The Value of Vintage
The Pasadena area’s rich heritage of architecturally significant properties has kept the worst of the current housing slump at bay.
By Noela Hueso 05/01/2010
After a six-week search, real estate attorney Stephen Selice and his fiancée Donna Massetti recently purchased their century-old, five-bedroom South Pasadena Craftsman home for $1.3 million. While they were open to a variety of architectural styles, Selice, a 36-year resident of South Pasadena and chair of the South Pasadena Planning Commission, says they were very specific about wanting a house with character—and space.
“We needed space to accommodate three of my four sons and room for an office and a decent-sized kitchen because we both like to cook,” he says. “We knew we were going to have to spend $850,000 to $1.3 million to get something that size that was in decent condition.”
The couple loved the quality of the home’s construction materials and its classic floorplan, which includes upstairs bedrooms, an entry flanked by a parlor and dining room, a butler’s pantry and a bonus first-floor room that will serve as an office. They also appreciated that very little had to be done to the home before moving in. Eventually, they’ll update the kitchen, in a way that maintains the home’s vintage style. “It’s important to keep the integrity of its heritage,” Selice says.
Business litigation attorney Melissa Jackson agrees. The first-time homebuyer, who recently moved into her three-bedroom 1923 Colonial home in South Pasadena—paying $40,000 above the $765,000 asking price—intends to “keep everything that’s original and bring what’s not back to the style of the period in which it was built.”
Tales of woe in the current real estate market have made headlines for months. but there’s good news for Pasadena and its surrounding communities: With their rich heritage of historic and architecturally significant properties, they’ve been less affected by the mortgage meltdown, experts say. While it’s true that sales may be a bit slower and prices have dipped for homes across the board, they have dipped less for properties that boast a famous architect—names such as Wallace Neff, Myron Hunt and the brothers Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene come to mind—or that are true to the architectural styles, such as Craftsman and Spanish Revival, that have become synonymous with Pasadena and its environs.
“Older houses have gone down [in price] with the rest of the market,” says Coldwell Banker’s Steve Haussler, a 26-year veteran of the Pasadena-area real estate scene. “What have gone down less are houses with historic quality and authenticity. A beautiful or unusual Craftsman bungalow will get a premium when it’s marketed correctly that its neighbor of identical size and age won’t.”
As a rule, houses with vintage or even historic cachet “don’t slip as much as ‘plain Jane’ houses and they recover faster,” Haussler continues. “They’re the leading indicators. In the last recession in the ’90s, the really great houses set the prices that followed for the rest of the market the following year.”
Not surprisingly, Pasadena’s well-heeled communities— Arroyo/Grande, Linda Vista, San Rafael, the Langham, Huntington Hotel area, Caltech, Madison Heights—and neighbors South Pasadena, San Marino and La Cañada Flintridge have been least affected by the crisis. However, very high-end homes-–those over $3 million—have taken a hit.
“A lot of houses in this price range aren’t selling—and they would have sold easily five years ago,” says Sotheby International Realty’s Georges Rouveyrol. “If you bought your house in 2005 or 2006 and are trying to get the same amount of money now that you bought it for then, it’s going to be a little difficult.
“People need more cash to buy homes these days,” he continues. “Not long ago, you could put 10 percent down toward a home purchase. Now, especially in the higher-end market, you have to put down 25 percent and prove that you have assets to qualify for a jumbo loan. The qualification process is much harder than it used to be.”
According to Haussler, though prices have gone down, they’re still higher than they were 10 years ago, and signs indicate that the market is slowly beginning to stabilize. “Right now, we’re back to 2004 pricing—in some neighborhoods 2003 pricing,” he says.
Price stabilization is, of course, happy news for owners of vintage homes who are thinking of selling their properties. But to get top dollar, experts say, there are certain things to keep in mind: “Protecting the architectural integrity of a house maintains and even improves its value,” says Pasadena Heritage Executive Director Sue Mossman. “Hardwood floors and fireplaces and lots of original windows are precious commodities that really define a house.”
Mossman says that replacing old windows with “energy-efficient” dual-pane windows is a popular trend, but their installation, which typically means incorporating windows that are out of character with the rest of the house, can negatively impact the selling price. “People think they’re providing a lot of energy efficiency, but in truth, old windows are integral to the historic value of the house,” she says.
“One of the biggest problems I come across with a buyer who wants a historic house is that it doesn’t have its original windows,” agrees Haussler. “How the window is made is one of the telltale signs of a home’s age. If you’ve got a historic house and you put in windows that are outside the style range of that house, it’s quite jarring to see.”
That alone could be reason enough for a prospective buyer to bypass a property in favor of another with architectural integrity more or less intact, although many buyers are drawn to vintage houses precisely because they want to restore or update them.
Still, historic treasures that are well maintained remain the Holy Grail for a lot of buyers. Private investigator Mark Stocks should know. The regal 1907 Arts and Crafts house on North Los Robles Avenue in Pasadena that has been in his family for more than 100 years and was his childhood home has been on the market for 15 months, along with two adjacent homes. The three buildings (a main house, adjoining bungalow and the most unusual addition: a stand-alone ballroom built by Stocks’ socialite uncle who owned the property in the ’20s) are in need of a lot of work—everything from new roofs to electrical wiring to plumbing.
Beyond maintaining the ballroom, “No one in my family was really into big changes, remodeling kitchens or anything,” Stocks says of the home, which passed from his uncle to his dad to his mom. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it was kind of their attitude.” First listed at $999,000, the price has since dropped to $859,000.
There has been interest, says Coldwell Banker listing Realtor Jan Thornton, from “artsy types” who see the potential in the properties, with their built-in cabinetry, hardwood floors and original light fixtures. “I had an artist looking at that back studio,” she says. “I had a dress designer who thought it would be perfect.” Recognizing the possibilities, local nonprofits and schools have also made inquiries. But, Thornton says, “Then they get the contractors over there for estimates and they say it will cost between $200,000 and $500,000 to restore all three buildings.
“The good news is that they’re old and haven’t been touched. But the bad news is they’re old and haven’t been touched.”