The realities of restoring an old home

It’s not a path for the weak-hearted. It may even be a nightmare for some. But rehabilitating an old home is a path that many Hudson Valley homeowners are following. For those who are up to the challenge, highlighting a historic home’s character while also bringing it up to 21st century speed has its benefits — financially and otherwise.

Kate Wood, a preservation construction manager and real estate broker, is currently leading rehab efforts at a turn-of-the-century farmhouse in the Dutchess County town of Staatsburg and at an 1876 former train depot in the Columbia County town of Copake.

“I would never advise anyone who isn’t passionate about old houses to buy an old house,” said Wood, who runs a company called Worth Preserving and holds a historic preservation degree from Columbia University. “Because, really, it’s a way of life.”

In the mid-Hudson Valley region and southern Capital Region, the old house share of the housing stock is very high, Wood said, and the vast majority of the 100 or so properties a year she shows as a real estate broker are old homes in need of some level of intervention. Often the ones that are most popular are homes that feel like time capsules.

“I’ve been involved in a lot of competitive bidding situations about that late 19th-Century farmhouse that needs work,” Wood said. “Especially if there’s a barn.”

Current trends, Wood said, of moving toward sustainability and making do with what you have are converging with the not-uncommon dream of moving to the Hudson Valley and rescuing an old home. And popular Instagram feeds and Facebook groups have opened new channels for people to connect with others in their tribe.

The Hudson Valley couple Elizabeth and Ethan Finkelstein have been able to leverage the surging popularity of their Instagram feeds @CircaHouses and @CheapOldHouses, which collectively now have more than 2 million followers, into a television show also called “Cheap Old Houses,” which premiered this month on HGTV.

"I would never advise anyone who isn't passionate about old houses to buy an old house," said Wood. "Because, really, it's a way of life."

“I would never advise anyone who isn’t passionate about old houses to buy an old house,” said Wood. “Because, really, it’s a way of life.”

Kate Wood

But Wood makes sure her clients consider the responsibilities of buying old homes and the ongoing stewardship they may require. And buyers, she said, should explore “whether that’s truly who you are — whether you’re someone who really wants to get intimate with your house, from leaky cast-iron pipes to scary basements.”

While home rehabbing may seem like a path most often trodden by the financially well-heeled, many buyers can utilize tax credits and loans to offset the cost of updating an old home. One version of the Federal Housing Administration’s 203(k) purchase-and-renovation loan allows home buyers who will live in the home to wrap roughly $30,000 in renovation costs into their mortgage.

New York State tax credits, including a historic barn tax credit, can shave 25 to 30 percent off a project’s ultimate cost, and there are federal tax credits, too, for those who turn historic homes into a rental or a commercial property.

According to Wood, the cost to fully and properly rehabilitate a historic home utilizing professionals who will carry out lasting work, hovers at roughly $200 per square foot, or $200,000, for example, for a 1,000-square-foot home. Frank Cuthbert, a real estate investor who lives in Athens in Greene County, said renovation costs can vary immensely depending on scope, especially depending on choices made for kitchens and bathrooms. Both Wood and Cuthbert said a person willing to take on some of the simpler tasks themselves, including painting, finishing floors and lining up specific contractors, can save about 25 percent off a project’s cost.

A word of warning, though: one restoration project can lead to a lifelong affair with old homes.

The things you find inside the walls

Inside Frank Cuthbert's new project in Athens, with some old newspapers including he had just found under a sheet of linoleum. 

Inside Frank Cuthbert’s new project in Athens, with some old newspapers including he had just found under a sheet of linoleum. 

Billy Shannon

Cuthbert started buying brick 1800s buildings in the nearby village of Catskill in 1999. He said he was close to broke when he started. In his mid-40s at the time, $50,000 in debt and with no job, he said he negotiated with sellers of a derelict building on the village’s Main Street. “Somehow I finagled myself into buying a building.”

Between seller-financing and a loan secured against the property from a local bank, he paid back-taxes on the building and received $35,000 of working capital to fix the building up.

“And that started the whole thing,” he said. “Thirty buildings later, that event started everything.”

He has largely focused on rehabbing brick buildings and other historic properties and considers his greatest achievement to be his successful efforts to help save four buildings on Catskill’s Main Street that were slated for demolition to make way for a Greene County municipal building’s parking lot.

Another memorable accomplishment, he said, was recreating the facade of a large commercial building, also on Catskill’s Main Street. That facelift was based on a photograph supplied to him by a local historian showing the building during the blizzard of 1888.

Cuthbert does warn that buyers of old homes should be prepared to find unexpected rot and other unforeseen issues while renovating. But he is also bullish of the approach, encouraging potential homebuyers to take the leap to start an adventure and build equity.

“The process provides a lot of opportunity for creativity,” he said. “It involves a lot of exploration; A lot of research. And, in the end, the result can provide a lot of joy and a lot of economic benefit.

