Best Old House Neighborhoods 2009: Fixer-Uppers
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.
These are places where there are still many homes in need of restoration, at affordable prices. They’re places like Elgin, Illinois or Kalamazoo, Michigan, where many people are picking up their saws and hammers and restoring the quality housing stock.
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.
Lower Garden District, New Orleans, Louisiana
Living in—as opposed to visiting—New Orleans is not for everyone. But if you have a “laissez les bon temps rouler” attitude and crave a place that feels more like a Caribbean island than an American city, then the Lower Garden District is where you want to be. Just a few stops on the St. Charles streetcar from its more affluent neighbor—the famed Garden District—the LGD, with its low-key restaurants, bars, shops, and cafés is a leafier and sultrier version of New York City’s Lower East Side.
The HousesNew Orleans’s shotgun-style houses are abundant, and the Lower Garden District has one of the largest concentrations of antebellum Greek Revivals in the South. They are typically two or three stories with double- or tripled-tiered porches. Many have been divided up into condos or apartments. A one-bedroom condo in a Greek Revival can be had for about $160,000, while one in a double shotgun will run you $200,000 or more. Single-family Greek Revivals start about $1 million.
Why Buy Now?The Lower Garden District did not flood after Hurricane Katrina, and that allowed this up-and-coming neighborhood to hit the ground running after the storm. The real estate bubble that took place here is finally beginning to burst, so prices are down to more reasonable levels.
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.
Driving by on Route 1 on their way to the Delaware beaches, many travelers think Smyrna is just a pit stop with a few fast-food joints and fueling stations. But venture further into Smyrna, and you’ll discover a hidden small-town gem, with a newly revitalized Main Street surrounded by hundreds of old houses heavy on the square footage. Smryna’s the kind of place where the whole town comes out to watch a Pop Warner football game and attendance at the local high school’s homecoming parade is practically mandatory. Residents include young families who love the schools and the safety, young professionals who commute to nearby Dover or Wilmington, and retirees who move here for the laughably low taxes. To relax, locals head to Lake Como to sit by the water or hop aboard their boats. Smyrna is also surrounded by pristine farmland and several national parks, so hikers, bikers, and kayakers have plenty of options.
Many of the homes were built between the mid-19th and early-20th centuries, when merchants, businessmen, and tradesmen moved here to take advantage of this agricultural community’s rail, road, and water access to larger markets. The homes exhibit both vernacular and high-style interpretations of popular architectural trends of the era, including Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne, and Second Empire. Since this is a largely overlooked area, prices are relatively low. An 1858 Greek Revival in Smyrna was recently listed for $207,000.
Why Buy Now?
Folks are flocking here to take advantage of Smyrna’s low property and income taxes. (Bonus: There’s no sales tax, either.) The town is a great option for families with commuting breadwinners, since it’s close to Dover and Wilmington.
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.
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.
Brewer’s Hill, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Named for the German beer barons and their employees who lived here and worked in the nearby Schlitz and Blatz breweries, Brewer’s Hill is a distinctly Victorian-era neighborhood that’s found new life in recent years as rehabbers buy up its blighted old mansions and restore them into beautiful urban homes. The neighborhood, set on a hill above the Milwaukee River, is about a mile from downtown Milwaukee—definitely one of those “cooler than you think” cities, with its top-notch restaurants, bars, and, of course, brewpubs.
Stick Victorians, Queen Annes, and Greek Revival homes are the most common. As the breweries left the area, many of the neighborhood’s mansions were converted into rooming houses, but they’re now being restored to their original floor plans. You can buy a 3,000-square-foot single-family fixer-upper for as little as $150,000. Completely restored homes run from $250,000 to $300,000. A luxury two-bedroom condo inside a converted brewery costs between $250,000 and $350,000.
Why Buy Now?
Brewer’s Hill is attracting an increasing number people looking to buy and restore its enormous houses at prices that are hard to find outside of the neighborhood. All the rehabilitation bodes well for both property values and the neighborhood’s future.
Church Hill, Richmond, Virginia
Nestled in downtown Richmond, Virginia, the brick sidewalks of Church Hill are lined with gas street lamps and rows of late-19th-century Italianates and Queen Anne Victorians with wrought-iron porches. This place is truly alive with history, and you can’t walk two blocks without running into a Civil War monument. The area is also known as St. John’s Church Historic District after the Episcopalian church where Patrick Henry gave his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech in 1775. But the past isn’t all there is to Church Hill, which was seeing a redevelopment boom right before the recession hit. Walk south toward Libby Hill Park—and the James River that it overlooks—and you’ll find the entertainment and cafe hotspots of Shockoe Bottom and Shockoe Slip.
While most of the homes date to the wave of post–Civil War revitalization between the 1880s and 1920s, a few Federal-style antebellum houses can be found. Homes on the outskirts of the neighborhood start about $210,000, and prices go up to $400,000 as you move into the prime areas.
Why Buy Now?
Prices in Church Hill have gone down a bit with the rest of the economy but not so much that it makes the area an investment gamble. Locals expect the rehabilitation boom to return as soon as the recession eases.
