Houses With a Past

For history lovers, nothing beats the charm of a home built in a bygone era. Just make sure old-house buyers know what they’re getting into.

July 16, 2014

Growing up in mostly brand-new homes in Texas and New Jersey in the late 1960s and 1970s, Kirsten Oravec was raised to believe that newer construction was always the safest and most reliable home purchase one could make. No plumbing or electrical ticking time bomb to fret about. No worrying whether the roof would buckle from layers of replacement shingles dating back to the FDR administration. When Oravec bought her first home in 2003, Plano, Texas, offered few options outside of new construction. Her second purchase, in southern New Jersey, was also freshly built. What nagged at her, though, was her strong aesthetic preference for an older house. She had always admired her aunt’s century-old farmhouse in Pennsylvania. “It was pretty run down,” she recalls. “But there was just such charm, and you don’t get that in a brand-new home.”

Four years ago, Oravec did what she had long considered unthinkable: She bought a home built in 1930—and has never looked back. Sitting in her small 84-year-old cottage on the shores of Lake Gilman in southern New Jersey with wind chimes and birds echoing behind her, Oravec has found her bliss both as a home owner and a real estate practitioner. “It’s just a beautiful setting. My desk, when I work from home, overlooks the lake and I love it,” says Oravec, who obtained her license a year ago and now works as an associate with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach, REALTORS®, in Mullica, N.J. Everything from the sweet little footbridge on her property to the boat races and pie-eating contests of Lake Gilman Day has her smitten with the “On Golden Pond” setting. “It sounds kind of sentimental, but it really is all that,” she says. The home was originally used as a cabin-like summer house, but she had the second floor converted to create two bedrooms.

The Over-70 Set

America’s housing stock is relatively young: 40 is the median age of U.S. homes. Still, many buyers are drawn to properties with a considerably longer past—that is, homes built 75, 100, or occasionally even 200 years ago. The relatively rarefied ranks of older homes—15 percent of the current U.S. housing stock was built before 1940—makes these properties special. And even though what constitutes a “historic” home depends greatly on where you live, anyone who works in a neighborhood of older homes must bear crucial issues, and misconceptions, in mind.

Developing a comfort level with older homes is often necessary simply because they are mainstays of the local inventory. The new-home niche is limited by land availability, Robin Zeigler, a historic zoning administrator for Nashville, Tenn., points out. “There’s only so much land,” says Zeigler, who was formerly a board member of the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions. “More and more, we’re working with existing buildings.”

For some home buyers, an older home represents someone else’s choices; you may have to provide the necessary imagination to help them see it as their own. Others, like Oravec, are apprehensive about the work and money they presume they’ll have to put into an older home.

Rick Fifer, a salesperson with Florida Executive Realty in Tampa, Fla., and a specialist in early 20th century bungalows, does his best to educate buyers on the costs of rehabbing and insuring older homes. He says many people overestimate the costs associated with an older home—or underestimate those of a newer home. It all comes down to how well the home has been maintained. In many cases, “an older home is no more a ‘money pit’ than a new house,” he says. “If you’ve done nothing to maintain it, your ‘new’ house that you’ve lived in for 10–15 years can still cost a small fortune to fix.”

And reproducing the charm that comes standard on older homes—in the form of old hardwood floors, stained glass, and thick baseboards—is much more expensive than buying the original. “Many people are looking to have something that has character,” Fifer says. “If you try to get that in a new house, it’s going to cost you.”

The Effects of Aging

Still, there’s something to that “money pit” stereotype. So buyers, particularly first-timers, may need guidance to avoid getting themselves in over their heads. When she was searching for her house in 2010, before she started working in real estate, Oravec sought out a home inspector who specialized in older homes. She recognized that someone focused on new construction would be looking for other things. Her inspector, she’s happy to say, “was on a mission.” In one home she’d set her sights on, he marched down to the basement and used a special tool to poke at one of the wooden beams. “It almost disintegrated when he poked it,” she says.

Now that she has found her own perfect home and gotten a few transactions under her belt, Oravec is on a mission, too. She warns house hunters that the older homes in her community sometimes have unique landscapes that can cause modern problems. Some plots aren’t large enough to update an old-fashioned cesspool to the modern septic system required locally. She also tells buyers who are looking at joining the lake community to find out whether or not a home’s electrical work is up-to-date, as some of the older homes are still using the knob-and-tube wiring system popular from the late 1800s through the 1930s.

Bill Kibbel, a building inspector who specializes in historic residential and commercial property and a member of the Historic Building Inspectors Association, echoes Oravec’s warnings about the old-fashioned wiring, noting that even when the system has been updated, problems can still lurk within. “In a lot of cases, they’ll list the house as having ‘updated electrical,’ but it’s just a new circuit breaker with ancient wiring,” he says.

In his area of southeastern Pennsylvania and central New Jersey, Kibbel says the No. 1 problem he sees is with chimneys. He tends to see deterioration of the original masonry, especially in unlined flues, because “these chimneys are being used for venting modern heating equipment.”

He tends to work with homes that are anywhere from 100 to 300 years old, but sometimes it’s the newer parts of the home that pose the most problems. He notes that “with multiple additions, roof systems are very tricky.” Often it takes more time to fix an unprofessional roof job than it would have taken to have it done by a pro in the first place, according to Kibbel.

There are also region-specific issues. In Florida, Fifer has seen a great deal of resistance to older -timber-framed homes because of a fear of termites, but he sees those concerns as overblown. “Termites, like anything else, are a manageable issue [in an older home],” he says.

One of the most important things you can do when you’re listing an older home is to identify and recommend inspectors who understand it. Those who don’t have a lot of experience with older homes, Kibbel says, “think everything is a problem.” In fact, “some cracks are acceptable, and they’re pretty common for old buildings,” he says. “If it was newer construction, it would be a red flag.”

