An article written by our Director of Productivity, Colleen Barry.
Massachusetts is often called “the birthplace of our nation.” The elegance and timeless beauty of our antique homes tie Greater Boston to its storied past, and is part of what sets us apart. Buyers have long desired to own these homes — driven by discerning taste, love of history, pride of association, or a feeling of stewardship for these architectural gems.
Marian Godfrey and Barbara Silberman wrote an article for Trust Magazine about historic homes. “Although some historic houses, like Mount Vernon or Monticello, have achieved revered status, the significance of most is far more modest. They are the mansions, plantations, cottages and vacation retreats of our earliest settlers, lovingly protected by local people who care about our nation’s rich past.” They later added, “Preservation is important—vital, in fact—if we as a nation are to retain authentic examples of history, culture and place.”
Frank Gehry said, “Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness.” In no other part of the country is that “time and place” felt as intensely as in the Northeast. According to the 2015 American Community Survey, 34% of the housing structures in the Boston Metro Area were built earlier than 1940 — compare that to Chicago at 21.1% or San Francisco at 20%. On average, New York had the oldest homes with a median of 55 years old, followed by Massachusetts at 52 years old. (source: factfinder.census.gov) Go overseas and the contrast is even greater. Jiro Yoshida, Assistant Professor of Business at Penn State said that in Japan “approximately half of houses are demolished before 38 years of building age.” This likely explains why, “on a per capita basis, the number of architects in Japan is 3.8 times greater than in the United States.” (source: Freakonomics, NPR, 2/14)
Inspired by local history, Gibson Sotheby’s International Realty recently hosted a panel discussion on Discovering Antique and Historic Homes. Local experts in property restoration, home inspection, real estate law, and financing spoke about the unique attributes, challenges and opportunities posed by these legacy buildings.
“There are a lot of features of historic homes that are better than what we have now,” said Doug Hanna of S + H Construction. “For instance, the wood that they were using for the most part is ‘virgin growth’ timber. The growth rings of the wood are very tight together and can withstand weathering.” Recognized as the 2013 “Remodeler of the Year” by the Builders & Remodelers Association of Greater Boston, Hanna is well respected in the industry and sought for his expertise in historical restorations and renovations. He added, “Some of the white pine sills that we see on houses around here have lasted for 170 years and they are fine… where as you can go out and buy a piece of pine today and in ten to fifteen years it will be rotten.”
While the original materials were sometimes better quality, they have often endured assaults from termites and other bugs. “If I go into a house from the 1700s or 1800s, I am likely to find bug damage. You have to be able to distinguish between what’s active and what has caused structural damage.” Mike Walsh of Walsh Home Inspections talked about the importance of understanding historic homes. “I might poke at a beam and knock off a quarter of an inch of wood that has been damaged. But, that beam might be a large tree trunk that has been there for 100 or 200 years and that level of damage is not likely to have affected the structural integrity.”
Some buyers see additional potential in these homes, often envisioning modern design updates. Walsh cautioned against making major improvements without consulting a professional. “The weight load that they were putting on houses in 1810 is nowhere near the weight load we put on them now. Be sure the structure can handle the weight load of putting in an additional bathroom or a large kitchen island.”
Structural concerns might not be the only stumbling block in an owner’s quest to make major improvements. Depending on the historic nature of the property, owners may need to go before the local historic commission or the national registry to request approvals. Doug Hanna offered salient advice. “If you go to them early in the process, you can find out what will be required to make improvements. If you have the luxury of going before you buy the house, that’s even better — but I realize in this market that you may not be able to do that. The commission might make trade-offs. Sometimes they might be more likely to approve a major change if, for instance, you remove an ugly addition that had been put on in the 1940s.”
PLANNING YOUR PURCHASE
Hanna’s reference to the rapid speed of the market wasn’t the only time it was mentioned. More aggressive buyers have been removing the inspection contingency to enhance their offers. Both Doug Hanna and Mike Walsh are sometimes engaged by real estate agents and their buyers to look at homes BEFORE they make an offer, to provide piece of mind.
Rick Scherer of MSA Mortgage cautioned against lifting contingencies. Instead, he suggested creating a shorter and more desirable timeline to make your offer more attractive. “We can shorten the timeframe on the mortgage commitment. It requires everybody to be on the same page to be sure that the quicker deadlines are met. We will all need to put on our ‘running shoes’ to get it done.” He added that finding comparable homes to appraise a unique, antique property can be a challenge. “There need to be at least one or two others comparable sold properties — sometimes the appraiser will need to look at neighboring communities.”
PROTECTING YOUR INVESTMENT
“For a home that was built prior to 1900, generally the advice is to get an historical insurance policy. The reason is that there are unique architectural attributes that will cost more to replace in the event that they are damaged,” said Ali Alavi, a real estate attorney at Alavi + Braza. He went on to offer advice. “If you are planning on purchasing an historical home and is in requirement of some serious improvements and you make those improvements, you really ought to go back to your insurance agent to increase your coverage, because you have expended a lot of money. So the insurance policy that you start out with and the insurance policy that you end up with should really be different.”
MORE THAN HOMES
This sense of legacy and cultural responsibility isn’t solely held by stewards of homes. Larry Rideout, Co-Owner and CEO of Gibson Sotheby’s International Realty recently led the charge with Woburn’s Mayor Scott Galvin to save the town’s library building. Originally designed by HH Richardson, the Pleasant Street library was built in 1879 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Rideout shared his feeling that “libraries are the heart and soul of any community. This building’s tremendous history and enduring beauty should be preserved for future generations.”
Rideout and his firm are longtime sponsors of Boston’s South End Historical Society House Tour, hosted every October. The South End has the largest collection of Victorian brick rowhouses in the country. The House Tour is a unique opportunity for history buffs and architecture aficionados to step inside these 100 year old homes and enjoy the renovations and restorations of subsequent homeowners.