Best Old House Neighborhoods 2010: Retirees
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 12 places where homeowners can live out their golden years in smaller homes surrounded by friendly villages and stimulating college activities.
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.
Thornton Park, Orlando, Florida
Sure, it's just 25 miles from Disney World, but Orlando's Thornton Park neighborhood offers amusements far more sophisticated than Space Mountain and a man-size rodent. Its European-style commercial district of restaurants, pubs, cafes, and shops is where locals go to kick back and relax. And many of those locals reside in beautifully crafted, not-so-big houses located along Thornton Park's brick-paved streets—streets shaded by oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. The neighborhood is also a five-minute walk from Lake Eola Park, an urban oasis where you'll find green space, hiking trails, and dog-walking paths surrounding a tranquil man-made lake.
Thornton Park is known primarily for its wood-frame "cracker-style" homes, which feature center hallways (to promote air circulation) and deep porches with long overhanging roofs that help keep the summer heat at bay. Other styles include Craftsman, Mediterranean, American Foursquare, and shotgun homes. A restored 1,300-square-foot bungalow was recently on the market for $215,000, but you can find homes under $200,000 and up to $700,000.
Why Buy Now?
Thornton Park is emerging as a hip urban area that's attracting young homeowners looking for a friendly, walkable community in which to live and raise their families.
According to resident John Krauklis: "The best reason to live in Thornton Park is its proximity to downtown Orlando (a five-minute walk) and Lake Eola—and our weather isn't too bad either."
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."
Manoa, Honolulu, Hawaii
Away from the surf and sand of downtown Honolulu, Manoa is a valley where Craftsman homes and tropical gardens line the streets instead of tourists and resorts. Some of the first taro and dairy farms were located here, and light mists and cooler temperatures keep the vegetation lush. But these days, many of the area's thousands of residents work at the University of Hawaii campus in southern Manoa and spend their free time tending their large lawns or hiking the area's mountainside trails.
Some of Honolulu's oldest homes are located here, many of which are well maintained. Preservation of period architecture is due in part to the outreach of Malama o Manoa, a 17-year-old organization that publishes biannual newsletters and sponsors walking house tours to educate residents on architectural history. No single style dominates—Tudor Revivals and Colonial Revivals stand alongside Craftsman bungalows and cottages. It's Hawaii, so expect prices to hit the million-dollar mark. Smaller listings start at $600,000.
Why Buy Now?
If you're looking for a place with an authentic Hawaiian identity and have the means to splurge, Manoa offers a unique urban setting with a small-town feel. "We really feel like an island within an island," says resident Thalya DeMott. Manoa's geographic isolation, bordered by mountains on three sides, has helped create this communal closeness, but if you tire of the neighborhood's meandering steams, abundant foliage, and familiar faces, the city's beaches and businesses are just a short trip away.
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.
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.
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.
Mesilla, New Mexico
The heart of Mesilla is its historic 19th-century plaza, where locals and tourists go to dine at its top-notch Mexican restaurants and imbibe at its cantinas. Many think of their town as a hidden gem, a place where one can find all the Southwestern charms of tony Santa Fe at a fraction of the cost. Originally part of Mexico, Mesilla retains its authentic south-of-the-border culture and is home to a diverse group of residents who share the frontier credo of "live and let live."
Most are adobe, built between the 1850s and 1950s. The houses vary in condition, from precarious to pristine. That's good news, since a fixer-upper here can be had for as little as $100,000, topping off at around $350,000.
Why Buy Now?
Adobe architecture is hot, hot, hot, partly because it's such an energy-efficient building style. Many DIYers have descended on Mesilla in the past decade looking to restore an adobe house of their very own. Those fixer-uppers probably won't be available for long.
The McLoughlin Neighborhood, Oregon City, Oregon
Oregon City was the final terminus of the Oregon Trail; in the mid-1800s, thousands of pioneers ended up here searching for farmland, business opportunities, or simply a fresh start. And many of those who succeeded wound up building houses, creating a neighborhood that managed to dodge the economic ups and downs of the last century. This cluster of fine homes is set on a cliff overlooking the Willamette River and punctuated by church steeples.
Development here was haphazard. So while there are clumps of similarly styled houses, you're more likely to find a Queen Anne next door to a bungalow next door to a 1950s ranch. Prices range from $150,000 to $200,000 for a 3-bedroom Victorian-era cottage or a bungalow to $250,000 to $350,000 for a large, restored Queen Anne.
Why Buy Now?
No matter what you're looking for—whether it's a starter home or a fully restored 3,000-square-foot manse—you can find it here. Prices are substantially lower than they are in Portland, which is just 25 minutes away.
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.