Taking on the Tear-Downs: Homeowners Are Giving Abandoned Homes New Life

From life-long dream homes to bed and breakfasts, more people are taking on restoration projects to bring old houses back to life.

Historic Homes
Photo: Courtesy of Betsy Sweeny

In Michelle Bowers' 1890 Victorian cottage, hidden away behind a board nailed shut underneath the stairs, workers unearthed a dust-covered bowl, a decorative cup with an attached spout, and bird-shaped tchotchke that when filled with water and blown into, whistled. They had been stowed away like a time capsule. These are the types of treasures that lie in wait in historic homes left untouched for years, collecting dust and in need of love.

Bowers runs a website called Old House Life. More than 710,000 people follow the account on Facebook, and it's gained more than 120,000 followers on Instagram. She says these numbers continue to grow, especially due to a rising interest from young people. Bowers started Old House Life by featuring historic homes she'd find while exploring backroads. She then became more passionate about helping share houses that needed to be saved, or restored.

Now, she posts homes that are currently on the market—all of them old, many of them fixer uppers, some with swaths of land or mountain views, and none that lack in charm. While she posts some listings over $300,000, many of these homes are what might be considered affordable. Some are under $100,000.

But with old homes, what you pay at closing is usually only the beginning. Next are the expenses that come with restoring or rehabilitating the home.

Not All Projects Look the Same

Bowers owns two homes in Danville, Virginia's, Old West End National Historic District. Though they're both "true fixer-uppers" right next door to each other, the extent of work they need is much different. The home she and her followers named "Moonlight Manor," is close to livable, but her "Sunshine Cottage"—which she wants to restore to how it appeared in 1890—is what some might call an undertaking.

"From the outside you would look and think, what a fairytale cottage! Then you walk inside and it's like, 'holy crap she's crazy for taking this on!' And that sometimes how I feel," Bowers said after describing the missing floors and holes in the roof that cause it to rain inside.

But Bowers isn't going in alone. She has the help of Ramsey Restoration, owned by Luke Ramsey. Ramsey gave her an idea of the type of work that would need to be done, and which projects, like the roof and water damage, needed to be done first.

Ramsey also bought a home in Danville's Old West End. The Clarke House, a Queen Anne Victorian built in 1888, still contained much of its original details in the form of ornate mantels and mouldings, but it also came with major roof and floor damage. Since buying it in May from the city's land bank, Ramsey has made enough of the rooms livable so that he can stay there on the weekends. He bought the 4,600-square-foot house adjacent to downtown for $10,000 and has already spent over $100,000 restoring half of the rooms.

The Cost of Restoration

Some of that price is due to the nature of the work—restoration, as opposed to making renovations and replacing old things with new, calls for using the same materials that a structure was built with.

"We're trying to put everything back like it was as much as possible, where renovating, a lot of times, they're modernizing more, like tearing out the plaster and putting drywall, and not saving as much of the original fabric as we like to… [Restoration] can cost more, more time consuming, more labor intensive, but it has a bigger reward, a better feel of the house when it's finished, in my opinion," Ramsey said.

Both Ramsey and Bowers say Danville's historic homes in the Old West End have attracted a community of people who are interested in restoration, history, and preservation. A lot of the properties may be dilapidated, but they remain close to historically accurate condition. Taking on these projects is not for turning around these homes and making a profit. These homes are larger-than-life rewards for those who live in and enjoy them.

There are many small towns like Danville that are full of historic homes ranging in levels of disrepair. Buyers are incentivized to take on these projects in the form of local, state, and federal tax credits. These incentives help catalyze revitalization in small communities and attract residents to downtown areas, said Betsy Sweeny, who is the Director of Heritage Programming for Wheeling Heritage in Wheeling, West Virginia. "It is really important and makes this very daunting, very large project a lot more feasible… It's really good for the community and it's good for the person that is expending their personal funds toward this life-long dream."

Historic Homes
Courtesy of Betsy Sweeny

She just bought her first historic property, which she plans to fully restore, in the East Wheeling Historic District. Sweeny's background in preservation helped her utilize a local preservation group's loan guarantee program for $25,000, which she put down as equity for $100,000 in renovation loan costs. Her home was appraised for $18,500, which she paid in cash. She says it'll take about $125,000 of work to make it livable.

She doesn't plan on changing the architecture at all, save for perhaps opening a wall in the kitchen. What she said sold her on the house was a tile fireplace mantel, one of five, which features decorative tiles embossed with dog figures. "My house is my dream house for sure," She said.

A Growing Obsession With Old Homes

Sweeny's house was featured on the Instagram account @cheapoldhouses. There's probably no account that has gained more interest from millennials—whether they're looking for a fantasy or an actual home purchase—than Cheap Old Houses, which features old homes ripe for restoration with prices under $100,000.

More millennials like Sweeny seem interested in taking on old homes. As working remotely becomes more prevalent due to the pandemic, people have more freedom to move outside of cities and into rural areas, where there are a plethora of unique, affordable options—they just need a bit of work.

