Historic Homes: Central Virginia Treasures

Seven Oaks Seven Oaks

The most historic place around is not on the market. A red brick neoclassical dream house constructed from 1769 to 1784, remodeled from 1796 through 1808, and today valued at “priceless and inestimable,” Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello is on the National Registry of Historic Places and on every history buff and architecture lover’s bucket list to visit. But though strictly speaking it remains uninhabited, it is definitely Not For Sale.

The bedrooms are small for modern taste, anyhow. Not to worry, though—historic, attractive and affordable homes are abundant in Central Virginia, and increasingly popular with discerning homebuyers. Everyone knows they have character. Many are located where the action is, in and around revitalized city downtowns. But what some people don’t know is that an old home can be a real bargain.

“Everyone I have ever talked to who owns an historic home is happy they bought it,” says Sonja Ingram of Preservation Virginia, a non-profit organization dating all the way back to 1889 and dedicated to perpetuating and revitalizing the Commonwealth’s cultural, architectural and historic heritage. “People just love these houses.”

A “passion” for history, says Ingram, draws many homebuyers to older homes. So does an urge to be where history is being made. “Sometimes a newer house doesn’t have the same feel or character about it that people are interested in, and it’s not located in the areas people want to move to.  Millennials and retirees are moving back downtown. Downtowns have a huge stock of historic homes.”

“Somebody who is dedicated to urban living, which is a very sustainable lifestyle, can buy a building in the heart of downtown, or surrounding the downtown—and it’s walkable,” says Frank Strassler, Executive Director of Historic Staunton Foundation, a non-profit promoting the preservation and revitalization of historic buildings in one of the region’s most charming cities. Strassler grew up in a turn-of-the-century home, earned an undergraduate degree in historic preservation, and currently lives in an 1844 home with a 1926 addition on the back. “We see lots of young couples and college professors—a whole variety of people who are living in neighborhoods like New Town and Gospel Hill, who have purchased a turn of the century home. They love taking their kids in strollers downtown, going to the farmer’s market, and having that accessibility to the arts and all that’s happening downtown.”

Hip though they may be, “there are a lot of myths about historic buildings,” Ingram says. “One of those is that it’s more expensive to repair or renovate an historic house than it is to build a new one. And that’s not always the case. Oftentimes it’s less. Older homes that need repair are often very reasonable. People from New York and New Jersey and places where taxes are much higher have moved to Virginia and been able to purchase an historic home for relatively little compared to where they live; and since the taxes are much lower, they’re able to completely renovate those houses.”

That’s because most older houses were built well, with excellent craftsmanship, and with quality materials like old growth hardwoods and solid layers of brick rather than today’s more common brick veneers. In fact, says Virginia Estates REALTOR® Richard Walden, who resides in an 1890s stone house in Afton in Nelson County, one definition of “historic” would be anything before 1940, “just before the war. Because after the war construction techniques changed dramatically.” The advent of mass building and huge subdivisions, Walden says, produced “changes in quality and durability,” and probably skill levels as well. “I think they took a lot more care putting things together in old historic homes than they do now. Back then people were using wood that had grown slowly in the forest and had tight grains. I was talking to a builder yesterday about when they would put pine siding on houses because it had such a tight grain and high resin content. If you took a current pine tree that’s grown ultra-fast, with loose grain, it wouldn’t last five years as siding, no matter what you did to it.”

Similar changes took place “throughout the whole system,” Walden believes. “Cinder blocks began to be used around 1910. Before that it was hand-formed concrete foundations, and then stone before that and brick in between. It’s changed quite a lot, in every possible way. The last historic home I sold was Seven Oaks out in Greenwood. It was on a hundred acres and was built like a bomb shelter.” Dating to 1850, with “really thick walls, super solid material, and really nice trim and finishes, it looks like the day it was built.”

Purchasing an historic home that’s a fixer-upper can make good financial sense, Strassler agrees. “Someone who is new to buying a home can buy a smaller home with quality materials, slowly rehab that building in an affordable manner, and end up creating, through careful selection of materials and planning, a very sustainable and energy-efficient home. All historic architecture is adaptable for the 21st century. While the high style homes”—like the Queen Anne, Italianate, French Second Empire, Colonial Revival structures that abound in Staunton—“grab a lot of attention, we encourage people to rehab the vernacular architecture as well.”

Tax credits are another financial incentive when the home in question has received official designation. “If you have an historic house and it’s in an historic district, or it’s listed on the national or state register (the National Historic Register and Virginia State Historic Register), you may be qualified for state tax credits,” Ingram says. “Contact the Department of Historic Resources; you might be able to get tax credits for rehab work.” Not all work will qualify, however. Official designations don’t prohibit owners from adding contemporary touches, but those additions might change the status of the building.

