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Conversations in Preservation: Restoration Math 101

August 20, 2013

I didn’t do all that well when I took Algebra I.  I tripped over “variables” … big time.  Look, I was accustomed to constants, like numbers.  You either added, subtracted, multiplied or divided numbers, right?  Not any more because with Algebra there was a twist … variables!  Instead of friendly numbers, equations now started showing up with “x’s” and “y’s” as well as (a+b) = (c-d)!   Boy Howdy, we now have the alphabet co-mingling with numbers.  What is going on here?  This was Voodoo math!  I made it through Algebra, but I struggled.  More importantly though, I learned a lot about variables and it has served me well. [Ironically, after college, I ended up teaching Algebra I.  And at the risk of being boastful, I did quite well.  My supervisor once asked me why my students scored so well.  I remember telling him that I made sure they knew what a variable was and how it could change on a dime - move the goal post.  Once you understood variables and their function in an equation, things got a lot easier.]

 
The same can be said about restoration work.  If you don’t understand the variables in restoration, you too may acquire that “deer in the head lights look”.  One of the first things anyone buying or living in an old house better learn is just who you let work on the house.  Experience means a lot and in my opinion, is the most important variable you need to learn.  It can also come in different forms.  Allow me to explain.

 
Let’s say you need work on those old windows that last opened when Tennessee Ernie Ford sang “Sixteen Tons”, say about 1955.  Are you going to hire someone who’s experience level amounts to walking into a building supply house, walking out with a vinyl clad window set and slapping it into the hole he created with a Sawzall and a crowbar when he tore out your original 1907 double hung window?  I hope not.  I hope you would recognize the value of experience.  It may take a little longer but in the end, your restored original 1907 double hung window would look better than the vinyl clad peep hole that would be happier on the side of a double wide than your bungalow.  The takeaway point here is there is a world of difference between someone who has worked on new homes vs. older homes.  Ask questions, get referrals, call previous clients, do some legwork, get down in the trenches and do the due diligence.  Are you going to pay more money?  Probably, but put things in perspective.  You want someone who has experience working on, and familiar with, old house problems.  Not someone using your house as a test site to find out if they have a clue as to how to replace a termite damaged sill.

Another iteration of the experience variable is the DIY trap.  Whether you know it or not, there is a multi-billion dollar industry out there stroking your ego and taking advantage of your good intentions by telling you, “yes, Mr. Fixit, you can do it yourself”.   Well, I’ve seen the results of well-intentioned homeowners and it’s as rough as that road to hell that is paved with good intentions.  I saw this first hand recently:  A young, energetic homeowner called me to look at his bungalow in the Morningside area.  He had gone to a local big box, building supply store and had been told he could easily refurbish his ailing kitchen floor … all by himself.  He walked out with a rented buffer, synthetic pads, some sort of chemical stripping product and enough advice from the sales clerk to screw up his floors – which he promptly did.  He also got the stripping product on his baseboard and started peeling off paint.  When I asked him what the salesperson recommended he use to clean the product off the floor and baseboard, it was like I had hit the “pause” button.  He just stared at me and finally said, “uh, we didn’t get that far”.  His pregnant wife put on one of the best eye rolling exhibitions I have seen in some time, accompanied by a very patient smile.  The story has a happy ending; their kitchen looks fine now and “young mama is happy”.

 
I am all for a homeowner using his/her time, skills and money to maintain their home.  But when repairs need to be made, take a step back and ask yourself if you are honestly capable of doing this.  We know your heart is in the right place but it’s your hand/eye coordination and common sense I’m worried about.  I probably have close to fifty years experience around building trades.  Do I repair the plumbing in my house?  No.  Will I repair plaster?  No.  How about electrical repairs?  Since I don’t want to see my house burn to the ground, I don’t touch that either.  Why don’t we just put it in a different context?  Would you go up in an airplane if the last person who performed repairs didn’t even read (or have) the instruction book?  I think I’ve made my point.

My final variation on this theme involves compensation.  A lot of homeowners use the cost of new construction as a metric for what to pay someone for restoration services.  Big mistake.  To me, new construction is almost like “plug and play”.  Take the stuff out of the box, plug it in and that’s pretty much it.  When you are working on a 100+ year old house, the equation is many times more complicated.  This is where restoration enters into what I call the “sixth sense stage”.  Face it folks, there are times when a set of eyes that have been looking at old houses (thousands) for decades will see things your eyes will never pick up.  And if those eyes belong to a person who has a decent business, they won’t be the lowest estimate you get for the work.  Are they taking advantage of you?  Well here’s a simple test: did they drive up in a Mercedes, Lexus or slick BMW?  I doubt it.  Did they pop out of one of those tricked up, franchise trucks and show you the remote control that opens/closes the van doors and windows from across the street?  Probably not.  When my dad got out of the wood floor business in 1989, he was still driving his 1965 Chevy Sportvan – that had replaced his 1950 panel Chevy truck.  Aside from being a Chevy fan, he pointed out that most skilled workers he had met acquired experience, not money.  If you’re hell bent on joining a country club, stay out of restoration.

