Jan 31, 2011

The Mid Century 'Black Spot'

This is a cautionary tale. And one of many for those who own 'not quite' heritage homes.

A few months ago we decided to do some re-jigging of our mortgage which required an assessment by a qualified appraiser.

Hubs and I were worried. We are not in a typical situation by any means. Prairie house is neither new, nor is it on a local heritage inventory. It's in house purgatory, so to speak - not quite old enough to be heritage but far enough away from new - considered dated, redundant, inefficient.

Preservationist forefather, John Ruskin referred to this period of time the 'black spot of fashion'* This alludes to a period of time when a particular style or historic house is at its most vulnerable for demolition. Ironically, the black spot occurs just before they become highly valued to a society. Victorian houses for example displayed their black spot during the '60s and '70s, much the same as some mid century modern and Brutalism styles (and even early pomo) are under fire lately.

Brutalism (if concrete wore a tux): Calgary Board of Education building. 1969 (Stevenson Raines Barrett Hutton Seton) Photo by Entheos_fog (Flickr)

What makes the situation more difficult is that we're not upgrading the house to what what the federal government deems 'energy efficient'. You know where I'm going with this (I know, I'm a total preachy pants) - Energy Star vinyl windows, new doors and walls - ugh. For us to get what we needed for this refinancing, the appraiser had to understand the idea of restoration and of retention and maintenance over replacement. So yes, we had a reason to be worried.

So I cleaned the house, H to T (head to toe for you non America's Next Top Model viewers - everyone has their vices) and sent the kids to the park with hubs. The appraiser was at our place for almost 2 hours and I explained to him in detail (read: followed him around with a book of my before pictures) what we had upgraded for energy efficiency and why we were keeping as much as we could.

He was great in the end. In the business for 30 years and really understood why houses such as the Prairie House are still in excellent condition 55 years later, and why some built as late as the 1990s are rotting and falling apart**. He was also a realist and knows the Calgary market well. He warned me that despite being responsible stewards for this house, by keeping certain elements we were impacting the assessment value of the house. According to the appraiser, the wood panelling in the living room, for example, is actually detracting from the value of the house and would be better served to be replaced by gypsum wall board. (REALLY????)

Taken just after we moved in. The original Royal LePage curtains still on the wall - they were in tatters. See you never. Hubs was ecstatic that I'm not that much of a purist.

And the laminate counter that we selected for the kitchen to replace the original laminate gone bad was also causing us to lose some notches. And the windows (saw that one coming) and the pink fixtures and the oak floors (??) and the original plaster walls. And on and on and on.

When the assessment quote came back to us a couple of days later, we heaved a sigh of relief that after all of that, he did get it.

But as we soon found out, the appraiser was only the first blockade. The bank took one look at our assessment and we were denied based on it being too high for a house of that age with all of its original parts. They decided to send their own appraiser, a woman this time, who lived in a new house in Airdrie. Perfect. She didn't understand what we were doing at. all. Came back to us with an assessment $100,000 LESS than the first assessment. We were floored. And denied for a second time.

We had to bring in a third assessor who I was sure to follow around with my before and after pictures much like the first one. And he came back with a number close to our first assessor and we were able to get the help we needed to finish off our restorations.

I found this process emotional and frustrating but I am proud of us for persevering. Frustrating because we are penalized in our society for trying to preserve the black spots of our future heritage and saddened by this level of 'quality materials' that our society values as a whole (vinyl over wood, white fixtures over coloured ones, laminate floors over wooden).

The moral of this tale is to always keep your home's best interest and long term preservation goals in the forefront. Money for a restoration will eventually come and the value inherent in the elements you are fighting so hard to retain will eventually pay off. And most importantly, always always ask for a third opinion.


* See Aaron Lubek's excellent new book Sustainable Building and Historic Homes: Green Restorations (2010).

** The quality of building materials has a lot to do with this. A house built 100 years ago with first or second growth timber, even if shoddily built, has a good chance of making it to their 100th birthday merely on material quality.


Pam Kueber said...

A very good post.

Laura said...

Thank you Pam...

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