Wednesday, June 18, 2014

10 Ways to Research Your Home’s History

[Preservation Tips & Tools] 10 Ways to Research Your Home’s History

Posted on: June 18th, 2014 by Emily Potter 
Now that we have a revamped Preservation Tips & Tools template, we're looking back at some of our most popular "10 on Tuesday" toolkits and giving them a refresh with our new look.
When we make friends we like to learn about them -- we ask them where they grew up, where they went to school, and when they were born.
Our homes are a lot like that. We spend time with them, value them, and take care of them. So it makes sense that we want to know more about them -- who lived there before, how it’s changed over time, and when it was built.
If only walls could talk, right? Instead, here are 10 ways to uncover the story behind your older or historic home (or any other building you’re interested in).
1. Look closely at your house. Exposed rafters in the attic and bricks in the basement can tell you a lot about how old your house might be. You might find dates or stamps left by the builder; different-sized bricks will tell you that the house was built in different construction cycles.
Tip: Closets are great places to uncover clues like old wallpaper or paint -- certain paper patterns or color-schemes can be traced back to a popular period style.
2. Be your own archaeologist. Scope out your backyard the next time you’re in the garden and look carefully at buried treasure you might find, like old glass bottles or children’s toys. Items like that can tell you a lot about who lived in the house and when.
3. Talk to people. Talk to your neighbors, local business owners, even the mailman. They might be able to tell you who lived in the house before you and remember if any changes have been made to it over time.
4. Explore the neighborhood. Are there other older buildings that look similar? How does your house fit in -- for example, does your house face a different way? It could have been built on land that was once a farm while the rest of your neighborhood was built later.
Tip: If you live near a city, measure the distance to the city center. The farther you are from the original core, the younger your house might be.
5. Learn the history of the area. How old is the city or town you live in? Did any major events take place in the area? (For example: Was it the scene of a battle? Was your home, or any other nearby building, designed by a noted architect?) Answering these questions can offer important clues to your house’s own history.
6. Check your historic district status. If you don’t already know if your house is designated as a historic structure, you can check with your State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) or other local preservation office. They will also be able to tell you whether you live in a historic district.
Tip: Look for properties in your area on the National Register of Historic Places.
7. Research land and property records. A simple deed or title search can tell you who owned the property and when and tax records can tell you how the property has changed over time. Many city or county records offices also have Sanborn fire maps, which can date back as far as the 19th or 20th centuries and show the footprint of your house and layout of the neighborhood.
8. Look up local census data. Census records can tell you more about the lives of previous owners, like the number of children in the house, cost of the home, whether the home had a radio, and more.
Also: Stop by your local public library and look for a city directory -- a precursor to the modern phone book -- which might offer more details on previous occupants.
9. Contact your local historical society and visit your public library. Ask to see old photographs they might have of your house or the surrounding land, historical maps of the area, or newspapers with specific articles that reference history of the local town.
10. Read! There are many books out there to guide you further in your research, such as Nearby History: Exploring the Past Around You by David E. Kyvig and Myron A. Marty; or Discovering the History of Your House and Your Neighborhood by Betsy J. Green. Search your public library or local bookstore for more titles.
You don’t need a master’s degree to learn about the history of your home, public building, or any other place. All you need is a little time, your eyes, ears, and feet … and 10 helpful tips to get you started.
Bonus: Check out the University of Maryland University Library’s webpage on researching historic houses. You’ll find the information there can be applied to places nationwide.
Let us know what you find out!
Slideshow prepared by Cassie Keener, Editorial Intern
The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.
Original article here.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


June 16, 2014
Michael Andersen, Green Lane Project staff writer
Once you start thinking about new ways to use your city's streets, you start to see opportunities everywhere.
That's exactly what's happened last weekend in Memphis, Tennessee, where half of a separated four-lane highway was converted into a safe, direct and stress-free walking and biking route along one mile of the Mississippi River. As first reported here on the Green Lane Project blog in March, Bluff City engineer John Cameron decided this spring to follow the recommendation of urban planning consultant Jeff Speck and experiment with a permanent new car-free space between downtown and the planned Harahan Bridge connection to Arkansas.
"Nothing separates downtown Memphis from its riverfront as powerfully as the current pedestrian-unfriendly condition of Riverside Drive," Speck wrote in his 2013 report on ways to reconnect the city with the riverfront that created it.
No more. Thanks to years of temporary closures during the annual Memphis in May festival, the city knew nearby streets could absorb the auto traffic without much trouble. And in return, for the price of some plastic bollards and new street coloring, Memphis has opened one of the best streets in the mid-South for biking, walking, skating and playing.
All photos courtesy City of Memphis. The Green Lane Project is a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets. You can follow us on Twitter or Facebook or sign up for our weekly news digest about protected bike lanes. Story tip? Write

Original article here.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

I swear I'm not the Cat Lady....