Variables in Restoration Math 101 aren’t nearly as hard as Algebra I, but they do come in different shades.  Part of the allure of buying and restoring older homes is learning those different shades.  My house only dates to 1920 but when I see work coming up, I follow the same guidelines as if I had never touched a hammer.  I know there is a wealth of information out there but if it’s coming from someone who’s skills are in writing or selling and not actually doing the work, I’m going to listen to the experienced voice – even if their sentences aren’t complete and low on multi-syllable words.
I am also going to exercise patience.  Restoration work marches to a very different beat.  In many cases, a good portion of restoration work is the reversal of well-intentioned but poorly executed work from the past.  And unlike new construction, you don’t get to set the parameters of the work.  You have to work with what has been there (possibly decaying?) for decades … or centuries.  Patience has always been a tough virtue to acquire but if you want happiness and peace of mind, it’s worth looking into.  It is time and effort well spent.  I wish you the best on your restoration adventure.

Michael Purser is owner of the Rosebud Co. here in Atlanta and specializes in wood floor restoration.  To learn more about Rosebud Co., the services they offer and view their projects visit www.rosebudfloors.com.  You will also find information on care and maintenance of wood floors, videos and slide shows of their services and an informative blog, Wood Words, to follow.  And of course, Rosebud Floors is on Facebook!


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An Intown Insider’s Insights: Atlanta Neighborhood Preservation

July 22, 2013

I don’t know about you, but in our almost 40 years of living in intown Atlanta, I have been frequently disheartened by the city’s – and let’s face it, the metro area’s – dismal record of historic preservation.  In spite of the herculean efforts of the preservation community, we seem to lose as often as we win (which, now that I think about it, is certainly better than pre-1970s Atlanta when no one seems to have even known the word “preservation” existed.)  If the words “progress,” “development,” “opportunity,” “world-class,” or “investment” are attached to a project, the building or block or district is as good as gone.

 
However…drive a mile or so outside the city center, and you will be in a neighborhood.  If you keep going – in pretty much any direction – you will pass through multiple neighborhoods.  I’m sure Atlanta is not unique in having so many vibrant, active, vigilant and, well, pretty neighborhoods, but other cities don’t seem to talk about theirs as much as we do.  Maybe it’s because Atlanta’s downtown living has only just begun to be a realistic factor in our life-style choices, or maybe it’s because our geography allows residential development to occur in almost any direction, but our neighborhoods seem to have been in the forefront of keeping the character and sense of place alive in Atlanta.

I am most familiar with the east side of the city, both north and south.  I live in Inman Park, and our immediate neighbors, The Old Fourth Ward, Poncey Highlands, Candler Park, Cabbagetown, Edgewood and Reynoldstown feel like, well, maybe cousins.  Whereas, the folks who live in Inman Park with us are more like siblings, and the residents of farther-flung neighborhoods – Lake Claire, Druid Hills, Virginia Highland, Morningside, Midtown, Grant Park, Ormewood, East Atlanta, Kirkwood, East Lake, etc. –  are kind of like second cousins, once removed.  Analogy over-reach, but you get the idea:  we feel like family.

 

Our reaction when we meet someone else who “lives intown” (as we like to say,) is a sort of shared smugness.  We’re the lucky ones.  We somehow managed, intentionally or accidentally, to snag one of those premium spots with access all kinds of desirable things:  shops, restaurants, services, walking and biking paths, public transit, sidewalks and trees.  And, most valuable of all, neighbors.
But I have to admit that the original impetus for many of us who moved here early in the process was not neighborhood as much as it was the houses.  The old houses had substance.  They had history, and real architecture, and quirks, and nooks and crannies, and spaces with archaic names (Butler’s Pantry?  Music Room?  Parlour?) and a kind of glamour – in spite of grime, vermin & bugs, lack of paint, and having to endure the indignities of having been converted into boarding houses and cheap rentals.

 
So we bought the old houses, which just happened to be in old neighborhoods.  And in the process of restoring the houses, we seem to have also given those neighborhoods new life.  So much so, that now it isn’t so much the homes that attract new residents as where those homes are.   The preservation of Atlanta’s neighborhoods happened in the best way:  organically, market demand driven, house by house, block by block, meeting each challenge in its turn and working together to try to solve our problems.  (Contrast that with the wholesale urban renewal model, which is top-down-we-know-what’s-good-for-you:  knock ‘em all down and build stucco condos on what used to be a neighborhood.  I wonder what Buttermilk Bottom would have looked like now if it hadn’t been Great Society-ed.)

