June 13, 2017

How to Reclaim a Vacant House

Breathing Lights was a temporary public art installation, held in October and November of 2016, in which the interiors of vacant houses in Albany, Schenectady, and Troy, New York, were lit with lights that mimicked the rhythm of human breathing. Its purpose: to change people’s perceptions of vacant buildings and to bring attention to the need to revitalize these structures and their communities.

To help people in the communities see high vacancy as opportunity, cities that held the Breathing Lights exhibits also held building reclamation clinics. Open to the public, these one-day clinics took attendees through the steps from finding a vacant house, to financing a rehabilitation, and establishing end goals for the houses. Here, we’ve summarized their work into a step-by-step toolkit.

1. Consider what you would for a typical purchase.

Delve into the neighborhood culture; proximity to work, school, and shopping; and current and future size of your household. These may seem like common sense, but taking the time to really consider these can guide you in the right direction and give you confidence in your choice.

2. Know what will need to be done for a rehab purchase.

Vacant structures will more than likely have problems from neglect, such as leaky roofs and broken windows. Ask these questions: How much work will need to be done to make it habitable? How much cash will you need upfront? Can you live in the house while work is being done? What will the schedule for design, removals, approvals, and construction look like? Our Starter Kit series helps you think through these questions in detail.

3. Check out financial incentives.

Owning a historic house qualifies you for several financial incentives that could significantly reduce your financial burden. Consult your State Historic Preservation Office to determine whether you qualify for state or federal historic tax credits. Also look into grants your city offers for affordable housing, building rehabilitations and facade improvements.

4. There will be a lot of people involved in the reclamation process.

When considering purchasing a vacant property, there are a number of people who will be involved in the process of reclaiming a vacant building from start to finish. Your “team” could include architects, engineers, contractors, real estate agents, home inspectors, historic preservation organizations, attorneys, accountants, and estimators.

A row of vacant houses are lit up.

photo by: Breathing Lights

These three houses were part of the Breathing Lights exhibit.

5. Attend a class.

If this is the first property you’ve owned, or you want to reacquaint yourself with the financial or maintenance side, nonprofit housing organizations or housing development authorities offer classes in basic home ownership skills. Topics typically include an introductory course in budgeting, debt management, and savings. Maintenance training cover basic home repairs, such as hardware and tools, painting, weatherization, and energy efficiency.

If you’re considering renting the vacant house out, you will need to take part in a landlord training course. This may cost a small certification fee, but you will be able to hear from people in the business and learn about rental management practices.

6. Find a vacant property that fits your criteria.

Once you’ve answered these questions and completed your homework, search for the right property. Look for Land Bank signs, For Sale signs, foreclosure notices, or building permits. Use the internet to find MLS listings and scout real estate websites like Zillow. Get in your car and drive around neighborhoods. Also check out bank foreclosure lists, or visit your City Assessors Office as well as city or county auctions.

The Breathing Lights exhibit, along with public talks and clinics, allowed cities with high vacancies to begin conversations on how vacancy occurs and what the public can do about it. Though the installation is now over, the Breathing Lights team hopes that the dialogue on vacancy will continue and inspire others across the country to brainstorm creative solutions to preserve building stock and create thriving communities once more.

Special thanks to the Breathing Lights team, including Susan Holland (Historic Albany Foundation), Barb Nelson (TAP, Inc.), and Judie Gilmore (Breathing Lights) for their expertise.

Meghan White Headshot

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and a former assistant editor for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

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