Recycled Homes: A Green Trend and a Smart Buy
Remodeling Older Homes Allows Buyers To Put Principles Into Action And Keep Money In The Bank
Text by Cheryl Alexander | Photos by TK Images
Though headlines announcing unemployment rates, continued layoffs, acquisitions and buy-outs are still prevalent, if you take another look, you will likely also see and hear news about environmental responsibility and sustainable development.
In Houston and beyond, “LEED certified” is the new buzz in construction vernacular. And while the recession is predicted to be over, many are not confident it has run its course. In Houston, we’ve been really lucky compared to the rest of the country: our real estate market has not gone completely bust. However, there have been some notable changes. One of those changes is the shift from buying “new” to “recycling” older homes. In other words, turning the old into something new.
During the building boom, preservationist groups and their lobbyists attempted to educate us about the intrinsic sustainability and economic advantages of reusing structures. We weren’t ready to listen. The thought of living in a brand new home was a siren song too powerful to resist. Land was cheap and financing was available, so sprawl was vast. AIArchitect reports, “The real estate tax structure favored new construction over reinvestment in existing structures. The older structures in America’s downtowns, from urban centers to villages, sat vacant, often demolished by neglect. It was easier to clear virgin land and build new — ever widening the suburbs — than to reclaim the old.”
One thing is for sure: historic preservation, inherently “green” and economically valuable, seems to be the current leader during these challenging economic times. We all know that the current recession commenced with the collapse of the housing market which then dominoed into nearly all sectors of construction. With new construction declining, the economics of reusing existing structures has become more inviting.
So inviting, in fact, that Philip Alter, a residential real estate agent with Martha Turner Properties, recently bought and renovated a Memorial area home with co-worker Jon Aills. “Being a residential real estate agent, I see lots of properties with buyers,” says Alter. “So many homes are overlooked or rejected because they are not new construction or they are not updated enough. They often are sold at lower prices or basically dumped on the market.”
He adds that currently purchasing new construction in the same location is often considerably more expensive than buying an older home and giving it a facelift due to the cost of the lot and cost of demolishing the old structure added to the cost of building the new structure. “The result,” continues Alter, “is that in our current economic climate, unless you are movie star rich, you probably can’t afford to live in these homes. The price of new construction homes has put many neighborhoods out of reach for the traditional buyer.”
Alter reports that in this economic climate, there is less new construction coming on the market (meaning that the inventory is shrinking), which he feels may be good news in the long run. He believes that buyers may now be forced to take a second look at homes that they previously would have passed over because they felt that they needed too much updating.
When Alter and Aills found this townhome (built in 1968 and still owned by the original owners), it was vacant, had been on the market for two years, and the listing was on its third realtor. Alter elaborates, “The house was in the original condition, including flocked wallpaper and kelly green carpeting in the bathrooms. The living and dining rooms looked like a Mexican restaurant.” Aills stated, “I swear, I wanted an enchilada every time that I went to look at it. But the house had character and interest and we saw it as a great opportunity to give an older home new life.”
The front of the house is basically a nondescript two story brick wall; however, upon entering the double front doors, a large entry hall offers views of both the dining patio and the pool patio, lending a great sense of space and unexpected depth to the house. Alter says, “What I look for in a house is nicely proportioned room sizes, good flow from room to room, ceiling height and lots of natural light. Then, if any of these elements are missing, I try to find the easiest way to add them in.” He explains that in older homes, often this means trying to figure in more closet space, enlarge the master bath and open the kitchen to the family room.
Alter states,“Houston does not have a history of giving structures a second chance, but I believe that as the city matures and becomes more sophisticated, we will have the eye for seeing the potential and value for what is already here.” He offers that organizations such as Houston Preservation Alliance, Houston MOD, and the website Swamplot.com are strengthening awareness by giving recognition and applauding folks who stop and think how properties can be reinvented and recycled, especially in the residential neighborhoods where the communities are already established.
An example is the Alter/Aills townhouse. It is in close-in Memorial with almost 3,000 square feet, and zoned to some of the best schools in SBISD. It basically needed painting, carpet, new appliances, hardware and counters. Alter shares that simply taking down the heavy drapes and letting the light in made a huge difference.
