Best Old House Neighborhoods 2009: First-Time Buyers
Unique, tight-knit neighborhoods are precisely what we looked for in selecting the winners of our second annual Best Old House Neighborhoods contest—places that might not be on your radar but deserve to be. Like last year, we relied on our good friends at PreservationDirectory.com to help us contact thousands of neighborhood groups, real estate agents, and preservation societies to get their takes on the best places to track down, fix up, and fall head of heels for older homes.
Here, specifically, are 14 places like the Northside neighborhood in Pueblo, CO, where first-time buyers can get a good house in a good neighborhood at a great price.
Not for one second did Brenda Hennessey imagine herself living in Elgin, Illinois. Growing up in nearby Schaumburg in the 1980s, she’d heard the city had a reputation for being grungy, rundown—even a bit dangerous. A few years ago she made a pit stop here while riding the Fox River Bike Trail, which runs 33 miles through the Chicago suburbs. It was then she realized that either Elgin’s nefarious image was greatly exaggerated or things here had changed dramatically for the better. In the market for a house, Brenda did some research and discovered she could get more bang for her buck in Elgin than in other Chicago-area towns. She soon snatched up a late-19th-century brownstone in the Gifford Park neighborhood for $198,000. “Elgin is beautiful,” she says. “It’s walkable and safe, with plenty of bike paths.” Brenda, now pregnant, and her husband, Evan, are looking for a larger house, hopefully one of the city’s cherished Queen Annes, which start at $100,000. That’s the great thing about Elgin, says Brenda. You can buy a starter home, upgrade to a virtual mansion to raise your kids, then empty-nest it down to a bungalow when you retire.
Some of the city’s most handsome Queen Anne, Tudor, and Gothic Revival homes are found in the Northeast neighborhood, which borders downtown and contains two historic districts, most notably Elgin’s oldest neighborhood, Spring-Douglas, a National Historic District. Here, a 2,000-square-foot Queen Anne can be had for $150,000 to $500,000, depending on its condition.
Why Buy Now?
The best reason is summed up by Elgin resident Fran Cella: “No one really knows about us yet.” Property values in the historic districts remain steady, thanks in part to the city’s proximity to Chicago. The city is offering grants to help buyers restore single family homes that were broken up into multifamily units.
Among the best for: Fixer-Uppers, Families, Bargain, First-Time Buyers, Bedroom Communities, Healthy Living, Walking, Urban Suburbanites, The Midwest, Dog Lovers, Financial Help for Homeowners, Editors’ Picks
St. Patrick’s Ward, Guelph, Ontario, Canada
In the early 1900s, entrepreneur J.W. Lyon started giving away land to factories and selling small residential lots in St. Patrick’s Ward, just outside downtown Guelph. Soon, thousands of European immigrants, mostly Italian, started coming here to work in those factories and live in the small stone and brick workers’ cottages, often adding their own vegetable gardens. Nowadays some of those factories are being turned into condos. And this quiet urban neighborhood is drawing new residents, who fall hard for its stark, industrial beauty, stone churches, and even some remaining vegetable gardens. Most of the Italian families have moved on, but “The Ward,” as it’s called, remains a land of opportunity for those looking for a friendly, old-fashioned neighborhood to call home.
Foursquares and Victorians built between 1900 and 1920 are common, though the most notable homes here are stone or brick Italianate cottages and “Ontario cottages”; the latter are one-and-a-half-story stone and brick Gothic Revivals with a hipped roof and single spired gable above the door. Houses start at around $136,000 (U.S.).
Why Buy Now?
Buyers are rediscovering the charms of this walkable community just minutes from downtown Guelph and are moving here to renovate houses. There are plenty of jobs, but Guelph, which has a population of about 115,000, is just 60 miles from Toronto, so it’s also an ideal place for commuters looking for lower housing prices and a slower pace.
North Side Neighborhood, Pueblo, Colorado
Pueblo was once the Pittsburgh of the West—an industrial hotbed where many an entrepreneur came to seek his fortune in the bustling city’s steel mills. Once those fortunes had been made, a lot of the newly monied settled in Pueblo’s North Side neighborhood, building stately (some might say quirky) homes on streets wide enough to turn a stagecoach around on. These days, North Side is a bit more middle class; you don’t have to be a millionaire to buy a truly remarkable home of your own.
North Side offers a few popular styles of architecture from between 1870 and 1950, including Italianates and Spanish Revivals. Homes start about $125,000 and go up to $300,000.
Why Buy Now?
If you want a textbook Colorado lifestyle, Pueblo offers it in spades, and more affordably than Denver or Boulder. Looking for work? The Danish company Vestas is building what the company is billing as the world’s largest wind-turbine factory here, so in the next few years the city stands to gain about 500 jobs and perhaps a new signature industry.