One way to be sure you’re dealing with a home inspector who is experienced with older homes is to find a member of the Historic Building Inspectors Association. However, the association is active in fewer than 20 states, so if there’s no one in your area with the HBIA credential, Kibbel suggests using the American Society of Home Inspectors’ online search to find inspectors who claim to have experience with older homes. Then, follow up with a few questions.

“Ask to see a sample report of an older home. You can tell a lot by what comes out in the report,” Kibbel says. One potential red flag is when an inspector recommends further evaluation from outside contractors on multiple issues. “If they’re referring everything off, that means they’re not comfortable with their own ability.”

A Connection to the Past

When it comes to marketing an older home, many of the usual rules apply. Fifer says it’s all about finding out what’s special about the property and the neighborhood and then emphasizing that when you tell the listing story. Original details, such as vintage lighting and original doorplates, can take on extra importance. “When we can find something like that in an older home, it’s worth emphasizing,” he says.

It may be valuable to bring in an expert to help you investigate and tell the story of your listing. Zeigler says local organizations or public libraries can assist with research; they may even retain old real estate advertisements from the distant past and other whimsical information to share with house hunters. “Houses are interesting because of their stories and connection to people’s lives,” she says.

Beyond the house, the neighborhood may provide marketing zing. Historical districts and special zoning areas dot the landscape from coast to coast. Sometimes they’re just a way of acknowledging the unique character of a neighborhood in a formal way; other times they serve as a mechanism for actively preserving specific architectural styles.

As a home owner fixing up a house in the Hampton Terrace neighborhood of Tampa Bay in the 1990s, Fifer served on the board of a local neighborhood association. After attending a statewide neighborhood conference, he wanted to create a historic district to encourage investment in his part of town. “I came back determined,” he says. “I saw it as a way of maintaining and revitalizing communities.”

Fifer met a lot of resistance. Some owners erroneously believed “they would be retroactively forced to bring their house into compliance” with the district’s architectural guidelines, he says. He was able to counter the concerns, and the district was established. And while he no longer lives in the historic district, Fifer says  property values in his Seminole Heights neighborhood are buoyed by the fact that it’s adjacent to the district.

Zeigler says misconceptions like those Fifer encountered are common. People are often under the impression that historic zoning laws govern interior decor, prohibit certain paint colors, or stop people from adding garages to their homes. While every local district is different, Zeigler says, few locales are interested in controlling such details.

“We’re not trying to keep these districts as museums. People live here. The buildings need to change over time,” she says. “What we’re doing preserves that historical character, which in many cases is the reason people want to live there.”

That said, Fifer admits there are extra hoops to jump through when an owner wants to renovate. “It’s a two-edged sword,” he says. The existence of historic districts can make some potential buyers “more comfortable and secure in their investment,” he says, but you have to make sure they’re up for the challenge.

Through NAPC, Zeigler provides continuing education training in Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia for real estate professionals interested in community preservation issues. She emphasizes that knowing the rules governing listings in your area is vital. “Sometimes there are historical districts that don’t mean much, and sometimes they are part of local zoning, which can mean a lot,” she says.

Being the Old-House Expert

In other words, knowing the neighborhood takes on new importance when historic designations are involved.

Just as real estate is local, so is preservation. Though the National Register of Historic Places is by far the most recognizable group in this arena, it does not govern property alterations. Zeigler suggests real estate pros contact their state’s preservation office and ask for a list of local and county historical districts. It may also be advisable to request overlays, which are maps that can show how the historical districts might affect local areas. A person can’t simply examine a building’s historic gingerbread trim to determine whether it is subject to local zoning requirements. “There are certainly homes that are old that aren’t historic, and there are buildings that aren’t necessarily that old but can be historic.”

But knowing a home’s or a neighborhood’s history is just the start of becoming an old-house expert. Since he’s torn through the walls of three older bungalows in the Tampa neighborhoods he serves, Fifer is a helpful resource for buyers wondering what might be underneath the surface. He says clients deeply appreciate that he knows how these older homes were constructed.

He’s also able to explain what makes these neighborhoods—some of which are emerging from decades of neglect—unique. Newcomers might look at visible wear and tear and assume deeper problems. He can tell them with confidence that just because a house doesn’t look pretty doesn’t make it unsafe. His deep knowledge of the neighborhoods is also helpful in determining comparables. For example, though the historic neighborhood of Old Seminole Heights is divided by an interstate, Fifer says, both sides of the neighborhood are deeply interconnected. The interstate “doesn’t act like a barrier as it might in other places. We have the folks that walk back and forth underneath and businesses on both sides that draw people in,” he says.

Living in an older home can certainly help your credibility, as can marketing specifically to older-home lovers.

Oravec is building her business on becoming the go-to person for real estate matters on Lake Gilman. She’s an executive board member for the organization that oversees the private tract surrounding the lake and helps owners understand the process for getting board approval for renovations. And she has invited experts to talk to owners about the challenges of keeping up the lake’s older homes.

Fifer’s website,, is heavily geared toward people looking for older homes, he says. He provides links to predefined searches of listings built before 1940 in a variety of price ranges. “I’ve sorted through it all, so buyers can find an older home without having to comb through everything.”

Fifer also uses social media to bring in new clients. His Facebook business page is dotted with colorful photos and descriptions of his latest listings. He also has used the platform to curate a list of resources for both his own neighborhood and all lovers of Florida’s historic homes. “I’ve featured local businesses, local events, or places that have vintage [housewares],” he says. “If people are in the market [for an older home], chances are they’re going to call me.”

Meg White

Meg White is the former managing editor of REALTOR® Magazine.



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