A Renaissance of Historic Home Ownership

 Jim Draeger, Wisconsin Historical Society  |    May 09, 2017

Across Wisconsin from Cedarburg to Superior, historic houses are experiencing a renaissance, especially among younger people who are buying historic houses that allow easy access to urban amenities like shopping, restaurants, and entertainment and provide a rich aesthetic environment and quality craftsmanship that is nearly impossible to duplicate in today’s houses.

REALTORS¬ģ are seeing millennials flock to downtowns, drawn by the walkability, diversity and character of old buildings. They live and work in former industrial buildings, offices and schools and avail themselves to nearby farmer‚Äôs markets, coffee shops and local cafes. As those millennials move from renters to homeowners, they shun the sameness of the suburbs of their parents with look-alike houses and chain restaurants for the funky, organic, informal and rich character of historic neighborhoods and downtowns. Public investment in bike trails and bike lanes have given denser, urban neighborhoods a distinct advantage over the sprawling suburbs for younger homeowners looking for auto-free commuting and recreation.

In many communities like La Crosse, Oshkosh and Oconomowoc, clusters of historic houses in designated historic districts are an attractive real estate market and feed the growing revitalization of the older portions of cities and towns.

The urban flight that gripped many larger cities in the 1960s and 1970s and led to the expansive growth of suburbs and the decline of inner-city neighborhoods has stalled out, and a reverse migration is bringing both empty nesters and millennials back downtown. Suburban malls, which once threatened downtowns with extinction, are now reinventing themselves as the younger generation and many consumers abandon them for online shopping and character-filled local shops.

According to UrbanMilwaukee.com, ‚ÄúThe population of 18 to 35 year-olds, adjusting for the change in the young adult population nationwide, has grown 8.8 percent in Milwaukee in the past eleven years.‚ÄĚ That migration has been noticed by tech-savvy companies that are moving offices into the urban centers to make themselves attractive to the young and hip workforce, such as Michaels Energy, which moved into a historic department store in downtown La Crosse.

Selling a historic home 

Historic homes are not for every buyer, and not every buyer would be happy with one. But for the right buyer, they can be perfect. One mistake REALTORS¬ģ can make in marketing a historic house is to attach their own values to the property and talk about the house from their personal perspective. A comment like ‚Äúthis home is a fixer-upper and has great potential,‚ÄĚ can be a turnoff to buyers attracted to the very qualities that you may find antiquated or outdated. Perhaps the potential buyers love the colors of the 1920s blue bathroom fixtures or the original wooden kitchen cabinets. Don‚Äôt discount that people may be drawn to features that you find in need of improvement. Also don‚Äôt forget the context of the home in its neighborhood. Walkability and easy biking to schools and restaurants is a positive selling point, and the density of historic development fosters a strong sense of community and belonging.¬†

Do your homework

Does the home have a history? A good story can be an attraction for owners of historic homes. Knowing that a leader of the suffrage movement and first president of the Wisconsin League of Women Voters lived in a beautiful shingle-style home on Algoma Boulevard in Oshkosh makes that home special and adds to the appeal of a house already loaded with historic charm. In 1854, when architects were in short supply, bank cashier James Crosby built a spectacular Italianate-style home in Janesville from a plan Samuel Sloan published in his 1852 pattern book, The Model Architect. John C. Steinman was the owner of a local lumberyard, and his home in Monticello was a showcase for the quality of his lumber and expresses the exuberance of the Victorian age. E. Clarke and Julia Arnold commissioned a house by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1955 based on an equilateral parallelogram. These and thousands of other stories embodied in historic houses in Wisconsin add panache and make a house the center of great stories passed from one owner to the next.

Is the neighborhood historic?

Living in a neighborhood listed on the National Register of Historic Places is a tremendous draw. This status elevates the desirability and the rigorous criteria for National Register listings as an automatic acknowledgment of a special neighborhood. REALTORS¬ģ not well versed with historic neighborhoods might make comments like, ‚ÄúI would stay away from that, it‚Äôs historic,‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúyou don‚Äôt want a historic house because the hysterical people will tell you what to do.‚ÄĚ Promoting disinformation does a disservice to your clients and harms your ability to sell, while understanding the benefits of a historic designation can improve your knowledge and marketing efforts.