People ask me all the time how I manage to travel with my cat.  The story goes that my brother's dog found her just a couple of days after she was born, eyes and ears still closed, and he called me to see what I could do to help the poor abandoned thing.  The first few weeks were interesting, and created an incredible bond between the two of us... maybe along the lines of ridiculous co-dependency.  For a while, I was putting her in a hoity-toity pet hotel whenever I had to travel... she had her own huge private suite complete with a massive window that she could watch all the birds.  But the staff always had an issue with her, and whenever I would pick her up I would find something like this on her door: 


So not good!  I'm not sure exactly what was going on during these stays (I know it was no fault of the staff... my cat is just truly co-dependent), but I hated that my cat was getting stressed out because I had to work.  At one point I planned a move from Miami to Portland OR, and I had no choice but to take her on the road with me since I don't believe in putting animals on planes.  So I put her in her carrier, found a spot for both the carrier and litter box, and hoped for the best!

Can't do a road trip without veggies and nuts!
After a while, she wanted to be let out.  So I let her out.  This first trip ended up taking ten days to get across the country.  And she just camped out like nothing new was happening for the entire drive.  I think I fell in love with her all over again.  :-)

Yes, I know the truck is a mess.  But that's what happens when you move.  Also, the blue thing is a leash attached to her harness.  I don't bring her on the road without it.  Safety first!
So this became our habit.  If I was to be away for more than twenty-four hours, my cat came with me.  She's probably been across the country more times than most American's have!  I would be lying if I said it wasn't stressful at times.  There are moments (long moments) that she wants nothing more than to sit on my lap, and those moments usually come at times when using cruise control just isn't an option for reasons of safety.  But once I'm back on long empty stretches of road, she gets her cuddle time.

She loves to cuddle between me and the console.

Hotels are another issue.  More often than not, I'm not ready to get off the road until 2am, when one of three things happens: 1) hotel lobbies are no longer open, 2) the hotel either won't take a cat or charge a ridiculous amount of money to let me have a cat in the room, or 3) there are no hotels around and I'm just too tired to keep going on the mission to find one.  Major issues!  But on the few occasions that I have found a hotel that would take my cat without asking for my first born in return, the time and energy it took to get my cat, her litter box, food, and water, and my computer and suitcase into the room was exhausting.  Being on the road is difficult enough, so to try to eliminate some stress I took to sleeping in my SUV.  At major truck stops.  With the semi's.  

The first time I did this, I was pretty uncomfortable.  First, it was one of those times that a hotel was no where in sight, so I wasn't prepared.  Second, I was in an SUV... at a truck stop... in the middle of no where... alone.  Wasn't exactly feeling safe about any of it.  But I managed a few hours of bad sleep, and realized the next morning that the efficiency of getting back on the road from a truck stop was so worth not having to deal with a hotel.  So now, unless I'm meeting with a realtor or client the next day and absolutely have to look 100% presentable, I stay at truck stops.  With the semi's.  And my cat. 

My beautiful cuddle-bug.  :-)

Monday, June 9, 2014

This IS WAR!!!

In scouring the internet for available homes built in the 1800's, I found this beauty:

But there were two issues: 1) This was the only available photo of the house online, and 2) it was listed on a live auction site and the bidding period was going to be over in 24 hours.  I did all of my due diligence on the property, crunched numbers, tried to figure out the maximum amount it would cost to restore the property assuming it needed every single possible issue dealt with, as well as what my max purchase price would be while entertaining the worst possible scenario when dealing with restoring an old home.  But I rely on facts, not assumptions, and I really needed to get inside of the property to see how bad the interior was.  It had been sitting for quite some time (over a year, if I remember correctly), and I just wasn't willing to risk anything based on assumptions, especially considering that this house was well over 5,000 sf and that I had no idea about the neighborhood, much less the city that the neighborhood was in.  But I was in Denver, so I put some calls out.

