Greg Alexander

Fixer-uppers: Great potential or money pits?

Baltimore Sun, March 2004

Original woodwork. Victorian-era details. Pocket doors, hardwood floors, plaster moldings and operational transoms. Formal parlor and European-style kitchen. Sounds like a dream home, doesn’t it? So who cares if the basement is flooded, the roof is caving in and the floors are rotten, right?

Many Baltimore neighborhoods are experiencing a resurgence, and eager home buyers are discovering dramatic grand homes that echo Baltimore’s glorious past but also show their age. Buying a “fixer upper” is tempting, as it presents the opportunity to shape the house to your distinct tastes and flair while also bringing an old home back to its glory. However, buying a “handyman’s special” is also a big step financially and emotionally, and the decision should not be taken lightly.

“Renovating an old home takes a lot of money, more than most people envision,” says Angela Vavasori, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker in Fells Point. “People don’t realize the hidden expenses and the number of people that must be hired — plumbers, contractors, architects, floor specialists and a host of others. I work with a lot of first-time home buyers, and I tell them that unless they know the ins and outs of construction, I advise against buying a home that needs a lot of work.”

Vavasori, who had her home renovated last year and had to live in her basement for two weeks during the process, says that if part of the home is livable, than renovating is much more doable for a first-time home buyer. “I had clients who bought a home in Butcher’s Hill, and the first two floors were fine; only the third floor needed major work. There were bedrooms and bathrooms finished so that they could live there while the third-floor repairs and additions were being done. However, I still advise people to have a back-up place to stay, especially in the first phase when the contractor is knocking down walls or refinishing floors. The dirt and dust can really get to you.”

“The problem we come across often is when people need to live in the home during renovation. If 70 percent of the home is being renovated, by law, you must vacate the home,” says Matt Riemer, owner of Bayside Properties, which does everything from installing a new bathroom, kitchen or ceiling to a complete “gut job.” “If it’s an addition, the homeowners can live there with little inconvenience, but if the job is in the main part of the house and involves plumbing, for example, it can be hazardous to live there.”

Riemer, who has rehabbed more than 100 homes in the last four years, primarily in Canton and Federal Hill, says that a common job for him is dealing with a wet basement. “In waterfront areas such as Canton, wet basements are common, and this has to be fixed by waterproofing the basement, which involves jacking up the basement and installing a draining system. Otherwise, a wet basement can cause the first-floor hardwood floors to buckle.”

A wet basement was the least of concerns for Mike and Angela P. Murphy, who bought a grand 5,000-square-foot brownstone in Reservoir Hill two years ago.

“The hone was livable but crummy,” says Murphy, who decided to move to Baltimore from Washington, D.C. and focussed in on the gorgeous homes in Reservoir Hill, most of which have been neglected over the years. “[The home had] mice infestations, cloth-covered wires, very strange smells, rotting doors and framing, crumbling plaster, leaky façade and roof ... I could go on and on,” says Murphy. “It wasn’t necessarily a gut job, though we gutted a lot, but it was a property in decline due more to neglect than abuse. I think it’s a real testament to the original craftsmanship that these homes have survived such long periods of neglect without losing much.”

The Murphys have restored all of the original detailing, including the plaster moldings, stained glass windows, oak floors and pocket doors. They also did complete system upgrades, such as plumbing, electrical and central air conditioning. “Essentially, we gutted the entire 5,000-square-foot house while carefully preserving all of the original detail,” Murphy summarizes.

Murphy says that he and his wife decided to buy in Baltimore for several reasons, including the outrageous home prices in Washington, D.C., and the more laid back attitude of Charm City. “Baltimore seemed like a scaled down version of the Chicago I grew up in and very similar in many ways to other cities we have lived in such as Philadelphia. A home like ours would be financially unattainable for us in any other place,” he says.

“Our reason for choosing Reservoir Hill is really tied to my wife’s interest in art history, the history of architecture and the Victorian era. She immediately fell in love with the brownstones. Once inside [our home], she was blow away by the level of original historical detail — stained glass windows, oak floors, pocket doors and shutters, oak banisters, original mantels with incredibly ornate mirrors atop them — but especially the ceiling detail in the parlor and the music room, which incorporates in the design the names of prominent philosophers, writers and composers of the 19th and 20th centuries.”

Murphy, who notes that this project is headed by his wife Angela, says that the financial and time constraints have been significant. “We feel a little over-extended on our finances but we are getting that all straightened out with a new loan with a lower interest,” he says. “We paid for some with savings and the rest with loans. The Maryland Historic Tax Credit was an absolute prerequisite for us taking on this project; we never would have done it if not for that. It really took the sting out of the financial hit. The time factor is way out of control.”

Tackling a fixer-upper has been tough, but Murphy says building a new home was not an option. “Such a lifestyle option was never even on my radar screen. I absolutely love the house and the extremely high level of historical renovation work done by my contractors,” he says.

For those interested in rehabilitating an old home, there is an array of financial assistance in Baltimore City. The myriad programs are outlined on Live Baltimore’s Web site ( Live Baltimore, an independent non-profit organization, offers information on many incentive programs, including many targeted at renovation work that offer rehabilitation loans through the City of Baltimore. Loans for some homes can be as much as $30,000 with low interest rates. For more information, go to the Web site or call the Baltimore City Homeownership Institute at 410-396-5880.

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