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Fix it up or tear it down? Some people preserve old homes, while others want something new

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 12 2013 6:30 a.m. MST

Bob Yapp, left, teaches a window restoration class in 2008. (Provided by Bob Yapp) Bob Yapp, left, teaches a window restoration class in 2008. (Provided by Bob Yapp)

HANNIBAL, Mo. — Bob Yapp walks through a house in Hannibal, Mo., in 2008 that was owned by a slumlord. Everybody in the neighborhood wants the abandoned home torn down. Plaster has fallen down. Pigeons are flapping around inside, leaving droppings and fluffy down feathers here and there.

There is no plumbing left. The copper pipes have been purloined. The roof is half caved in.

"And I'm just like a kid in a candy store," Yapp says.

Yapp loves older homes. He loves their history. He loves their craftsmanship. He especially loves surprising people with the facts about older homes — how they are built with precious materials like old growth lumber that are no longer available. He also says fixing up an older home is one of the most green and sustainable things a person could do — especially if people do it right and get good advice from "preservation consultants."

As cities look to shore up declining central neighborhoods and as individuals look for homes in a slowly recovering real estate market, buying and fixing up older and historic homes can make policy, economic and even environmental sense.

But not everybody sees the treasure. Some see money pits.

Sustainability

Yapp, 56, has spent almost four decades helping to rehabilitate older homes. His philosophy is obvious in the names of his Hannibal-based company, Preservation Resources, Inc., and in his school, The Belvedere School for Hands-On Preservation. For him, rehabilitating an older home to an energy-efficient home is about preserving as much as possible — not replacing everything.

Yapp bristles at the rip-it-all-out mentality on some television renovation programs such as PBS's "This Old House" or various fix-em-up-quick shows on HGTV. They are either wasting money by throwing out historic materials or doing work that isn't sustainable, he says.

"Sustainable means doing good work that lasts," Yapp says.

Yapp remembers seeing a house in England that was built in the 1500s. Instead of being gutted and refurbished with new materials, the home still has its original 500-year-old windows and stone roof. It had a few essentials added along the way, such as indoor plumbing and electricity, but everything else had been maintained.

"That's an ethic that we really need to get our arms around in this county," he says.

Yapp was 5 years old in the early 1960s when he first received that ethic from his father — a corporate executive and a weekend old house warrior. One day, as Yapp was helping work on their beautiful 1910 arts and crafts style home in Des Moines, Iowa, his father told him they didn't really "own" the house. He explained that although they were purchasing the house, they had a stewardship responsibility to take good care of it, not for just themselves, but for the future.

"When we do work on this house it is really important that we do good work because the next family that lives here should have the opportunity to enjoy this house as much as we have," he told his son. "If we do shoddy work and we don't do work that lasts then we would not be a principled family and we need to think about that."

Yapp says that lesson stuck with him his whole life.

The way people think about old homes and central city neighborhoods has a lot to do with society's ethics, he says. Americans want everything new and ignore what they already have.

So Yapp can walk into a trashed home and decide in about 15 minutes whether it can be saved. In his imagination, he can see the possibilities and the steps to turn it back into a livable, energy-efficient home with modern amenities.

Tear it down

Mike Arman, 66, a former mortgage broker for 20 years, is a self-described "serial property owner" in Oak Hill, Fla. He has little patience with older homes.

"Tear it down! Tear it down!" he says. "If it is 40 to 50 years old, tear it down. I know that sounds terribly heartless and not politically correct."

Arman can list the reasons to stay away from older homes faster than a Harley on a highway. Older homes haves no insulation, no air conditioning, bad wiring and bad windows, he says. They always need a new roof, new water heaters and new lighting fixtures. They feature rot, termites and mold. They smell bad.

And he's just getting started.

Arman lived in a home in the Daytona Beach area built in 1946. He moved there in 1972 and lived in the home for 38 years. He has owned homes built at various times from 1929 to 1960.

In 2009, he built a new home from scratch — including a steel frame to ward off termites, a steel roof with a 50-year guarantee, inorganic wallboard that won't rot or mildew and double-pane windows to save on electricity costs. "The works," Arman says with obvious pride.

He says people fall in love with an older home and say "O, what a gorgeous house!" But this is a recipe for disaster because "emotion makes your decision," Arman says, "not your calculator."

Going with the heart

On the other side of the country, in Sacramento, Calif., Frank Casanova, 65, fell in love with a 1937 home near downtown.

"I'm going with my heart," he says. "I'm going with my emotion when I am feathering my nest, within reason."

