In an effort to promote its historic housing stock, the village of River Forest has recently started producing short videos highlighting homes that have won historic preservation awards. 

Assistant to the Village Administrator Jonathan Pape says the videos serve two purposes: promotion of preservation and education of the public. 

“This project is a way to highlight an award-winning home,” Pape said. “The best way to achieve preservation is to award and recognize homes that have been cared for.”

He also notes that the videos provide great examples for the community of locals who have pride in their River Forest properties.

Noting some recent demolitions of historic properties within the village, Pape says that when maintenance is deferred too long on an older home, the house can reach a point where a purchaser thinks it is easier to tear a house down than rehabilitate it. 

“The Historic Preservation Commission has had conversations about how to approach this from the larger scale,” Pape said. “They are trying to be proactive in preservation.”

One of those videos is on the Victorian-era home of David Burns (www.vrf.us/news/item/147).

“David’s home is incredible,” Pape said. “A lot of people drive by it and wonder what the inside is like.”

He points out that the video does more than allow curious residents to peek inside a neighboring home. It also illustrates how rewarding it can be to rehabilitate and live in a home that has seen more than 100 years of history.

For Burns and his wife, Marihelen, their Queen Anne-style Victorian was both a wonderful place to raise a family and a decades-long labor of love. Over their almost 40 years in the home, they completely updated the interior and exterior. 

From mechanicals such as plumbing and electric to the plaster walls and original windows, they updated the house from attic to basement. Along the way, they took pains to make the older home fit the idealized vision many current buyers have for their houses.

They added a chef’s kitchen, gutted and remodeled all of the bathrooms and added a spacious master bathroom to form a true master suite. They moved the laundry to the second floor of the house, finished the attic as living space and created a bespoke family room and pub in their basement. 

When their old garage needed replacing, they petitioned the village to create a two-story garage that was in keeping with the style of their home.

When the couple decided the time was right to downsize, they went into the process of selling their home well-prepared, but as the process dragged on without a quick sale, David developed a theory that even in a village of many historic homes, selling a unique historic home is not easy.

He says that for realtors, there was little difference between historic and newer homes, as most relied on the MLS (Multiple Listing Service) for the vast majority of marketing. 

Burns suspects that there is a better way to market an older home and help younger buyers who may be unfamiliar with historic homes see the value of buying historic. He thinks the village’s series of videos is a step in the right direction and wonders what proactive real estate agents can do along the same lines.

Beth Franken, real estate agent with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices in Oak Park, flipped a historic home in Oak Park and now works with prospective buyers. She notes that there can be a bit of education when working with clients who are moving from apartments or newly constructed condos in the city.

“I have to remind buyers all the time not to be taken in by the superficial, but we are all fooled by surfaces,” Franken said. “Home buying is like speed-dating, which is probably not the greatest way to find a good-fit, long-term relationship.”

Some buyers, said Franken, appreciate older homes, but others are turned off by the idea. The key is getting those buyers to understand those homes have stories to tell, that they’re solid and usually well-built.

 “If you want a home that’s brand new, we’ve got those here, too, but even new houses have issues — some would say they have even more problems — you know, ‘they don’t make ’em like they used to,'” Franken said. “Sometimes I think the hardest homes to sell are the townhomes or condos that are 20 years old and don’t have novelty and freshness anymore, but also don’t have the cachet of history.”

After viewing the Burns’ house, some realtors advised the couple to paint their home’s pink exterior or offer a painting allowance to a prospective buyer. David recalls being told about color palettes, “It has to be grey.” He says realtors also found fault with the kitchen. 

“We tried to retain some Victoriana for the kitchen with tin ceilings and maple cabinets, but we were told that we should paint the kitchen cabinets white,” Burns said. “We have the modern conveniences, but we were told buyers don’t want our six-burner stove, they need an eight-burner stove.”

Franken, who was not involved with marketing the Burns home, says advising clients to make changes in order to appeal to the greatest number of buyers can be tricky.

“People feel the same way about their homes as they do about their children,” she said. “They are blinded by love, and they aren’t prepared to hear anything negative or any suggestion that there’s something amiss with their taste. It’s especially difficult when a home has ‘authentic’ colors that just aren’t on trend anymore.”

Franken said that when you market a home, “you have to de-personalize it, so buyers can picture themselves in it.”

The Burnses are planning to re-list their house for-sale-by-owner, and David has identified four specialized websites dedicated to period houses, which he thinks might be the key to finding a buyer who will love the Queen Anne-style house as he and his wife have. 

“How do you get people to understand that a 100-year-old home can be as good, or better than, new?” asked Burns. “I hear that no one wants to buy a work of art. Yes, they do, but you have to find them. Yes, a significant house is different, but it’s something the owner can be very proud of, and it’s a fascinating home to live in.”

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