National Register status in Wisconsin brings with it access to a 25 percent tax credit for owner occupants that can incentivize home sales by addressing the commonplace concerns with older properties that need new furnaces or have outdated electrical wiring or structural issues. REALTORS¬ģ need not discount historic properties or market them as ‚Äúfixer-uppers‚ÄĚ when homeowners can save 25 percent of that roof replacement as a credit against their state income taxes, and apply for credits for subsequent eligible work as long as they own the house. About 300 homeowners apply for historic tax credits every year. With over 17,000 Wisconsin homes currently eligible for homeowner tax credits, the credits can connect buyers to the economic resources that can help close a sale.¬†

Local landmark designation increases values in older neighborhoods by giving them protections similar to the deed restrictions of modern suburbs. Designation makes a home more desirable because it protects a homeowner‚Äôs investment from ill-conceived work of a neighbor that may be detrimental to surrounding values. Treasured places like New Orleans and Savannah ‚ÄĒ or closer to home in Cedarburg, Mineral Point or Milwaukee‚Äôs Lake Park neighborhood ‚ÄĒ are the jewels they are only because they are protected.¬†

They don‚Äôt build ‚Äėem like they used to

Historic homes were built in an era of splendor. The industrial extraction of virgin timber forests created a flood of high-quality and low-cost building materials that allowed even the most modest house to be strongly constructed and fitted with high-grade, select quarter sawn oak and maple floors, trim, cabinetry and staircases that would be cost prohibitive today. The oriented strand board (OSB) and extruded polyester foam (ESB) houses with medium density fiberboard (MDF) have their place in the new construction marketplace today but cannot match the quality and richness of historic materials. Natural and authentic materials are also a market asset to sell a historic house that is untainted by modern engineered materials.

The quality of craftsmanship of historic homes is also an asset. Brick and stone masonry, true plaster walls, copper plumbing and tile floors exude an attention to detail and construction that make historic homes like finely crafted vintage automobiles. Historic homes are the Bentleys, Rolls Royces and Mercedes of housing. These quality attributes translate into selling points that distinguish historic houses from the rest of the market.

Old is the new "new"

Heritage is hip, and neighborhoods once seen as old-fashioned, outdated, blighted and undesirable are increasingly viewed with fresh eyes today. Changing values, interests and lifestyles are making urban areas a focus of restoration and redevelopment, and as the trend continues, historic homes are in demand in cities and towns where the charm of an older home in an older neighborhood can demand a premium price.

Where can I find more?

To research a home’s history, start with www.wisconsinhistory.org/hp with the property record search. This database collects information on over 140,000 Wisconsin buildings and will also indicate whether the house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is potentially eligible for tax credits. No luck? Find your local historical society in the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) online directory at www.wisconsinhistory.org/pdfs/localhist/WHS-Local-History-Directory-2015.pdf. 

What does it mean to have a house listed on the National Register? The National Register is honorific and does not regulate a homeowner’s property. The frequently asked questions online at www.wisconsinhistory.org/NationalRegisterFAQ will help you to give educated answers to your client.

To learn more about tax credits, visit the WHS ‚ÄúTax Credits for Historic Building Rehabilitation‚ÄĚ webpage at www.wisconsinhistory.org/taxcredits. Owner-occupied historic houses are eligible for a 25 percent state income tax credit for approved rehabilitation work. Income-producing properties ‚ÄĒ including residential rentals ‚ÄĒ may be eligible for a combined 40 percent state and federal income tax credit. Information, instructions and applications are available on the tax credit page online.

Does your client have concerns about some aspect of homeownership, such as where to find the right contractor, how to diagnose moisture problems, or what to do with their drafty windows? You can refer your clients to the WHS ‚ÄúHow to Preserve Your Historic Building‚ÄĚ page online, which is an encyclopedic reference of best practices, treatments and problem-solving for historic houses available at www.wisconsinhistory.org/preserve-your-building.¬†

Do you have a question not addressed here? Contact the WHS State Historic Preservation Office at 608-264-6500.

Jim Draeger is an architectural historian and State Historic Preservation Officer at the Wisconsin Historical Society with more than 30 years of historic preservation experience. From Wisconsin taverns to Northwoods resorts, Draeger celebrates the importance of ordinary buildings to our daily lives through his research, writing and lectures.

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