BELLEVILLE — Emily Smith is fascinated by older homes. It’s an interest she’s had since she was a child. As an 8-year-old, she carried around a disposable camera in her backpack just to snap pictures of buildings she liked.
“I’ve always had a fascination with old homes and their character, and the craftsmanship and how it’s like basically living in a piece of art,” she said.
Smith, 32, now lives in a historic home on Abend Street, walking distance from Belleville’s downtown Main Street. She relocated to the area from Charlotte, North Carolina, with her two sons when her husband was stationed at Scott Air Force Base two years ago.
“When we had the opportunity to purchase an old home, I jumped at it,” she said. “I knew this was going to be the time to do it.”
Smith’s story is common in this part of Belleville. People in their late 20s and early 30s are moving into houses that are three or four times as old as they are.
“The young couples, like I was 30 years ago,” said Dave Braswell, 72. “They seem to be the nucleus for energizing the community and the neighborhood.”
There is ample supply of these homes in the area. About 25% of homes in Belleville were built more than 80 years ago, according to data from the US Census. Houses in the census tracts that are closest to Belleville’s downtown tend to be older; 70% of the homes in one tract southeast of the city’s main circle were built before 1939.
“A lot of the homes that we have in the area are from the 1800s and early 1900s,” said Jason Buss, a local RE/MAX Realtor. “You’ll see on tax records that many of them say 1900, but they were actually built in 1840, '50, '60.”
Some houses in the area don’t have exact records of when they were built, and the county chose 1900 as a placeholder, Buss said.
Buss boils down the draw of these homes to three reasons: money, home quality and proximity to Belleville’s downtown shops and restaurants.
“You can find a lot of home for a little bit of money,” Buss said. “It really is different from a new home, the quality of how they were built, the workmanship that went into it.”
Depending on the house’s size and condition, it could cost as little as $20,000 or up above $100,000, Buss said. They had been even cheaper a few years ago.
“The foreclosures were making it possible for people to buy homes as low as $18,000,” Braswell said. He is a Belleville native who has restored eight old homes in the city and three houses in the village of Maeystown. He took on his first project in 1977.
Residents who live in registered historic homes can also save money on their property taxes. The state of Illinois will freeze the property tax of a historic home for eight years if the owner invests 25% of the home’s assessed value into restoration or rehabilitation. The assessment is taken the year rehabilitation starts and after eight years, the property tax will rise to the level it should be over four years. The tax freeze is also transferable to a new owner if the home is sold before the freeze expires.
However inexpensive they are, these homes come with work and aren’t for everyone, Braswell said. He explained people with DIY skills do better with these houses.
“That’s people who can do carpentry work, people who can work in the yard, people who can do painting,” he said. “These types of skills do really help.”
Some of the local historic homes need large-scale restorations or rehabilitations. That was the allure for Paula Haniszewski and her husband Tom, who live in a 5,000-square-foot home on South Charles Street.
“We walked by this house for two years, at least once a week,” Paula Haniszewski, 34, said. “We could see all of these original details that were just waiting to be addressed.”
They purchased the home for $170,000 in 2017 and have spent that time working to restore it to its former glory. The amount of work the house needed actually attracted them to it.
“We didn’t buy this house to just sort of hang out and relax in,” Haniszewski said. “We bought it to do what we’re doing.”
The yard surrounding the home was overgrown, with vines climbing up nearly 30 feet on the entire north side of the house. On the inside, the Haniszewskis had to sort and discard copious amounts of items the previous owners left behind. They also removed thousands of square feet of carpet, wallpaper and wood.
“It was a huge project — that’s putting it lightly,” she said. “All we saw was potential.”
They’ve documented the project on Instagram and still have more work to do. The second floor still needs to be finished.
Historic homes that are basically move-in ready, like the Smiths', still require work and attention. She and her husband paid $195,000 for their home, but the previous owners put a lot of work into restoring it, she said. The home sold for $74,900 five years before the Smiths bought it.
“It’s one thing to dream about living in an old home and fixing it up and another to be in one and doing it,” Smith said. “Things are way more expensive than you can ever imagine, and projects take twice as long as you plan.”
Her home’s first two floors are mainly complete except for a few projects, like refinishing the main stairs.
“We’ve just come in and done finishing projects,” she said. “Little things to polish the first two floors.”
Their third floor is unfinished and is the main project Smith’s family is focusing on.
A home’s history
The history associated with these homes is another reason some people gravitate toward them.
“When you buy one and you live in one, it’s more than a house because you have to address that someone lived in it before you,” Haniszewski said. The home’s past starts to come alive, she explained.
“My favorite part is researching the people who used to be here and uncovering those stories,” Smith said. “At my core, I’m definitely a historian.”
Since moving in, she’s explored the house’s past owners and discovered her home has a connection to the Hindenburg crash. A daughter of the home’s original owner was one of the people who died in the 1937 zeppelin accident.
“It’s been fascinating to uncover these stories as we go,” she said.
But Smith expressed reservations about telling some house guests all of the stories. Another previous occupant of her house jumped from a room on the third floor that Smith plans to make into a guest bedroom.
Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid.
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