Ask McEnearney: What’s Involved in Buying or Selling a Very, Very Old Home?

This week’s Q&A column is sponsored and written by Ann Duff of McEnearney Associates Realtors®, the leading real estate firm in Alexandria. To learn more about this article and relevant Alexandria market news, contact Ann at 703-965- 8700 or email [email protected]. You may also submit your questions to McEnearney Associates via email for response in future columns.

Question: Dig deeply, literally… How different can that be? Ask your realtor and learn from our experiences as you dip your toes into historic property ownership.

Answer: Just last week, while homebound as we all are, I surrounded my worktable with stacks of books to synopsize the history of a new listing. All to bring the past alive… this was for Alexandria, Virginia’s oldest property constructed, which started in 1749. More than just the date, stories and facts came together using source books and journals — “The Alexandria Chronicle,” Seaport in Virginia, written in 1949, “Historic Preservation,” and The Alexandria Waterfront Forum: Birth and Rebirth, dated 1983, as well as other fine writings.

Resulting in a rollicking read, the home’s past came to life. Along with photos of the John Dalton house through the last century and a half, we learned of its original ice well found in the lower level where archeologists excavated sixteen feet down finding old bottles and metal as well as its unique carved stone balusters in the garden.

This drew the ‘hidden historian’ out of many potential home buyers who visited and led to many spirited conversations, with the trading of names of other researchers and authors and a look into the Founding Fathers of Alexandria.

Listing agents should share the stories and do this deep research, in my opinion. We may not create Hamilton-worthy drama and song, but, where possible, find out more about one of our many, many historic homes so that the richness or even daily life vignettes carry forward to the next owners and their neighbors.

Not provided by the listing company? Buyer’s agents can do the same background work, even after the contract is signed — what could be better a house-warming gift?

While at it, head to the courthouse and check the deeds, recorded easements, subdivisions and boundaries, so that everything impacting ownership, taxes, prohibition against or permissibility of building a pool or expanding can be explained. Guidelines from Alexandria’s or D.C.’s Boards of Architectural Review will be appreciated, too, so that future work maintains the historic “fabric.” No aluminum siding or defilement of old brick structures is allowed, for instance.

The Library of Congress and local libraries can be a wealth of knowledge and, in the case of the branch manager at Local History and Special Collections Branch of the Alexandria Library, there was kindness shown in helping me with virtual research necessary with the current lockdown.

Scanning the grounds with a metal detector is another way of digging up the past — old coins, clay pipes, round balls for muzzle-loading guns. Many homes have displays of their findings and tend to convey them with any sale. There is even a home where a painting of the original silversmith owner has been deeded for years and years along with the brick and mortar of the structure.

Knowing the way homes were first built here in the colonies is helpful, too. Even the well-to-do, did not have many suits of clothing or dresses, so the closets were very shallow with hooks, certainly not wide to fit hangers. Most homes had or shared outdoor cooking facilities, since kitchens were a troublesome source of fires, and indoor plumbing didn’t become common until well into the 1800s. Tall ceilings were a sign of wealth and many artisans, lawyers and businesses plied their trades on the first floor of the residences while living upstairs.

Look at the changes made over the years to accommodate today’s lifestyle. Smart sellers keep the gracious touches of old and work walk-in closets, bathrooms and generous kitchens into the structure’s spaces. While there are no restrictions in Alexandria regarding paint color, it is a time-honored tradition to work with neighbors to create a pleasing palate or to plan for the display of flags and lighted front lanterns along the block.

Love original wood floors, wavy old pressed glass, showing off real or imagined ancestors with a display of oil portraits, bookcases and more? Want to walk in your own sheltered garden shaded by a canopy of trees?

Just imagine having the opportunity to walk in early footsteps, listen to the walls talk, feel the beauty of singular craftsmanship. All it takes is a little digging!

Ann Duff — Your positive advantage for Residential and Commercial properties throughout the area. Experience and Energy, Negotiations and Knowledge — All with a splash of fun! Let’s Get Busy!

If you would like a question answered in our weekly column or to set up an appointment with one of our Associates, please email: [email protected] or call 703-549-9292.

McEnearney Associates Realtors®, 109 S. Pitt Street, Alexandria, VA 22314. Equal Housing Opportunity. #WeAreAlexandria

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