For Casanova, owner of The Studio Center, a video and media studio in Sacramento, the main appeal was the location — near all the entertainment and cultural attractions downtown. It was a walkable neighborhood.

The house, however, was a neglected derelict.

"More squirrels were living in the attic than people ever lived in the house," he says. "My greatest fear is they will come back someday for a family reunion."

Like Arman's parade of horribles, the home had no air conditioning. The walls were full of squirrel nests and squirrel feces. The roof needed to be repaired. The wiring and plumbing all had to be redone.

So the Casanovas bought it for $170,000 as is and put $30,000 into fixing it up it.

That was January 2001.

"We built a brand-new home in a shell of a 1937 house," Casanova says.

He also proudly replaced all the old windows with new vinyl ones.

That last point is the sort of news that sticks in Yapp's craw. He says there are 32 million window sashes that end up in the dump every year.

"Perfectly usable windows that were sometimes used for 100-plus years," he says, "that with a very little weather stripping and a small amount of labor you could make that window energy efficient and usable for another 100 years."

He is helping to write a book about windows that he hopes will help people realize newer "environmentally friendly" vinyl windows won't last as long and are not as efficient as people think.

Embodied energy

To Yapp, nothing is greener and more sustainable than rehabilitating older property.

"The least environmentally sound thing you can do is build something new," he says, "because of embodied energy."

What Yapp means by "embodied energy" is all the energy of the laborers, woodcarvers, woodworkers, masons — all of the human energy that went into building the home. To this he adds the energy expended to make the building products, such as the coal burned to heat the kilns that made the bricks or run the steam engines that made the woodwork.

"All that energy has already been spent," he says. "The energy required to rehab a house is going to be far less than the amount of energy necessary to build a new house. No matter how hard you try to be environmentally sound to build something new, it will never, never be as environmentally sound as recycling an old property."

The idea of keeping things in a home is what keeps the price of rehabilitating the home down.

Yapp is working on his 163rd restoration project — an 1859 Italianate home on the Mississippi River in Hannibal, Mo.

"The big lie is somehow historic preservation is expensive," Yapp says. "It is simply not true. The whole concept behind historic preservation is to do no harm. It is to go in and maintain as much of the old material as you can while updating things for the way we live today."

What this means for Yapp's current 1859 project is the old room that was originally designed to be the maid's quarters becomes something else — like a walk-in closet or a master bathroom suite. But even with changes like these, Yapp says it still costs far less per square foot than new construction. This applies to whether the older home was built in 1850 or 1950.

The key to figuring out if working on an older home is worth it, Yapp says, is to compare a similar quality old home to a similar quality new home. You don't compare a high-quality older home to a cheaply made new home, he says.

If people compare quality to quality, Yapp says it could cost as much as double to make a equal-quality new home.

Yapp says he understands that even if people are attracted to an older home and its beauty and depth of craftsmanship, they are often afraid. There might be surprises. There might be squirrels in the walls.

Preservation consultation

Yapp says what people need to do if they are buying an older home is not to first hire a home inspector, but instead a preservation construction consultant. Good consultants are familiar with the challenges of older homes and know what problems to look for. They can provide an existing conditions report, energy efficiency testing and so forth. They also can help plan out what needs to be done to modernize a home's systems and can write all the specifications and estimated costs of rehabilitating a home. They could also design additions.

He says a consultant can cost between $250 for a basic consultation up to $500 or even thousands depending on how much extra architectural design work a client wants them to do.

What Yapp also likes about consultants is they are independent third parties. They won't, for example, recommend pulling out older windows to replace them with newer shorter-life windows in order to make a bigger profit.

In being independent, the preservation construction consultants are a lot like home inspectors — except home inspectors are looking for different things. Yapp says people can make offers for homes dependent not just on what a home inspector says, but on what the preservation construction consultant discovers — a sort of in-case-of-squirrels provision.

Relying on a contractor to decide what needs to be done is dangerous because they may not be experts in historic preservation and they may have a tendency to recommend things that make them more money, Yapp says.

"I believe in free markets," he says, "but people need to quit being sheep. Just because it is shiny and new doesn't mean it is better."

Casanova loves his home in Sacramento, particularly since it was recently appraised (after adding a new master bedroom and new garage) at $430,000.

For Yapp, however, it is about more than the bottom line. It's about stewardship not just for the home, but for society and the environment.

"Preservation doesn't cost, it pays," Yapp says. "It recycles existing houses. It creates more jobs. It is one of the greatest economic development engines in America today."

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