“If you are designated on the National Historic Registry, it doesn’t necessarily prohibit you from making changes that are not in the same language as the history of the building,” says REALTOR® Murdoch Matheson, who specializes in estate homes, equestrian and working farms, and large country properties. “You can put a big modern addition on an historic building, but you might lose the designation.” It’s the owner’s choice—renovate freely, or stick to official guidelines. In fact, many property owners seek official designation for the sake of tax credits that offset the price of the architect or general contractor.

“If you’re on the Historic Register, you have to meet certain criteria to renovate it and to add onto it,” Walden says. “Any additions have to be in keeping with what the original appearance was. That goes for materials and colors and everything.” On the other hand, “you’re pretty much allowed to do what you want inside. There is an historic home in western Albemarle County off of Garth Road that looks perfectly traditional outside, but the inside was done up in a southwestern motif just totally out of touch with the exterior.”

Much of Preservation Virginia’s work is with homeowners, helping to answer technical questions, and making referrals to builders and contractors when need be. While historic homeowners in Central Virginia have a large pool of experienced contractors to choose from, many repair jobs are easier than they might appear—and there might be fewer such projects than expected. “Sometimes I think people come in with the assumption that they have to replace a lot,” Strassler says, “and generally you shouldn’t be replacing a lot of things. Many of the building materials – windows, doors and plaster work – are all reparable. So  learning the techniques to  repair those items rather than throwing them out and replacing them surprises people. They really can do those things; it certainly is within their skill set to learn how to do them.”

But pay attention to water. Strassler cautions: “People forget when they buy a home that water is their greatest enemy. You’ve got to have a sound roof. You’ve got to have gutters that carry the water away from the building, and you need to carefully look at the landscape and ensure that the ground surface is not leading water to your foundation but away. That’s where we see the biggest deterioration in buildings.”

While Staunton and other cities have preserved many historic homes, they can be found throughout the region. “If someone from another state wants to move to Charlottesville and wants to renovate an older house and doesn’t know where they are,” Ingram says, “oftentimes we recommend that they contact the local historical society.”

“There are magnificent homes throughout Virginia,” Walden says. “Scores of them, mostly brick. Clay is a native material on your farm; you can dig it up, bake it, and have your materials right there.” Also, of course “there was plenty of wood in the forest, so you didn’t have to go very far for it.” Then there was the Buckingham slate quarry for roofing. “Everything was not imported from China.” Central Virginia also has a stock of late 18th century stone homes, built by the former German mercenaries (Hessians) who had fought for England in the Revolutionary War. Many stayed and built homes in the Shenandoah Valley.

Starting from Charlottesville, “every direction you go has its own topography and story,” Walden says. “If you go northeast on route 231 you’ll be in Jefferson territory. There are a lot of large plantation estates up that way, dating as far back as the 1730s.” Castle Hill (1764), for example. Legend has it that in 1781 Dr. Thomas Walker delayed Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s troops there to allow Jefferson, Patrick Henry and other legislators to escape. Originally 15,000 acres, it was gradually broken up into large parcels. Today the original mansion sits on 175 acres including a horse barn, gardens and pool, and estate buildings, and is again for sale.

Out in Free Union, the Federal-style home on Hidden Springs Farm was built in Brookneal circa 1800 for Patrick Henry’s daughter, then disassembled, reconstructed and enlarged in 1991. The 157-acre country estate with rolling hills, creeks, and pastoral and mountain views has a two-bedroom guest cottage, a log cabin and a three-story garage and barn.

Regardless of size, regardless of location, history adds much to a home’s value and appeal. “There is a very consistent trend in Staunton,” Strassler says. “Homes located in historic districts have increased in their property value faster than any other real estate in town. We see that once a neighborhood is declared an historic district, people start renovating homes and start taking care of them, and their property appraisals and property values start going up at a higher rate, and they get more equity out of their home.”

Quality materials, quality construction, and an invaluable connection to the past, on each of these scores, older homes deliver. Today’s historic homebuyers do want modern conveniences, says Licensed Broker Natt Hall. “They aren’t going to be like Jefferson trotting out to the outdoor privy.” It’s just that “they have an appreciation of architectural history and history in general. They want to get the feel of what it’s like to step back in time.”

“New houses today pale in comparison,” Ingram argues. “There is a lot of value in historic houses.” Walden agrees: “Houses that were built in the 50s do not compare in any possible way. To get an historic home and bring it back to life is an honor and a privilege.”


By Ken Wilson