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.
Finding quality masons with experience with historic brick that won’t cost a fortune wasn’t easy. I probably met with a dozen masons, getting quotes ranging from $20,000 to $65,000.Photo: Betsy Sweeny
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.
Renovating an abandoned 19th century house
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.
One of my favorite things about living in an old house is knowing that I am just a piece of the history of that place.Photo: Betsy Sweeny
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.
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.
According to historic documents provided by the Friends of Wheeling, the house was probably built for Thomas B. McLain around 1892. McLain was born in Warren, Ohio and came to Wheeling with his parents, John G. and Eliza Ellen Baird McLain, when he was 2 years old.Photo: Mickey Todiwala for CNBC Make It
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.
Living in the McLain House
These curtains were made by my mother, who carefully considered height, weight and the perfect pooling factor when she created them.Credit: Betsy Sweeny
I moved into the three-bedroom, one-and-a-half bathroom house around Thanksgiving in 2021, after 18 months of construction.
I instantly fell in love with the pocket doors in the entrance area. I’m very lucky that they still work and are in great condition.Mickey Todiwala for CNBC Make It
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.
My living room and dining room flow together, separated only by the original pocket doors that I keep open most of the time.Photo: Mickey Todiwala for CNBC Make It
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.
Though I was limited by the space in terms of what kind of cabinetry I could have, I can say now after living here that I have room for everything I need. I took an inventory of the way I use my kitchen and the products that I own, and worked from there.Photo: Betsy Sweeny
From the very beginning, I knew I wanted professional appliances. Despite being an only child, I have it in my head that at any time, I need to be prepared to cook a dinner for 20. Everything about these appliances is luxurious, and I couldn’t love them more. Credit: Betsy Sweeny
Upstairs, the master bedroom, bathroom and laundry room are renovated to various states of completion. I use the guest bedroom as my workshop.
By keeping the originally vintage bathtub, sink, mirror, panelling and floors, I was able to splurge on the shower and wallpaper.Photo: Mickey Todiwala for CNBC Make It
The third floor will be my next big project. I plan to create a bedroom, office and utility space.
What I love about living in a cheap, old house
There are so many wonderful things about this house. But what I love most is what it represents.
There was something so exciting and romantic about walking into this house for the first time. All I could see was history and potential.Photo: Betsy Sweeny
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.
These historic properties are so important, not just for the community that they’re situated in, but also for achieving affordable access to real estate. There’s a ripple effect that simply cannot be achieved in new construction.Photo: Mickey Todiwala for CNBC Make It
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.