The Vine neighborhood, Kalamazoo, Michigan
After a rough patch in the 1980s, this leafy Victorian-era neighborhood is experiencing quite a comeback as people move here because it’s close to downtown, stellar schools, parks, hiking trails, and playgrounds. Sure, it’s a great place for families, but since it borders Western Michigan University, “The Vine” also maintains a youthful feel, with lots of trendy restaurants, bars, and shops.
Most are Foursquares or Queen Annes, which retain their details, including wraparound porches, double-hung windows, and Victorian-era millwork. Ready-to-move-in homes go for $100,000 and up. Fixer-uppers start at $60,000.
Why Buy Now?
A new Spanish-language immersion school and a top-notch math and science high school in The Vine are luring families. Thanks to “The Kalamazoo Promise,” students who attend Kalamazoo schools from grades K through 12 receive full tuition to any of Michigan’s public colleges or universities. But even students who attend grades nine through 12 here get 65 percent off. The Vine’s status as a local historic district allows buyers to take advantage of incentives that save thousands on property taxes.
Covington is a historic small town just across the Ohio River from a historic big city (that’d be Cincinnati). While the Greek Revival and Italianate architecture is what draws most people here, Covington is also home to MainStrasse Village, a 19th-century German neighborhood and National Historic District well known for its restaurants, pubs, and outdoor cafés. Many also flock here for Covington’s spirited festivals, including Bluegrass State versions of Mardi Gras, Oktoberfest, and Goettafest, named for the wildly popular steel-cut oat sausage made here.
Most homes were built between the 1840s and 1920s and include Greek Revivals with double-tiered porches, brick Italianates, and Queen Annes. A historic river mansion will run you a cool million or more, but you can get a lovely Italianate townhouse from $200,000. One-story brick Italianate cottages and shotgun-style homes run between $85,000 and $100,000.
Why Buy Now?
Houses here are beautiful, solid, and cheap. The federal and state governments are trying to lure artists and small-business owners by offering substantial tax incentives to those who restore older income-producing properties. Covington is a New Urbanist’s dream, with shops, groceries, parks, bike trails, and the City of Cincinnati, all within walking distance.
Lauraville, Baltimore, Maryland
Whether it’s Fells Point or Federal Hill, Baltimore has long been known for its great historic neighborhoods. One of the most popular is Lauraville, a hilly, early-20th-century streetcar suburb that was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places. A short drive from downtown, Lauraville is a leafy paradise studded with hefty framed and shingled homes with full-length front porches and large front lots. While downtown is not far, many take care of their shopping needs by walking up to Harford Road, which has enough groceries, restaurants, and coffee shops to make getting in the car unnecessary.
Lauraville has a combination of Colonial Revivals, Foursquares, bungalows, and Victorian-era homes, many of which have their original millwork inside and their shingle siding outside. Some single-family homes that were carved up into multifamily units are being returned to their original floor plans. Prices run between $175,000 and $250,000.
Why Buy Now?
Buyers looking to restore homes in Lauraville can take advantage of various tax breaks as well as loan programs provided by Baltimore’s Healthy Neighborhoods, Inc. Combined, these incentives can save you thousands on your work. Those looking to restore older buildings in the area to use as small businesses might also qualify for tax breaks.
Douglas Park, Brunswick, Maine
The campus of Bowdoin College is as idyllic as they come, with its brick and stone buildings and wide-open greens. Just across the street is Douglas Park, an equally enchanting little neighborhood lined with modest Cape Cods on quiet shady streets. The area is home to many Bowdoin professors as well as doctors and lawyers who either work in town or commute to nearby Portland, Lewiston, or Augusta. On weekends, many residents ride their bikes along the Androscoggin River or hop in their cars for a short drive to a nearby beach. Others stick around town, walking up Brunswick’s historic Maine Street to shop or dine, or they attend lectures and concerts on the Bowdoin campus.
Douglas Park is known primarily for its early-1900s wood-sided Cape Cods, most with double dormers and big bay windows. Houses here cost between $200,000 and $350,000.
Why Buy Now?
The housing market in Brunswick has remained relatively steady through the economic downturn. Many families and first-time home buyers are moving here to take advantage of Brunswick’s excellent public schools. The Brunswick Naval Air Station, a major local employer, is closing in 2011, but authorities in both the town and surrounding region have long planned ways to offset the loss. Redevelopment projects abound for the soon-to-be-closed 3,300-acre space, which has the largest airfield in the state and the second-largest hotel, which will be turned into a conference center. The University of Maine and the Southern Maine Community College are teaming up to create an engineering program with classrooms and dormitories on the former base. Other projects include space for recreation (the land abuts Harpswell Sound), new civilian residential developments, and a corporate and professional office park.
