It's become a common New Orleans fantasy: fixing up an old shotgun house that has good bones with a fresh slab of paint and a few new nails. Homebuyers looking to buy one of the city's old gems, however, should keep in mind certain things that could make or break even the most well-planned renovation scheme.
Michael Zarou, a real estate agent with Latter & Blum who renovates homes on the side, recommends doing a general inspection of the home you're considering buying. "Most people don't know what to look for because they're not contractors or structural engineers or electricians or plumbers," he says. Homebuyers can hire a home inspector or scramble underneath the house themselves.
"For these historic homes that are raised homes, most of the time they'll get under there and the good inspectors will crawl from one end of the property to the other as long as they have access to it," Zarou says. "They'll look at the sills, the piers, the floor joists, all of the foundational parts of the building. They'll also go into the attic and make sure that the roof — not only the exterior of the roof, shingles and so forth, but the structure of the roof — isn't showing any real obvious defects. They'll look at the electrical, they'll look at the plumbing, but they are home inspectors and what they do is kind of general."
A pier, often made of brick, is the post that goes down the sides and around the perimeter of a house. The bricks are encased in cement, which Zarou says can deteriorate and cause major support issues.
"That's what the house is resting on," he says.
Right above the piers are the sills, which are often subject to wood rot and termite infestation. Emily Flagler, an architectural intern at Waring Architects, recommends you bring a pocketknife as a tool if you are conducting a home inspection on your own. "Tap on the wood and see how soft it is," she says. "If it's really mushy, if the knife just goes straight through it, then you've got wood rot."
Severe wood rot, she says, is only going to get worse, so it's important to identify early, when you're still considering making an offer on a home.
Homebuyers also should keep a lookout for shoddy repair work.
"Sometimes people do repairs, and they do them really poorly," Zarou says. "Oftentimes you'll find damage or you'll find something that looks like someone went in and repaired it, and it's not done correctly — like the sill isn't sitting correctly on the pier and so on."
That's particularly true of siding, Flagler says. In the 1970s and '80s, it was common to replace rotting wood siding with aluminum siding. In the '90s, people used vinyl.
"You never know what you're going to have behind [the siding]," Flagler says. "It's a cheap way to hide problems. ... A lot of times vines grow up behind there, or water will penetrate between the vinyl siding and the wood siding and you don't know what problems have occurred between there. So it hides problems. You can peel back some of that vinyl siding and just look."
The joists run underneath the floor from one side of the house to another. The joists also can suffer termite damage, which has to be repaired in a very specific way, Zarou says.
Many people decide to renovate the homes they end up buying, and residential and commercial tax credits are available within certain historic districts for people who rehabilitate historic properties (visit www.crt.state.la.us for more information).
"You can get a residential tax credit if you buy a home to live in it, or you can get a commercial tax credit if you buy a home to renovate for income-producing purposes," Flagler says. "It's a way to revitalize our city.
"An investor will get up to 45 percent of his construction costs back if he takes a building that's in a historic district and renovates it. Instead of having buildings that are falling down, they now have buildings that are beautiful."
Renovating is often more complicated than building new, Flagler says, but there are plenty of resources in New Orleans that will ease the burden. "Yes, it is more complicated, but there are architects that specialize in it and there are contractors that specialize in it," she says. Another argument Flager makes for renovating: "They just don't build them like they used to."
As for how to go about renovating, Zarou says it's all a matter of taste.
"See if the house still has the characteristics of an old house or the architectural features of an old house," he says. "[If it doesn't have that compelling character or design] you're buying all the bad stuff that an old house has, but you're not buying any of the good stuff.
"I'm a big floor person, so I want to see old floors that can at least be brought back."
Walking into an old Victorian home with linoleum floors is an immediate red flag for Zarou.
"The old flooring is part of what makes the house feel like an old, historic house," he says. "Generally, stick with the houses that have retained the old characteristics and the old features that are original to the house. ... Those are the houses that are going to retain the most value going into the future."