Best Old House Neighborhoods 2010: Small Towns
For our third annual Best Places to Buy an Old House contest, what we looked for was simple: oft-overlooked neighborhoods populated by people who share an appreciation of finely crafted homes that have plenty of past and lots of future. And what we found—with the aid of our friends at PreservationDirectory.com, who helped us contact thousands of neighborhood groups, real estate agents, residents, and preservationists for nominations—was mighty impressive.
Here are a dozen quiet little places where people still know how to live and love the small town American life.
Union Springs, Alabama
On Friday evenings about 35 people meet up at Union Pizza in the small southeastern Alabama town of Union Springs to discuss important matters, such as how to properly reglaze a banged-up window, which stain to use on heart-pine floors, or whether or not to restore plaster walls. Welcome to the Newcomer's Club, an informal group from places as far away as New York City and even Belize, whose members have relocated to this struggling small town for one reason: to buy, fix up, and live in one of its many magnificent homes. Once a thriving cotton and railroad town, Union Springs went from a population of 30,000 at the turn of the 20th century to a struggling community of just 3,000 by the turn of the 21st. The newbies are hoping to turn their adopted town around.
The showiest homes are the elaborate late-1800s Queen Annes, which feature lots of gingerbread, wraparound porches, and even the occasional turret. Walking through town you can pick and choose from among dozens of homes and buy one for as little as $50,000. "A lot of the people who come here to see one particular house end up buying a different one," says local Realtor Joyce Perrin.
Why Buy Now?
In the decade before the recent recession, Union Springs saw more than a modest amount of investment in its older homes. Those who moved here then remain committed to the town, turning historic abandoned buildings into bakeries, restaurants, galleries, and shops.
Nestled in the rolling hills of northwestern Connecticut, Harwinton was an agricultural town when it was incorporated in 1737. The community has maintained its rural character through open-space ordinances, the preservation of original stone walls, and support for the protection of a scenic dirt road. While farms are still in operation, many residents now make their living in tool-and-die manufacturing, construction, and landscaping.
Whether you're looking to raise a family or retire to a smaller space, you'll find something to suit your needs. The oldest buildings date back to the 18th century, but there are a number of Federal, Italianate, and early-20th-century Colonial Revival homes available in a variety of sizes and prices. The average price of a home at press time was just under $200,000.
Why Buy Now?
In Harwinton you get a lot of land for your money; zoning rules require a two-acre-lot minimum per house. And if you need help tending your lawn, splitting firewood, or researching your home's history, neighbors are friendly and willing to jump in and lend a hand.
Old Town Historic District, Brunswick, Georgia
Located on a peninsula surrounded by tributaries to the Atlantic, the unspoiled coastal community of Brunswick offers laid-back neighborhoods shaded by oaks. At its center is a quaint, turn-of-the-century Main Street with dozens of welcoming restaurants, cafes, and shops. The city is modeled after James Oglethorpe's "Savannah Plan," with homes built around parklike squares.
Brunswick sports a number of Queen Annes, Gothic Revivals, and Second Empires. Homes start at $75,000 for a small fixer-upper and $190,000 for a larger, restored home.
Why Buy Now?
With an expanded marina, new businesses on Main Street, and a progressive, preservation-minded mayor, Brunswick is poised to become a vacation and full-time hot spot. Though overdevelopment has hindered the charms of nearby barrier islands, Brunswick remains largely preserved and refreshingly authentic. "It's still pristine," says transplant Julie Martin. "It still feels like a small town, not a tourist trap."
The West Side, Pocatello, Idaho
Since the mid-1990s, "the West side of Pokey," as locals call it, has transformed itself from beat-down to bohemian. Young, forward-thinking couples are moving here to raise families, and young business owners are opening bookstores, brewpubs, and bike shops catering to those looking for a cool, creative lifestyle far, far away from big cities, like New York or San Francisco. The West Side is also luring outdoorsy types, who love the area's skiing, hiking, hunting, and fishing, and retirees looking for a stimulating college town to live in. (Pocatello is home to Idaho State.) The West Side got its start in the late 1800s as home to hundreds of working-class employees of the Union Pacific Railroad. As the town grew and businesses started moving in, many of Pocatello's more affluent families started coming here, building large, luxurious Queen Anne mansions.
Most date from the 1920s and 1930s. Despite the growing popularity of the neighborhood, West Side real estate prices remain affordable, hovering just above the $150,000 mark, but at press time we found a 2,100-square-foot, five-bedroom 1920s house for just $109,900.
