A heavenly slice of history is the site of a family compound in Chester Springs.
With a pedigree dating back to the 1764 sawmill and the prestige of a National Register of Historic Places designation, Pine Creek Mills is a more welcoming and homey property than you might think for such a landmark. Having a picture-perfect waterfall view—complete with soothing soundtrack—helps set the scene on the eight acres that the extended Richmond family has called home for 20 years.
You may have passed the collection of buildings—four separate residences, three-level stone barn, stone wagon shed, two-car garage, plus a pond, stone dam, waterfall and pasture—that looks like a small settlement across the charming arched stone bridge and cobblestone entrance along Lower Pine Creek Road.
With its converted sawmill and gristmill set among the majestic oaks and sycamores, the property was featured on a Chester County Day Tour years ago. Now it attracts curious drivers who pull over to ask the owners about its history. If you’re a local, you may know it as Clement’s Mill, named after the owner from the 1920s.
Having lovingly restored this second historic property (the family previously renovated an 1800s stone home nearby), the Richmonds are ready for their next adventure. And they are leaving a meticulously maintained estate for someone who appreciates Chester County history.
A stone walkway to the main house (c. 1801) includes just one of the many millstones that dot the property. This fitting approach to a classic Chester County fieldstone farmhouse foreshadows the period wood details, wide-plank hardwood floors, deep windowsills and other charms of a well loved architectural style.
Yet little prepares you for the open space within. The overused phrase “the best of old and new” does not do justice to the transformation within—think dark wood and stone details in spacious, white-walled rooms.
Red oak beamed ceilings and massive timber mantels in the formal living and dining rooms mix with soaring vaulted ceilings in the single bedroom and large, light-filled modern kitchen (SubZero, Viking appliances). Period chandeliers combine with new skylights. An office and laundry room join the bedroom and en suite bath on the second floor.
Far enough away for ample privacy, the miller’s house (c.1890) features stucco and stone outside and an open floor plan inside. A large living and dining room, kitchen and studio/family room are on the main level, with a grand bedroom, bath, office and loft on the second floor. Special features include three skylights in the cathedral ceiling of the oversized master bedroom and a stone cold storage room with arched ceiling—perfect for a wine cellar and tasting room.
Next along the line of residences is the gristmill (c.1790). The mill’s works were sold to the Pennsylvania Museum Commission. This charming three-story stone building has been converted into two apartments—a two-bedroom unit on the main level and one-bedroom unit, with private entrance and wall-to-wall carpeting, above. A broad, covered porch is one of many spots on the property to take in the waterfall view.
The stone and cyress siding sawmill cottage (c. 1764) is the fourth and final residential building in the compound and nearest the mill pond and stone dam with waterfall, as well as the stream that powered the mill’s wheel. Many local homes and barns were built from timber cut here before the sawmill closed and the works were donated to the Smithsonian Institute.
Again an open floorplan with vaulted ceilings and skylights, accented by dark wood details, is nestled inside a quaint Colonial exterior to create a two-bedroom home. This structure was built on the stone foundation of the original sawmill.
At the opposite end of the property from the waterfall and sawmill sits a massive, three-level stone bank barn (c. 1824) with several frame additions. Once used as a movie theater (the prior owner also owned West Chester’s Warner Theater), the barn still has a projection booth.
As well-maintained as the other structures, the barn could easily become a party barn, studio or whatever the new owner’s imagination can conjure. The insulation and structural integrity are there, as well as a lower level with ample space for stabling. All that’s needed are new plans.
A stone wagon shed has ample space for a workshop or vehicle storage. And the stall at the rear was for many years home to the Richmond’s miniature pony, often spotted grazing in the pastures. A two-car garage (c. 1960) also houses the property’s generator, with separate breakers for each building.
As the National Register nomination aptly puts it: these venerable, solid and handsome structures that served their community for an extraordinarily long time are bounded by the beautiful and unspoiled Pine Run, shaded by huge sycamores and oaks, and “convey a serenity and sense of another era which is equaled by few other locations in the country.”
Pine Creek Mills, a turnkey 8-acre estate or family compound in Chester Springs and in the Downingtown East School District, is offered at $1,650,000. For more information about this historic property, contact Stewart Gross at the Holly Gross Group, 610-431-1100 (office), 970-306-9698 (cell); HollyGross.com.