One realtor called me back.  I explained the ridiculous time constraint, she did some research, emailed me everything she found on the property, and the next morning sent me a text stating that she was going to visit the property and take photos of the interior.  I didn't even have to ask!  A few hours later I received over 50 photos of the inside, as well as explanations of what was going on in each photo.  While whoever lived here previously was one of the most gaudy decorators I have ever encountered (lime green, gold, black.... really??), the potential was easy to see... if I could manage to lighten the place up without altering the exquisite wood that covered the main areas of the main floor.

When my realtor and I finally got on the phone, she was so excited to talk about everything going on with the property.  She told me that the place was completely unsecured, and quite a few people were inside assessing it as well, and since she knew that was probably going to be the case she had made sure to take her gun with her.  I almost couldn't hold back the laughter... my realtor was a bad-ass with a gun, and not afraid to use it!  She was officially the realtor I had been searching for for years!

Per her advice and having a much greater sense of how much time, energy, and money it would cost to bring this grand old house back to livable state, I signed up on the auction site and placed my first bid.  And things were quiet for a couple of hours.  That is, until about 30 minutes before the auction was over.  Suddenly I was at my max purchase budget, which left me with two choices: Either accept it and move on, or call my investor.  Of course I called my investor... This house was just too beautiful!

In about five minutes he had every single bit of information I could give, and since I really wanted to work on this property and the numbers more than made sense, he told me to keep bidding the smallest possible increment until I reached my next max.  So I did.  And my next max came pretty quickly.  Investor texted a few minutes later, I told him that the highest bid was currently 10K over my max, and we got back on the phone to discuss what the next move was.  With about a minute left, I placed another bid.

The unfortunate thing about this particular site is that every time someone bids within the final fifteen minutes of an auction, the clock tacks on an additional 15 minutes.  So, while this auction (and the stress that went with it) were supposed to be over at 9pm, it dragged on for two more hours.  But damn, was it an experience!

I've only played poker a couple of times and have yet to do any of the high-energy gambling that I've seen in movies.  But what I thought was going to be some simple bidding turned into what felt exactly like that high-energy gambling.  And gambling, it was!  Fact of the matter was that we were raising our purchase budget to nearly twice the original on a property that I only had pictures of in a city that Investor had visited once or twice... twenty years ago.  And we all know how much can change in twenty years.  But the bidding was insane!  He was dead set against losing this house, and with every bid we started crunching new numbers.

Him: Raise it 1000!
Me: But what if I'm wrong?!
Him: You're not wrong!  These numbers make sense!  The other bidder raised it?... Raise him 5000!!
Me: What?! **raise 5000 while sweating** BUT WHAT IF I'M WRONG??!?!

For two hours, it was an all-out bidding war.  Finally, at double the reserve price and the cost to purchase the house plus estimated restoration costs being nearly 3 times what my original budget was, I told him I could no longer make the numbers make sense without my having at least visited the neighborhood, because on an investment as large as this, the neighborhood is just as important as the house.  So we gave up on the house.

I had been in constant communication with my realtor via text and email while on the phone with Investor, and when the war was finally over, the three of us were beyond disappointed.  But it was late, we said our goodbyes, and dealt with the crushing feeling of failure that now over-rode the adrenaline rush of the bidding.  I woke up the next morning and looked at the other available properties in that city, and, happy with what I saw, planned to visit while on the pending road trip to Atlanta.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Expectation vs Reality

My family believes that you must pay attention to the signs, and when multiple things just refuse to go the way you hoped, you need to sit back and truly analyze what is going on.  Atlanta was a location that I really wanted to be in, for a few reasons: Closer proximity to my family, back on the east coast where there is a much greater sense of urgency and a ridiculous amount of humidity (yes, I genuinely thrive on humidity!), there was a decent amount of houses that suited my parameters within a price-range that I was happy with, and the happenings of the city -from both economic and social standpoints- fit what I was looking for.

But no matter what I did, I just couldn't make Atlanta happen. I flew in a few times to stay with mom and planned a month-long stay once I finished my last semester.  But the only time I ever got to look at houses with a realtor was that one instance where I got to see the house I had bid on site-unseen, and that experience lacked an incredible amount of professionalism.  I had spoken to numerous realtors while still in Denver, set up appointments, let them know of my time constraints, and every time I actually got into Atlanta..... I got the ignore.

During my last stay in Atlanta, I finally managed to get a hold of the realtor I had spoken to, sent links to, and established a time frame in which we would look at houses, but that had ignored me once I got into town.  After waiting for well over a week for a response, I finally received this.  And I quote:
"I checked on the homes you listed in the previous email. Some of these properties are not paying enough commission to make it worth my time. Please call me and we can discuss your strategy and my minimum commission."