Why Buy Now?
Investment in the West Side has been steady since the mid-1990s, when urban pioneers began restoring its old houses and commercial buildings. The economy in Pocatello is surviving the downturn thanks to stalwart employers, such as Idaho State and the medical and semiconductor industries.
Founded in 1774 as the first permanent English settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains, Harrodsburg is the kind of place most people think of when they imagine Kentucky. Located about 45 minutes from Lexington, the town is surrounded by rolling countryside, with scattered hand-laid stone walls and prestigious horse farms. Recent facade improvement grants have allowed a sprucing up of the downtown's turn-of-the-century commercial buildings, which are being offered up to anyone willing to do something interesting with them (a coffee shop and art gallery are in the works). Those with a love for the outdoors will find plenty of hiking and biking trails, as well as top-notch fishing at nearby Herrington Lake.
The most expensive and sought-after homes are Greek Revivals, which sell from $250,000 to $375,000. A Colonial Revival or Queen Anne can be had starting at around $125,000, while Craftsman homes start at just $45,000. Many of the older homes are located in town, though there are plenty of historic farmhouses to be found on the outskirts.
Why Buy Now?
This is an ideal location for anyone looking to escape the headaches of city life and settle down in a quiet, Mayberry-like small town on the verge of a renaissance. After decades spent as an agricultural community, Harrodsburg wants to rebrand itself as a progressive small town by offering up new arts and literary festivals.
Old Lee's Summit, Lee's Summit, Missouri
Less than 20 miles southeast of Kansas City, Missouri, and surrounded by three lakes, the once agricultural city of Lee's Summit has turned into the quintessential suburb, with excellent schools and a family-friendly atmosphere. Parades, festivals, concerts, and other fun events are scheduled throughout the year. The town grew up around the railroad, which still runs through the recently revitalized downtown. Some of the finest homes were built by the city's first railroad barons and can be found in Old Lee's Summit.
Homes range from $100,000 to $300,000. There's something for everyone here, from 1880s farmhouses to early-1900s Queen Annes, Colonial Revivals, and Craftsman bungalows.
Why Buy Now?
Old Lee's Summit is just outside downtown, where you can find a bustling commercial scene—BBQ joints, ice cream shops, hardware and interior design stores, and more. The public schools are known as some of the best in the state, so if you want to get your family into an affordable home in a neighborhood worthy of a long-term investment, this is the place for you.
Wellington is a quaint and quiet northern Ohio town of about 4,700 people. For much of its history it was known for one thing: cheese. In 1880 there were more than 40 cheese factories in the area, and that's precisely when this town's population more than doubled. The town pays homage to its "cheesy" history each summer during the beloved Cheese Heritage Festival. Today, Wellington is known as a perfect get-away-from-it-all small town where people enjoy a peaceful rural life with many festivals and other activities, including the annual Lorain County Fair, one of the largest in the state.
Wellington's architecture is so diverse that many colleges conduct field trips here for their architecture majors. Most homes reflect the Victorian era: Gothic Revival, Italianate, Second Empire, Queen Anne, Folk Victorian, Shingle Style, and Colonial Revival. For $150,000 to $200,000, you can buy just about any available house in Wellington.
Why Buy Now?
The town offers small-town living with zero pretentiousness at bargain-basement prices. Wellington is just 50 miles from Cleveland and 15 minutes from Oberlin, Ohio, home to Oberlin College and its world famous Conservatory of Music. A farmer's market is starting up this summer, so foodies will have plenty of locally sourced ingredients to choose from.
The Cornstalk District, Harriman, Tennessee
About 4,000 people moved to the small East Tennessee town of Harriman between 1890 and 1892. They came to purchase lots in a new town that was founded by New Yorker Frederick Gates on the principals of industry—and abstention from alcohol. Gates built an elegant house set high on a ridge overlooking the Emory River and named it Cornstalk Heights. While the house is gone, the neighborhood surrounding it remains the site of the best, most beautiful homes in town. And don't worry. A liquor store finally opened here in 1992.
Houses range in style from Folk Victorians built during Gates's day to Craftsman and Cotswold cottages and Colonial Revivals built in the early to mid 1900s. Many homes are extremely affordable, ranging in price from $75,000 to just under $200,000.
Why Buy Now?
