Historic Homes Niche 101

Are you passionate about older homes in your market? It might be a lucrative niche for your real estate business. Here’s how to get started.

June 5, 2014

Beth Harpell’s favorite story is how she saved a log cabin built in 1730 from demolition. The partially restored, foreclosed house had been on the market for nearly three years. If the residence had been empty much longer, it would have been condemned.

A salesperson and historic property specialist with RE/MAX House Values in Mt. Arlington, N.J., Harpell showed the dwelling to a young couple who were so charmed by the house’s potential that the husband broke down in tears, she says. They made an offer, which was accepted.

That sale reaffirmed Harpell’s passion for old houses, particularly early 18th century homes. “If I had to sell ranches and bi-levels, I would be out of this business so fast,” she says.

Whether it’s Art Deco mansions in Florida, quaint 1920s bungalows in Seattle, or even 1950s ranch homes in the Midwest, more real estate practitioners are specializing in selling historic residences. Some have related college degrees, others are self-taught, and many are increasingly attending classes and workshops specifically for agents and brokers.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C., has a real estate financing course that it holds twice a year. Indiana Landmarks, the nation’s largest statewide preservation group, has two continuing education courses that are approved by the state’s professional licensing agency and real estate commission: Introduction to Historic Preservation and Indiana Architectural Styles.

Education on what makes a home historical is critical, says Christina Pfau, salesperson at Compass, REALTORS®, in Jeffersonville, Ind. “Agents need to take every advantage to keep ahead of the competition,” says Pfau, an architectural historian who’s also worked in archaeology. “Nearly every area of the country has housing stock that can be classified as historic.”

The federal government classifies any structure over 50 years old as historic. This allows for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places and to qualify for historic tax credits, among other things, says Pfau. Many cities now have commissions or other government bodies that regulate outward appearance of these historic properties. Real estate professionals need to be informed for their clients to avoid surprises after the closing, she says.

Getting involved in local preservation projects and reading local history books is another way to educate yourself as a practitioner, says New Orleans resident Dorian Bennett, president of Dorian Bennett Sotheby International Realty. During the 1970s, Bennett tried to save some local homes from demolition. He also found books such as Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America (Simon & Schuster, 1998) by John M. Barry helpful when selling a rare 1784 Spanish custom house, one of the New Orleans’ oldest structures, at a 2009 auction.

Like Bennett, Joe Kunkel is a historic-preservation aficionado; his quest for a particular home actually led him to become a real estate practitioner. In 2000, he was looking for a Chicago-area Mid-Century Modern style house. Agents were willing to help him find a residence in a distinct location, but Kunkel wasn’t constricted by locale.

“I wanted a home of that period and I had a hard time finding it,” he says. “I was looking for a specific style, not a certain area. I ended up doing a lot of searching on my own; it was like searching for a needle in a haystack.”

Within two years, he found his dream home, which wasn’t even on the market. When the owner decided to sell, Kunkel made an offer. He now lives in Olympia Fields, Ill., in a house designed by famed architect Edward Dart in 1956.

When Kunkel later founded Chicago Bauhaus & Beyond, a nonprofit organization that celebrates and promotes 20th century modern architecture and design, he realized he had a new career as a real estate pro with Baird & Warner. “This was a topic I was passionate about and there was an underserved niche,” he says.

While it’s helpful to be knowledgeable about your area’s old housing stock, potential clients also want to see genuine interest. “You can’t live in a brand-new condo,” says Harpell. “It has to be in your heart.”

Harpell lives in a 1753 stone Colonial bank house with a rare French Huguenot–influenced style; Pfau, a circa 1895 Queen Anne/Prairie style shotgun house with her husband, also a real estate pro; and Bennett, an 1825 French Colonial style home on New Orleans’ famed Bourbon Street.

And that old log cabin home that Harpell sold? “The restoration has been completed, and I alerted the New Jersey State Historic Preservation Office about it,” says Harpell, “so, it’s now listed as one of the few extant log houses still in the state.”

freelance writer

Mary Beth Klatt is a freelance writer with a passion for architecture and home design.

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