Morgan Park, Duluth, Minnesota
Perched on the St. Louis River in Duluth, Minnesota, Morgan Park might be the most interesting neighborhood to make our list. J.P. Morgan’s U.S. Steel Corporation established Morgan Park in the early 1900s to house workers and executives from its Duluth-based steel and cement plants. Originally called Model City, Morgan Park was a self-contained community with its own company-run schools, hospitals, and fire and police departments. While the plant closed down in the early 1980s, Morgan Park is now a thriving neighborhood inhabited by postindustrial residents who are proud of the history—and the resilience—of their community.
Most of the homes are Prairie style, with low-pitched roofs and wide overhanging eaves. The sturdy houses are built mostly of Minnesota-made portland cement from the site’s own U.S. Steel plant. A 1,400-square-foot home here starts about $100,000.
Why Buy Now?
The neighborhood hit a rough patch when thousands of steel jobs were lost in the 1970s and ’80s, but it’s experiencing a renewed sense of pride as beautification efforts have begun turning Morgan Park back into the solid middle-class neighborhood it once was. The town’s water sewer lines were recently replaced, and a hard-core area garden club is creating some amazing landscaping and community gardens. Though the Superfund program, the federal government has committed to a massive cleanup of pollution left over from the area’s steel manufacturing days. Currently, the 600 acres of land (outside of residential areas) in Morgan Park that were affected have been rehabilitated well enough to support future industrial uses, while the river still needs work but is constantly monitored.
Sugar House, Salt Lake City, Utah
Founded in 1853, this quiet and cheerfully quirky suburb is 10 minutes from downtown Salt Lake City. Named for a local sugar mill that never actually processed any of the sweet stuff (the machines shipped from France didn’t make the journey), the area is a first-time homebuyers’ delight, filled with quaint 1920s fixer-uppers and post–World War II cottages. Sugar House’s tree-lined streets and 110-acre park, just east of the town’s center (and formerly the site of the Utah State Prison), also make it a great place for folks who don’t mind lacing up their walking shoes. While home to big, established employers such as the nearby University of Utah and a large medical research park, Sugar House boasts a thriving district of small businesses, arts venues, and restaurants at the intersection of 900 East and 900 South (known as “9th and 9th”).
Known for early-20th-century bungalows, cottages, and Tudors, Sugar House is also home to a sprinkling of charming Victorians. House sizes average 2,100 square feet and prices start about $365,000, but savvy and patient house hunters can find cozy, 1,500-square-foot bungalows in the southern part of town for about $250,000.
Why Buy Now?
Sugar House seems to be one of those rare recession-proof markets, as home prices have remained relatively stable. And finding a place shouldn’t be too difficult. Since the area attracts younger single homeowners, the market stays pretty lively as people relocate for work or families outgrow their starter homes.
East Durham, North Carolina
At the turn of the 20th century, East Durham was a bustling blue-collar neighborhood, where thousands of textile workers made a good living under the employ of the Durham Cotton Manufacturing Company. When that shut down during the Great Depression, laid-off workers quickly found new jobs with the neighborhood’s prospering tobacco companies. They built or bought sturdy bungalows, Folk Victorians, and foursquares, many with full-length front porches. Following World War II, East Durham underwent a long period of decline that reached its apex in the 1980s and ’90s, when the town was overrun by drugs and crime. But things are changing, and structures are being turned into safe and secure single-family homes in a neighborhood that might soon be one of Durham’s most sought after.
You can get a 1,600-square-foot bungalow in fair condition for just $28,500. Or splurge a little and get a two-story 1915 Victorian for $60,000. Houses here sit on peaceful wooded lots.
Why Buy Now
Thanks to its coordinates on the famed Research Triangle, a locus for universities and high-tech companies, Durham has seen home prices increase in the past few years. And those looking to live in the city are seeing East Durham with fresh eyes. Houses are a steal, and the neighborhood is an ideal place for professionals commuting to Research Triangle jobs. Any rehab work you do will be eligible for North Carolina’s historic preservation tax incentive, which provides a 30 percent credit for the rehabilitation of non-income-producing properties.
College Hill, Cincinnati, Ohio
Like Chicago or Brooklyn, Cincinnati is known for its distinct old neighborhoods and the fiercely loyal residents who call them home. Settled in 1813, the northern neighborhood of College Hill—named after now-defunct Farmer’s College and Ohio Female College—has kept much of its leafy college campus character. Those who live here see the area as the most tight-knit and diverse (forward-thinking college professors and other abolitionists who were among the neighborhood’s earliest residents helped ensure it was racially integrated even before the Civil War). Like most Cincinnati ‘hoods, College Hill has dozens of locally owned businesses, including LaRosa’s pizzeria, a Cincinnati favorite. More entertainment can be found just minutes away in downtown Cincinnati.
