By Michael Good | HouseCalls
What to look for in an old house
No one wants to say the housing market is hot, because that might lead to talk of it being overheated, which could lead to use of the word “bubble.”
As the Los Angeles Times put it last weekend, “If we had to pick a single word other than ‘hot’ to describe the Southern California housing market, we’d have to go with ‘active.’ Sellers and buyers are in a hurry-up mode, homes are moving quickly and the urgency in the real estate marketplace is fueling full-price offers and overbidding.” (Prices in the above-$500,000 range are up 15 percent over a year ago.)
For the buyer interested in an historic house, this can be a little disconcerting. After all, it takes time to answer that quintessential question: “Is that thingamabob original?” You’ve got to consult with the local historical society, talk to house-history researchers, listen to a parade of contractors and craftsmen, take pictures, bring in the neighbors, poke at things with a stick. And in the meantime, your agent is asking for a counter offer and your lender is wondering why you’re paying Mission Hills prices for a North Park house.
I talk to new homeowners every week, and the theme seems to be: That was really crazy. One out-of-town buyer I spoke to in January told me he’d started checking out San Diego’s old neighborhoods in November, discovered Mission Hills in the first week of December, found himself in a bidding war for a 1,500- square-foot Spanish bungalow on the edge of the Fort Stockton Historic District a week later. And a month after that, he closed escrow and was still trying to figure out what he’d bought. “So,” he asked me, “these windows are original, right?”
As it turned out, some were, some weren’t. In this market, you either need to have an old house consultant at your shoulder through the whole process, or you need to become one yourself. Here are some tips on what to look for when you’re looking for an old house:
• Windows: The local historic resource board (the guys who approve or deny Mills Act applications) really has a fixation of fenestration — and you should too. Windows are a defining characteristic of houses from the first three decades of the 20th century. They often signal a stylistic theme that was carried through inside the house, in the bookcases and china cabinet. If the dimensions of the rails, stiles and mullions of a particular window are different from windows elsewhere in the house, it’s probably not original. Replica windows — exact copies of the originals — however, are fine.
• Stucco: There was a plethora of stucco styles back in the day. But you only need to learn one name: “Spanish Lace.” That’s the term for the technique used on modern tract houses. Spanish Lace looks wrong, gets dirty easily, and isn’t historic.
• Front doors: What you might have in mind when you think of a Craftsman door is the widely advertised modern interpretation of something Gustav Stickley once designed, built by a manufacturer in Asia from illegally obtained Douglas fir hijacked from a Siberian wilderness area by gun-totting gangsters. You don’t want one of those.
There are many options when dealing with a damaged door. You can have it refinished. You can have it re-veneered. You can have it dismantled and reconstructed with new and old parts. Or you can hire a carpenter to recreate a door your builder put on another house nearby. But you won’t find a door at a home center that can take the place of the original.
• Woodwork: Early 20th-century builders followed a strict design esthetic that was developed by the Greeks and Romans. Most of today’s carpenters lack that classical education, but there are a few who can replicate your missing millwork. Better yet, find a house before a flipper tears out all the trim. You’ll save tens of thousands of dollars.
• Finishes: In the first decade of the 20th century, most trim was finished clear — that is stained and coated with shellac. For various reasons, paint began to be used more widely in the late 1910s and early 1920s. It first appeared on trim in kitchens and baths, and then in bedrooms and hallways. Eventually, during the Roaring Twenties, even living room trim was faux painted — to resemble wood, as part of Hollywood-inspired design craze. Soon paint manufacturers began to market pre-mixed gallons to homeowners, and they started painting over everything. At least these layers of paint provided UV protection for the now-unobtainable old-growth fir, which can be stripped and refinished.
• Paint: Until homeowners took up the brush, professional painters were artists. They mixed their own colors. They applied stains and varnishes. They used rags and sponges to create texture and depth; they created subtle effects on ceilings and walls. They used stencils and hand painted garlands and cornucopias. Much of this artistry has disappeared behind layers of white paint. But evidence of those colors can be found on the plaster walls at the back of bookcases and china cabinets.
• Plaster: Plaster gives a depth and beauty to a wall that isn’t replicated with the typical drywall coatings. Yet it’s the first thing house flippers tear out when making improvements. Plaster’s heyday was in the 1920s, in Spanish-style houses, where a mix of imaginative and artistic techniques were employed to provide variety and texture to wall surfaces. In the right hands, it still can be repaired and restored.
• Floors: You might want to rethink your requirements for a “gleaming hardwood floor,” a phrase real estate agents have been using for decades to describe something rather mundane and boring compared to a floor with some history and patina. Rather than sand an old floor to make it look new, consider preserving it by keeping it covered with many coats of polyurethane — and Oriental or Navajo rugs. You can buy a lot of nice rugs for the cost of installing a new floor.
• Tile: It’s a rarity to find original tile in baths and kitchens. Tastes in the 1920s were exuberant and wild. People today think they’re hip and knowledgeable and open-minded, but they’re sticks in the mud compared to a 1920s flapper with a homemade drink in her hand and “Black Bottom Stomp” on the Victrola. Sadly, her luxurious bath, with that maroon, turquoise and black tile, never had a chance against the influence of the demolition-obsessed Property Brothers. They just look too good swinging a sledgehammer to be ignored.
• Kitchens and baths: The history police won’t arrest you if you remodel your kitchen and baths to modern tastes. Few houses are declared historic because of their bathrooms, which is a bit sad, because the 1920s revolution in kitchens and baths said a lot about the changing role of women in American society.
• The end of an era: In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration created a new set of guidelines governing home loans, and these regulations transformed the housing industry and American architecture. In an effort to quantify what had previously been a qualitative process, the FHA began to focus on the numbers — square footage, for example — instead of the values — truth, beauty and craftsmanship. The bureaucrats saved the housing industry, but they destroyed the house as Americans had known it. It wasn’t until the 1950s that a homeowner successfully challenged these regulations in court, but they nevertheless stayed in place well into the 1960s.
By then, the FHA had changed public taste. A great house became a great big house — something with a lot of square footage and a cavernous, warehouse-like living room. Today, a new tract house is more than twice as big as it was in the 1950s. Most Americans think bigger is better, but for the few who appreciate quality, the well-crafted, pre-1934 house remains highly desirable, even hip. Just don’t say it’s hot.
—Contact Michael Good at firstname.lastname@example.org.