The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 2, 2010

Historic homes offer challenges, but most owners have no regrets

By Alexandra Nicolas

CARTHAGE, Mo. — When Marty Ann and Ron Petersen Jr. still lived in Ron’s boyhood home, they would walk through the historic neighborhoods for which Carthage is famous.

“We kept saying, ‘One day, we’re going to live in one of these big houses,’” Marty Ann recalled.

That dream came true. Three years ago, they bought a 109-year-old Victorian home made of Carthage marble at 1131 Grand Ave. The 5,000-square-foot house has many of its original fixtures and most of the original woodwork.

But the couple also have wrestled with water damage, renovations and other challenges in a home that sat empty for eight months before they moved in.

“I remember Ron being awake until 2 or 3 a.m. the night before Maple Leaf (parade) so people would have a working bathroom to use,” Marty Ann said.

The Petersens say they’re roughly 20 percent finished with their restoration. The remaining 80 percent includes putting on a new roof and moving what they call the “one-butt” kitchen, which got its name because one person must sit on the radiator if someone’s at the stove.

“We really view (restoration) as a duty, to the house, to the neighborhood, to the district and to the town,” Ron said. “Our forefathers, they built this for us to enjoy.”

Judy Goff, assistant secretary for Carthage Historic Preservation Inc., lives a few houses down from the Petersens. She said she feels the same responsibility to maintain her historic home.

“You kind of owe it to Carthage,” she said. “But unfortunately, everybody who lives in an old house doesn’t necessarily think that.”

Sales drop

Elsewhere around the country, the housing market has collapsed in many cities, with some communities watching homes lose 20, 30 and even 40 percent of their value.

In Jasper and Newton counties, housing — including some of the historic housing — has held its value, but owning history comes with its challenges in a sluggish market.

According to Carthage Realtor Kip Smith, data from the Ozark Gateway Association of Realtors shows that the active sales of historic homes dropped by 25 percent from 2008 to 2009.

Smith said the drop can be partially attributed to an overall 8.7 percent decline in general residential transactions, but there also is a perception that maintenance and energy costs for historic homes will be higher, and that scares a lot of buyers.

Other local Realtors echoed his opinion.

“There’s a stigma that goes along with buying an older home,” Realtor Kirk Friesen said. “You don’t always know what’s behind those walls.”

Priced to sell

Though uncertainty about a house’s construction might keep some buyers out of historic homes, it was never an issue for Bill Colaw, who owns a home at 1522 River St. in Carthage. It was built in 1872.

Colaw said that being in the 5,790-square-foot home has “spoiled” him, as the house has never needed more than basic maintenance and updating.

Now, after raising four children in the home, Colaw said he and his wife are downsizing and looking for a newer home in Carthage. They have shopped for more than five years, largely in the historic market, but have been unable to find one that meets their needs.

“We couldn’t find a house in this town that was smaller but that wasn’t a project,” he said.

Colaw and his wife have just listed their property at 1522 River St. for $348,019, or $60.10 per square foot. Smith is handling the sale.

Colaw said he was adamant about not pricing the home out of the market, and he expects it to sell quickly, though he said he and his wife will miss it.

“My wife has been trying to back out of this deal,” he said with a laugh. “This house needs a big family with lots of kids.”

Friesen currently has two restored historic homes for sale, and he said the slow market could continue to affect the sale of older homes that require significant work. However, he said, better quality construction still makes older homes a good buy.

“They didn’t go cheap on materials like they do now,” he said. “Then, a two-by-four was actually two by four. I try and tell people, ‘Buy it because you like it.’ At the end of the day, it’s worth it.”

While statistics from 2009 show a drop in the vintage home market, Smith said optimism among real estate agents remains high. “Performance of historic home sales so far this year is on pace to recover the 2009 loss and mirror 2008 sales,” he said.

Carthage Realtor Mark Cobb said he recently showed a Victorian home to a young woman who was looking specifically for a historic home, and interest from a younger generation gives him hope.

“There’s sort of a love affair with the younger group,” he said. “There’s something a little mystical about that era, that time of parlor music and fireside chats.”

Among the younger people developing a love for Victorian architecture are the Petersens’ children, Dakota Thomas and Emily Petersen, both students at Carthage High School.

“Now we go places and the kids are always like, ‘Look at this woodwork,’” Marty Ann said.

Emily’s rooms show the signs of water damage, and Dakota has been temporarily relocated to a different bedroom while the house is renovated. And even though, in Ron’s words, the slate roof is “well past its life,” and they recently came home to find one of the planks in the porch roof sagging, the Petersens have no regrets. They said they love their historic home.

“The good Lord opened this house for us,” Ron said. “The next time we move, it’s going to be out the door feet first.”

Glimpse into past

The family of Marty Ann and Ron Petersen Jr. is treating the restoration of the 109 year-old Victorian at 1131 Grand Ave. like an archaeological expedition.

They’ve found old hatpins, medicine bottles in the garden, pieces of ceramic tile, and original 100-year-old wallpaper in between doorjambs. And on the wood floor, they can see the tracks where a rocking chair used to sit.