There are many Craftsman-style bungalows, but the neighborhood is primarily known for its Tudor Revivals with stucco, brick, and stone exteriors, as well as front and screened-in side porches. A 1,400-square-foot Craftsman with a fireplace made by Rookwood Pottery was recently on the market for $116,000, while a 1,900-square-foot Tudor Revival was selling for $135,000.
Why Buy Now?
If you’re one of those people who value craftsmanship over size, College Hill has plenty of old houses that are deserving of a long-term commitment. Here you’ll get all the tranquility of tree-lined streets, with access to museums, theaters, and major-league sports in downtown Cincinnati. In addition, the neighborhood continues to tackle quality-of-life issues. It recently took part in the Neighborhood Enhancement Program, a 90-day blitz of initiatives launched by the city that address crime, blight, and building-code violations. (Officials follow up with businesses, volunteers, and others involved for the next nine months to ensure all changes are permanent.) The city is also building a fire station at the southern entrance of College Hill.
About 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, Beaver, Pennsylvania, was once home to the affluent managers of nearby steel plants. Today this Ohio River town is reinventing itself as a haven for small-town-America lovers, though it’s still a popular bedroom community for those commuting to Pittsburgh. Beaver seems like the kind of town where New Urbanists are trying to create their own version of Celebration, Florida, with plenty of parks and Main Street–type businesses along Third Street. Everything is in walking distance; the entire neighborhood is roughly four square miles.
Tudor Revivals and brick Queen Annes are dominant, but a massive 1860 Italian-villa-style house, formerly home to the president of Beaver College (which has relocated), was recently on the market for just $100,000. At press time, an 1890s three-story turreted Queen Anne was listed at $200,000.
Why Buy Now?
Property values have stayed above average here compared with the rest of the state, and the public schools are ranked among Pennsylvania’s best. Despite the economic downturn, Pittsburgh’s economy has remained relatively steady thanks to its health care and education industries.
The Southmoreland Neighborhood, Kansas City, Missouri
Located four miles south of downtown Kansas City, the vibe in Southmoreland ranges from family friendly to funky, depending on whom you ask. After all, this neighborhood is known for its eclectic nature, both in its architecture and its residents. Here, well-to-do families live in imposing Colonial Revival mansions side by side with young singles and couples, who flock here to spruce up the sturdy Arts & Crafts cottages. Southmoreland is also home to hundreds of students from the Kansas City Art Institute, who reside in beautiful post-war brick apartment buildings, thoughtfully appointed with multi-tiered porticos supported by classical columns. Established in the late 1800s by well-to-do businessmen looking to escape a chaotic downtown, the neighborhood soon attracted working-class families, who moved here after a streetcar line was established between Southmoreland and downtown. The neighborhood remained vital until World War II, when its larger homes were converted into apartments. These days, Southmoreland is seen as a diamond-in-the-rough opportunity for young professionals looking for a walkable neighborhood offering easy access to stores, schools, and museums.
Grand Colonial-Revival mansions and Arts & Crafts cottages, built between the late 1800s and the early 1930s. The former can be had for around $350,000, while the latter start at a mere $120,000. Many homes have already been restored, but hundreds more are in dire need of TLC. All are just a short walk from Southmoreland Park, which features tennis courts, gardens, and an annual Shakespeare festival.
Why Buy Now?
A movement to restore Southmoreland’s historic homes is underway thanks to the neighborhood’s walkability, close proximity to downtown, and cultural institutions including the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. Prices remain reasonable, especially when you consider the quality. Rates of home foreclosures and unemployment in Kansas City belie national trends.
Woodruff Place, Indianapolis, Indiana
Founded in 1872 by New Yorker James O. Woodruff, this old suburb, about a mile east of downtown Indianapolis, was a self-governing town for more than 80 years. Traces of this autonomy are still evident in the tight-knit community, for Woodruffians are active in hosting social gatherings and bimonthly neighborhood meetings. Take a walk around town and you’ll see broad boulevards, decorative fountains and urns, and statues surrounded by magnolia and oak trees. The inspiration for Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, Woodruff Place is a quintessential Midwestern town and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
The oldest houses are Eastlakes, Stick Victorians, and Queen Annes, though Woodruff Place is also home to many Georgian Revivals, English Tudors, Bungalows, American Foursquares, and Colonial Revivals. Fixer-uppers can be purchased for less than $100,000.
Why Buy Now?
The stately homes in Woodruff Place were built for the elite but are now available at moderate prices. Many large Victorian-era homes that were divided into apartments in the 1960s and ’70s can be returned to single-family houses.