Best Old House Neighborhoods 2010: Easy Commute
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 17 places close enough to a city or major business center that your drive (or bike or train ride) to work will still leave you plenty of time to enjoy a rich old-home life.
Coronado Historic District, Phoenix
Once Phoenix had ensured its long-term survival by damming up the Salt River in the early 1900s, developers got down to the business of plotting the future of the growing Southwestern city. And that future was all about suburbs. By 1920 one of the largest was the Coronado neighborhood, home to a middle-class population of merchants, policemen, and railroad engineers living in modest bungalows and Tudor Revival cottages, many fronted by small lots with towering palm trees. These days the nabe is drawing a young, artsy crowd, who like to hang out on their front porches and wave to neighbors who pass by. The neighborhood was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. Each spring, residents show off their homes—and often their DIY handiwork—during an annual house tour and community festival.
Small to medium-size Tudor, Craftsman, and ranch houses, built from about 1920 to 1940, are predominant. Prices start at $150,000. Houses often include a freestanding garage out back with matching architectural details. During the Great Depression, many residents converted their garage into an apartment, moved in, and rented their home.
Why Buy Now?
The neighborhood’s affordability is outstanding. And while there are still a few dilapidated houses, most are in pretty good shape. Buy a house here and all you’ll need to do is pick out the furniture and add a fresh coat of paint.
Among the best for: Bargains, City Life, Easy Commute, First-Time Buyers, Singles, Southwest,
Capitol View, Little Rock, Arkansas
Located just outside downtown Little Rock, Capitol View is a classic first-tier suburb, with small houses surrounded by mature oaks and overgrown gardens. The neighborhood started out as a blue-collar hub for machinists, furniture craftsmen, and workers on the St. Louis Iron Mountain & Southern Railway. These days it’s a haven for singles and families looking for fixer-uppers in a laid-back community. Many residents walk or bike on the trail that runs along the Arkansas River to get to their jobs downtown.
Most are Craftsman bungalows, but there are a few shotguns, foursquares, and Queen Anne cottages, too. Many homes are built on hillsides overlooking the Arkansas State Capitol building, but homes in the northeast section of the neighborhood offer views of the Arkansas River. Prices are from $80,000 to $200,000.
Why Buy Now?
After two decades of neglect, abandonment, and rental units run by slumlord owners, Capitol View, and downtown Little Rock, made a comeback in the 1990s, drawing first-time homebuyers and disillusioned surburbanites. Their efforts to celebrate the neighborhood’s history and architecture earned Capitol View a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.
Among the best for: Cottages and Bungalows, Easy Commute, Families, Fixer-Uppers, Singles, South, Walkability, Waterfront
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.
Among the best for: Families, Gardening, Northeast, Retirees, Small Town, Victorians
Curtis Park, Denver, Colorado
Curtis Park was Denver’s first streetcar suburb, a neighborhood where prosperous merchants once lived alongside blacksmiths of more modest income. Its architectural treasure trove includes almost 500 late-19th-century homes in a variety of sizes and styles. After a period of decline in the 1960s and early 1970s, things began to turn around in 1975, when much of Curtis Park was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Since then, a new group of residents has worked to restore boarded-up homes to their original condition. ]
Several late-19th-century styles are represented here, including Second Empire, Italianate, and Queen Anne. Many houses feature notable details, such as asymmetrical facades, dramatic rooflines, and quirky millwork. Fixer-uppers average around $173,000.
Why Buy Now?
The prices are right, and the area has been experiencing a cultural renaissance in recent years. The Welton Street Commercial Corridor, which borders the eastern edge of Curtis Park, houses the Black American West Museum and sponsors a summer jazz festival and other events.
Among the best for: Bargains, City Life, Easy Commute, Fixer-Uppers, Southwest, Walkability
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.
Among the best for: Bargains, City Life, Easy Commute, Fixer-Uppers, History Happened Here, Northeast, Walkability
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.
Among the best for: Bargains, Cottages and Bungalows, Easy Commute, Northeast, Victorians
The Villages, Detroit, Michigan
Yeah, times are tough in Detroit. Still, we can’t overlook its bargain-hunter’s bounty of architectural riches—just one reason we’re betting on the city’s survival. Although the Motor City’s economy is in tatters, the people who live in The Villages, a collection of six historic neighborhoods three miles east of downtown, remain upbeat. “There’s a richness in this neighborhood,” says resident Kathy Beltaire. “The houses are beautiful and the streets are walkable, but the people here are the best part—they really care.” These days, nice-as-can-be multigenerational families who have lived here for decades continue to welcome first-time buyers who appreciate intricate woodwork, front porches, and spacious urban yards. If you can nail down a job in this city’s tough economy, your money goes a long way here.
