Let's be honest, for most of us looking to live in a downtown historic district, it is getting close to un-affordable. Even the days of getting what would be, in other cities, known as a "tear down," will cost a bit more than you probably want to spend - and even then, due to the rules set forth by the city's Board of Architectural Review (BAR), you actually can't even tear it down! Without giving up completely, there are three options here which may have a favorable outcome:
- Search high and low, with access to some "off market" and get incredibly lucky (ha!)
- buy a smaller home
- buy a home in need of major renovation
Options 1 and 2 have their headaches and pitfalls so for now, let's explore Option 3. If you have a great builder, are willing to put in sweat-equity, and be willing to be selective with the scope and finishes, then your build price will be rather less than the final value and you are on the downtown property ladder with equity in hand.
Take 1 Todd Street as an example. This is a small downtown "home" bought by us a few years back for $44K. It would be closer to $130K now if you could find one similar in this part of downtown, but the example holds true. 1 Todd Street had a lot of issues (Have a look for yourself!) - up against the Crosstown, 40 years of neglect, major fire in its past, ubiquitous termites .... the list is long. It would be easier to build from new but that's not the point really.
So how to get started? Firstly you will need an architect, we used John Williams our in-house resource but there are other good ones out there who work downtown and we'd be pleased to recommend. Understand what can be created internally and work in a modern, updated setting. That for us means open ceilings, exposed beams, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, living space and open garden area, honest craft-type features and minimal use of sterile sheet rock.
Understand the location. The Crosstown will be an issue so we need to design in noise control. Luckily, in this case, it's also outside of the BAR jurisdiction so we can use double-glazed windows which will help, as will acoustic treatments inside the walls and a sound fence up against the SCDOT road barrier. We cannot demolish without BAR approval and as it is unlikely to be granted its not worth asking. We can demolish internally so we pulled a City permit to do so. We obtained a flood survey and established a need to lift the building slightly, about 12" in all, to reach the modern FEMA base flood level. The footings are pretty bad - meaning we will have to elevate the building anyhow - so that is an easy give as a minor request that can be granted by the city at staff level.
Once design drawings are completed we'll want structural drawings for the building (there was no need for a structural survey to begin with, it was obviously in a hopeless condition). We needed the heating and ventilation calculations and then to apply to the City for a construction permit. There are some large hackberry trees under the footings, they will also have to go. An application went in to SCDOT to undertake that work as it encroached upon the Crosstown traffic.
Early on in the construction we installed the noise barrier and some plantings, so the vegetation has a chance to establish itself before the summer heat and we thus gain a full growing season to hide the traffic and the barrier. The house was braced and lifted, footings dug out along with the tree removal. New footings installed ready to accept the house at new flood elevation. At this point the chimney became an issue. We had intended to leave it in place but the structure was in VERY poor shape. It no longer penetrated the roof line so we decided to remove it and gain extra internal space in what is a small 1400 sq. ft. home. No permission was needed for this as it's internal to the house. We will install a false fireplace as a feature downstairs only. We also took a backhoe to the garden and leveled the yard nearer to the sidewalk so it can be used for parking. A small height reduction produces quite a lot of dirt!
That is about as far as we have got to in the build process. So what is the point of the above narrative and its relevance to the introductory paragraph? Its simple really, to reach your goals of securing an affordable home downtown, buy smaller and restore. Don't be scared about buildings in even the most horrid condition as rebuilding them is a well-understood process. We undertake the "unloveables" day in and day out. Let your contractor do all the heavy lifting for you, then take over whatever part of the process that is within your skill set. Todd Street is not yet at that point - but will be shortly.
NOTE: Call us if you want to have a look around and understand how the process works for these downtown renovation projects. We are happy to share what we know.
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