While many American small towns are simply caricatures of their former selves—tourist destinations with souvenir stores and fudge "shoppes" where the hardware store used to be—Harriman is the real deal: 100 percent authentic small-town America. "It's still a little gritty," says Ethiel Garlington, Director of Preservation Field Services for the nonprofit preservation group Knox Heritage. He means that as a compliment. So if you're looking for an affordable, functioning small town that's just 45 minutes from a good-sized city (Knoxville), Harriman's the place to be.
It should come as no surprise that Bennington, a scenic Vermont town known for its antiques shops, pottery, art galleries, and hippie haven Bennington College, is home to dozens of celebrated poets, painters, and musicians. Robert Frost is buried here. And if the town looks like a Norman Rockwell painting, it's probably because his studio was just 20 miles outside downtown. The other part of its appeal is its convenient location: Nestled between the Taconic and Green Mountains in the southwestern corner of the state, it's the perfect weekend retreat for Boston and New York City urbanites looking to escape the grind. If the hometown hospitality doesn't lure you away for good, the Vermont maple syrup just might do the trick.
Old Bennington, the site of a colonial settlement and one of three historic districts, has stately Greek Revival, Victorian, and Colonial Revival homes starting in the low $300,000s for fixer-uppers. Moving away from the center of town, 1930s Craftsman cottages list for under $200,000.
Why Buy Now?
Prices in Bennington are a little lower than Manchester and surrounding cities, so if you're looking for small-town living that's close to the great outdoors—and still within reach of a big city—Bennington fits the bill.
Solar Hill Historic District, Bristol, Virginia
Bristol is a city with an identity crisis. Half of it is in Virginia, the other in Tennessee, with the border running down the middle of its main street. But Solar Hill—entirely on the Virginia side—has a distinct personality. Long before 1869, when the observatory for which the neighborhood is named was built, Solar Hill was a stagecoach crossroads. Prominent travelers, including future presidents Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson, made overnight stops. The area has a nice view of downtown, and tons of big, beautiful old houses, whose preservation has become a top priority. The town has newly renovated sidewalks, street lamps, and historic markers that make for easy walking tours.
Solar Hill has houses dating to the early 1800s and 1900s. Styles include Federal, Neoclassical, Queen Anne, Italianate, Colonial Revival, Tudor, and Craftsman, priced between $80,000 and $200,000.
Why Buy Now?
Although the district is listed on the state and national historic registers, there are no zoning ordinances affecting property improvement. Bristol is also a great place for music lovers. In 1998 the United States Congress officially recognized it as the "Birthplace of Country Music," where Ralph Peer began recording country musicians, including the Carter Family, for Victor Records in 1927. Bristol is now home to dozens of music venues that attract artists of local and national scale.
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Only 309 people can call the small town of Harpers Ferry home. But more than half a million visitors stop by each year to see the site of the United States Amory and Arsenal, which John Brown raided in 1859 in a failed attempt to end slavery. Situated at the scenic intersection of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, Harpers Ferry now has a national park built around the historic site. The downtown has old-timey shops and restaurants and a housing stock that looks as attractive as it did in the 19th century, thanks to the Harpers Ferry Historic Town Foundation.
Thanks to limited building lots, subdivision development never took place here. But as the population ages and downsizes, it is easier to find 18th-, 19th-, and early-20th-century houses starting around $150,000. Some of the earliest structures were destroyed during the Civil War, but there are Federal houses from the 1830s still standing in "Upper Town," alongside Queen Annes from the late 1800s.
Why Buy Now?
There's a push for preservation in Harpers Ferry, and the West Virginia government is willing to help bear some of the financial burden of rehabilitation. A 20 percent state tax credit is available for money spent on remodeling a personal residence, and the state has a grant program for project funding as well.
Despite its proximity to Chicago and Milwaukee and its three resident multi-billion-dollar international companies, Beloit, Wisconsin, has managed to maintain its small-town feel and affordable historic housing. Its old-house neighborhoods are just a short walk away from a revitalized downtown district, riverfront, and the cultural and intellectual offerings of Beloit College, known for the ancient Indian mounds on campus.
Foursquares run as low as $80,000, while larger, move-in-ready Georgian Revival and Queen Anne homes can be purchased for under $200,000.
Why Buy Now?
Though homes within one of Beloit's historic districts automatically qualify for the state's historic-home tax credit, houses outside the zoned areas may apply for individual listing to receive the 25 percent credit as well. The Beloit Neighborhood Association maintains a list of historic homes on the market, which will help with your search for the perfect home. They've also got a list of recommended local trade and service professionals to help with renovations.