Best Old House Neighborhoods 2010: the Northeast
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.
From quaint New England villages to bustling urban enclaves, here area a dozen places where you can find a perfect old house of your own along the northern Atlantic coast.
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.
Quaker Hill, Wilmington, Delaware
Quaker Hill, a charming, landmarked historic neighborhood and one of Wilmington’s first, has the same type of colonial-era and Federal rowhouses found in nearby Philadelphia, but at far lower prices. The neighborhood dates to 1738, when Quaker couple William and Elizabeth Shipley came here to build a home, and other Quakers followed. These days, Quaker Hill is attracting young homeowners who are restoring its 18th- and 19th-century houses, many embellished with Victorian-era details.
The oldest house was built in 1742, but most of the area’s homes were constructed between 1830 and 1870. While Quaker Hill is known for its brick Federal and Greek Revival rowhouses, there are also many Georgian, Gothic Revival, Italianate, Colonial Revival, and other Victorian-era styles. Today, the district retains its diverse architectural character, in part to its designation as a Historic District by the National Register of Historic Places. House prices vary depending on size, age, and condition, but a completely renovated historic home can be had for less than $200,000.
Why Buy Now?
After a long decline in the 1960s and ’70s, Wilmington is on the rise. While development along the adjacent Christina River has been slow, it does have a minor-league baseball park, as well as a performing arts center and several upscale restaurants. The neighborhood is also within walking distance of downtown. Despite the bad economy, prices here have stabilized in recent years, though property values might soon increase, thanks to ongoing downtown revitalization efforts.
Plenty of writers, musicians, and creative types call this city overlooking the Penobscot River home, but Bangor offers residents more than just its scenic view for inspiration. A collection of museums and the historic Bangor Opera House anchor the downtown district, drawing big-name performers and exhibitions to town throughout the year, while the summer sees the waterfront taken over by the American Folk Festival. Those who prefer outdoor activities over the arts will find a river full of salmon for fishing and a 650-acre park with five miles of walking, biking, and cross-country trails.
A former sawmill city, Bangor lumber barons turned big profits in the late-19th century and built grand Italianate, Greek Revival, and Queen Anne houses to match their bank accounts. Homes in the Broadway and West Broadway Historic Districts start in the high $200,000s, but plenty of well-kept older properties with reasonable price tags are scattered throughout the city. The median single-family house price in Bangor is approximately $110,000, but at press time, a charming 1900 Colonial was listed at just $124,900.
Why Buy Now?
The cost of living in Bangor is moderate compared with the rest of the New England region as a whole. The city constantly tops lists of the best places to raise a family and retire, so it seems to cater to just about any homebuyer under the sun.
Once a bustling 18th-century seaport on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Chestertown is gaining favor among retirees who like living in a landmarked historic district that feels about the same as it did a hundred years ago. Here older folks comingle with students from Washington College in the town’s coffee shops and pubs. And most residents take advantage of the Chester River, whether it’s for kayaking, canoeing or fishing.
The town is known chiefly for its stately 18th- and 19th-century brick mansions, though there are many later, Victorian-era houses here, too. Like Charleston, South Carolina, Chestertown has long been known for its passion for restoring and maintaining its older homes, so there are few fixer-uppers left. Occasionally a dilapidated Stick-style house might go on the market for $200,000, but most homes are restored and sell in the $500,000 to $800,000 range. A waterfront Colonial Revival here can go for several million.
Why Buy Now?
If you’re looking for a great place to retire, buy in Chestertown now, since prices are as low as they’re likely to get anytime soon (thanks, recession!). Though it’s isolated in a rural region, Chestertown just over an hour from Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.
Forest Park Heights Historic District, Springfield, Massachusetts
Bordering a 735-acre city park, the Forest Park Heights Historic District is home to nearly 600 of western Massachusetts’ finest houses. The neighborhood was developed in the 1890s, when an electric trolley system connected downtown Springfield to the park. In the next 30 years, the area became the exclusive province of the city’s most important businessmen, bankers, and civic leaders.
The neighborhood boasts a mix of Colonial and Tudor Revivals, Queen Anne, Craftsman, and Shingle Style homes, dating from the early 1900s. Homes here are shockingly affordable. For example, a 3,600-square-foot Colonial recently sold in Forest Park for just $200,000. Check out Choose Springfield, Massachusetts, a website touting Springfield’s amazing homes and neighborhoods.
Why Buy Now?
Affordability is the draw. As the economic tides have shifted and turned over the years, Forest Park Heights has remained a relatively stable middle- to upper-middle-class neighborhood. Many who live here have come from pricier markets, including Northampton and Boston, seeking less costly old homes.
North End, Nashua, New Hampshire
Nashua was originally planned as a manufacturing township by famed American architect Asher Benjamin back in 1823. Today the city, 36 miles north of Boston, has outgrown its original grid footprint and traded its textiles for the tech industry. But the North End’s beautiful old homes and large, overgrown maples are the real draw for those tiring of the bustle of Boston’s bedroom communities. Still, Nashua is no sleepy New England town, especially for those at home in the great outdoors. The North End borders Greely Park, a place for summer picnicking and evening concerts, and is close to the Nashua River Rail Trail, a newly expanded, 17-mile-long waterfront bike route that takes riders across the Massachusetts border.
Prices for the North End’s elegant estates have followed suit with the rest of the real estate market. Classic Colonial Revivals and ornate Queen Annes from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, once listed in the millions, now start around $300,000.
