It’s hard to ignore facts. The hottest real estate markets in the US—San Francisco, Manhattan, and Boston among others—are all predominantly historic. Business and technology clusters are attracting A-list, Ivy League talent to newly revitalizing historic downtowns like Tulsa and Detroit where property values are rising in lock step. According to a recent National Trust For Historic Preservation report, Millennials are overwhelmingly on the move back downtown again.
If real estate were ever about location, it’s now. After decades trying to build the idyllic suburban “town center”, it turns out that early American planners did it just right a hundred years ago. Which is why the downtown historic real estate market is back in a big way in the US. Generation X and Millennial homebuyers increasingly don’t want to shovel a 200’ suburban driveway. They like walking to work and farm-to-table restaurants around the corner. Charter schools emerging in many cities have also proven an effective alternative to existing public school systems so one of the long-standing arguments for fleeing to the suburbs no longer holds true.
There’s always been an art-like process in marketing and selling a classically-designed historic mansion or estate. They’re not for every buyer. But they’re perfect for most of them right now if you market your property the right way to the right people.
1. Young Buyers Love Old Houses: A realtor recently told me that old homes only attract old buyers. So she shies away from historic listings because of the “doily’ factor and focuses on the modern developments that attract younger home buyers (more on this below).
It’s staggering to us that some agents and brokerages still regard historic real estate as a hard sell proposition simply because it doesn’t have the new construction, smart technology pedigree. For what it’s worth statistically, over 75% of the people we know in their early thirties through late forties (i.e., consumers prime early revenue generating and house buying years) in Philadelphia where we grew up live in historic homes that are 90 years old or more—in some cases far older. The same goes for everyone we know in Washington, DC and Chicago.
Why? Because a brownstone townhouse six blocks from where you work and your kids go to school is awesome. Because old homes in established neighborhoods foster community. Because 6,000 square feet of living space for a family of four can get tiresome to maintain when you could otherwise be at the beach. Because walking or biking to everything is the new Millennial dream.
The next generation of real estate buyers has rediscovered old school downtown, metropolitan living. So don’t discount the doilies. Real estate is still all about location.
2. The Press Loves A Good Real Estate Story: Most leading real estate publications and online outlets are littered with $20 million Manhattan penthouses and glistening new Miami waterfront estates all vying for the same exposure. But most buyers don’t even know what that kind of money looks like, and the properties end up blurring together like celebrities on the red carpet. Historic houses by contrast have a unique story to tell. They have legacy. Quirkiness. Famous past owners. Hidden rooms. And the press—as well as many buyers—love a good real estate yarn. So if there’s a Civil War bullet in the dining room floor or Bob Dylan played guitar in the kitchen one night in 1968, tell the story and get some press.
Case in point: One of the properties marketed on our site was once owned by the Hollywood actor Robert Mitchum and rumor has it that the crack in the masonry façade by the front entrance was the result of an Aston Martin race between Mitchum and Yule Brynner late one night when the party got a little too fun. If you’re a real estate agent and don’t include that little tidbit in your marketing materials you might have just missed the buyer who loves old school Hollywood history standing just outside your door.
3. They Don’t Build Them Like They Used To: There’s a myth in real estate that newer is inherently better. When it comes to master suites, bright modern kitchens and bathrooms, and walk-in, floor-to-ceiling closets we couldn’t agreement more. A little insulation in the walls and attic is nice as well if you live in Boston or Miami.
But if your potential buyer is an attorney or construction executive we can assure you that the one thing they’ll know coming into the deal inherently is that new homes might have new whistles but they definitely don’t build them like they used to. New home developments are a construction attorney’s nirvana. We speak from more than a decade of experience in forensic architectural consulting. Which is why we love old homes. Our 1886 Gothic Revival cottage is 18” of brick that doesn’t leak, heats up like a pizza oven all winter once we turn the heat on, and doesn’t require a drop of paint. Ever.
Most consumers looking for a new car or watch stick with trusted, historic brands like Rolex or Mercedes. The same holds true for many homebuyers looking for traditional craftsmanship but it doesn’t have a brand name yet. Instead it’s called plaster walls, copper plumbing, slate roofing, and tight-grained hardwood floors. Authentic architectural design features are reflective of an original commitment to artistry and quality that has stood the test of time. Make sure your potential buyers know it.
4. Old Meets New Is The New New: You are forgiven for assuming that most of the historic homes marketed for sale on an online real estate platform like ours, and on the market in general, are tragically fraught with cold claw foot tubs, drafty windows, small rooms, and old kitchens. Everything has a stereotype.
What we now know is that virtually every historic home has had at least one owner (if not more) who was willing to bang down the walls, open up a master suite, rock an aquarium shower, build a wine cellar in the basement, chef out the kitchen, and put an in-ground pool in the backyard. Voila! Historic architecture meets modern luxury.
So from a reliable source who sees and markets historic real estate every day in every part of the US we can tell you with absolutely certainty that the oldest homes often have the most jaw dropping interiors. Younger buyers love old meets new. It’s the luxury real estate equivalent of buying a new $450 pair of jeans that are already ripped and faded.
5. Don’t Under-Estimate The Start-Ups: The real estate industry like every other marketplace is being disrupted and transformed by technology every day. Some of the best marketing opportunities for unique, historic, and potentially difficult to sell properties are coming from new media and technology platforms so don’t discount an innovative or aggressive start-up company that reaches out to you with a new opportunity. They might just end up selling your house on an iPhone app.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Inman