Chadds Ford Architect John Milner Creates a Provencal Dream House on the Pickering Creek
It is the stuff of picture post cards, with fieldstone walls the color of autumn straw, baked clay tiles spiking the silhouette of its roofs, and a columned loggia with fountain and spy holes opening to an enclosed courtyard. There’s a warmth about this home—in Provence, they call it chaleur—but it’s no less appealing when this element takes shape along the Chester County countryside.
It didn’t happen by accident, says architect John Milner, the person the home’s owners commissioned to make their dream of a Provencal country home come true. “We wanted to evoke the feel of a French farm house with outbuildings and guest house, an agrarian compound that has evolved over time to accommodate large family gatherings,” says the architect.
Room for Large Families
As the lady of the house explains, the capacious farmhouse style suited her family’s needs and tastes. “Both my husband and I are from large families—he’s from a blended family of eight children and I’m one of five, with all of them within an hour of us.”
So the Chester County couple were used to large spaces. The home where she and her husband had raised their own three children was a 250-year-old converted stone bank barn along the Pickering Creek outside Phoenixville.
“Our living room was 25 feet by 50 feet with a 27-foot ceiling. Not only was it a wonderful place to raise a family, it allowed us the space to gather the large families together for numerous celebrations and holidays. It was not uncommon for our tables to be set for 40 to 50 people. We always swore that we would not move unless an amazing piece of land became available,” she says.
A Special Property
“Amazing” described the property that came onto the market in 2005. It was a 40-acre spread of land on an open, rolling hillside in the northwestern quadrant of Chester County, just a stone’s throw from Routes 202, 29 and 30. What made this property even more special was that all three of their children fondly remembered spending summer days playing in the Pickering Creek Valley.
After acquiring the property the couple began the process of interviewing architects, including Milner. What they had in mind, they told him, was a stone home, at least five bedrooms, with a European feel, like those they’d seen in southern France. There should be numerous outdoor gathering spots, arches, courtyards and intimate spaces.
Later she would think back on that first meeting with Milner and laugh. Had she been interviewing him? Or was it the other way around? The fact was, Milner wasn’t just a world-class architect whose works included some of this region’s most prestigious structures, he was also selective about the kinds of projects he undertook.
The Right Architect
On a recent evening Milner sits in his office—a place chock-a-block with remnants of farm implements and decorative pieces—and recalls the time a famed sports figure approached the architect to create a home for him.
What he wanted, said the celebrity athlete, was a house so spectacular people would drive 50 miles out of their way just to see it. With that in mind Milner drew up a list of ten other architects who’d be delighted to create such a home. It just wasn’t Milner’s style.
“There are lots of architects who’d be happy to design that kind of place. It’s a common mistake,” says Milner. “It’s like placing a house on top of a hill, to create a sense of grandeur. As Edgar Allen Poe said—grandeur for its own sake fatigues and depresses.”
It would be far more rewarding, he felt, to create a home with a bit of mystery to it. “The understanding of the house should evolve as you move from space to space. You don’t want to experience a place all at once; rather, it should gradually reveal itself, giving it a sense of discovery,” Milner says.
The first step in creating the Provence house was deciding how to situate it on the land. “There should be a reason for the placement of a house. People sometimes forget that the largest windows should face south for maximum sunlight, while the smallest should face north for protection from the wind,” he continues.
Decisions from the Ground Up
While Milner was occupied with blueprints for the house, his clients were busy with other details. Having lived in an old barn, they’d undertaken numerous renovation projects, but this was the first home they’d ever built from the ground up.
The lengthy process of building permits and open space conservation issues allowed them the time to focus on the details of each and every room. The couple’s wish lists were identical: large kitchen with lots of counter space, large outdoor porch with a fireplace, infinity-edge pool, lots of reclaimed wood, brick and beams, high ceilings, and so on.
Ultimately he took charge of the electrical details, HVAC, generators, security system and audiovisual components, while she handled most of the details that involved tile, paint, decorating and plants. Ground for the new house was first broken in March of 2006 and the house was completed in December of 2008.
Typical of Milner’s work, the house emanates a sense of discovery. “There is a tree line on the land but instead of placing the house in front of the trees, I placed it behind, to create the effect of it being veiled,” says the architect.
Getting the Details Right
Close up, the sense of detail becomes apparent everywhere. The main entrance leads through a small double door with a weathered limestone surround from Abt, in France. “You don’t enjoy the best view of the house until you’re through the doors and onto the loggia,” says the architect. “The stones in the walls were hand set in recessed mortar to give it a ‘dry stack’ look, a technique that calls for a highly skilled artisan.”
