Some homeowners are pining for the past and spending big on restorations of historical homes…
As the sun begins to set, Lynne Denton heads to the living room of her Pawling, N.Y., home to light the candles in the chandelier. It is one of two rooms in her house where electricity isn’t used. Ms. Denton says it cost about $1 million to restore her house, built in 1747, to bring it as close as possible to its original state.
“Our friends thought we were absolutely crazy. But it was out of respect for our past, our history,” says Ms. Denton, a former antiques dealer, who owns the home with her husband, Kevin, a lawyer. “My goal was to make it museum quality.”
Restoring old homes is new again. The practice—which took off in the 1970s and spawned a number of specialty magazines and retro products—was hard hit by the economic downturn. Because they require specialized labor and materials, historic restorations typically cost more than traditional renovations. Buyers view old houses as more costly to maintain, making them a tough sell in a down market.
But restoration activity has picked up again in the past few years. “There’s a buzz about it again now,” says Christian Winkley of Oxford Builders, based in Hartford, Conn. His firm did only a handful of historic home restorations in 2008 and none at all in 2009 and in 2010; it completed eight this past year.
Arron Sturgis of Preservation Timber Framing in Berwick, Maine, says it takes less time to get projects off the ground. His company’s goal over the past decade was to have three projects a year; he now has five projects. “It is a striking change,” he says. “People are more interested in knowing how their house was built and in staying true to that.”
In the $700,000 renovation of her Craftsman/Colonial Revival house in Hartford, Conn., Marion Carling is reusing as many of the original fixtures and materials as possible—including a 110-year-old toilet.
Ms. Carling, who owns a knitting store, aims to bring the 6,000-square-foot home, built in 1905, as close as she can to its original condition. The structural work has been minimal; the real time and cost of the restoration has been in salvaging the old fixtures and materials, some of which had been covered over or were in disrepair. Ms. Carling fixed and reused all of the original light fixtures, which she describes as looking like “brass medieval torches.” She even salvaged three original radiators that had been custom made for the home and so were “important for authenticity,” she says. They will be hooked up to the new forced-air heating system.
The cost of the restoration, which is almost complete, is about three times what she would have paid for a renovation using new materials. But she believes the effort is worth the price, in part because the $500,000 purchase price of the home in 2010 was significantly lower than what an already-renovated house would have cost in that neighborhood.
“I figured I’d buy a house that needed work and do it the way I wanted, not the way someone else would do it…which probably would have meant things like granite countertops,” she says.
The surge in home restorations is part of an overall resurgence in the remodeling industry, which is at its highest level since the first quarter of 2004, according to the National Association of Home Builders. State tax credits also make historic preservation more attractive; 24 states now offer some form of credit for historic rehabilitation of owner-occupied homes. In Arkansas, for example, 14 such projects qualified in 2013 for a credit of 25% of the total qualified rehabilitation expenses, compared with one project in 2009 and three in 2010. Last year, North Carolina had 118 completed home-rehabilitation projects that qualified for state tax credit, compared with 107 a year earlier. Ms. Carling’s restoration will qualify for Connecticut’s tax credit, although the total credit is capped at $30,000 per home.
Amber and Walker Ross bought a Victorian built between 1908 and 1914 in Granbury, Texas, for $215,000 about 2½ years ago—and they are still restoring it. The couple, who live in Houston, have spent about $220,000, reusing what they can and trying to match what they can’t, such as the original pine wood, which has far fewer knots than pine today. They have tried to replicate the original cedar shake roof with a composite material that looks like cedar shake but is less prone to fires, but they refused to eliminate the original winged tips at the edge of the roofing, which made it a more difficult job. Ms. Ross estimates it cost about 40% more to restore it than it would have to renovate it.
For Dallas attorney Josiah Daniel and his wife, Susan, family history motivated them to restore the log house his great-great-grandfather, also named Josiah Daniel, built by hand in 1856. “We couldn’t let it go,” says Mr. Daniel. They bought the 900-square-foot home from his cousin and spent a few hundred thousand dollars disassembling and reconstructing what is now a guesthouse on their weekend farm in Tyler, Texas. That meant using the same hand-hewn method his great-great-grandfather used and taking off modifications added over the years.
The Daniels and their Dallas-based architect Stephen Chambers didn’t have photos to go on, but Mr. Chambers was able to figure out the original structure by examining the logs, researching similar designs and using clues in the house itself—such as square pegs to join the logs. They added two small, shed-like additions for a kitchen and bathroom, and to hide central air conditioning. Still, in the main house, “You can feel what it was like to live in the 1800s in the woods,” Mr. Daniel says.
Some owners don’t start out as preservationists. Joseph C. MacLean, an attorney, picked out an 1873 Victorian in a historic district of Northville, Mich., because he and his wife, Margie, liked its simple style and location near downtown. After buying the house in December for $460,000, Mr. MacLean became interested in the home’s history and started researching it, eventually hiring an architect who lived across the street to restore it. “It is just a sense of finding a unique house with a unique history,” he says.
The project isn’t extensive—mostly adding bathrooms and a back porch, and opening up the rooms. But staying faithful to the authentic materials, including recovering original floors, window trims and framing boards from 400-year-old trees, will cost about $200,000. “It takes more craftsmanship,” says the architect, Greg Presley, who does about 10 such projects a year.
It was that authentic feel that motivated Ms. Denton to forgo electricity in the two rooms of the house she and her husband disassembled, moved and restored in Pawling, N.Y. The rooms are wired in case a future owner wants lights, but every effort was made to keep the 18th-century look: hiding light switches, furnishing it with period antiques and making the swimming pool look like a pond. The house is now for sale for $1.6 million because the couple plans to move to France. “I want to get an even earlier period house,” she says.