Alter finds it more interesting to work with what was originally in place and is not as excited about a total renovation. He suggests that often it is about editing (less is more), in an effort to get the best result for the least expense, and his philosophy leans toward restoring rather than gutting and starting over. This approach “creates a result that is more authentic, or less self-conscious, and gives a home a sense of place, a patina, and soul which new construction often lacks. A restored kitchen or bathroom that is true to or complimentary with the original often has a better result and can be longer lasting than remodeling to today’s fashion.” Most likely what is in style today will probably have a very short self-life, dating the remodel quickly. ➝
Alter proposes that there are some easy, timeless and inexpensive ways home buyers can quickly update the feel of an older home, and says that many are “do-it-yourself” projects. “If you don’t have the expertise or budget to rip out and replace the original tile in the bathroom,” he says, “ you can simply put up a new shower curtain (I prefer white) with rollerball shower curtain rings (you can find them at Restoration Hardware).”
He adds that installing a new shower curtain rod (one that actually screws into the wall) or even replacing the old towel bars and investing in some lovely, plush white towels will make a big difference. “Don’t forget to recaulk the tub while you’re at it!” he continues. “If you have a shower stall, a clear or frosted seamless shower door will give new life, and if the faucets are corroded, have them resurfaced, which can be less expensive than purchasing and installing a new faucet.”
Many realtors and designers agree that good furniture and art can really make a home above and beyond the high end construction finishes that may be on the walls. Alter concurs, “The real estate market has discovered that staging has become so important, even in new construction. And furniture and art go with you to your next home. Furniture and art are long-term investments, whereas homes these days are often for a relatively short term in comparison. Your dining room table and chairs will probably survive multiple home purchases.”
Alter suggests buying, “or better yet, re-covering” investment pieces (such as a sofa) in neutral fabrics and encourages shopping estate sales or resale shops. “Having large pieces in neutral fabrics allows you to accessorize with throw pillows that can be changed out for different looks. Basically, I think about buying furniture like I might buy clothes: Find the good basic pieces and work around those.”
Based on his experience with this townhome, Alter now emphasizes that we may need to re-examine how we look at older properties and the expectations of what is needed in both size and finishes.
“The older homes tend to be smaller, which is actually better for your bank account and the actual enjoyment of your home.” He stresses that we should examine how much space we really utilize on a daily basis and asserts that the cost of maintaining a home multiplies on many levels, not just with utility bills. “The additional space has to be maintained, kept clean and decorated. Yes, the older homes usually have less storage space, but maybe you need to have a garage sale and get rid of all that stuff that you are going to pay a mover to box up and move!” He also believes that we can be “greener” in our approach to what we need and how we live in our homes.
AIArchitect agrees, insisting that reusing existing structures is recycling at its best. “Not only is the embodied energy preserved, but avoiding demolition also reduces the financial and environmental costs of hauling debris and waste materials off to a landfill. Energy and money are spent in rehabilitating structures, but seldom come close to the costs of a new building.” And Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, points out: “Demolishing a 500,000-square-foot building creates 40,000 tons of debris, enough to fill 250 railroad boxcars, a train two miles long, heading for the landfill. Constructing a new 500,000 foot building would release as much carbon into the atmosphere as driving a car 30 million miles. It takes 35-50 years for an energy-efficient new home to recover the carbon expended to construct it.”
Despite the warnings of many that “that old house is too expensive to save,” in truth, many argue just the opposite. “That old house” may not only be the greenest on the block, but it may also be the most cost-effective way to revitalize our communities and our bank accounts.
Alter breaks it down: “Bottom line is, there are lots of opportunities in great neighborhoods for homes that just need a facelift. Rather than tear down in order to build new construction,hopefully we will begin to focus more on homes with integrity rather than simply new and big.”
More tips from Philip Alter:
• Get the greatest bang for your buck with a fresh coat of paint, which can totally transform a space. Paint the trim, doors, walls – everything, every room – the same color to make the whole house seem larger and to save money on paint. Save one or two rooms, such as a study, for a different color.
• Install new hardware on the cabinets and doors using the same finish throughout.
• Change out the lighting fixtures. Often in the dining room and entry hall the fixtures will feel very dated and new ones will make a huge difference. Track lighting with large cans can be switched out with energy-efficient halogen lights.
• Refinish hardwood floors.
• Paint the front door and put on a new door handle. Update the doorbell!
• Take down heavy drapes and let in the light. Replace with simple panels on good looking rods.
• Re-caulk the bathroom tub.
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