 
I guess my point is that while Atlanta has had preservation disappointments, we have also had the joy of watching the city’s neighborhoods thrive and flourish.  And yes, there have been architectural changes made in some of them that might not make the National Trust jump with joy, but that too is a part of the history of those particular communities, self-determined and market-judged.  But the important thing is the rehabilitation of each neighborhood, in its own way and at its own pace.  And what seems to be universal among them are the relationships built among the diverse ages, races, economic levels, backgrounds and occupations in all our neighborhoods which have not only preserved homes and communities, but also nourished a spirit of leadership, volunteerism and  cooperation in our population that should make us all proud.  And hopeful.

Written by Pat Westrick, who has 30 years of Atlanta real-estate experience and over 38 years of hands on preservation experience as a resident of Inman Park. 


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Decision Time: Historic Preservation Easements at the Crossroads

May 7, 2013

Written by guest blogger Angela Threadgill

Here in Atlanta, we’ve been serving up tax incentives through the use of historic preservation easements for 30 years.  Recognizing that a local preservation ordinance couldn’t cover all the bases, a successful alliance comprising of the city of Atlanta, Atlanta History Center and the Atlanta Preservation Center created Easements Atlanta, Inc., a non-profit organization whose mission is to accept donations of historic building façade easements.  Historic preservation easements are the most ironclad means of ensuring the protection of historic resources well into the future. Not even local historic preservation ordinances can match the level of protection afforded by preservation easements over the long term.

Realizing the strong potential for easements to help achieve the nation’s preservation goals and to help offset the significant costs related to maintaining the donation, the federal government has allowed tax incentives for qualified donations of historic preservation easements since 1976.  Without getting into the details of the tax code, the deduction allows for an owner to subtract from his or her income the amount of the value loss in the property along with some of the transaction costs associated with donating the easement. This decreases the owner’s income, and consequently the amount of tax paid, and may even place the owner in a lower tax bracket.  Thus far, owners of 40 Atlanta properties have benefited from the federal income tax deductions of their qualified donations to Easements Atlanta, Inc.

Another key aspect with preservation easements is their widespread applicability.  It’s been well documented that federal and state rehabilitation tax credits spur investments, generate jobs, increase household income, attract visitors and revitalize downtowns.  No knock on rehabilitation tax credits – they are lucrative tools – but what if a historic building doesn’t meet the substantial rehabilitation test?  What about owners who have maintained their historic properties through thick and thin?  These circumstances aren’t contenders for rehabilitation tax credits. Conversely, historic preservation easements are well suited to these situations, in addition to rehabilitation projects.  Despite their widespread applicability, historic preservation easements have been used to preserve relatively few properties compared to the total number that could be preserved using this tool.  For example, a cursory survey of the Buckhead area suggests there are over 1000 historic properties eligible for historic preservation easements, yet only three have participated in the program.

On a national level, the IRS began to scrutinize the easement donation program on valuations of donations, variety of appraisal content, and even whether a preservation easement tax deduction incentive was justified.  This sent a shockwave through the preservation community, but it acted to save the core purpose. A compromise with Congress was reached in 2006 that preserved the incentives but added reasonable reforms to the tax code to help prevent abuse.  Since then, recent Supreme Court and tax court cases have turned out favorable rulings in support of qualified donations of historic preservation easements.  The bottom line is if a property owner has the desire to preserve their historic property in perpetuity, has a qualified appraisal, and has a qualified donation to an organization with a commitment to uphold the preservation easement restrictions, donors should feel secure to participate in the preservation easement tax credit program without fear of intervention.  Unfortunately, the preservation community is still suffering shell shock after the trials and tribulations.

The preservation community now faces a decision: will they choose to return to the pre-reform days and tone down their advocacy for preservation easement tax incentives or will they bond together to be proactive in their advocacy for this tool in an effort to expand its use and strengthen it?

  • Angela Threadgill serves as the Executive Director for Easements Atlanta, Inc., a non-profit organization that accepts historic preservation easements in the metro-Atlanta area.  Previously, she served as staff to the Asheville-Buncombe County Historic Resources Commission, Atlanta Urban Design Commission, and San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission.  Angela never thought her adventure would begin from a simple historic preservation poster in her tenth grade drafting class.

To learn more about Easements Atlanta please visit http://easementsatlanta.org/


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Welcome to Conversations in Preservation!

In recognition of Preservation Month, the Atlanta Preservation Center is excited to begin a new series on the APC blog called Conversations in Preservation where guest bloggers from different backgrounds, areas of expertise and perspectives write a blog article that speaks to one of the many facets of preservation.  Our goal is to spark creative thought and constructive conversation by providing a place where preservation minded people can learn about projects, ideas, problems and concerns within Atlanta’s preservation community.

We encourage you to discuss these preservation issues with your friends and family and in your community.  Any way we can elevate the idea of preservation in the consciousness of those around us is a positive step towards making real and lasting change in the field.  Remember, “You can only care about what you know about.”  So help spread the word!

To become more involved with local preservation efforts please consider joining the Atlanta Preservation Center by selecting the Donate tab at the top of your screen and by attending our monthly Advocacy Committee meetings.  See more information at http://www.atlantapreservationcenter.com/advocacy_committee