Best Old House Neighborhoods 2009: Retirees
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 21 spots boast great qualities of life, where retirees can walk to local businesses and restaurants. For those of us in our glory years, these places offer decent weather, outdoor and indoor activities, and a low cost of living.
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.
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
You almost feel guilty living in a place as pretty and laid back as Eureka Springs. This Victorian-era resort town deep in the Ozark Mountains has long seduced those looking to escape the “real” world. Its draw used to be its legendary springs, which were once thought to have healing power. Nowadays, healing power is provided by the town’s health spas, slow pace, perfect weather, and outdoor activities, such as hiking, biking, climbing, and kayaking. Eureka Springs draws a decidedly creative crowd, including writers, musicians and artists, all of whom are part of a supportive community that’ll gladly hold a potluck dinner to help a fellow artist make a house payment if his or her novels, CDs, or paintings aren’t selling.
The entire town of Eureka Springs is on the National Register of Historic Places. Most of the contributing homes are ornate Folk Victorians and Queen Annes with dazzling details. The most impressive houses are located on what’s known as “the Loop,” a series of steep, winding roads that run through the center of town. Some of the houses are pricey, but you can snatch up a nice Victorian-era cottage for less than $200,000.
Why Buy Now?
The town is attracting an array of new part-time and full-time residents, from retirees who want something a little funkier than Florida to younger, outdoorsy types flocking here for the hiking, biking, climbing, and kayaking.
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 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.
Old Wethersfield, Connecticut
Driving down Main Street in Old Wethersfield can make you feel as if you were time traveling back to the 18th century. Main Street is home to a red clapboard house where, in 1781, General George Washington conspired with French general Comte de Rochambeau to plan the Battle of Yorktown. The redbrick church where Washington likely prayed for victory is just across the street. The town maintains an attractive village atmosphere, with wide streets divided by grassy, park-like medians, on which neighbors stop and chat during their evening dog walks. Aside from historic homes, Main Street is home to an ice-cream parlor, a pizza joint, and a pub located inside an 18th-century saltbox house.
While the town is celebrated for its saltboxes and Colonials, you’ll find modest Tudors and Craftsmans. The homes are cheaper than you might think. A spacious Colonial built in the mid-1800s can be yours for less than $250,000. Recently, an enormous 3,346-square-foot Colonial on Main Street hit the market at $549,900.
Why Buy Now?
Old Wethersfield is an overlooked gem. It’s just as charming and serene as better-known Connecticut towns, many of which are two or three times as expensive. It’s just minutes from downtown Hartford and a short drive to Boston or New York City.
Weiser (pronounced “Weezer” by locals) was founded by Peter Weiser, a member of the Corps of Discovery on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but its main claim to fame is that it’s home to the annual National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest. This small town is also a great place for anyone looking for a relaxed, comfortable lifestyle and an affordable old home. Besides fiddling, this farming community is known for its Spanish onions and outdoor offerings, such as the Weiser River Trail, an 84-mile-long bike trail that starts in Weiser and ends near New Meadows, Idaho. Today, Weiser is popular with retirees, musicians, and other folks looking for a laid-back lifestyle.
Weiser has a mix of older homes from the late-19th and early-20th centuries, including Queen Annes, Colonial Revivals, and bungalows. These houses are priced pretty reasonably, too. A 1910 Queen Anne cottage with over 2,000 square feet was recently on the market for just $199,900.
Why Buy Now?
Real estate prices jumped during the boom years, but now they’re coming back down to more reasonable levels. Weiser is becoming a hot spot for retirees (especially retirees who play the fiddle), so you might want to snatch up one of the town’s older homes while you can.
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.
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.
Think of Leavenworth as small-town America with an edge. Home to heroes (from Fort Leavenworth, the oldest U.S. Army facility west of the Mississippi) and villains (from the well-known federal prison), this sleepy Missouri River city of 35,000 has six residential areas recognized as National Historic Districts. Each has big, beautiful houses on tree-lined streets that belie the city’s institutional reputation. In fact, locals describe Leavenworth as a warm, family-oriented community, with top-notch schools and safe, walkable streets. Many residents are young professionals who commute to nearby Kansas City, Missouri (40 minutes away), or retired Army officers drawn to Leavenworth’s relaxing pace after years of service.
