This Old Money Pit

Renovating an old house can be rewarding, as well as stressful. Be prepared to work on your communication skills—especially where there’s a small explosion…

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Knowing what to expect and gleaning insight from others can help prepare you for the process—or, at least, prevent surprise and shock when you encounter the worst.

So why buy an old house that needs renovation? Location, for one. “An Alapocas buyer might have kids at Wilmington Friends School. People who buy near Rockford Park might have children at Tower Hill,” says Tim Dewson, president of Dewson Construction, which has offices in Wilmington and Lewes, as well as Chesapeake City, Maryland, and Avalon, New Jersey.

Location includes the lot. Old neighborhoods often have mature, leafy trees. Landscaping is lush and full, and lots are often larger than those in newer communities.

For some, the appeal is in the details. “Older homes have a lot of charisma,” Dewson says. “Craftsmanship was high when they were built. To duplicate some of that today would cost so much more.”

As with Dean, the location and the design of Midtown Brandywine’s homes appealed to Diana Milburn and her husband, Patrick Campbell. “Patrick showed me this street, and I said, ‘I have to live there,’” says Milburn, director of audience development and group sales for the DuPont Theatre, who wanted to live close to work. She put letters in mailboxes, asking if homeowners were interested in selling.

The owner who responded lived in North Carolina and rented the row home, which had been turned into two apartments. Because the owner used a property manager, she was unaware of the home’s less-than-stellar condition or the cleaning habits of her tenants.

“The people who lived here were disgusting,” Milburn says. The sewer tank emptied into a bucket in the basement. The outdated systems were in poor repair, and the kitchen had orange Formica countertops. Milburn was undeterred.

“We knew what it could be,” she says. The couple had previously renovated three homes, including one in Trinity Vicinity. And she craved the house’s view of Brandywine Creek.

Milburn and Campbell hired the best home inspector they could find. By pointing out the faults—some of which were hazardous—the couple got the house for $30,000 less. Reductions or below-market-prices, however, do not always translate into bargains, Dewson warns. “You can’t lose sight of the improvement costs or the cost to maintain an old house.”

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