Amy Fredericks loves her 1898 Victorian house in Round Hill in western Loudoun County.
She loves its charming woodwork, its large back yard filled with mature trees and the spacious front porch where she can sit and watch her neighbors walk by.
But Fredericks, who along with her husband, Craig, bought the house a year ago, is also a realist. She knows that owning a home that has stood for more than a century can bring more than its share of headaches.
For example, there was the winter day last year when the Frederickses returned home two days after the birth of their daughter, Emma. The couple opened the front door, eager to get their new arrival settled, only to discover that it was as bitterly cold inside as it was out. They also noticed that the entire house reeked of oil.
Amy Fredericks immediately left for her parents' house with Emma. Her husband stayed behind and attempted the seemingly impossible: get a repairman to come to the house the Friday before Christmas.
Fortunately, he succeeded. Unfortunately, the repairman found that the starter in the home's furnace had failed.
Even worse, so had the furnace's safety sensors, meaning that the furnace was now filled with unburned oil. The only way to get rid of the oil was to burn it, which filled the house with oily smoke.
For three week the family lived at the Baltimore home of Amy Fredericks's parents home. The Christmas dinner they were supposed to host took place in Baltimore. And they had to pay to have their chimney relined and their mattresses professionally cleaned.
That incident, though the most memorable, is not the only time the charming house has turned into a major inconvenience.
"We've had our share of incidents living here," Amy Fredericks said. "Besides the furnace, our radiator pipes have sprung big leaks. We've had electrical problems. We've had plumbing problems. Maintaining the house has definitely been a labor of love."
But like many owners of old houses, Fredericks said she does not regret her purchase. She and her husband bought the house with their daughter in mind. They wanted her to grow up in a house that felt like a home.
"When we walk into this house, it's like walking into a story," Amy Fredericks said. "The first owner bought the land it sits on and built it for his wife. She gave it to her niece who planted four English boxwoods on the front lawn in the shape of a semicircle. Those trees are still here. It's amazing to sit under them and think about how old they are. Then the house was willed to a friend who lived here until 12 years ago. When he sold it to the person who owned it before we did, it marked the first time the home was ever sold. We are just one chapter in this house's story."
Amy Fredericks is a good example of lovers of old houses. She realizes that her home is going to give her problems, some of them costly. But she also likes her house's charm, its unique features and the history associated with it. She never considered buying a new house that would be comparatively maintenance-free.
She walked into her old house knowing what she and her husband were getting into. Others who buy turn-of-the-century Victorians or Cape Cods, though, are not foresighted. They fall in love with an older house's nooks and crannies, ignoring such costly problems as a shifting foundation, an outdated electrical system or breezy windows. As Amy Fredericks said, owning an old house can be a wonderful experience, but would-be buyers should make sure they are prepared for the challenges.
"What's the biggest challenge of owning an old home? Constant maintenance," said Linda Kilroy, owner-manager of ERA Liberty, a real estate firm in Charlestown, W.Va. "There are untold numbers of things that can go wrong with an older home. If the owners are trying to restore the home to its original condition, it can be an especially time-consuming and financially draining task."
She said, "I think that people who really love older homes are willing to put in the time and effort required for owning and living in one. However, people who have not had the experience of living in an older home may be surprised by the challenges they may encounter. It is much more expensive to keep an older home, and this can be an unexpected burden for some people."
Is an older house right for you?
Kilroy said some people who want an older house are looking for the charms of a bygone era. Some people, particularly younger buyers, are eager to take on the challenge of repair and renovation.
Others seek older houses because they are interested in the larger lots on which they sit. Most new houses in the region are built on smaller lots. Buyers who want big backyards will often buy older houses with the idea of renovating them.
Then there is a reason that many buyers may not realize: nostalgia for their childhood.
Zinta Rodgers, a real estate agent at Re/Max Horizons in Alexandria, acknowledged that is one reason she likes her 50-year-old house.
"I bought this house because it reminded me of the house I grew up in," she said. "A lot of people don't realize it, but they do buy according to what they're familiar with. If they grew up in an older, historic-type house, that may be what they end up looking for."
All of these are solid reasons to buy an older house. But simply because buyers want a large lot or a house with character, it does not mean they are necessarily cut out to own a century-old residence.