"I think many millennials want houses that have character and have stories and have a quality that you don't get from even the best constructed new construction," said Ross Sheppard, a realtor specializing in historic homes who is restoring a nearly 200-year-old Georgia mansion called the Rockwell House.

According to the National Association of Realtors' 2020 Home Buyer and Seller Generational Trends Report, buyers between the ages of 22-29 purchased the oldest houses of all other age groups, with a median construction year of 1978. The other age groups' averages ranged between homes built in 1986 through 2001.

With the rise of YouTube and old house communities on social media, it's also easier than ever to learn how to DIY certain projects. Ramsey says he's seen more young people tackle these projects after hiring him for more difficult structural work. "At first I was like, 'I don't know if you're going to be able to plaster walls yourself, it's pretty hard.' But then they spend a whole summer doing it, and it turns out really nice. Now, they have learned how to plaster," Ramsey said.

There's also a sense that young people are looking for a certain quality of life that cities can't provide. Wheeling gives Sweeny the ability to live comfortably on a nonprofit salary. She says she can wake up and walk her dog along the river and walk to work. "I think you're only going to see more people my age moving to these towns where they can live locally and authentically, and buy something historic and grand and something that would have otherwise been out of their price range," she said.

Giving Them an Unexpected Next Chapter

Bowers' Old House Life features homes in many small towns and rural areas throughout the country, but mostly in the South. One of the first homes that buyers found through Old House Life is now a bed and breakfast in Conover, North Carolina. Patricia and Ralph Hatch purchased their 100-year-old foursquare style home at the end of 2016. It had been vacant for 17 years and had overgrown shrubs blocking the façade. The Hatches weren't looking for a historic restoration project. They were actually looking to downsize. But they fell in love with the home, and its fate as a bed and breakfast eventually became clear.

"We never discussed , 'oh we want to retire and run a bed and breakfast.' That was never in our wheelhouse. It was never anything we wanted to do. But this house just lent itself so beautifully to a bed and breakfast. It just made perfect sense for it," Patricia said.

Historic Homes
Courtesy of Patricia Hatch

They opened Sweet Tea Bed and Breakfast, and, if it weren't for the pandemic, the business was on track to have its best year ever.

During the restoration, they were able to keep their home's original walls and hardwood floors. Patricia labored over layers of wallpaper and paint not just on the walls, but on the ceiling in one downstairs bathroom. Though many of the home's pocket doors hadn't been taken care of, they were able to use the one remaining pocket door to make a 5-by-8 foot dining room table.

"Our saving grace was that somebody else had not already been in this house and started renovating it," Hatch said.

Do Your Homework

For many of those who take on a restoration project, the more untouched a home is, the better. But, if you're not experienced, it's important to work with someone who is.

"There's so many mistakes that can be made in old houses if people aren't very familiar with them… The brick masonry, you see all the time people using the wrong mortar that is too hard to go with the soft brick, and they can damage the brick… You can actually do a lot of damage to a house by using wrong materials," Ramsey said.

Owners who restore their historic homes can take advantage of historic home restoration tax credits on state or federal levels, as well as local incentives. Their restorations must adhere closely to standards set by the National Park Service. There's restoration, which entails taking a building back to a certain time period, usually when it was built, and there's rehabilitation, which is more common and involves preserving historical features while adding modern comforts, like an extra bathroom.

Some homes lend themselves to a rehab, but with others, there's a responsibility to preserve them as much as possible. Ross Sheppard knew this as he considered purchasing the Rockwell House, a Milledgeville, Georgia, mansion built in 1838 and once inhabited by a former governor of the state.

Historic Homes

"As soon as I walked in the door, I said, 'I've got to have this house,'" Sheppard recalled. He went in on the $300,000 property with his life partner, Will, and friend Jacob. Sheppard is from the Milledgeville area, and went to school in town at Georgia College. He is a real estate broker and is working on a historic preservation masters degree. The Rockwell House was featured on the Cheap Old Houses Instagram, but Sheppard said they already had it under contract at the time it was shared.

Sheppard said he expects to put in $300,000 in restorations. The Greek revival home is a massive 7,000 square feet and sits on 12 acres that includes a pond. Sheppard and his partners are able to utilize the federal preservation tax credit for income producing properties, since they plan to use the home as an Airbnb and event space.

Sheppard restored the outside of the home, and, because it will function as an Airbnb, he added bathrooms where there were closets in order to keep the original floor plan intact.

Meanwhile, in Danville, Bowers is recording the extensive work being done in the Sunshine Cottage, and she's finding and salvaging vintage pieces from the area to add into the homes. One such find is an ornate 150-pound ceiling medallion.

Historic Homes
Courtesy of Michelle Bowers

Bowers spent years looking for a city to invest in. She had visited Danville before, but it wasn't until recently that the town—and her two cottages—really caught her eye and heart. That makes some of the pains of restoration even easier. She might have started with some water damage and termites, but she's also going to reveal, with each project, two beautiful homes that are completely their own. "Two steps forward, three steps back—that's how it is," Bowers said. "When my houses came along, I thought, 'am I sure? How much is this gonna cost? What if this happens, and that happens?' Finally I was like, 'I'm doing it. Done.' May the chips fall where they may, or the termites."

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