“The stuff that I find inside walls,” he added. “Old shoes, old newspapers — little notes that craftsmen left there a hundred years ago imagining that at some point in the future someone would uncover them. That’s sort of a Sherlock Holmes sort of thing. That’s fun.”

Tax credits, historic resources that aid home restorations

Finding the right hardware and replacements to keep a home authentic to its era can be challenging. Wood said she sources items from Zaborski Emporium in Kingston (“an old book warehouse with five floors of every kind of fixture you can imagine,” Wood said) and also relies on the Historic Albany Foundation and Hudson Valley House Parts. She also keeps a copy of Old House Journal’s special issue called “They Still Make…” on her desk for quick reference.

According to Wood, each town, city and village differs on its rules relating to what can and can’t be done to a potentially historic building — which is loosely defined as a structure at least 50 years old and representative of a certain style or associated with a significant person, event or culture. Most places, she said, don’t have an extra layer of review, but Hudson, Catskill and Athens are among the municipalities that do.

Conrad Hanson-Kelly outside of the 1850s brick house he rehabbed in Germantown.

Conrad Hanson-Kelly outside of the 1850s brick house he rehabbed in Germantown.

Billy Shannon

When planning to utilize New York State and federal tax credits for a project aiming to restore a building that could be historically important, the first step, Wood said, is to make a determination of significance — such as the building’s contribution to a listed Historic District. If deemed significant by officials at the state historic preservation office, a homeowner or their representative then develops a plan that meets certain criteria.

“The state wants what’s best for the building and in theory the homeowner does as well, so it’s kind of a collaboration to get to a plan that’s going to preserve the character of the building,” Wood said.

To claim 20 percent of the project’s costs through the federal tax credit, Wood said, the property needs to be income-producing after renovation, meaning it would need to be a monthly rental, a short-term rental or a commercial property. An additional 20 percent of the project’s cost can be credited through the state’s current tax incentives, Wood said, meaning combining the tax credits can bring nearly half a project’s cost back to the owner as a credit against their income tax. A bill before the U.S. Congress could increase the state tax credit even more.

“It’s generated billions of dollars of investment in community projects throughout the country in its history,” she said of the tax credits. The National Park Service calculates that more than $100 billion has been poured into the preservation of historic properties since the federal tax credit began in 1976. “It’s one of the most successful community revitalization tools that exists.”

Doing the good work of restoration

Conrad Hanson-Kelly, a realtor and writer, and his husband Brendan Hanson-Kelly, own a property destined to be revitalized: a Queen Anne Victorian house from the 1880s in the Columbia County town of Germantown.

The house, which they’ve named Bell Cottage to honor the former longtime owners of the home, is next door to Conrad’s first project: a sprawling brick 1850s house and grounds which he has spent the past two decades rehabbing and beautifying, with Brendan’s help since 2013 when the couple met.

Hanson-Kelly inside the cottage he is restoring with his husband Brendan. ""I feel like when you're doing projects like this you have to fight the urge to do things fast." he said. "Because the longer we've had the house, the more our plans have changed."

Hanson-Kelly inside the cottage he is restoring with his husband Brendan. ““I feel like when you’re doing projects like this you have to fight the urge to do things fast.” he said. “Because the longer we’ve had the house, the more our plans have changed.”

Billy Shannon

Recently, Conrad and two workers removed windows from a boxed-in side porch at Bell Cottage and started opening test holes with a hammer in the porch’s lower walls. Soon, they uncovered the original porch balusters and railing intact beneath. He said discoveries like that, and finding wood clapboard siding underneath the mid-century shingles on the home’s exterior, have been very exciting.

The couple plans to rent out Bell Cottage when the project is complete, and they may eventually downsize there. The plans for renovations have been evolving, Conrad said.

“I feel like when you’re doing projects like this you have to fight the urge to do things fast. Because the longer we’ve had the house, the more our plans have changed. Any old house, you sort of get to know it and feel it. Our contractors are so backed up now — if that wasn’t the case we probably would’ve started work right away and we would’ve made decisions that I might not have been happy with long-term.”

Cuthbert, who currently lives in a freshly renovated 1940s house that was a burned-out shell when he purchased it three years ago, now focuses much of his time and energy on creating music. In the past few years, he has sold most of the properties he rehabbed since 1999.

But he has trouble staying away from historic homes in need of rescuing. He’s currently envisioning how to go about renovating the 1867 house he bought this year a few doors down from his home in Athens. And he said he recently purchased a 150-year-old shotgun-style house in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans to eventually use as a winter home.

“There’s all sorts of work in the world, and I think restoring an old building is good work,” Cuthbert said, sitting on the front porch of his Athens home, underneath a small section of charred porch ceiling that he painted rather than replace.

“People who restore old houses go to heaven.”

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