I was shocked.  And beyond insulted.  I completely understood that some of the houses that were on the list were incredibly low-priced (one was 15K).  But when I send agents links, I send from lowest to highest price, and my budget is a pretty broad range.  I also discussed my budget in-depth with him, explained why I was looking at the particular houses that I was, and what I was hoping to accomplish.  When looking for a character house that needs major renovations to get it back up to the beauty it once was, sometimes the house that fits the bill is going to have a ridiculously low price-point and commission, and I had no problem paying an additional commission out of my own pocket.  But not to someone who was so tact-less that they thought the above response was appropriate.

So, I had a heart-to-heart with mom.  And we both concluded that something was trying to tell me that Atlanta just wasn't the place for me.  At least not at the moment.   I was disappointed, but I know that you just can't force something that isn't supposed to happen.  If you do, nothing good will come of it.  So, I let go of the thought of Atlanta and concentrated on houses in other areas that would still allow for a relatively easy drive to mom's and that still fit the economic and social points that I was looking for.  And I finally found a realtor that "got it".

Monday, June 2, 2014

An Economic Defense of Old Buildings

An economic defense of old buildings

H Street NE in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of Flickr user Joseph.
H Street NE in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy of Flickr user Joseph under creative commons license)
Jane Jacobs, a woman akin to the patron saint of urban planners, first argued 50 years ago that healthy neighborhoods need old buildings. Aging, creaky, faded, "charming" buildings. Retired couples and young families need the cheap rent they promise. Small businesses need the cramped offices they contain. Streets need the diversity created not just when different people coexist, but when buildings of varying vintage do, too.
"Cities need old buildings so badly," Jacobs wrote in her classic "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," "it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them.”
Ever since, this idea -- based on the intuition of a woman who was surveying her own New York Greenwich Village neighborhood -- has been received wisdom among planners and urban theorists. But what happens when we look at the data?
The National Trust for Historic Preservation has tried to do just this, leveraging open property-parcel data in three cities to analyze the connection between the kinds of places Jacobs was describing and the numbers that economists and businesses would care about: jobs per square foot, the share of small businesses to big chains, the number of minority- and women-owned businesses.
The novel geospatial analysis, drawn from the District of Columbia, Seattle and San Francisco, suggests that older, smaller buildings do matter to a city's economy and a neighborhood's commercial life beyond the allure of affordable fixer-uppers. In Seattle, the report found one-third more jobs per commercial square foot in parts of town with a variety of older, smaller buildings mixed in. In Seattle San Francisco, it found more than twice the rate of women and minority-owned businesses. In the District, it found a higher share of non-chain businesses.
The findings don't necessarily mean we should save all old buildings from demolition, or even that one old building is better than one new one. But they give preservationists (and Jane Jacobs enthusiasts) new data in fierce development debates over how rapidly changing and relatively older cities like Washington should grow.
"For a long time, preservationists have been making the the cultural argument that these places feed our soul, and they connect us to our past," says Stephanie Meeks, the president and CEO of the National Trust. "But this is the first time we’ve had empirical data to show that these places perform better economically and on many livability factors, as well."
The report divided each city into a grid of 200-by-200-meter squares to allow comparison across neighborhoods (city blocks tend to be different sizes even across the same city, making that unit a poor measure). This is Washington, with its main commercial and mixed-use neighborhoods highlighted:
National Trust for Historic Preservation
National Trust for Historic Preservation
The Jacobsian quality of each grid square was measured by a "character score" combining three factors from county assessor data: the median building age there, the diversity of building ages (as a standard deviation), and the "granularity" of many small buildings versus a few large ones (think H Street instead of NoMa).
"If you‘re walking for 30 seconds down a street, how many interesting things do you pass?" asks Michael Powe, the lead researcher on the project with the trust's Preservation Green Lab. "That's a good measure of granularity."
The report then compared the results to more than 40 metrics of economic and social life, accounting for differences across neighborhoods in median income, transit accessibility and private reinvestment. The trust looked at concentrations of social activity through cellphone use, at businesses per 1,000 square feet of commercial space, at population density and walkability scores. This is the map of small businesses in Washington:
small biz
small biz legend
And here are new businesses launched in 2012:
small biz launch
biz launch legend
The trust acknowledges that these are sophisticated correlations at best; it's hard to say that old buildings cause small and minority-owned businesses to open shop, or that they cause twenty-somethings to congregate on Friday nights. Still, smaller, older buildings don't lend themselves well to formulaic chain stores, making them a good home for other kinds of businesses that don't then have to compete for rent with Starbucks and Chili's. This means that the barriers to entry are lower on a strip like H Street.
Neighborhoods with many small shops and restaurants side by side are also more conducive to foot traffic and the kind of unanticipated business that's created when you walk to a restaurant on Barracks Row in Capitol Hill and later wind up at a bar next door.
The trust argues that these qualities inherent in older, smaller-scale building stock keep cities affordable for local businesses and lower-income renters, although economists like Edward Glaeser have argued precisely the opposite: that preservationists who oppose new development restrict the supply of new housing that might drive prices down.
"The idea that building new is going to lead to greater affordability has been the standard economic model of supply and demand," Powe says, "and that may hold true in the aggregate at the end of the day. But it’s very hard to build new affordable housing, and this is a great natural stock of affordable stuff."

