In 2019, I rented a loft in Wheeling, West Virginia. I had just quit my job to work on restoring historic buildings.
Between working at the Wheeling National Heritage Area and being welcomed by the town’s tight-knit community, Wheeling quickly felt like home. But I wasn’t planning to buy a house until I saw the 3,075-square-foot McLain House during a walk through the East Wheeling Historic District.
I was immediately drawn to its location, an up-and-coming neighborhood full of beautiful architecture. Built in 1892, the house had tons of original detail and came with an enormous side lot.
It was perfect, except it wasn’t livable. There had been decades of water infiltration, which led to brick decay and structural issues. But I was ready for the challenge.
In May 2020, I purchased the property for $16,500 with the help of a personal loan. Then I secured a $100,000 construction loan and got straight to work.
My living expenses are $1,047 a month, which includes my mortgage payment, property taxes, homeowners insurance and utilities.
As an architectural historian, I help people figure out how to best preserve, restore and renovate historical properties. So this project was right up my alley.
From the summer of 2020 through the fall of 2021, the house was under construction. It needed everything: new windows, floors, walls — you name it. But we preserved as much as we could. Every repair left me with a sense that the house was healing itself and getting stronger.
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The masonry needed the most work. I hired a crew to repair the fine brickwork on the façade, but spent four months in a bucket truck on nights and weekends, repairing the rest of the house myself.
The pandemic meant that other historic restoration projects I was working on were paused or slowed down, so I had plenty of time to focus on my house. This helped me stick to my budget.
After the initial repairs, I had the house reappraised. To my delight, it was valued at $202,000. So I refinanced it and used an additional loan to renovate the kitchen.
I moved into the three-bedroom, one-and-a-half bathroom house around Thanksgiving in 2021, after 18 months of construction.
Upon entrance, you’re greeted by a grand stairway, complete with a fireplace tucked into the corner.
My friend Kellie made the stained glass transom above the front door.
In the back of the house, my kitchen is a combination of original and modern, with brand new built-in cabinets reminiscent of what was originally there.
Upstairs, the master bedroom, bathroom and laundry room are renovated to various states of completion. I use the guest bedroom as my workshop.
The third floor will be my next big project. I plan to create a bedroom, office and utility space.
There are so many wonderful things about this house. But what I love most is what it represents.
In a small community like East Wheeling, just a few houses can either bring a neighborhood value up or drag it down. I’m proud to be part of the solution, taking a once vacant, dilapidated building and bringing it back to life.
By purchasing this house for such a low price and investing in the improvements, I gained irreplaceable historic charm and a valuable asset, for about as much as I was paying in rent and utilities in my downtown loft.
Now I get to live in a community where I know my neighbors, I can walk to work, and my coffee shop knows my order. I truly believe you get out what you put into life, and by investing in a “cheap, old house,” I’ve become all the richer.
Betsy Sweeny is the Director of Heritage Programming at the Wheeling National Heritage Area. She holds degrees in art history, anthropology and historic preservation. Betsy started her career as an architectural historian in the museum setting. Her mission is to help people live a local, authentic lifestyle that honors our shared heritage and fosters healthy, equitable community development. Follow her on Instagram @betsysweeny.
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