Jeff McClure was driving to work from his Anaheim Hills home when he took a side trip through Old Towne Orange and spotted a house on North Pine Street. A postcard from the past, the one-story, Mediterranean-revival charmer had a set of prim, arched windows. The porch overlooked a cactus garden.
He took his wife, Kathy, to check out the house, and her reaction was swift. The couple had spent a year searching for a home in the community. “Make an offer, make an offer,” Kathy McClure urged.
The McClures wasted no time, paying the full asking price for a nearly century-old residence in splendid condition that still has its original oak floors and vestiges of a carriage porch – where a horse and buggy once arrived.
Orange County’s historic homes are hot, but new listings can be as scarce as El Niño, even in a community like Old Towne with its high concentration of early 20th-century houses.
“Inventory is at a historic low level in Old Towne,” real estate broker Al Ricci said. “I think people are seeing the prices going up, so they’re holding on
to their own houses and riding the wave up.”
The market reflects basic economics: supply and demand.
“Old Towne’s not like Irvine where you can choose from the same model time and time again,” Ricci said. “If you like a certain style, it could be 10 years before that same house comes up again.”
With a limited number of listings, vintage homes that are meticulously restored or offer a buyer a way to cash in later on sell at a premium. A property with a storied past, perhaps one that was connected to a notable person, is another selling point.
Homes listed in Old Towne’s 92866 ZIP had a market time of about 1.5months in a recent analysis by Steve Thomas of Reports on Housing. That’s the time it would take, theoretically, to sell them all at the rate of pending deals. It’s fast. A normal market time is about three to four months.
The supply of vintage homes for sale is also tight in other places, including Anaheim’s Colony Historic District, where two properties that recently were listed went into escrow in a week.
“We don’t have many,” real estate agent Gail Anderson said. “They’re such gems, they’re snapped up.”
Old home, new life
For every gem, there’s a diamond in the rough.
Last summer, a Queen Anne home believed to be the second-oldest home in Orange’s historic district sold for $825,000. Dating back to 1886, the house had no indoor bathrooms when it was built, sellers Dennis and Cathie Caldwell said.
The home wasn’t only lovingly maintained and upgraded; the pair also built the modern-day replica of an old carriage house and barn.
Not all buyers are so lucky.
Last week, David Haywood, owner of a home built in 1922 in Anaheim’s Five Points Historic District, sat in the living room of his just under 900-square-foot Craftsman house and recalled, “This was an absolute gut … it was a wreck.”
After buying the two-bedroom, one-bathroom house as a short sale for $215,000 in 2009, he consulted local experts, including an older neighbor, and took some rooms down to the studs to rebuild the house in keeping with its era.
Haywood, district manager for Subway in Orange County, said he did most of the restoration and rehabbing himself, along with help from a handyman.
“The whole house was full of odd jobs,” he said. “There was 90 years of God only knows what happened.”
Other homes boast coveted amenities from a bygone era. At least two houses on the market in Santa Ana and North Tustin still have Prohibition-era bars. One home includes a servants’ kitchen and a canning room. A Laguna Beach house built by the family of film pioneer D.W. Griffith in 1929 has a private lighthouse overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Spending to save
Whenever she holds an open house in Anaheim’s Colony District, said Anderson of iNet Realty, “I’ll have 40 or 50 families come through. People desire them, not only because of their charm – because you’re buying a piece of history – but you get this wonderful Mills Act.”
The Mills Act provides homeowners significant tax breaks, at times 40 percent to 60 percent or more, for entering into agreements with cities or counties to maintain historical properties that, when seen from the street, reflect the period in which they were built. The property tax savings give homeowners money to spend on upkeep.
Under the rules, an old glass window, for example, cannot be replaced with a vinyl one. The home’s exterior features must be from its original era, or replicated. Finding custom replacements can be more time-consuming and expensive than a quick trip to a big-box store.
“You can’t produce revisionist history,” said agent Tony Trabucco of Orange Realty, who listed a 116-year-old Craftsman bungalow in Old Towne last year with its original Douglas fir floors that went into escrow in under a week. The 1,336-square-foot home sold for $855,315.
“If you do something dastardly wrong, your neighbors will turn you in,” said agent Sandy DeAngelis of Seven Gables Real Estate, who sells early 20th-century homes in Santa Ana’s Floral Park and other areas.
Haywood’s restoration work in Anaheim paid off with a Mills Act designation.
The McClures, who purchased their 1,708-square-foot, three-bedroom house in Old Towne for $999,000 in January, said they, too, will seek Mills Act status.
On the inside, many Mills Act homes are a hodgepodge of styles, along with state-of-the-art conveniences. The 116-year-old house that Trabucco sold, for example, had a Sub-Zero refrigerator and an updated bathroom with marble counters and a jetted tub for two.
That’s allowed under the act.
But Jeff McClure wants more of his home’s interior to comport with the early 1920s. His plans include restoring even small features, such as stripping white paint off inside door and window hinges to expose the original brass.
“Everything I do will be period correct,” he said, “or as close to original as I can find it.”
His ultimate goal?
“I am set on having people blown away.”
Not for everyone
Haywood’s home is stuffed with large furniture and a crush of Disney art, Tiki accent pieces, old-timey knick-knacks and hundreds of plants inside and out. The old-fashioned bathtub, which he picked up from a wrecking yard for $300, looks small compared to what you’d find today on a showroom floor.
“I feel like I’m living in a dollhouse,” Haywood said with a laugh. He’s 6 feet tall, as is his partner, who lives with him, along with their two endearing basset hound rescues.
“Everything is tight,” Haywood noted. “Even the bathroom is tight.”
Small rooms are among the reasons historic homes aren’t for everyone. So are creaky floors and other quirks.
As Trabucco sees it, “There are people who should buy old houses and people who shouldn’t.” It’s quite easy to spot the latter: “They want the plumbing to be perfect and the electrical to be perfect and the foundation to be perfect.
“Many of the houses still have knob-and-tube wiring,” he added, referring to a method of electrical wiring popular from the late 1800s to the 1930s.
In addition to being realistic, Trabucco said, it helps to be handy, even if it’s just to know what someone else would charge to do the work.
“If you’re not handy, don’t touch this (type of) house,” said Haywood, sitting in his living room and surveying his sweat equity. “Unless you have a lot of money for labor.”
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