Question & Answers with The Huntsville Times – Sarah Lauren Kattos on historic properties

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In January 2012, a writer with The Huntsville Times wrote an article about historic properties, quoting my sister, Julie Lockwood, and me.  The questions were really good and I am hopeful that the answers are informative.  Thought I’d share them here for anyone interested in historic properties and what classifies a property to be designated “historic.”  There are a lot of debates that go much deeper into “what is historic” and what isn’t.  It’s an ongoing battle, but our historic districts were created to protect the treasure we have in one of the largest groupings of Antebellum homes left in the South after the Civil War.  If you have any questions on any of this information, feel free to email me at SLVK@comcast.net!

HTimes:  What qualifies a home as being historic?  Who makes such a determination…who/what organization?
SLKattos: Historic properties are designated as such by a variety of qualities. A property might be called historic because of the timeframe in which it was built, such as antebellum homes built before the Civil War. Homes might be considered historic because of the area in which they were built, such as those in a historic district like Twickenham or Old Town. Architectural elements of a home during a period of history can play a role as well or land may be considered historic if an important event occurring there, such as battlefields or landmarks. Different groups offer a variety of guidelines, but Huntsville’s historic districts are affiliated with the National Register of Historic Places, the Alabama Historical Commission and the Historic American Building Survey (HABS).
HTimes:   Does that signifier, being recognized as historic, alone increase a homes’ value?
SLKattos: It depends. A house can have greater value if it features original details, handmade glass windowpanes or original dependency buildings (smokehouses, detached kitchens, servants’ quarters, etc). Value is also found in homes designed by a well-known architect or once owned by prominent or infamous Huntsvillians. Historic homes with interesting stories appeal to the soul of a buyer who wants their home to be more than wood and bricks.

One of my favorites is the 1818 Erskine-McCown home on Franklin Street, with it’s original smoke house and famous blue window panes in the upper front windows.  The light was once said to have medicinal purposes when it was filtered through the blue glass.  It was supposed to help ease the pain of patients with arthritis and other ailments.

HTimes:   About how many homes in the Huntsville-area qualify as being historic homes?  Any particular area/neighborhood where they are concentrated?
SLKattos: The highest concentration of historic homes is found in downtown Huntsville where three historic districts adjoin. Twickenham Historic Preservation District is the “big brother” so to speak, as it is the oldest district and marks the original city limits of Huntsville. Incorporated into the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, Twickenham has approximately 334 homes, 53 of which are antebellum. The other two nearby districts are the Old Town and Five Points Historic Districts. These are entire neighborhoods that have been researched, surveyed and approved for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. More recently, Lincoln Mill, Lowe Mill and Merrimack Mill areas have been included as has the historic Viduta community on Monte Sano. Alabama A & M University, commercial buildings, landmarks and individual properties throughout Madison County are also included on the National Register. 

HTimes: Before considering the purchase of an historic home, what particular considerations should a potential home owner take into account?   Not being able to make certain changes without approval, etc.
SLKattos: A buyer must look at the exterior changes they’d like to make because any exterior changes, even as minor as paint color or roof color, must be approved by the City of Huntsville’s Historic Commission. The Commission meets monthly, so any items for discussion must be submitted within a certain timeline for that month’s meeting. (Twickenham, Old Town & Five Points are governed by the City of Huntsville’s Preservation Commission and the city of Madison has a Commission for it’s historic district as well. The other districts do not, to my knowledge, have approval processes at this time.)
They should also consider any improvements they plan to make and ensure that the renovation is done with the knowledge of what makes an historic home valuable. Authentic windows, original woodwork and original tiles can be extremely valuable. It is a shame when well intentioned homeowners lose historic value when they modernize inappropriately.

HTimes:  What tips would you give potential buyers who are currently looking for an historic home to purchase?
SLKattos: A thorough home inspection is important for a buyer to better know the features of an older home. Most buyers of older homes mainly use the report to prioritize projects because they realize that the home they’re buying was built according to different codes, using different materials, with rooms intended for different purposes than those for which we might build rooms today. A good inspection helps give the buyer the confidence that they can live in the house comfortably and be able to afford any improvements they may undertake in the future.
I also encourage buyers to look at the property as it could be, not what it looks like at the time. I have experienced some longtime agents and potential buyers who have walked into unrenovated historic homes with incredible potential and said, “This place just needs to be torn down.” One of the greatest joys is to see that statement proven wrong by a property that undergoes a renovation by a person with “vision.” I love to cheer for an ugly duckling house, find its buyer and help it become a beautiful swan…

HTimes:  Do historic homes typically sell faster?   Is it more unlikely that someone will even sell their historic home, do such homeowners tend to stay in these homes longer, keep them to pass along to family members?
SLKattos: Some historic homes sell very quickly. Others are in a price point that in and of itself makes the sale take longer because the list of potential buyers in that price point is smaller than a lesser priced home. Thankfully, in Huntsville, we have hundreds of historic homes in various styles, sizes and conditions. There are properties available thoughout the area that can satisfy all tastes and budgets.
Once a family secures an historic home, they often keep it in the family for generations.

HTimes:What, in your opinion, attracts a buyer to a historic home?  Are there any commonalities in the people who buy/own historic homes that you’ve taken notice of?

SLKattos:  In order to find the right home for a client, we often ask them if they’re “new house people” or “old house people.” Although we sell both categories, most buyers prefer one or the other, not both. Everyone wants modern amenities with the character of an age gone by. Those who actually marry old houses, though, are among a different breed. The house, often times, becomes a member of the family. It is loved, warts and all… 

HTimes:  Is the market competitive for historic homes, are many buyers interested?  Or are many priced out?  What is the price range for historic homes currently on the market?
SLKattos: In the downtown area, prices range from the $200,000 range all the way up to $2.295 million$3.2 million or more. Many of our buyers also ask to see homes in other high end markets, such as the Ledges, Jones Valley, Blossomwood and Hampton Cove. Each offers a different lifestyle and location that appeals to the buyer’s tastes and interests. But one of the biggest draws to the historic districts is location, location, location. 

HTimes: VanValkenburgh & Wilkinson Properties was founded by your parents, correct?
SLKattos: VanValkenburgh & Wilkinson Properties, Inc. was founded in 1985 by my parents, Nancy Wilkinson VanValkenburgh & Richard VanValkenburgh. Although my parents, aunt, grandmother, sister and I are all part of the company, we also have a team of other agents that are very much part of the family, too. 

HTimes:  Would you describe the agency, yourselves, as experts/specialists in marketing and selling historic homes?  
SLKattos: It’s tough to sell something unless you are aware and appreciative of its value. This is true of any neighborhood, property or price range. To us, the historic districts are where seven generations of my family were raised. It’s not hard to be a cheerleader for something you love, so selling historic properties is a joy for us. It has also grown our company’s recognition for being able to sell remarkable properties of all ages throughout North Alabama. Each unique property requires its own set of expertise, which keeps us on our toes and keeps the work exciting. Over the years, we’ve created our Historic and Fine Homes Division to market unique properties in addition to the other residential and commercial properties we represent.

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