The doors lead into the loggia where the sound of water comes trickling from a fountain in the wall and a small circular fenestration offers a glimpse of the courtyard within. Here and there, the stones are touched with patches of moss and other growths, a reference to the passage of time.
Inside, the home remains true to its Provencal roots. The living space is organized around a spacious great room with ceilings 19 feet high to accommodate large family gatherings. “We wanted to create the sense of a family compound rather than a literal copy of a barn,” says Milner.
Antique oak beams, warped and worn over time, were sawed into floorboards. Butternut wood—common in ancient French churches—was used for intricate carvings and millwork. Poplar was used for painted areas and where brushstrokes showed through, they were sometimes allowed to remain.
“Imperfections tell a story,” says Milner. “They related to the human element. They say there’s a bit of history here.”
However, the architect and his client didn’t agree on every detail. “There was a balcony railing that they wanted to do in iron, and I thought it would be better in wood,” Milner continues. On reaching a compromise they produced one more subtle point of discovery—wooden stair railings inlaid with iron strips.
In spite of being told repeatedly by others how stressful the construction process would be, thanks to Bob Griffiths and Wayne Rowland of Griffiths Construction, the owners realized the opposite to be true. “They all made the building process so pleasant,” she says.
“So did the masons of L&L Restoration of Parkesburg. “It was so touching to see the masons who worked here each weekday make the trip back with their families on weekends to share their handiwork,” she says.
As for the interior, says Milner, the lady of the house deserves the credit for the handsome Provencal-inspired décor.
Of course, a home that’s the product of so much craftsmanship and authenticity deserves grounds to match and for this, the owners turned to landscape designer Jonathan Alderson. “I have always had a passion for flowers, shrubs, trees and gardening,” says the wife. “But it took Jonathan to sort out which plants or shrubs would achieve the European garden look while surviving the Pennsylvania hot summers and cold winters.”
Sharing the Dream
After eight years in their dream house, the owners still pinch themselves that they live there. “We don’t take it lightly or for granted the amount of incredible talent and expertise contributed by all who helped build this house. It has been the scene of countless celebrations of friends and family, including three backyard weddings.
“When our friends and the ever-growing families gather and thank us for hosting, our response is often, ‘You are welcome ... we built this home to share ... so glad you can be here!’” she says with a smile.
- Architect: John Milner Architects
- Builder: Griffiths Construction
- Landscape Designer: Jonathan Alderson Landscape Architects
- Stonemasons: L&L Restoration of Parkesburg
- Millwork: David Dougan Cabinet Maker and Ralston Shop
- Hardware: Michael M. Coldren Company
- Antique Timber: Tindall’s Virgin Timbers and Sylvan Brandt
- Framing: Mark Wagner Construction
- Tile and Stone: Petragnani Brothers Tile and Marble
- Pool: Armond Aquatech Pools
- Kitchen Cabinets: Coventry Kitchens
A dream house and bit of Britain in northern Chester County’s rolling hills
Any drive through the Chester County countryside will remind you of the deep connection early British settlers felt between southeastern Pennsylvania and the geography they left behind—lush farmlands, dense greenery, rolling hills and stone houses dotting the landscape. Many towns here share names with towns in the British Isles—Malvern, Exton, Warwick. And even the county’s name harkens from across the pond.
It’s that same connection that the owner of this month’s featured home felt to the Chester Springs area. After a two-year search, she found the place to create the dream home that reflected her English roots. And after taking photos of gracious manor homes in England, she had images to inspire the design of her future home.
Local architect Peter Batchelor was able to translate her photos into a drawing on his first effort—the proof captured in a framed rendering hanging in the home’s hallway. And so began the two-year process of building the custom three-level, five-bedroom, five-plus-bathroom English manor home nestled in ten-plus prime acres in Chester Springs.
The grounds are no less charming. A small brook, lily pond and springhouse mark the approach on the tree-lined drive, curving to the big reveal of the magnificent home. A pool, gazebo and stone patios make the outside as inviting as inside—both superb spaces for entertaining. Beautifully maintained perennial gardens, planted for extended bloom-time, form the perfect backdrop amidst the mature landscaping that provides seclusion and privacy.
With room to expand the shed barn to add horses to enjoy open pastures and an interior design adaptable to becoming a charming B&B, this property is available to be a dream home or a dream venture.
