Buying Virginia Historic Homes

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Buying a Historic Homes in Virginia

There are many historic homes available in central Virginia, where history abounds and homes can date back several hundred years. REALTOR® Jim Faulconer, principal broker for McLean Faulconer, Inc. in Charlottesville, says historic houses are one of his specialties and loves. For example, he’s the broker for the historic Carter’s Grove, a plantation house built in the late 1700s and located on 750 acres on the north shore of the James River in James City County.

Where Do You Find Something Historic?

“ Virginia Historic houses are often large properties with considerable acreage,” Faulconer says.

“Usually they are out in the country. From the Blue Ridge east to the Tidewater, the historical properties tend to be larger, while over in the Shenandoah Valley, they tend to be smaller—farms and homesteads. In the upland part of Virginia, the properties tended to be grazing farms for horses or cattle with not much growing of crops. Toward Tidewater, there were more cropping farms.”

The majority of properties have a minimum of 50-100 acres, he continues, but may have been carved off over the years. “For the most part, these were working farms or plantations,” he says, “so they generally have outbuildings like barns or other houses.” He adds that most people aren’t buying the properties to become farmers themselves and often will lease land to local farmers.

On the other hand, Faulconer says, all these properties aren’t far out in the countryside. There are also in-town historic homes such as a pre-Civil War home he recently brokered in downtown Lexington.

“There are a number of historic homes in historical cities like Staunton and Fredericksburg,” confirms REALTOR® John Ince of Nest Realty Group in Charlottesville, “but not so many in downtown Charlottesville.” Ince adds that the houses built in towns and cities usually have much less land. “I have a sister who has a house right in Scottsville,” he comments. “It’s a wonderful old Victorian.”

Whether out in the country or in town, there are definitely in and outs to buying a piece of history in terms of legalities, preservation, and updating. It’s a question finding the right buyer.

Who Is The Right Buyer For a Historic Home?

“People just like the character of these old places,” Faulconer says. “There are the intangibles of the historic aspect. If you’re going to live out in the country, you’re going there for that house. People come to our area from all over and they appreciate the quality of construction of these estates. In a sense they are also looking at themselves as stewards of the house. They want to be the next owner of some history.”

“People who buy Virginia old house properties are already thinking about it,” agrees John Ince of Nest Realty Group in Charlottesville. “It’s not an impulse purchase because it takes so much passion to take care of a historic home. It’s a lifestyle. The value of a historic home is in the character of the property. It takes a lot of money and a lot of love, but that’s why people do it.”

What Should Buyers Know About Virginia Historic Houses?

There are always issues with older homes, Ince points out. “You have to take care of old siding, old roofs, old foundations.” On the other hand, he says, the ante-bellum homes around Charlottesville were built by people of means on ideal land sites. “You could make good bricks from the ground around here and people built 18-inch solid-brick walls, then faced them with plaster,” he notes. “If a home is still standing after 200 years, there’s a lot right about it.”

In addition to the normal maintenance of an older home, Ince notes that there is the question of modernizing an old building. He has seen some very discouraging “modernization” in old homes—projects like linoleum over heart-pine flooring or vinyl siding over clapboard exteriors. “You just shudder,” Ince says with considerable feeling.

Retrofitting with modern amenities always runs the risk of being intrusive or inconsistent with an old home. “People want to keep the houses true,” Ince says. “This means, for one example, they are hesitant to put in forced air ducts that will compromise the historic integrity of the house. People take that seriously.”

Another consideration is whether a property had been listed for Virginia or National Landmark Status. If so, there are certain criteria, guidelines and requirements. The National Register of Historic Places, administered by the National Park Service, includes districts, buildings, and objects significant in American history, architecture, archeology, or engineering, and important to the history of their community, state, or the nation. There are both benefits and limits to being listed.

Benefits may include eligibility for favorable tax provisions in certain cases and possibly grants for historic preservation, when funds are available. There are a number of tax incentives at the national, state and sometimes at the local level to help owners of historic properties with necessary upkeep and preservation expenses.

Owners of private property listed in the National Register are free to maintain, manage, or dispose of their property as they choose provided that no Federal monies are involved—that is, they have not benefited from tax incentives or grants. However it is important to also consult with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to be sure about state rules and requirements.

It’s always a good idea to have a home inspection, in this case by a person well qualified to work with historic homes to check for things like adequate insulation, cost of utilities, existence of dry rot, mold, termites or problems related to the age of the home.

In addition, Faulconer notes that insurance might be a bit more expensive because of the cost of reproducing historical features. “But usually the buildings are solid,” he says. “Probably the distance from local fire departments affects insurance premiums more.” It is just one more thing to consider.

Renovations Are Rewarding, But Not Inexpensive

Three years ago, Janet Matthews, owner of Charlottesville Town and Country, acquired a 100year-old historic property in downtown Charlottesville. “I purchased a 1910 bungalow in the historic district behind the old Martha Jefferson Hospital,” she says. She and her son, Justin, renovated it together.

“In a historic district like this, exterior renovations are subject to certain rules,” she explains, “but fortunately the stucco exterior was in good shape and didn’t need any work.” She adds that interior renovations aren’t subject to approval unless the building is on the National Historic Register. In this case, her turn-of-the-last-century house was not a listed property and the interior was definitely ready for a makeover. Even though interior changes were not limited by rules or regulations, Matthews and her son, like most other buyers of historic houses, didn’t want to lose the historic character of the home.

“The place had been well maintained,” she relates, “but extremely poor renovations had taken place so we essentially gutted it. We replaced all the old wiring, tore up all the carpets, and replaced all the light fixtures.”

Under the carpets, they were happy to discover nice hardwood floors that they refinished. They redid the bathrooms with period-appropriate tile and fixtures and added an old claw foot tub to the upstairs bath. “I bought it over in the valley from someone who was demolishing an old house,” Matthews says with the satisfaction of a treasure hunter making a great find.

“Renovating the kitchen was the largest part of the project,” she continues, adding that this is not at all unusual when renovating a property. “First, we removed the pantry to put in an extra shower. After that we reconfigured the entire area and replaced all the cabinetry and appliances.” Bluestone countertops and ceramic floor tiles provide a low-maintenance modern touch, but the glass-fronted cabinets definitely harken back a hundred years to the time the house was originally built.

What About The Cost?

“Price wise there’s old and then there’s classic,” Ince says. “A classic historic home will demand a good price, but just because a property is 100 years old doesn’t make it a classic. You’re looking for a house with rooms of great proportions. The flooring is so important—it’s how you date a home.”

Not only do you have to consider the on-going maintenance costs of an older property, but also the cost of renovations that may be needed. Matthews, who renovated the 1910 bungalow, says, “There are construction project managers who specialize in old buildings and they can be a great help. Still the caveat is this: whatever you think it’s going to cost, it’s never that, no matter how carefully you plan.”

She estimates once the house had been bought, renovation by a contractor would have cost about half of the purchase price in addition. “But that’s if we paid for it all,” she says. “We left the electrical and plumbing work to professionals, but we did a lot of work ourselves—countertops, tiling, bathrooms, painting, you-name-it—so it the renovation cost was closer to about one-third of what we paid for the original house.”

Buying A Piece Of History

“We are in an old part of the United States,” concludes Faulconer, the broker for Carter’s Grove. “People are coming here to enjoy the lifestyle and natural beauty of our area with its historical tone. What I see is people moving from urban areas to enjoy life in the country and have a beautiful trophy home with a character from a different era from history.” By Marilyn Pribus

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