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Best Old House Neighborhoods 2009: Waterfront

Eight places that offer views and activities for water lovers upon our nation's lakefronts, river fronts, and shores

Best Old House Neighborhoods 2009: Waterfront

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.

This year, among the winners, we discovered eight places that offered views and activities for water lovers upon our nation's lakefronts, river fronts, and shores.

Ketchikan, Alaska

Photo by Courtesy Guy Mickel, RE/MAX Realty

The Neighborhood:

Located in Southeast Alaska, Ketchikan is more than just a town that was supposed to be the starting point of the "Bridge to Nowhere," the now defunct project meant to link this island fishing village to an airport on the next island over. In fact, Ketchikan is turning into one of the country's most popular tourist destinations and the first stop for many Alaska-bound cruise ships. Ketchikan (pop. 7,400) has many sturdy homes built by men who prospered in the area's fishing, canning, and logging industries. Once teeming with bordellos and saloons, Ketchikan's historic downtown isn't as rough and tumble as it used to be, with restaurants, boutiques, and galleries catering to visitors and locals alike. Many residents work for the U.S. Coast Guard, which has a base here, or local shipyards.

The Houses:

The best homes are either on Water Street or in Nob Hill, a historic neighborhood perched on a hillside above downtown. Some old mountain and hillside houses—accessible via elaborate multitiered staircases—offer views of the Pacific Ocean. Craftsman and Queen Anne styles prevail. A fixer-upper Craftsman with ocean views recently sold for just $150,000, but some of the town's larger homes sell for $500,000 or more.

Why Buy Now?

If you're an outdoorsy person looking for a place to escape or retire, Ketchikan could be exactly what you're looking for. It's a safe bet that a few of the 900,000 tourists who visited last summer were so smitten that they moved here, so get in while you can.

Best Place for Waterfront, Sportsmen, Cottages and Bungalows, Retirees

Guttenberg, Iowa

Photo by Lee Johnston

Sure, the houses are great, but the crown jewel of Guttenberg is the Mississippi River. Some just like gazing down on it from their front porches, though most tend to get a little more involved. "Almost everyone here has a boat," says Lee Johnston, who moved to Guttenberg over a year ago, snatching up a beautiful 160-year-old house—with river views!—for a song. The town was once home to thousands of German immigrants, who followed the rivers here from bigger Midwestern cities like Cincinnati. Their legacy is maintained through local surnames and street names, including Goethe, Weiland, and Schiller. Aside from a lone Subway restaurant, the town is refreshingly devoid of chain stores, strip malls, and big-box stores. Most people just drive the 45 minutes it takes to get to Dubuque, Iowa, to take care of their shopping needs.

The Houses

So-called German Vernacular cottages, built with local limestone by German immigrants in the mid-1800s, are the norm, though there are Victorian-era homes and bungalows. Surrounded by bluffs, the historic homes are protected from the Mississippi by a flood wall. Houses sell for $80,000 to $350,000.

Why Buy Now?

The town hasn't been bought up yet by city slickers from Milwaukee, Dubuque, Iowa, or even Chicago (4 hours away) looking for peaceful vacation homes. With its beautiful river views, outdoor recreation, and historic homes, it's just a matter of time before Guttenberg becomes as popular, and as pricey, as other Midwestern destinations, such as Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, or Galena, Illinois. So buy at a bargain while you can.

Among the best places for: Waterfront, Retirees, Sportsmen, Porch Sitters, Bargains, The Midwest

Covington, Kentucky

Photo by Beth Johnson, City of Covington

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.

The Houses

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.

Among the best places for: Waterfront, Fixer-Uppers, First-Time Buyers, Small Business Owners, The South, Urban Suburbanites

Beaver, Pennsylvania

Photo by Courtesy Beaver Area Heritage Foundation

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.

The Houses

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.

Among the best places for: Families, Bedroom Communities, Waterfront, Victorians, Walking, Bargains, First-Time Buyers, Northeast

Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey

Photo by Courtesy Thomas McCormack, Resources Real Estate

While dramatic views of the Manhattan skyline are a selling point in Atlantic Highlands, and many compare its hilly terrain to that of Northern California, this Victorian village on the Jersey shore has a character all its own. Many Atlantic Highlanders have been here for generations, while others are recent transplants from New York who come here for the laid-back lifestyle and the convenient ferry or train access to Lower Manhattan. Atlantic Highlands is home a marina, as well as great restaurants, shops, parks, and theaters.

The Houses

The town is known for its well-maintained or restored early-20th-century Victorians and smaller bungalows, originally used by vacationers from New York City. At press time, a 1,888-square-foot Queen Anne with a double-tiered porch was available for $220,000. A 4,500-square-foot Victorian—this one with a widow's peak—was going for $600,000.

Why Buy Now?

Seeing as Atlantic Highlands is just a 60-minute ferry ride from Manhattan, and about an hour away by train, that you can buy a freestanding house here for under $300,000—in a thriving seaside community—is reason enough to give this Jersey shore village a look.

Among the best places for: Waterfront, Sportsmen, Bedroom Communities, Cottages and Bungalows, Families, Retirees, The Northeast

The Highlands, Fall River, Massachusetts

Photo by Patrice Cloutier

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.

The Houses

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.

Among the best places for: Fixer-Uppers, Bedroom Communities, Waterfront, Bargains, Northeast

Lana'i, Hawaii

Photo by Lucy Martin

In a state known for its teeming-with-tourists resort towns, the tiny island of Lana'i remains refreshingly and authentically local. Sure, there are a few luxury hotels, but Lana'i still largely resembles the plantation-style town it was designed to be by the Dole Pineapple Company in the 1920s. Its 2,500 residents enjoy a quiet and relaxed lifestyle, working in the tourism industry and spending their free time lounging on the beach.

The Houses

Lana'i is known for its plantation-style homes, which are basically bungalows with decks or covered porches. They feature hipped, corrugated-metal roofs and original double-hung windows. They sell for between $300,000 and $600,000.

Why Buy Now?

Lana'i presents one of the last opportunities to live in an authentic Hawaiian community at a relatively affordable price. Lana'i was recently added to the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 2009 list of Most Endangered Historic Sites in America. That's because Castle & Cooke, the company that now owns Dole—and most of Lana'i—wants to demolish several historic buildings in Lana'i City to make way for commercial developments.

Best Place for: Waterfront, Healthy Living, Cottages and Bungalows

Georgetown Historic District, Georgetown, South Carolina

Photo by Sally Hogan

For those who want to live a more leisurely lifestyle, Georgetown offers just that. Perched on the shrimp-boat-strewn Winyah Bay, this idyllic coastal community is one of the South's gems. The Georgetown Historic District is packed with stately homes built by those who made their fortunes in the city's rice market. Located between Myrtle Beach and Charleston, Georgetown is home to dozens of antiques shops, museums, restaurants, and pubs that serve Southern fare like shrimp and grits and fried green tomatoes.

The Houses

You can find a pristine Queen Anne with a full-length front porch and heart-pine floors for about $299,000, though several homes here are priced in the millions.

Why Buy Now?

Retirees love this place, and as they continue to flock here, housing prices are going up. While there are still quite a few homes available for under $500,000 in the historic district, prices are almost certain to keep rising.

Among the best places for: Food Lovers, Waterfront, Retirees, Sportsmen, Arts and Antique Lovers, The South