Every detail of this home reflects the care spent to bring a dream to reality. From the bespoke Clive Christian kitchen, to the hand-crafted artistic wall finishes in virtually every room, to the stunning array of carved moldings that are a master class on decorative details throughout the interior, this home is filled with custom design.
It’s not surprising the home was a destination on prior Chester County Day House Tours and other open houses during its past 18 years.
The stately façade foreshadows the regal interior. The foyer’s green marble floor and sparkling crystal chandelier bracket a movie-set-worthy balcony and curved stairway begging for grand entrances. Carved pillars, crown molding, shell built-ins, wainscoting, carved stone fireplace and a two-story Palladian window are just a few features of the stunning formal living room, with balconies on two sides and a hand-painted mural on a third.
A two-story great room with walls of French doors and hand-painted faux plaster wall art shares the same sunlit feel and custom details. The adjacent formal dining room boasts dentil and crown moldings, Adams fireplace, built-ins and cherry floors with maple details.
The hand-built, imported kitchen by British designer Clive Christian is equally spectacular. With beamed ceiling, French limestone floors, soapstone countertops, green marble island, commercial grade Dynasty six-burner range and Sub-Zero refrigerator hidden behind custom cabinetry, this chef’s dream kitchen and adjoining breakfast room/sunroom are sure to be natural gathering spaces. More carved moldings and hand-painted cherries and raspberry vines frame the space that looks out to the stone patios, pool and gardens.
Down a hallway with crackle paint finish—past the powder room where antique furniture houses the plumbing fixtures—leads to the library, potting area, front and back family entrances with hand-painted hunt scenes, and back stairs. Peek into the library, with raised cherry paneling, faux red leather walls, stone fireplace, coffered ceilings and a secret shelf of books hiding a TV.
The back stairs to the bedrooms sport one of several imported English newel posts installed throughout the home. Since each themed bedroom has a private bath, the home is a good fit for those yearning to run a B&B.
The hunt-themed bedroom is bedecked in Ralph Lauren design, while the “ladies” bedroom has a claw-foot tub under a chandelier. Another large bedroom suite has its own sitting room.
The master suite includes a sitting area, his-and-her closets, dressing and bathrooms. Cathedral ceilings, stone fireplace, columns and a balcony are notable features of this sumptuous space.
On the lower level, there’s a so-called 18th-century room, with beamed ceilings, brick fireplace and Williamsburg bar. An adjacent billiards room with fireplace and walk-out to the pool is a perfect man cave.
This level also houses a full bath, with easy access to the pool, laundry room, storage and mechanical rooms, plus two home offices, one with an exercise space and either suitable to convert into another bedroom.
This exquisite property, full of character and craftsmanship, awaits its next family to live out their dreams in this corner of Chester County.
For more information about this unique hone on 10.7 acres in Chester Springs, offered at $2,195,000, contact Karen Nader at Brandywine Fine Properties Sotheby’s International Realty. 484-888-5597; BFPSIR.com.
Formal elegance and gracious country living in Chester Springs.
In a secluded corner of northern Chester County, a short walk from famed Birchrunville Store Café, you’ll find seven meticulously landscaped acres that are home to, not yet another stone Colonial mansion, but instead a unique French Country-style farmhouse dating back to the 18th century and renovated to the highest standards.
A detached barn—with a sunny office above horse stalls plus space for a large studio, den or party space—a pool with spa and waterfall set among specimen plantings, an apple orchard and extensive gardens are all enclosed in a private pocket of space making this feel like a special piece of heaven.
The singular character of this home is revealed in the details—from priceless millwork added by a Winterthur curator, a wood railing designed and built by a protégé of Wharton Esherick, custom cabinets crafted by a woodworker on loan from the Smithsonian Museum, to a $12,000 Lacanche stove, a 300-year-old mantle from Provence, hand-painted floors in the laundry room and much more.
Surrounded on three sides by rebuilt stone walls, the landscape design displays the same attention to detail. See garden paths using original four-to-six-inch-thick flagstones, original millstones incorporated into the newer terraces, a stone courtyard with fountain, and rare cucumber magnolia and stunning copper beech trees. Over $400,000 was invested in enhancing the exterior since 2009.
The original 1769 core of the home remains, expanded in the early 1800s, then enlarged again in the 1940s, and again by architect Helena van Vliet and totally updated in 2000. Each stage in its evolution added to the unique feel of this extraordinary home.
