Paul and Karen Chung enjoyed raising their son and daughter in Berwyn, but after the children moved out and people continued to flock to Main Line communities, they realized they craved simplicity.
“It just seemed to be getting more crowded to us and more frenetic,” said Paul Chung, 64. They decided to look somewhere “calmer, peaceful.” And to them, that meant an old house and some land.
They searched farther out in Chester County, ditched the idea of an open floor plan and, 4½ years ago, settled down on a four-acre property in Chester Springs. During the pandemic, they have hosted socially distanced dinners in the barn, which is more than 100 years old. The earliest parts of their stone house date to about 1850.
“A historic home is like living in art,” Chung said. “It’s living in history and living in art.”
And that is appealing to a growing subset of home buyers. Some are enthusiasts who have always envisioned living in historic homes, while others, such as the Chungs, transitioned to historic for a change in lifestyle. With housing inventory at an all-time low and buyer demand high, some buyers are considering the possibility of purchasing an older home for the first time.
Appetite for historic homes
Last year, 14,093 homes built between 1800 and 1921 sold in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, according to Bright MLS. That’s up from 9,266 in 2019.
Realtor Trish Keegan of Styer Real Estate in Chester County, who specializes in historic properties, has noticed wider interest lately in older homes. Normally, she said, it’s not unusual for buyers to search for years before they find the one they love because of the uniqueness of the properties.
“In the COVID market, I found the historic listings I had were not only going under contract much more quickly” — in a couple of weeks — “but even these very specific old homes were garnering multiple offers. Like the typical commodity housing stock usually does,” Keegan said.
She attributes the change partly to the pandemic. People want to balance increased screen time with a greater connection to nature, she said. Outside of the city, historic properties tend to come with more outdoor space.
“I also think there’s an appetite for simplicity,” Keegan said. “When you walk into an old home, you’re reminded of how simple life used to be.”
Historic homes “typically have more individual spaces and separated rooms that really fulfill the need to have one or more home-based offices or remote learning spaces for the kids,” she said. “People are beginning to value unique and handmade versus a big white box with empty spaces that don’t really support how we used to live and how we’re evolving in the time of the pandemic.”
Many buyers also are chasing memories of their childhoods, usually either the homes they grew up in or grandparents’ homes, said Scott Laughlin, a Realtor with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach in Devon who specializes in historic properties. The specific histories of properties also can be a big draw, he said. In October, Laughlin sold an 18th-century stone home in Cheltenham Township that was first owned by the African American granddaughter of Philadelphia’s first mayor.
Depending on the desired location, from small villages to downtown West Chester, home buyers may have no choice but to purchase an old home, given the housing stock, he said.
What to know about buying historic
Interested buyers span every demographic. Keegan describes the typical buyer as a person who “values the handmade nature of the home, the human touch that went into creating the home,” and “someone who values preservation, appreciates uniqueness. They’re not expecting perfection.”
“The typical buyer is also someone who is courageous and energetic and has vision. Because restoring, renovating, maintaining a historic property, it’s not something everyone can and wants to do,” she said. “Someone who wants to live in a development would run screaming from a historic home.”
Buyers of historic properties have to be comfortable taking risks. The first step for a potential buyer of a historic home is “gathering as much information about the property as possible and replacing fear with information,” she said.
Andrew Gustine, a restoration carpenter based in Chester County, recommends buyers find someone who is familiar with old homes to perform inspections.
“Most home inspectors don’t necessarily understand the subtleties of settling and sagging, and what the difference between a minor problem and a major problem is in terms of cost,” said Gustine, the principal of Native Woods Restoration Carpentry. “I think a typical home inspection both misses things and also can overreact to things.”
Inspections of historic properties take longer and are more complicated than examinations of more modern buildings, said Bill Kibbel, founder and director of the Bucks County-based Historic Building Inspectors Association.
“Most old homes I inspect have many additions, many alterations,” said Kibbel, owner of Heritage Building Inspections. “Sometimes it’s like inspecting three separate homes.”
Over the 33 years he has been an inspector, he’s found that neglected chimneys are the most common expensive structure that needs work. Basements and crawl spaces almost always have rot and insect damage, he said. New heating systems in old houses “are almost always done wrong” and are not properly ventilated. Often, electrical and plumbing systems have been patched, not fully replaced, and need work.
Some buyers seek older homes that someone else has fully renovated. Others are looking for a project or want to personalize their home.
The Chungs’ home in Chester Springs was in good shape when they got it because it had been renovated a few years earlier. But the barn, which hadn’t been used in decades, was a different story. It took a lot of work to get it ready to host musicians and dinner parties.
“It’s a good idea for [buyers] to have the energy or the know-how to do some things on their own or at least understand how things work,” Paul Chung said. For example, buyers looking for historic homes outside the city might not have municipal sewer or water and have to learn about wells and water treatment and septic systems, as the Chungs did.
He cautions that it all might be a little too much for first-time home buyers, but not impossible. “You can learn an awful lot on YouTube and figure things out,” he said.
Laughlin points out to potential home buyers that the structure and systems of older homes tend to last longer than those built more recently.
“Just because it’s old,” he said, “doesn’t mean it’s broken.”
Hillary Latham embraced projects at two historic houses she has owned, hiring craftsmen for renovations and adding traditional finishings and pieces from local artists.
She grew up in Chester County in a developed neighborhood that was surrounded by old stone farmhouses. As she looked for homes of her own with her husband at the time, they were drawn to properties with character and charm.
“Every time the Realtor showed us something newer or more modern, it just didn’t speak to us,” she said.
Latham sold her two historic properties in summer 2020. She moved out of her Chester Springs house when a developer built homes on the neighboring 25-acre farm that once had made her small property feel large.
She’ll soon be looking for a new home, “some charming old house that needs some love,” she said. “I don’t even want to look at anything that wasn’t built before 1950.″
“There’s not a lot out there,” she said. “Or if it is, it looks like it’s moving pretty quickly.”