The New Old House By PENELOPE GREEN
ITS an American ideal, particularly in some parts of the Northeast. It is both a trophy and a lifestyle, not to mention the engine behind a thriving publishing category: the renovation memoir. It is the old house, a perennial best seller. But for some call them fastidious, time-deprived or just coolly unsentimental the bloom is off that particular rose. Not that these buyers are scarfing up contemporary houses or building their own. They still have an appetite for the premodernist, prewar styles, but they cannot stomach their realities: the dark rooms and the little windows, the dank basements and the creaky floors, the wiring that can barely support a fans rotation (never mind central air-conditioning). They want a new house that reads old. They want a new old house.
There are so many people who want things to be exactly right, said Michelle Kirby, a broker at Gustave White Sothebys International Realty in Newport, R.I. They want it turnkey, and they dont want to have to think about it. Construction costs are really high, renovations are really hard, and people know that. The ideal is what I call the Pottery Barn formula house: shingle-style exterior, white Carrera marble kitchens and the white subway tile in the bathrooms, so it looks like the background in the catalog. Its trite, but its so sellable.
In Sullivan County, N.Y., the ideal may be a clapboard farmhouse, its lines as simple as a childs drawing. Andrew Deitchman, 36, had that image in mind when he and his fiancée, Heather Baltz, 28, went house hunting in the Catskills last spring.
Id always wanted that sort of old house, said Mr. Deitchman, a partner at Mother New York, a boutique advertising agency in Manhattan. In my head I wanted the place I could putter around in and fix up and make my own. But Heather said, Dont be stupid, we dont have time.
Mr. Deitchman and Ms. Baltz, a personal trainer, are opening an artisanal hot dog stand in Bleecker Park next week (it will be called Dogmatic) with their partner, Jeremy Spector, the chef at Employees Only in the West Village. The next week, the couple will be married.
To Ms. Baltzs consternation, Mr. Deitchman said, he made an offer on just such a place. Fatefully, the bid was not accepted (and the house turned out to have all sorts of issues, Mr. Deitchman said), and last month they bought a bright yellow clapboard simulacrum for $365,000. It has nice period details like a back porch, vintage radiators and footwide pine plank floors. But the subfloor is straight and true, the basement dry and roomy. The house is also only three years old.
It is a kit house designed by Randy Florke, an interior designer, contributing editor at Country Living magazine and real estate broker who has transmogrified much of Sullivan County into a scrubbed-clean version of itself.
After buying, renovating and selling the genuine article, Mr. Florke perceived a business opportunity. Since the debut of his kit houses in an issue of Country Living two years ago, Mr. Florke has received 5,200 requests for them. They range from $125,000 to $300,000 and were designed in honor of the Nebraska farmhouses he grew up in.
Its funky up here, and you want to have a place that fits that, Ms. Baltz said of her new Catskill neighborhood. But I was after something simple. I didnt want the scary basement and all the work. So this house looks right, but it also smells good and is full of light, and theres nothing to fix.
In sleepy Madison, Conn., Margaret Muir showed an early-20th-century waterfront cottage listed for $2.5 million to a young man who had expressed a desire for something historic.
We walked in and he said, But the floors are slanted; do you think they could fix that? said Ms. Muir, a broker at William Pitt Sothebys International Realty. It was like no one had noticed for the last 90 years. Having expressed a desire for vintage, there was some alarm about the floor. He did not make an offer. These buyers want the charm on the exterior, but the creature comforts inside: an open layout, central air, nice bathrooms. You used to get people who loved the creaky uninsulated cottages with one bathroom; they wanted the kids to run in and out with sandy feet. Theyd say, Ive got perfect in my other life, I dont need perfect here. But I dont hear that anymore. She added, To be fair, values here have increased so much theres a disconnect if you dont upgrade.
Jane Wallace, a real estate agent with Schweppe Burgdorff ERA in Montclair, N.J., said new old houses there have appealed to two-income families in the waning years of low mortgage rates.
If you both have jobs, she said, why would you want another job as general contractor? Would you rather buy the paint yourself, or mortgage the paint and get a tax deduction? Do you need the romance, the story that goes along with fixing up an old house? Nah.
Inspiration for buyers of new old houses can be found in New Old House, a quarterly spinoff of Old-House Journal, the restoration movements purist bible. The new magazine began publishing two years ago in response to readers requests, said its editor, Nancy Berry.
Our market research told us that theres a real craving for a not-cookie-cutter house that has character and texture and is based on a traditional vocabulary that functions new, she said, rather than for a fixer-upper made from your blood and sweat and tears and money.
New Old Houses circulation is 100,000; Restore Media plans to publish it every other month beginning in 2008.
In the Hamptons, a broker who listed what he called a magnificent Victorian is finding that many would-be buyers are wrinkling their nose at it. He described one womans terse dismissal: She said, Old house: dirty!