Leslie Weightman, a real estate agent at Re/Max Realty Group in Gaithersburg, said that people who buy an old house that has not already been gutted and renovated by its former owners had better have at least one of three characteristics: They can either be handy, wealthy or patient. Those without any of these traits would do well to pass on buying the property.
"You have to budget 20 to 25 percent more than what you think you are going to spend," Weightman said. "Think about it: When you're renovating your home, the world is your oyster. It's not like when you're buying a new tract home and the builder gives you three choices for everything. In this case, you can buy any product or material you wish. The choices are huge. It's very hard to buy the least expensive item when you are seeing so many things that are so beautiful. Unless you have extreme discipline, you'll find yourself spending a bit more here and there."
When buying an old house, Weightman said, people should expect that they'll have to rip out its electrical system and replace it with one that is more modern. Sewer lines might also have to be replaced. Those who want to install central air conditioning may find that they have to add duct work that might have to hang outside ceilings and walls.
"If you're not a handy person, you need a big wallet so that you can hire people to do all this work," Weightman said.
The trick might be finding an old house that has been renovated. The problem is, these houses can be expensive, Weightman said.
Even buyers lucky enough to find an old house that does not need much structural work may discover other problems. For example, old houses generally do not have much in the way of closet space. They are often have outdated kitchens and bathrooms. Many do not have garages.
Still, even these negatives might not turn away diehard old-house lovers.
"People who are attracted to old homes find many of these inconveniences to be what gives the home its character and makes it attractive in the first place," Kilroy said.
What are the rewards? For those who like old houses, listing the joys is just as easy as listing the problems.
Tobi Moriarty counts herself as a fan of old houses. It is why she and her husband, Pat, moved to Round Hill about three years ago to buy a house that is more than 100 years old. The couple had just had their first child, daughter Peyton, and wanted to give her a house with more character than the one they had owned in Reston.
"An old house is a home," Tobi Moriarty said. "And when we bought this home, we also got a little town with it. There is more of a community feel here. There's a little corner store. We have sidewalks and old, mature trees. We felt like we were buying more than just a house."
The Moriartys' house covered just 1,400 square feet. And it lacked certain amenities, such as storage space and an upstairs shower. Then there were other quirks: a tin roof that had to be kept painted, windows that were not sealed, an aging oil furnace, oil tanks buried in the ground and a chimney that needed to be relined. But the Moriartys figured the house had enough space for them and their daughter, who at 6 months old wasn't moving around all that much.
Besides, the house also featured lots of backyard space, hardwood floors, an impressive staircase off the main entrance and a tiny hall next to these stairs that proved a perfect place for family photos.
Of course, things changed quickly. Peyton soon began walking. A second child was on the way.
The Moriartys decided they needed more space and embarked on a 10-month renovation that added a large living room and dining room area on the house's main floor and a master bedroom with master bath on the second. The renovation was difficult to live through, with hammers pounding and drills whirring every day for nearly a year. But by the time Peyton's younger brother, Liam, arrived, the project was done, and the Moriartys' space problems were solved. The home is even large enough now for the couple's third child, Cavan.
"If I would have known the amount of work we were going to have put into it, I would have tried to find an old house that somebody had already upgraded," Tobi Moriarty said. "I would have looked for one that already had this kind of addition."
Today, though, the Moriartys have what they consider the best of both worlds: They have the conveniences of a modern house along with the character of an old one.
This is the reward that many owners of old houses seek.
"Generally, when you have that finished product, with brand-new fixtures made to look old, with baths and sinks that are replicas of older products, the home is going to have a charm that you cannot get in a new tract home of any kind," Weightman said. "The floor plan will be one of a kind. It will be a custom house."
And because most old houses are in established neighborhoods, their owners often get something else, too: neighbors whom they can get to know.
Moriarty, for example, enjoys it when she waves to neighbors as they walk past her house and they wave back.
"When I lived in Reston, I never saw our neighbors," she said. "People would drive straight into their garages. I'd never even see them get out of their cars. Here, people walk by you and stop to say 'hello.' I wouldn't be able to pick my former neighbors in Reston out of a lineup."