Economic Development

Sweat, No Equity

Some states offer the chance to live in a run-down historic house for free in exchange for fixing it up.
by | October 2007

To anyone familiar with the granite-topped rhetoric of real estate ads, the brutal honesty behind the state of Delaware's home listing might seem a bit jarring. "The Lums Mill House is currently in a deteriorated condition and lacking in modern conveniences, including heating and air conditioning, kitchen and bathrooms," the ad reads. The roof needs replacing, it goes on to say. So does the plumbing, electric wiring and most of the plaster. Then there's the water damage, which "has caused the first floor ceiling to collapse in places."

An unusual pitch, to be sure. But then again, the Lums Mill House, built in 1730, is an unusual property: It's located on the grounds of a state park. And Delaware isn't looking for just any home buyers or renters. Instead, the state hopes to offer a lifetime lease on the house to a "resident curator." That is, a person willing to live in the house free in exchange for fixing it up.

Resident curatorship is a new twist to an odd dilemma. Like most states, Delaware is the accidental owner of many historic homes and structures located on land acquired for use as state parks, forests, nature reserves or open space. Yet scratching capital funds out of a parks budget for the purpose of restoring houses can be tough.

Luckily, it turns out there are history buffs with handyman skills, spare change, and sometimes both, who will volunteer to do the job themselves. Maryland was the first state to try out the idea, 25 years ago. Since then, resident curators have sunk more than $8 million worth of their own money and labor into fixing up some 50 buildings on state lands there. Massachusetts has leased nine homes to resident curators. Vermont put three homes out for lease last year and is now negotiating a lease on one of them.

Delaware launched its resident curator program in 2004. So far, Cara Lee Blume, manager of historic preservation for Delaware State Parks, has matched one family with a brick tavern from the 1820s. She has two more listings on the market, so to speak, including the deteriorated Lums Mill House. She expects it will cost a resident curator at least $450,000 to make the house livable. "It's important we get someone to take an interest who understands what they're getting into," Blume says.

All of the resident-curator programs play by more or less the same rules. Anyone interested in a property must submit detailed five-year plans for how they will restore it. Typically, they must agree to spend a minimum amount--$100,000 in Delaware's case--and submit to routine state inspections. Resident curators must also open their homes to the public several times a year. There's a lot of red tape involved, but in this case that may be a good thing. The states want serious bidders who know what they're doing, not scavengers searching for an easy place to squat.

On the other side of the bargain, resident curators have one of the most unique living arrangements anywhere. They get long-term leases that last for 20 or 30 years and sometimes for their whole lifetimes. They don't pay rent, a mortgage or property taxes. So unlike homeowners, they're not building equity or wealth they can pass on to their heirs. Instead, resident curators are inclined to view the piece of history they're saving as their bequest to the public at large. And in the meantime, they get the thrill of living in an old house surrounded by green acres that will never be developed because the land is owned by the state.

To Agnes Bartlett, that's a fair trade. She and her husband Larry became Maryland's first resident curators back in 1982. Agnes always wanted to live in an 18th-century house. When the Bartletts stumbled across a dilapidated stone farmhouse in Gunpowder State Park outside of Baltimore, they contacted the state about it and eventually hammered out a lifetime lease.

It took three years for the Bartletts to make the house, built in 1770, livable. They sold their own home and pumped the profits into restoration work. "I just couldn't see letting this house continue to deteriorate without someone doing something about it," Agnes says "It's a good deal for someone who is interested in historic preservation and wants a place they can be proud of."

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