Brimming with charm and period details, the original parts of the home—housing the entry, formal living and dining rooms, library, and some bedrooms—boast such features as beamed ceilings made by incorporating wood from an 18th-century French ship, random-width wood floors, deep-set windows, antique hardware, rare tombstone built-in cabinets, and antique slate and marble slab floors.
Later additions to this stuccoed fieldstone home were designed to preserve the centrality of the original home, keeping it as the main event of the composition.
Not surprisingly, this distinctive home was once owned by one of Winterthur’s curators, Arthur Sussell, who added priceless millwork—moldings, wainscoting, paneling and other details. Sussell built a fitting stage for his priceless antiques collection, later auctioned by Sotheby’s. Hardwood floors—chestnut, oak, hardwood pine, walnut—plaster walls, antique hardware and more details integral to the home make it a kind of antique itself. And all on display as the home is currently unoccupied.
The Final Addition
Although adding significant space in 2000 to what is now a four-bedroom home with three full and two partial baths and six fireplaces, the final addition was designed to appear small so as not to outshine the original structure—matching the original in height, width and roof pitch. The construction used local and green materials and techniques (recycled wood and stone, low VOC paints, high efficiency heating, etc.).
Following a design philosophy that buildings should reconnect with the natural world, architect van Vliet added a large, gourmet country kitchen (while retaining the original as a prep kitchen), sunny family room with eating area overlooking the property, lower-level media room with French doors to the grounds, gentleman’s study, and a second-floor master bedroom suite with dressing rooms and baths to provide modern amenities.
The existing interior space was also updated and reorganized, adding a wine cellar (expanded in 2012 to store 500 bottles), laundry room and pantry. Meanwhile the exterior got new terraces and balconies, added to take advantage of the private viewscapes and providing more areas for sitting, eating and entertaining.
Practical details were not overlooked. Electrical and heating systems, water treatment systems, central air, radiant heat, a security system, driveway alarm and sound system were added or updated. Exterior work included a cedar shake roof, copper gutters and downspouts, new doors and windows, and in 2012, repainting and stuccoing.
With its pristine setting and extraordinary collection of site-specific details, this is the kind of unique home that could well be a highlight of Chester County Day when the tour returns to this area. And a gracious home any day of the year.
This unique seven-acre Chester Springs property with barn, pool and residence (4 bedrooms, 3.2 baths, 6 fireplaces on four levels) is offered for $1.75 million. For details or to arrange a visit, contact Bill Cochrane, James A. Cochrane, Inc. 610-469-6100 or 610-476-4779; CochraneInc.com.
Turnkey equestrian estate with 27-stall barn, indoor and outdoor arenas on 33 acres in Honey Brook
Horse lovers naturally gravitate to Chester County, long known for its equestrian heritage. From nationally recognized events—The Devon Horse Show, Plantation Field Three-Day Event—to community shows—Ludwig’s Corner Horse Show, Devon Fall Classic—our area is home to Olympic-caliber equestrian competitors, weekend fox hunters, polo players, pony club families and other members of the horsy set.
So it’s fitting that tucked in the northwest corner of Chester County, in Honey Brook, is a world-class equestrian estate, rivaling any in other horse-meccas such as Wellington, Florida.
Near Struble Lake, Brandywine Creek and historic Isabella Furnace is Whitewall Farm. Or for locavores, it’s two miles from Wyebrook Farm’s market and café, the place that most recently put Honey Brook on the map.
Encompassing 33 flat, fenced acres, Whitewall Farm has everything a trainer or serious rider could dream of—all in turnkey condition in a pastoral setting. Because the property is under conservation easement with Chadds Ford-based North American Land Trust, with neighboring properties similarly protected—over 25 percent of the township is protected in perpetuity—this corner of Chester County will retain the privacy and viewscape it enjoys today.
A Stable with 27 Stalls
Why build a stable with 27 stalls? Because you have 45 horses.
That was the situation when the current owners bought Whitewall Farm in 2007. They proceeded to create a premier equestrian estate around the historic stone farmhouse. While they updated the 4,000-square-foot, four-bedroom, four-plus-bathroom home (more on that later), these horse lovers transformed the equestrian facilities.
Now, there’s much more than just eight stalls in two shed rows and a two-level, antique stone bank barn on the farm. Currently used for storing hay and equipment, that gorgeous old bank barn can be converted into a party barn, indoor basketball court or put to other uses.
