For sale in Newton: A truce in the teardown wars
NEWTON — To some developers, the Greek Revival house for sale on Morton Street might have seemed like a prime candidate to tear down. Built in 1856, the house lacked all the amenities expected in a 21st-century home.
But Chad Maguire had other ideas.
The house was in good shape despite its age, and had a desirable location in Newton Centre. Moreover, to replace it with a modern home, Maguire could have faced a yearlong wait to begin work under the city’s demolition delay bylaw.
Instead, Maguire asked Newton’s Historical Commission for a waiver from the bylaw so he could move the house on its lot and make room for an expansion.
“I could get it approved in one month’s time frame . . . and move forward,” Maguire said. “In that particular case, it made a lot of sense to try to save the house.”
City officials have tried to curb the demolition of historic homes by imposing delays on knockdowns — partly to preserve some of Newton’s stately Victorian and Italianate homes, partly to stave off the rise of new homes filling out local neighborhoods.
But officials are cutting developers and property owners some slack under the delay rule by waiving it on projects that leave historic homes standing. They’re encouraging builders to upgrade the homes, and add on new garages, kitchens, bedrooms, and living spaces.
“It’s to preserve older homes in Newton, but also allow for their modernization so people can continue to live in them and appreciate them,” said Katy Hax Holmes, Newton’s senior planner. “It’s a win-win.”
A partial demolition of a historic home to make room for an addition falls under the city’s demolition delay, just like a knockdown does. But the Newton Historical Commission generally waives the delay if the new addition meets certain requirements, such as being in keeping with the design of the existing building, Holmes said.
Including Newton, there are 150 communities in Massachusetts with bylaws allowing local officials to delay demolition of historic properties, according to the Massachusetts secretary of state’s office.
Newton homes that are at least 50 years old come under review by the historical commission if a demolition permit is sought for the property. A review of city records show that in 58 expansion projects reviewed by the historical commission since 2012, all but a few were granted a waiver from the demolition bylaw.
“Adding onto a home that is some way distinguished is better than tearing it down,” said John Koot, a local resident who has supported the preservation of the city’s existing homes. “I don’t see any case in which that is not preferable.”
And those expansions of Newton’s historic homes can prove lucrative. On Homer Street in Newton Centre, an 1865 Victorian was sold in May 2012 for just over $1 million. The historical commission waived the demolition delay bylaw for an expansion project in a January 2013 decision, and a building permit was issued later that year.
By the time the property was sold again in May 2015, it went for $4 million, according to city sales data.
Even more modest homes can see a boost. A 1938 Colonial on
Fairway Drive in West Newton sold for $640,000 in July 2014, and the historical commission waived the city’s demolition delay bylaw that December. The city permitted the addition of a new great room, garage, two bedrooms, and remodeling of the existing home, and when the property sold again in April 2016, the Depression-era home went for more than $1.3 million.
The median price for a single-family home in Newton was $1.08 million in 2016, according to a city tax classification report released in November.
Whether a builder pursues a knockdown or expansion of a historic home, the project can be equally difficult, said Paul Yorkis, a former president of the Massachusetts Association of Realtors and owner of Patriot Real Estate in Medway.
If a teardown is postponed under a demolition delay bylaw, a builder’s money can be tied up for months or longer, and costs can rise, he said. On the other hand, renovating and expanding an older home can unearth unexpected headaches that can also drive up costs.
Pursuing an addition can become a “middle ground position,” he said. “If you can reach a middle ground between a private party and a public interest, it’s better for everybody,” Yorkis said.
In Newton, Maguire said he has built about 15 home projects since 2007, with an equal number of knockdowns and expansions. He’s in the midst of replacing a 1922 Dutch Colonial on Chase Street in Newton Centre with a two-family residence. Maguire paid more than $1.2 million for the property in October 2016.
“If you’re buying a teardown these days, from a builder’s perspective, you’re barely able to buy anything under $1 million,” Maguire said.
Among his recent projects, Maguire said he bought a nearby property on Herrick Road in September 2014 for $900,000; he knocked down the 19th-century house and replaced it with a two-family residence. He sold the properties in 2016 — one unit for about $1.7 million and the other for $1.6 million.
In the case of the Greek Revival home on Morton Street, Maguire took down the rear section and an old garage. He also relocated the house on the lot, making room for a new two-car garage with a master suite above it and a new open-concept rear addition that includes a kitchen and family room, with two upstairs bedrooms and a bathroom.
With the expansion, the living space has nearly doubled from 3,187 to 6,000 square feet, Maguire said.
And the house already has a buyer. Maguire, who acquired the property for more than $1.1 million a year ago, expects to close on a deal in August.
Because homes are so expensive in Newton, buyers have an eye on getting the most for their dollar. Larger homes, whether they are historic or new, meet those expectations.
“The bottom line is, though, you need to appeal to the masses,” Maguire said. “And the price tag has to equal the expectations of what you’re getting, which is typically size.”