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Rehabbing older houses: extra value in money, charm, and history.

When John Bird was switched by American Motors Corporation to the Boston area in 1982, he bought a 12-room, 3-bath, 86-year-old Victorian house some 30 miles out of the city. Situated near what used to be an old mill in the town of Bellingham, the stately white-clapboard house at one time belonged to the mill owner.

To the Bird family it was just what they wanted. They are obviously not alone.

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The popularity of buying and rehabbing older houses is on a sharp rise, in part because of the state of the economy, a resurgence of the decorative arts, and a need felt by some people to maintain a link with the past.

Of all the reasons, perhaps the main one is cost. You can often buy a magnificent older-type home, fix it up, and still save money over a newer house.

Even when the cost of rehabilitation is included, the total price of an older home may be much less than new construction. Often the materials are much better than those found in a new house, and you'll probably end up with a lot more space.

True, an older house can be drafty and may require a significant outlay of money to tighten up the windows and insulate the walls, but the building is generally sturdy and designed to last a long time. The design may also be aimed at capitalizing on natural sources of heat, light, and air.

Built before the days of central heat and air, older homes were designed to allow for good ventilation through numerous windows, high ceilings, and transoms. Wide overhangs shielded windows from the summer sun while letting in the winter sun. Many were fitted with workable shutters and awnings, which also helped keep out the summer sun and hold in the warmth in winter.

Many houses had a porch that often extended along two or more sides - a comfortable spot to rock away the hours and watch the world pass by. The porch increased the structure's energy efficiency, as it shielded the house from the elements and at the same time enabled the occupants to catch both the morning and afternoon sun.

There are aesthetic and emotional reasons, too, for preferring an older house. The purchase of an older house creates a visible link with the past, a past often overlooked with today's fast-paced life. Aesthetically, older and more ornate houses offer a marked contrast with the less-decorative styles of today.

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The characteristics that residents often love most are the abundance of differing spaces, porches and sun-rooms, fireplaces, and decorative features. I know one old home with chandeliers that were half gas and half electric. Apparently the builder didn't trust the newfangled electric system when the house was built.

An old house may often have rooms with high ceilings, which create a sense of spaciousness and elegance, yet also include small, intimate alcoves that exude a feeling of warmth and privacy. Bay windows, turrets, and towers also provide unusual, intriguing spaces.

Buyers appreciate the solid construction, good craftsmanship, and quality of materials as well. Plaster walls, hardwood floors, and decorative elements on the interior and exterior create a special character sometimes missing in modern construction.

New owners of old houses find that getting to know their house and its history can be a lot of fun. Research often turns up interesting stories that make ownership even more rewarding.

By upgrading your purchase, you are also helping to revitalize your neighborhood. The result: Your own house goes up in value.

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