The Villages offers more than 17 architectural styles, from Craftsman to Richardsonian Romanesque. The largest, most elaborate homes are in Indian Village, where prominent Detroit architects Albert Kahn and William Stratton designed grand Georgian Revival and Federal Revival homes for the city’s first auto barons in the early 1900s. Smaller cottages and rowhouses can be found in nearby West Village. Whatever your tastes, there are houses to be had in The Villages for less than $100,000.
Why Buy Now?
Not only will you get more house for your buck, you may just help fuel a Motor City comeback. That comeback already has a strong human foundation, thanks in part to the commitment of The Villages residents, who continue to mow the lawns and maintain the shrubs of the neighborhood’s empty and foreclosed homes, anticipating they’ll one day attract future neighbors.
Among the best for: Bargains, Cottages and Bungalows, Easy Commute, Families, First-Time Buyers, Midwest, Gardening, Singles, Victorians, Walkability
Holly Springs, Mississippi
When it comes to Southern charm, the north Mississippi town of Holly Springs—population just 7,900—has it all: antebellum homes with wraparound porches, tree-lined streets, Dixie-centric film shoots (including Cookie’s Fortune), a literary touchstone (Jan Karon’s Mitford novel series), and lots and lots of history. The town played reluctant host to General Grant during the Civil War, and it’s also where Civil Rights leader Ida B. Wells, an alum of the town’s historic Rust College, began her efforts to end lynching in the South. City life awaits about 35 miles northwest in Memphis, Tennessee, while more rural activities, such as fishing, hiking, and hunting, are just outside town. And if that builds an appetite, chow down at Phillips Grocery, which, according to USA Today, serves up one of the world’s greatest burgers.
Once called an “encyclopedia of antebellum houses” by The New York Times, Holly Springs’ residential architecture runs the gamut from Greek Revival to Gothic Revival and Queen Anne to Italianate. While many houses were destroyed during the Civil War, 60 pre-war examples survive. Homes start around $120,000 for a large brick 1930s Craftsman on a corner lot, while some of the town’s columned antebellum mansions can be had for about $600,000.
Why Buy Now?
Holly Springs isn’t necessarily a booming economic town, but there are plenty of jobs in nearby Memphis, so many looking for affordable old homes that are worth the sweat equity are settling here. The town is also becoming a popular alternative to Oxford, just a half hour south, where rising prices—and, many would say, too many newcomers—are spoiling its small-college-town vibe.
Among the best for: Bargains, College Towns, Easy Commute, Fixer-Uppers, Gardening, History Happened Here, Outdoor Activities, Retirees, South, Victorians
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.
Among the best for: Cottages and Bungalows, Easy Commute, Families, Fixer-Uppers, Midwest, Small Town, Victorians, Walkability, Waterfront
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.
Among the best for: Bargains, City Life, Easy Commute, Northeast, Singles,
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.
Among the best for: Bargains, City Life, Easy Commute, Families, First-Time Buyers, Fixer-Uppers, Northeast, Victorians, Walkability
Midtown Tulsa, Tulsa, Oklahoma
If you’ve ever been to Tulsa, you know it’s home to some of the finest—and leafiest—residential neighborhoods in the country. And the finest of the finest are in Midtown. Here’s where the Sunday-drive set motors down shady blocks, slowing down to note the contact info from a For Sale sign in hopes of someday living here. The appeal is easy to understand. Aside from beautiful houses, Midtown is home to an urban forest and a massive neighborhood park located along the Arkansas River. Residents also love its walkable avenues, which are lined with shops, cafes, and restaurants.
Midtown’s best homes were built around the turn of the 20th century, when Tulsa went from cow town to boom town with the discovery of oil. Deep-pocketed oil barons built homes in several classical styles, including Neoclassical Revival, Tudor Revival and Colonial Revival. The bungalows and ranches came later. A slew of teardowns in the past decade made way for newer homes (and some rather unsightly McMansions), but that’s slowed down in recent years. You can get a 1,500-square-foot fixer-upper starting at $175,000, though prices tend to climb the closer you get to downtown Tulsa.
Why Buy Now?
This is a well-established neighborhood, with stable home prices and friendly lifelong residents. Its safe streets and good schools make it a prime location for families. And prices vary enough to ensure there’s something for everyone, from starter homes to manses.