Why Buy Now?
After years of passing their property down through the family, longtime residents looking to downsize are finally putting their big, beautiful North End homes on the market. If Boston is your work center, you’ll get more bang for your buck by buying in southern New Hampshire than in Massachusetts. And with the money you save, you’ll have a nice nest egg for renovations.
The Greenwood-Hamilton Historic District, Trenton, New Jersey
Trenton’s Greenwood-Hamilton neighborhood once served as sanctuary for the city’s 19th-century businessmen, who moved to the parklike suburb to escape the crowds—and the rubber, ceramics, and cigar factories—downtown. Many settled with their families on Greenwood Avenue, building extravagant mansions fronted by lovingly landscaped gardens. By the 1880s, commuting became easier for Trenton’s less affluent as well, thanks to a new streetcar line. At this point, smaller, more modest brick rowhouses were built as additional streets were laid. After a long period of decline, the neighborhood is attracting a new generation of homebuyers, who are looking to restore its affordable historic houses, whether those houses are modest or majestic.
The neighborhood is known mostly for its larger Victorian-era mansions, including Queen Annes and Italianates. But there are plenty of modest brick rowhouses available too. Prices run from $75,000 to $250,000, with the average cost being $146,000.
Why Buy Now?
The neighborhood has been experiencing a modest, albeit shaky, recovery in the past decade. Several homes have been restored, but the recession sure didn’t help. Still, city leaders are hoping Greenwood-Hamilton’s proximity to Trenton’s transit center, which offers train service spanning the East Coast, will entice commuters, or city and state workers.
Stuyvesant Heights, Brooklyn, New York
For years real estate agent Judd Harris kept a close eye on Brooklyn’s Stuyvesant Heights. He was waiting to see if it would start attracting the same kind of brownstone buffs who’d helped jump-start the real estate frenzies that have taken hold of nearby neighborhoods Fort Greene and Clinton Hill. These days he likes what he sees. “If you’re a buyer looking for lots of architectural detail, this place has a lot to offer,” he says. “And homes are still within reach of the average New York City buyer.” This culturally rich nabe is shedding its high-crime rep as restaurants, bakeries, and cafes open their doors to new and longtime residents, all of whom want a distinctly Brooklyn lifestyle for themselves and their families.
Home to perhaps the most diverse array of townhouses in New York City, ranging in style from Federal to the ubiquitous Italianate brownstone to Queen Anne.
Why Buy Now?
While prices for townhouses were creeping into the millions a few years ago, they’ve come down of late. Some fixer-uppers are going for as low as $475,000. It won’t stay that way.
Mount Airy, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
With a diverse and progressive vibe that makes some people refer to it as Berkeley East, Mount Airy might just be one of the most interesting neighborhoods in the country. While the abundance of trees makes the place seem like a virtual forest, the foliage hides hundreds of stately stone homes filled with details nailed down by master European craftsmen. Two light rail lines get you downtown in minutes, though biking is extremely popular here.
Houses range in style from wood-frame foursquares to Second Empire stone mansions. Two-families, many of them limestone Second Empires, are extremely affordable, especially if you choose to rent out one side.
Why Buy Now?
Mount Airy is part of the historic Germantown area of Philadelphia, though it’s more affordable than tony Chestnut Hill and experiencing more restoration than Germantown proper. Small businesses and locally owned restaurants are opening along Germantown Road. And Mount Airy has two fierce neighborhood organizations that look out for everyone—and every house.
Cranston, Rhode Island
Sure, Cranston is considered a satellite city of Providence because of its size and proximity. But the former textile and shipping center, which lies just south of the capital, has a solid housing stock and its own burgeoning foodie scene fueled by locally grown produce and ethnic restaurants. On weekends, residents flock to the area’s shops and markets. Aside from cooking and commerce, leisure lovers take advantage of their proximity to water; it’s Cranston where the Pawtuxet River opens into Narragansett Bay, making the marina a fishing and boating paradise during the summer months.
While western Cranston is rife with new housing development, the eastern part of the city is a charming mix of older Capes and Colonial Revivals, some of which feature Shingle Style facades. It’s not uncommon to stumble upon an entire block of Craftsman bungalows or earlier Victorian-era homes either. The variety of the houses, their reasonable price tags—many less than $200,000—and the 15-minute commute to Providence appeal to young professionals and new families alike.
Why Buy Now?
Retirees are moving into smaller homes, leaving behind their well-maintained properties.
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.
The Junction, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
The Junction wasn’t always as welcoming as it is now. In July 2009, The New York Times called the neighborhood’s ongoing transition “skid row to hip,” and the Junction is gaining favor among young professionals while maintaining a character that’s both edgy and artsy. There’s also increased interest from young families, who like the Junction’s proximity to several of Toronto’s best parks. The dozens of locally owned cafes, pubs, boutiques, and restaurants that have opened in recent years are attracting buyers who like the older housing stock tucked away behind the neighborhood’s commercial strip.
Mostly wood-frame Victorian-era homes with brick facades, with some Edwardian-era brick duplexes and Victorian-era mansions thrown in. Many were divided into apartments over the years but can easily be turned back into single-family residences. Keep in mind that Toronto is a pricey city. Houses start around $300,000 and run to about $500,000.
Why Buy Now?
Businesses and homeowners are flocking here. Best to get in on the action now because home prices will no doubt rise quickly.