The Highlands, Fall River, Massachusetts
After a fire decimated downtown Fall River in 1843, the city’s wealthy mill owners built opulent mansions—castles even—overlooking the Taunton River and Mount Hope Bay in what’s now known as the Highlands neighborhood. The Highlands is still known as Fall River’s finest neighborhood, home to both the affluent and the middle class.
Massive Italianates, Greek Revivals, Queen Annes, Second Empires, Colonial Revivals, and Shingle-style houses and mansions are available for between $200,000 and $800,000.
Why Buy Now?
Fall River’s motto is “We’ll Try.” And as this former textile town tries to rebound from a high unemployment rate and city budget cuts—results of the current recession—we’re hoping you’ll take a chance and restore one of its beautiful homes, many of which have original woodwork intact. Less than 50 miles from Boston and about 20 minutes from Providence, Rhode Island, Fall River is a great place for commuters.
Wheeling, West Virginia
Wheeling is one of those places that’s hard to drive through without stopping. If you’re just cruising through you might find yourself rubbernecking to get one last look at its spectacular collection of 19th- and early-20th-century buildings and homes, tucked away in heavily wooded hills and valleys along the Ohio River. And stop you should, for this charming river city is packed with historic architecture—including its historic downtown, which is undergoing a reinvention known as “Wheeling 2020,” and its stately neighborhoods that might make you want to stay forever. It’s also home to 13 miles of trails for walking and biking and, for the kids, a massive skate park.
Wheeling is home to 11 National Register Historic Districts, which boast a variety of older homes in every price range. A pristine brick Victorian-era mansion on a quiet wooded lot costs $695,000, while an Italianate rowhouse can be had for $70,000.
Why Buy Now?
Wheeling is a great place to buy a remarkable older home in a picturesque city that’s more like a small town. It offers a 20 percent tax credit for anyone who purchases a home in one of the city’s historic districts, as well as incentives for small-business launches.
Huning Highlands, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Huning Highlands looks decidedly out of place among the stucco and adobe homes that are ubiquitous in Albuquerque. “It’s definitely got more of a Victorian feel,” says resident Karen Doty, whose father moved here in the late 1920s, hoping New Mexico’s clean air and wide-open spaces would help cure his tuberculosis. “He lived well into his 70s,” Doty says. “So I guess it worked.” The neighborhood was built to accommodate Albuquerque’s growing population brought in by a new railroad, which arrived in 1880. Many who moved here had distinctly Northern tastes, preferring the Victorian style of architecture to the more popular Southwestern styles. After hitting a rough patch in the 1960s and 1970s, Huning Highlands, now a National Historic District, is once again popular for its out-of-place architecture, generous front porches, and the fact that it’s within walking distance to downtown.
There are a few adobe-style homes here, but most are either wood-framed or brick Queen Annes with fish-scale-shingled gables and wide front porches. Restored homes sell for between $300,000 and $400,000, though there are still fixer-uppers available for a lot less.
Why Buy Now?
Because Huning Highlands is part of a historic district, you can benefit from New Mexico’s 50 percent income-tax credit for qualified rehabilitation work. The credit applies to half of the eligible costs of qualified work, with a maximum credit of $25,000.
Quality Hill, Pawtucket, Rhode Island
Once the province of the city’s wealthy 19th-century factory and mill owners, Quality Hill continues to live up to its moniker with highbrow homes that remain among the city’s finest. One of the great pleasures of living in this National Historic District is walking along its gas-lighted, brick-trimmed sidewalks to admire the neighborhood’s fine homes and listening to the cheers from nearby McCoy Stadium, home of the Pawtucket Red Socks. Many residents work in town; others make the 15-minute commute to Providence or the 45-minute commute to Boston.
Quality Hill is known for its large houses, Colonial Revivals, and Victorian-era homes built by mill owners in the city’s heyday. Most sell from $200,000 to $350,000.
Why Buy Now?
Owners who choose to include their property in the city’s local historic overlay district qualify for a $700 annual property tax credit. BusinessWeek just named Pawtucket to its list of Best Places to Raise Your Kids (2009).
The West University Neighborhood, Tucson, Arizona
Bordering the University of Arizona, the West University neighborhood feeds off the culture and quirks of college life but maintains itself as a separate, decidedly mellow community for those who live here. The West University Neighborhood Association makes sure it stays that way by organizing neighborhood fund-raisers, cleanup days, summer potlucks, and softball games. This is a great area for young people and families, since it’s close to the arts, sports, and cultural events at the U of A. It also has great bars, restaurants, and clubs.
You’ll find mostly Spanish Revival, Craftsman Bungalow, and Prairie-style homes here. Many of the brick bungalows are covered with stucco, though there are several wood-frame and stone homes too. Some houses have already been restored, but quite a few fixer-uppers are still available. Houses are available for between $175,000 and $400,000.
Why Buy Now?
An electric streetcar line linking the neighborhood to downtown Tucson is set to open in 2011 and could increase property values along the line. Buy a home in the West University National Historic District and you may qualify for significant property tax breaks.