The oldest homes are generally brick Greek Revivals dating to the 1850s. Later styles include Italianate, Gothic Revival, Queen Anne, and bungalow. Prices for fixer-upper bungalows average $40,000. The city’s largest Queen Anne recently sold for $400,000.
Why Buy Now?
The Kansas Income Tax Credit gives homeowners a 25 percent reimbursement credit for restoration or maintenance work on homes in the National Historic Districts. A biking and walking path is under construction and will run through the center of town, and a new pavilion for the city’s farmer’s market is set to open this month.
Douglas Park, Brunswick, Maine
The campus of Bowdoin College is as idyllic as they come, with its brick and stone buildings and wide-open greens. Just across the street is Douglas Park, an equally enchanting little neighborhood lined with modest Cape Cods on quiet shady streets. The area is home to many Bowdoin professors as well as doctors and lawyers who either work in town or commute to nearby Portland, Lewiston, or Augusta. On weekends, many residents ride their bikes along the Androscoggin River or hop in their cars for a short drive to a nearby beach. Others stick around town, walking up Brunswick’s historic Maine Street to shop or dine, or they attend lectures and concerts on the Bowdoin campus.
Douglas Park is known primarily for its early-1900s wood-sided Cape Cods, most with double dormers and big bay windows. Houses here cost between $200,000 and $350,000.
Why Buy Now?
The housing market in Brunswick has remained relatively steady through the economic downturn. Many families and first-time home buyers are moving here to take advantage of Brunswick’s excellent public schools. The Brunswick Naval Air Station, a major local employer, is closing in 2011, but authorities in both the town and surrounding region have long planned ways to offset the loss. Redevelopment projects abound for the soon-to-be-closed 3,300-acre space, which has the largest airfield in the state and the second-largest hotel, which will be turned into a conference center. The University of Maine and the Southern Maine Community College are teaming up to create an engineering program with classrooms and dormitories on the former base. Other projects include space for recreation (the land abuts Harpswell Sound), new civilian residential developments, and a corporate and professional office park.
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.
The South Wolcott Historic District, Casper, Wyoming
If you’re looking to live in a rugged Western town near mountains and rivers, you might find your own personal Shangri-La within the 22 square blocks that comprise Casper’s South Wolcott National Historic District. Its solid, stately homes, located on a bluff on the south side of town, were built in the early 1900s for Wyoming’s oil workers, who had factory-made architectural pieces for their new homes—moldings, mantels, chandeliers—shipped in on the railroad. With a population of around 50,000, Casper remains a small city in a big and beautiful state. The neighborhood is strongly upper middle class, with many here still working for the oil industry, as well as in banking, finance, and education.
The earliest homes, built around the turn of the 20th century, are brick Colonial Revivals, though there are also some nice Mission-style bungalows, as well as Queen Annes. A Mission-style bungalow was recently on the market for $219,500.
Why Buy Now?
While some homes here are passed down from generation to generation, several have been coming onto the market. There are still some of oil industry jobs in Casper, as well as new medical facilities creating jobs and several new schools lowering teacher-to-student ratios. With many fishing, skiing, and hiking options, Casper is also a great spot for active retirees.
Poplar Springs, Meridian, Mississippi
“Meridian no longer exists,” General Sherman told Ulysses S. Grant after all but destroying the city in 1864. But try telling that to the people who live here today, especially those who continue to breathe new life into the outstanding old homes in the city’s Poplar Springs neighborhood. This leafy, distinctly Southern streetcar suburb is known for its elaborate Victorian-era houses with wide, wraparound porches, built on large lots encompassing mature trees and gardens. Poplar Springs has a diverse community of young couples looking for a small, family-friendly town, in addition to retirees.