What is selling quickly out there, said Alice Bell, manager of the East Hampton office of Sothebys International, are the mega-spec houses designed by high-end East End contractors like Jeffrey Collé and Michael Davis. These are vast, shingle-style environments with flooring reclaimed from centuries-old houses, handblown glass butlers cabinets and more systems than can be found on an ocean liner: hydronic heating, geothermal cooling and remote-controlled everything.
The Hollywood people who came here in the 80s and 90s liked the old houses, Ms. Bell said. They were happy with the old shingled cottage. This buyer, the younger investment bankers weve seen in the last few years, they want a total environment in an old-looking shell. And theyre looking for a turnkey situation.
REAL estate is cyclical and generational, said Frank Newbold, a veteran broker in Ms. Bells office. Fifteen years ago the old shingle-style house was a trophy here, he said, because it reminded you of the house you grew up in, or wished youd grown up in. New money then aspired to an older ideal, he said. Ten years ago the buyer wanted shiny and new, without regard for taste, he continued. And right now they want a hybrid, the new house with a little bit of soul, a little bit of texture.
The house they are after, he said, maybe its 10,000 square feet but its got 200-year-old foot-worn floors.
He added: Gas fireplaces are the other big thing, that you turn on by remote from the sofa. CNN and a fire! People will pay for the patina, but what theyre really short on is time. So theyre buying these branded properties created by name contractors that are massive but still tasteful.
In the hothouse atmosphere of Long Islands East End, these massive new old houses take extraordinary forms.
Last week Mr. Collé stood in the newly sodded field behind the 16,000-square-foot, gabled spec house he had signed into contract that morning for over $20 million to an entrepreneur from Philadelphia. It was just under 100 degrees in the hazy sun, but Mr. Collé, a gentle, affable man who had restored some of the great estates on the North Shore under his father and grandfather 35 years ago and then on his own for Alec Baldwin, Billy Joel, Donna Karan and Stephan Weiss, was crisp in his white dress shirt, untucked over khaki pants and Timberland boots.
Inside, there were handblown leaded glass transoms and cabinets, dense and creamy plaster walls and acres of 19th-century walnut flooring from an architectural salvage dealer out west. (Mr. Collé likes to keep his sources to himself.)
Unlike the 200-year-old foot-worn flooring in the 7,500-square-foot white clapboard antebellum pile Mr. Collé sold two months ago for $12.75 million to a young investment banker and his family (Mr. Collé built it for himself after seeing Forrest Gump, he said), this flooring took a bit of work to mellow (stored in a shipyard for pallets for the past 100 years or so, the wood had never felt a foot). He proffered an undulating sample, its declivities smoothed in by hand (not foot).
Heres why my houses are selling, Mr. Collé began, sketching in the air with his hands. They come out here to buy a house, and theres nothing in their price range in the old stock. So they can buy a piece of land, wait through the mysteries of the zoning process, look for an architect, and try and get a plan going.
Maybe two years have gone by. Then it goes to bid, and maybe they find a contractor and start building. Three years have gone by. Now theres a decorator, an architect, a builder, and theyve got to spend their weekends choosing hardware. Maybe they are four years out and they still dont have a house. Do you think Mr. Investment Banker wants to go through this process?
Shingle-Style Houses and Salvaged Doors
HOUSES Randy Florkes clapboard farmhouse kit can be purchased at theruralconnection.com (212-645-4488). A house that is 1,800 square feet costs about $300,000, including assembly and all systems, and can be delivered and built anywhere along the Northeast corridor, from Maryland to Maine.
On the East End of Long Island, Michael Davis, a contractor, builds English country houses. A 4,500-square-foot shingle-style house with limestone fireplaces on half an acre in Sagaponack, which will be finished next summer, will cost $5 million (631-537-4444; michaeldavis.com).
Jeffrey Collés company, J. C. Construction Management, is building new old houses on a larger scale in the same area at a rate of two every year and a half. An 8,500-square-foot house on 42 acres in Bridgehampton with hand-hewn trusses salvaged from old barns, which will be completed next spring, is expected to sell for $30 million (631-324-8500).
ACCESSORIES Chadsworths 1.800.Columns, based in Wilmington, N.C., sells historically accurate architectural columns made from wood and composite materials (800-265-8667; columns.com). A column that is 10 feet high and 8 inches in diameter sells for $200 to $1,000.
Eldorado Stone, made from Portland cement, mimics regional stone varieties (from river rocks to limestone) and comes in veneers for all architectural styles (eldoradostone.com; 800-925-1491). Eldorado Stone, in San Marcos, Calif., sells stone veneer for $7 to $9 a square foot, uninstalled.
Old West Woods in Elida, Ohio, sells hand-hewn beams taken from old barns and industrial buildings, as well as antique and wide-plank flooring it can mill to any size (419-339-7600; oldwestwoods.com). Antique oak flooring that is 3 to 12 inches wide sells for $7 to $15 a square foot.
Sylvan Brandt, in Lititz, Pa., sells antique flooring, doors, mantels, cupboards, beams and hardware (sylvanbrandt.com and oldhousestuff.com; 717-626-4520). A salvaged door that measures 80 inches high by 30 to 35 inches wide sells for $80 to $125.