural enthusiasts and window-shoppers alike. Back at the office, Woodruff and Miller went to work on finding that perfect buyer. They sent direct-mail pieces to “people in the Bay Area who would either have the interest to buy it or refer it,” Woodruff says, such as founders of high-tech companies, lawyers, CEOs, and professional athletes. A Web site advertising the listing debuted; it received hits from every country except for Greenland.

On the market for 11 months, and after a failed run two years prior that ended when the owner delisted and moved in, the house finally sold in May of this year. Children’s Day School — just down the street — purchased the property and intends to use it as a second location.

This story, while unique, is becoming more common. Listings for residential spaces that used to be taverns, churches, schools, or firehouses have begun popping up around the country. The repurposing of these properties — often historic structures in hip or up-and-coming urban areas — show that enthusiasm for historical renovation and community preservation have not disappeared in the face of a real estate downturn. And with relatively few resources — and a more modest asking price than the $7.6 million church-turned-home in San Francisco — real estate agents can bring these listings into the spotlight.

For instance, a $150,000 residential listing for a two-bedroom, one-bath home built in 1880 and formerly used as a schoolhouse sold this spring in West Sand Lake, N.Y., about 20 minutes outside of Albany. It was on the market for a mere five months before a buyer snapped it up.

In the end, what sealed the deal wasn’t just the historic significance of this former schoolhouse, which listing agent Christopher Broughton with Keller Williams in Latham, N.Y., tried to highlight. What attracted potential buyers was its location in a desirable school district. Still, when people contacted him about the property — most via a dedicated Web site for the home — they had some appreciation of its past.

“I played up that it’s a former schoolhouse through online marketing — the fact sheets and brochures — and print publications, too,” Broughton explains. “We referenced it in the remarks, but when we talked to people or walked them through, we talked more about the history.”

In May, Kevin Purtell, broker-owner of The Premier Group of Oshkosh in Wisconsin, put a former firehouse on the market. With a $349,900 price tag, the 1886 building — formerly called the Brooklyn #4 Hook & Ladder Firehouse — in Oshkosh has a whopping 9,000 square feet. It’s also within walking distance of the Fox River and downtown, which hosts the Grand Opera House, numerous retail boutiques, and a vibrant nightlife scene with taverns, bars, and lounges.

“You can see the river from many of the rooms,” says Purtell, who added that three of the poles that firemen used to slide down are still standing and the original arched doorways that once allowed buggies to move in and out are still there. The downstairs is zoned for 2,500 square feet of commercial space and the upstairs consists of living quarters once occupied by firemen. A former storage area for hay was converted into a bath and laundry room by the owners, who bought it in 1995 and spent years restoring it to mint condition. After the husband’s sudden death last year, his wife made the hard decision to let it go.

“Nobody expects to go into a commercial building and find a museum-quality living space. Yet there’s no question it’s a firehouse inside. The building is so rich in history. You can literally feel the laughter and camaraderie that was once in this building,” Purtell says.

Like Miller and Woodruff — who sold the former church in San Francisco — he invested in an expensive, eye-catching vinyl sign. It features color photos of the contemporary interior as alongside historic pictures of firemen in a horse and buggy. The sign will be affixed to the building’s fence. “The upside is that it’s going to be a gorgeous sign. The downside is that it can only be used once,” says Purtell. “I also have the listing out on many of the commercial Web sites.”

What kind of buyer would fall in love with a former firehouse? Purtell has some ideas. “I believe that it’s going to be a younger professional who wants to live downtown and go upstairs after work, maybe a law firm or an insurance firm,” he says. “There’s such a wide variety of potential uses here. It’s hard to target a potential buyer, and that’s the beauty of the building.”


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