Homes include shingled Queen Annes with original doors and beveled-glass windows, Arts and Crafts–style bungalows, and Mission-style homes. You can get a beautiful old house for between $110,000 and $225,000.
Why Buy Now?
Meridian is reinventing itself as a “destination city,” says Realtor James Harwell. Recent examples of this include the multimillion-dollar restoration of the city’s former opera house and the conversion of a neighboring department store into a performing arts center.
The population of Guthrie, Oklahoma, grew from zero to 15,000 in six hours on April 22, 1889. That’s the day the federal government opened the Oklahoma Territory to anyone willing to stake a claim in what had been restricted land. A rabble-rousing gun-toting herd of speculators was quick to take Uncle Sam up on the offer. Belgian-born architect Joseph Foucart arrived a few weeks later and set about transforming the makeshift tent city into something more refined. Using the area’s native sandstone and red clay, he designed houses and commercial buildings that mixed Gothic, Queen Anne, and Romanesque styles, adding exaggerated features like enormous keyhole windows and fat turrets that give his buildings the look of sand castles. Today, Guthrie is a popular tourist destination and home to over 10,000 people who love living life the cowboy way.
Guthrie has lots of solid brick homes from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A 2,366-square-foot Colonial Revival built in 1907 with deep eaves and a full-length porch was recently on the market for $269,000.
Why Buy Now?
Long a sleepy Western town, Guthrie is turning into a bedroom community for Oklahoma City, just 25 miles away. Guthrie is home to the largest restored commercial district on the National Historic Register. For fun you can go to the Saturday night rodeo, see a movie at the Beacon Drive-In, or enjoy a drink at the Blue Bell Saloon.
Fayetteville Historic District, Fayetteville, Tennessee
During the Civil War, many homes in the Fayetteville National Historic District were occupied by Union troops, and it’s no wonder. This southeastern Tennessee town is rich with majestic Southern manses, built by those who prospered in the city’s cotton, corn, and dairy industries in the early 1800s. Today, those houses are occupied by families who make their living working in the city’s several factories—including Frito-Lay’s and Goodman’s—or other jobs in nearby Huntsville, Alabama (30 miles away). The neighborhood is just a short stretch from Fayetteville’s beautiful downtown, which features a classic courthouse square surrounded by a historic movie theater, antique shops, and an old jail that’s been converted into a restaurant (yes, you can eat in the cells). The most beloved restaurant is Honey’s, which serves a curious Fayetteville mainstay known as the Slaw Burger.
Homes date to the early 1800s, though the newest were built in the 1950s. Styles include Stick Victorian, Greek Revival, Steamboat Gothic, and bungalows. Many feature stunning wraparound, double-tiered porches outfitted with gingerbread. Prices generally range from $100,000 to $600,000. Most are extremely well maintained and have much of their original detail.
Why Buy Now?
Good schools and great quality of life are sweetened more by an extremely affordable cost of living. Property taxes are low, and Tennesseans pay no personal income tax.
Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey
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 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.
Georgetown Historic District, Georgetown, South Carolina
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.
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.
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.
Hopkinton, New Hampshire
When Eric Habben bought his 1790 Colonial in Hopkinton a few years ago, he not only found a great house but also rediscovered his country. “This was the America I’d been missing and yearning for,” he says. “Across the street from my house is a small pond, surrounded by rushes, offering winter skating scenes that could have been painted by Norman Rockwell or Currier and Ives.”
Hopkinton was in the running to be New Hampshire’s capital (the state legislature met there four times between 1798 and 1807) but eventually lost out to Concord, about 15 miles away. In its quest for the title, Hopkinton saw the construction of many stately homes built by some of New England’s finest craftsmen. Along with working farms and the oldest covered railroad bridge in the United States, Hopkinton is home to a 1789 Congregational Church—complete with a bell cast at Paul Revere’s foundry.
The houses along Hopkinton’s Main Street and surrounding roads date from the late 1700s and early 1800s and include large white Federal-style houses and earlier Georgians and Cape Cods. Many of these homes have attached barns and retain their original features, inside and out. Prices generally range from $300,000 to $700,000, depending on the amount of land included.
