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Preserving Our Past | Is Every Home Worth Saving?

Teardowns! The word alone sparks emotion and controversy in our tight-knit North Shore communities. We love our community’s rich history and gorgeous antique artisan homes. The stone and brick facades were carefully crafted in the early 1900’s and pride of workmanship shows through in their unique and beautiful designs, from Cyril Colnik Ironwork to green Vermont Slate Tile Roofs. Romance and awe are captured in each unique architectural design that dots Milwaukee’s North Shore, but inside some of these gorgeous 100-year-old façades lie neglected interiors and code issues.

Everything has a life span and maintaining our antique homes can be very expensive. I cherish my 1924 home and fully support the renovation of Milwaukee’s Historical Past. However, preserving the past may not be always a viable option for homeowners. Tearing a neglected home down can sometimes be the most economical option when considering bringing a home up to the current codes. Even if renovating is less expensive, when you're done you may be left with a house that has low ceilings, a poor basement, a weak foundation, outdated wiring, and any combination of other issues that can arise from an older home.

Of the over 1000 homes I have listed and sold in Milwaukee’s North Shore, most have been homes built in and around the 1920's. It is rare, but some have really been beyond repair. Left vacant for 10 years or more with families who could not bear to sell their childhood home. In one historical home, I turned on the faucet and the galvanized piping crumbled and shattered! Asbestos and wet basements are common in these homes, basement foundation drain almost always needs to be replaced, and old electrical can make getting homeowners insurance next to impossible. Fire is a real issue with knob and tube wiring and non-grounded outlets. Fixing bad or unsuitable foundations can be one of the most expensive things you do to a house. Remodeling challenges start to become insurmountable when you consider removing knob and tube wiring and replacing galvanized piping through plaster walls—and that is if you can find or afford the artisan contractors who will still do the work correctly. Here is where the cost of remodeling and replacement begins to far exceed the cost of tearing down and starting over.

Contributing Factors of Tear Downs:

The cost of remodeling has skyrocketed in the last two years. If you talk with local remodelers, you will find expanding your home’s footprint in Milwaukee’s North Shore begins at a six-figure number. Remodeling a bathroom is now about $40,000 and remodeling a kitchen about $100,000. When you compare that with starting over, starting over can begin to make economic sense. Some of the reasons above simply boil down to costs – will it cost more to renovate or to build new? Does spending money on renovation make sense in your neighborhood or is tearing down a better option?

In 2015 I had the pleasure of listing a historic property located on a gorgeous block of Menlo in Shorewood. The home had laid vacant for 10 years because the family loved their family home and could not bear to part with all the memories. When they contacted me they prepared me for the worst: the home had an old home accident. They explained that the home heating oil device gauge was not reading the fill level correctly and the oil-fueled house had a misstep in supplying fuel to the home. The home was still oil radiant heating, so when the oil company misread the home’s heating, the pipes froze throughout the home, shattering every toilet, radiator, and destroying much of the plaster, electrical, and wood paneling throughout the historic home. When I arrived, Paul Davis Restoration had spent months in the home - to the tune of over $100,000 - just to clean up the home. The home was a shell of its former self with no working kitchen or bathrooms. It took months to sell the home and was a tricky process through an appraisal. The buyer who purchased the home had to have two appraisals; one for the current value and one for a renovated value. They chose to renovate in 2015, but today obtaining a mortgage for a home with no working kitchen or bathrooms would be a challenge and most likely be denied funding by most lenders. Did it make sense to renovate? For this buyer, it did who loved the historical significance of the home. To the buyer’s advantage, the walls were down and exposed. The tricky plaster removal was already done by a twist of fate and actually made renovation easier, but in many of these older homes the roofs, foundations, electrical, and old heating sources are hazardous and make them prime candidates for a teardown.

A Word of Caution:

In many North Shore Communities, proposed new homes will be subject to the design review board. The existing house might not be exactly what you wanted, but if you tear it down and start over, you will need to go before the design review board.

If review guidelines are strict you might consider keeping the house and renovating the interior, keeping the exterior intact so you won’t run afoul of the review board. In historic neighborhoods, design guidelines often make getting a demolition permit extremely difficult or impossible – another good reason to work with the home that’s already there.

Persevering the past when it makes sense…makes sense, but sometimes it doesn’t. I am not a flipper. I lovingly restored my 1920’s home in Whitefish Bay and my 1910 office building in Shorewood. I love the architectural significance of Milwaukee’s past with a passion, but some homeowners have neglected the historical past. We see crumbling facades, unkept yards, leaking tile roofs and we even have an abandoned mansion on Lake Drive where the damage was unfathomable and squatters were found inside. Not every homeowner has been a good steward of preserving our past and some have done their best to destroy these gems. You would have to be with me on showing these homes to fully understand the overwhelming cost of damage and repair of some of these amazing properties. I am not a fan of tearing down our Valentine Blatz or Eschweiler historical homes, but sometimes the neglect has been pervasive and that is when it makes sense to start over.

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Call Suzanne Powers