In 2007, the owners built—and continuously updated—a stunning, custom-designed, 8,800-square-foot barn with 27 additional stalls, each with water, electricity, grooming box and window for ventilation. There’d be pillow mints, if that were done for horses. The barn also houses a large tack room, office, feed room, two washing stalls and hay storage on the second level.
Outdoor and indoor areas were added, both with euro-felt footing, making the indoor ring virtually dust-free. The fenced, 100-by-240-foot outdoor area has jumps and is adjacent to a circular pen with screening and rubber flooring.
Describing the 100-by-200-foot Coverall indoor arena doesn’t do it justice—it’s a cathedral to riding with its peaked roof, though some may envision the perfect venue for a concert, wedding or indoor soccer game. Constructed of a translucent material and no internal supports, the arena enjoys natural light so no need for overhead lighting—a great cost savings—and it has no hard surfaces for sound to echo. It’s a quiet, dust-free oasis. A heated observation booth provides a perfect vantage point to watch the action.
The grounds also include 17 fenced pastures, 12 with run-in sheds.
As meticulously maintained as the new construction, the charming historic main house was built in several sections, two with date stones marked 1741 and 1809. The oldest section houses the living room, with master bedroom above, and retains distinctive period details—original oak floors, deep sills, exposed beams, walk-in fireplace with cooking crane—yet feels modern with high ceilings and gracious dimensions.
Enjoying a surprising open flow that’s perfect for entertaining, the living room opens to the spacious family room, with a convenient wet bar, highlighted by an exposed stone wall. The adjacent exercise/sunroom is brightened by walls of windows and French doors to the patio, hot tub and pool area.
In the 1809 section is the large dining room, with another of the four fireplaces, more original wood floors, built-in cupboard and south-facing windows. The efficient kitchen combines granite counters and modern appliances with period charm, like pegged oak floors.
Down the hall are a powder room, mudroom with access to the one-car garage, laundry room, and full bath, with separate shower, perfect when guests come in from the pool.
Four bedrooms and three baths fill the second level. The large master suite boasts oak floors, a fireplace and three closets in the bedroom, separate his-and-her bathrooms, a dressing/sitting room with more closets, and a covered balcony overlooking the pool and stables. Pull-down stairs lead to a finished space, perfect for a sewing room or private studio.
Other bedrooms include many closets and special details, like built-in bunk beds. The final bedroom with en suite bath—guest room or au pair’s room—has four closets, plus a storage closet, and stairs to the ground level.
On the Grounds
The grounds boast an apple orchard, grape vines and numerous mature specimen trees. Three outbuildings add more charm. A stone summer kitchen, with a beamed ceiling and walls of windows, is a perfect home office or studio. Once a pump house, the garden shed makes an ideal potting shed. And the original springhouse awaits the needs of its next owners.
A three-bedroom, brick tenant house provides a convenient home for an on-site caretaker or horse trainer.
Whitewall Farm, a turnkey 33-acre equestrian estate in Honey Brook is offered at $2,775,000. For more information, contact Stephen Gross at the Holly Gross Group, 610-431-1100 (office), 484-883-0681 (cell); HollyGross.com.
Preparing a property inventory today will save you headaches and heartaches tomorrow.
A major headache that many of us may face is a property loss—from fire, theft or other catastrophe. To some, this kind of loss can be life altering. Even for smaller losses, you may find the process of submitting a claim to be onerous and time- consuming. Too many will find themselves unprepared for the process of dealing with their insurance company during a stressful time.
Burden Is on You
While most property owners are financially savvy about buying property insurance, most don’t realize they also need to be savvy in preparing for a loss—before it happens. Preparation will make a significant difference in the resolution of your property claim.
In presenting your property claim, the burden of proving losses rests solely on you. But, most of us are unsophisticated in handling claims and are at a disadvantage when negotiating with an insurance adjuster. Adjusters, on the other hand, are trained in the claims process and trained to protect the insurance company.
Prepare with a Call and an Inventory
If you’re unprepared, you’ll find it difficult to prove your loss. So, take a first step and evaluate your coverage with your insurance agent. Find out if you’re insured for replacement value, if there’s adequate coverage for all your personal property, and if items need to be specifically scheduled—expensive jewelry, art, antiques, etc.
Second, prepare a property inventory. An inventory accomplishes three important goals: it helps determine how much insurance you need, speeds up the claims process, and helps verify losses for income tax purposes.