Why Buy Now?
Hopkinton is popular among families, thanks to its well-performing public schools. Many people also move here to retire, work from home, or commute to nearby Concord or to Boston, about 75 miles away.
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.
The Hi Bug District, Red Lodge, Montana
When a slew of railroad and coal-mining jobs came to Red Lodge in the late 1800s, so did thousands of families from Italy, Poland, Germany, Switzerland, and Scotland. Located in the foothills of the Beartooth Mountains, Red Lodge simultaneously grew into a family town and a party town, with enough churches to keep the growing population humbled and enough saloons to draw the likes of Ms. Calamity Jane herself. As residents increased their fortunes, they started building mansions and well-appointed cottages just outside town in what’s known as the Hi Bug District, much of which is now a National Historic District. The origin of its name remains a mystery, but oral histories demonstrate it was a term school children used to describe the highfalutin neighborhood as long ago as 1900. These days, Hi Bug is a haven for full-time residents in this popular tourist town.
Mansions and Victorian cottages still dominate Hi Bug, the latter being the most abundant. The mansions are Queen Anne– or Colonial Revival–style homes with wrap-around porches, turrets, verandas, and other nifty details, while the Victorian cottages feature stately columned front porches. An 1,800-square-foot cottage on 3.9 acres, with a private, spring-fed pond, was recently on the market for $265,000.
Why Buy Now?
Because of its outdoor activities, including kayaking, skiing, white-water rafting, hiking, and fly-fishing, and its proximity to Yellowstone National Park (about 60 miles away), Red Lodge is becoming popular among second-home buyers, who often turn into full-timers. Prices are still affordable, but you might want to act quickly before this place becomes the next Park City, Utah.
Virginia City, Nevada
Virginia City was one of the most popular gold and silver rush towns of the late 1800s, but by the 1930s it was a ghost town. That is, until the 1959 premiere of a TV show called Bonanza, set on a Virginia City ranch. That’s when the tourists started coming. These days, Virginia City lures visitors with its gold mine tours, museums, fudge shops, hotels, and saloons. But it’s also home to 1,000 residents who either own small businesses that cater to tourists or work in nearby cities such as Reno. Many who live here love the easy access to skiing, hiking, and fishing areas, and that it’s less than an hour from Lake Tahoe.
Many of Virginia’s finest homes were destroyed in an 1875 fire. But there are still plenty of examples of houses built by those who made their fortunes in the city’s mines. These are mostly Victorian-era cottages. Those with views of the Six Mile Canyon are the most sought after. Homes range from $185,000 to $430,000.
Why Buy Now?
Housing is going for a lot less than it was during the real estate boom. There are a limited number of houses in this small town, so you might want to buy one now, before some of the 1.6 million tourists who come here each year decide they want to stay.
Southside Historic District, Fargo, North Dakota
If you like lush, green lawns and tree-lined streets, the Fargo’s Southside District is where you want to be. Cutting through the center of the neighborhood is Eighth Street, known for its gaslight-replica streetlamps and historic homes. It’s the kind of neighborhood people have a hard time leaving behind, according to resident Linda Jalbert. “A lot of people who grew up here move back to raise their families,” she says. It’s easy to see why. Not only is Fargo one of America’s safer cities, but it’s also home to North Dakota State University, which keeps residents entertained with its many lectures and concerts.
There is a mix of architectural styles here, including foursquare, Prairie style, Tudor, and Queen Anne. A restored 2,031-square-foot 1933 Tudor in pristine condition was recently on the market for $174,900.
Why Buy Now?
If you’re looking for a stable community and a stable real estate market, Fargo is the way to go. North Dakota has one of the nation’s lowest unemployment rates, and there are several large companies here, including Bobcat, Microsoft, and Marvin Windows and Doors. A recent study by MainStreet.com found there are more job opportunities per capita in North Dakota than in any other state in the country.