Among the best for: Bargains, City Life, Easy Commute, Families, First-Time Buyers, Gardening, Outdoor Activities, Southwest, Waterfront
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.
Among the best for: City Life, Easy Commute, Fixer-Uppers, Gardening, Northeast, Outdoor Activities
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.
Among the best for: Bargains, Cottages and Bungalows, Easy Commute, Families, Northeast, Singles, Waterfront
Junius Heights, Dallas, Texas
Like most of Texas, the city of Dallas is obsessed with all things big. But the people of the Junius Heights neighborhood beg to differ. “This is a small-town, front-porch community,” says Bill Williams, who purchased a Craftsman here in 2003. Junius Heights is home to some of the city’s most interesting residents, including artists, reporters for The Dallas Morning News, and about half the lawyers in town. And it’s turning into a haven for families looking to eschew traditional suburban living. That’s thanks in part to Woodrow Wilson High School, “one of the best examples of an inner-city high school in the country,” according to one resident (and Newsweek magazine). The school provides a top-notch education, as well as entertainment for Junius Heights residents through its excellent theater and athletic programs.
Textbook examples of Prairie and Craftsman houses are the mainstay. A handsome 1,600-square-foot Craftsman can cost $149,000, but fixer-uppers go for as little as $80,000. Fully restored houses top out just above $500,000.
Why Buy Now?
Proximity to downtown Dallas, great schools, and recent recognition as a National Register Historic District are driving up Junius Heights’ property values and helping the neighborhood maintain its historic character.
Among the best for: City Life, Cottages and Bungalows, Easy Commute, Families, Fixer-Uppers, Southwest
Old Historic Sandy, Sandy City, Utah
Located in the southeastern corner of Salt Lake County, Sandy City is the kind of place where your neighbors will bring over vegetables picked from their garden and spend the rest of the night shooting the breeze on your front porch. The town’s first settlers were actually pioneer farmers. But by the 20th century, mining brought a boom to town, employing hundreds of men at three smelters and two sampling mills. Today, the city is home to around 93,000—many of whom make the 15-mile commute to Salt Lake City for work but enjoy Sandy’s good schools, close proximity to major ski slopes, extensive network of hiking trails, and 26 recreational parks.
Small starter cottages and fixer-uppers in Old Historic Sandy start in the low $100,000s. A cozy, 2-bedroom bungalow with a well-kept fenced-in backyard was just listed for $168,000. Elsewhere in Sandy, homes range from the $200,000s to the millions.
Why Buy Now?
Since 1960, Sandy’s population has grown steadily while continuing to remain one of America’s safest cities for its size. It’s a good time to buy in the area; a September 2009 report from the National Association of Home Builders and Wells Fargo showed a rise in housing affordability of almost 20 percent from 2008 for the Salt Lake City metropolitan area.
Among the best for: Cottages and Bungalows, Easy Commute, Families, First-Time Buyers, Fixer-Uppers, Outdoor Activities, West and Northwest
The McKinley Hill Neighborhood, Tacoma, Washington
McKinley Hill, located on the highest point of Tacoma, started out as home to clerks and managers from the Northern Pacific Railroad, which terminated just down the hill at what’s now one of the Pacific Northwest’s largest transportation hubs. In 1905, the construction of a streetcar line here spurred the building of some of the city’s finest homes, built with fine details by master craftsmen working in the city’s bustling furniture and shipbuilding industries. The neighborhood went into urban decline in the 1960s and ’70s. But it’s now gaining favor among young families and singles looking for an older city neighborhood—its modest Main Street has pubs, restaurants, and boutique shops—that still has a little grit and character.
Most homes here were built between 1885 and 1929. Styles include well-appointed Craftsmans, Cape Cods, American Foursquares, Folk Victorians, and Tudor Revivals. Prices range from $150,000 to $290,000.
Why Buy Now?
McKinley offers some of the lowest home prices in the Puget Sound region. And its proximity to trains and a light rail system that will soon reach nearby Seattle and the airport is making it an attractive option for commuters. A new preservation nonprofit called Historic Tacoma, formed three years ago, is currently focused on McKinley Hill. Their recent efforts have included restoring the neighborhood’s historic 34th Street Bridge, which connects McKinley to downtown Tacoma.
Among the best for: Bargains, City Life, Easy Commute, Families, First-Time Buyers, Fixer-Uppers, Gardening, Singles, Walkability, Waterfront
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.
Among the best for: City Life, Easy Commute, Fixer-Uppers, Singles, Victorians, Walkability