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Love At First Sight

I first started looking at houses online two years ago just for the hell of it, and instantly fell in love with this beauty.  It was built in 1930 on what is now considered a main road to get across town.  It was listed for basically nothing and as you can tell by the photos it doesn't really look like much needed to be done.  So I called the agent.... Who was so mad that yet another person was calling about the property.  To date I still don't quite know what was going on, but because of legal issues the agent couldn't actually speak about the property... aside to say that the property could not be sold and that I should know that the property no longer looked anything like what was in the photos.  I asked him to put me on his email list anyway, believing that I would never hear about it again.  

Two years later - and once I was serious about buying my own house to renovate - I received an email stating that the house was up for auction for 24 hours, midnight to midnight, EST.  Unfortunately I had been in class all day and didn't receive that email until what was 10pm EST, but I was so excited that I finally had a chance with that house (site unseen, mind you!) that I scoured the internet trying to find an agent who would pick up their phone, since I was still in Denver and had no other way of bidding on the house.  And one finally did.  We both thought the house was set as a standard auction, so I placed a bid a few thousand over the asking price.  I found out a few days later that it was actually a live auction, which means that more than likely the house went for at least twice the asking price.  But it was fun thinking that I could have been the proud owner of this beauty... even if I only got to think that for an hour.

A couple of weeks later I flew into Atlanta to look at some other properties, and while driving around I realized that we were on the part of the road that this house was on.  When I finally saw it, I told the realtor that I would be more than happy to not see anything else on my list if she would just turn around so that I could at least walk around this property.  So she did.  Another realtor and client were standing out front and told me that the house was completely open, so of course I stepped inside.  I'm still not quite sure what the listing agent was talking about when he said the property looked nothing like the photos.  What I saw was far more beautiful that what I had seen online, and the only things that were wrong were mold on most of the painted surfaces (happens when a house is locked up for two years in a humid climate), some plaster damage, and a few doors swollen shut.  But this was seriously one of my few 'kid in a candy store' moments, and since the way the auction and listings had been dealt with inadequately, I still had a (short-lived) glimmer of hope that *this* could be my house.

This house is pretty large.  A total of nearly 3,000 sf of beauty.  The exterior has a whimsical feel, in terms of brick colors and awnings.  It sits on roughly an acre of land, set far back from the street, with magnificent old oaks creating shade for all the lush green grass.
Sadly, these photos don't do it any justice.  Nearly everything in the house is original, and somehow all of the original fixtures were still in place.  All of the light fixtures were still on the walls and ceilings, the electrical was still in the walls, the 6" wide plank flooring were as solid as the day they were installed.  The crown moulding in this photo is nothing compared to the room behind the arch.  All original plaster that had been formed in place.  Some water had seeped through the walls in the dining room and some of the crown needed to be dealt with, but nothing major.

 The office.  Or workout space.  Or sewing room.

Considering the size of the house, the bedrooms were pretty small, and like most older homes this was definitely lacking closet space.  But a fireplace in the bedroom (especially one with those floors!) always makes up for lack of closet space, especially when there is an odd little room set off in the corner on the same floor, just screaming for a closet system to be installed.

 Admittedly, not much of a kitchen, but this was all original and beautiful... with the exception of that tiled countertop, which would have been the first thing to go.  I would have figured out a way to add more storage and countertop space.

Horrible, I know!  But so much potential in this small space!  The tub enclosure is arched on top, and I instantly wanted to rip the old tub in and nuzzle a claw foot into the nook.  Black & white hexagon tiles on the floor, carrara marble on the walls, and an antique pedestal sink would have completed the look.

Those trees!