Don’t put it off! If a loss occurs, you can run through your inventory to determine what’s missing. That’s especially helpful during stressful times after a loss when your memory may fail you.
Preparing a Property Inventory
There are plenty of ways to prepare your inventory—notebooks, spreadsheets, photos, videos. The best method is the one you’ll actually use and that you’ll update each year.
The Insurance Information Institute’s online inventory tool, “Know Your Stuff,” is free, easy to use, accessible from any computer, and even offers storage on secured servers. This spread-sheet-based software offers a system to enter information by room, then by item, with prompts to identify categories (e.g., art, antiques, jewelry), replacement costs and purchase date. You can add images, receipts, appraisals and even warranties for your records.
Other software—from Quicken, Home Inventory Pro, and others—has similar features and may offer bar-code scanners to help you track serial numbers, model numbers and the like.
A simple method you can do today with your phone is to take a video of your entire home (or business, but that’s a separate discussion) and all its contents.
The inventory, with your audio comments, should slowly pan each room—showing the floors, all four walls and ceilings. Focus in detail on the contents of each room—each item, stating when each was purchased, and giving the approximate value. Open closets, cabinets, drawers and doors to show the contents. Zoom in to show bar codes or important markers of value for antiques, jewelry, etc.
Ideally, upload the video to the cloud (you can store it privately on YouTube or Vimeo), store a copy in a fireproof safe, safe deposit box or give it to a friend to keep. Photos can also be stored on the cloud and on Flickr, Dropbox or e-mailed to yourself.
Update this inventory annually and amend it as needed by life changes, significant gifts and purchases, or changes in value of your property (such as collectibles that may appreciate).
Follow these suggestions and you should have the information needed to help you compile a complete and accurate list of property in the event of a loss. And that’s the best way to avoid headaches and delays processing your claims.
After doing your inventory, you may even be inspired to de-clutter your home!
Dan W. Welch is the president of Dan W. Welch, Inc., claims navigators and public adjustment firm located in West Chester. DWWImc.com; 800-881-3994.
Buying your first home is a major decision—one that affects both your finances and your life. Make sure you’ve done your homework before you take this big step. You don’t want to find the home of your dreams only to learn you can’t afford it. Getting good advice early is critical so your American dream can have a happy ending.
Once you’re ready to buy a home, it’s a smart step to get pre-approved for a mortgage, even before you start looking. And savvy first-time homebuyers should use the expertise of a mortgage professional to help them through the pre-approval process.
This process starts by analyzing your income to determine your purchasing power. Next, your cash and investments are reviewed to determine funds available for a down payment. Then you’re matched with a mortgage program to meet the monthly payment you qualify for and the liquid assets you have.
Other home-related costs can affect your mortgage limit, such as closing costs and local real estate and school taxes, which can vary widely among neighborhoods and school districts. Condominium fees and similar fees also impact affordability. A mortgage professional should know the area and help you understand these factors and costs and their effect on affordability.
It’s a good sign if your realtor asks you for your pre-approval letter before taking you to look at homes. It wastes everyone’s time to show you houses you can’t afford. The pre-approved purchase price helps focus home searches in areas you want and can afford.
Most important, pre-approved buyers can shop with confidence and negotiate from a place of strength once they find their dream home.
Myths vs. Reality
Here are some common misconceptions some first-time homebuyers may have—and the reality of today’s mortgage market.
Myth—I need a 20% down payment to buy a home.
Reality—There are many low-down-payment programs available. The federal government insures FHA loans with 3.5% down payments; Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac offer 5% down payment programs. If you served in the military, you can purchase with no down payment, using your VA benefit. In rural areas, such as western Chester County, USDA offers a no-money-down rural housing program. Plus, many counties offer down payment grants. Your mortgage professional can help research programs for you.
Myth—Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI) is a rip-off.
Reality—The reason low-down-payment programs exist is because of private mortgage insurance. PMI protects lenders from part of the loss of a foreclosure (FHA has its own version, known as MIP). Lenders almost always lose in foreclosures, even on borrowers with 20% down payments. Legal fees and interest costs drive up foreclosure expenses. So PMI protects lenders and encourages them to risk writing low-down-payment loans. As the mortgage industry has stabilized, mortgage insurance rates have become more competitive.
Myth—I need a high credit score to buy a home.
Reality—You need a good credit history showing few or no late payments. Some buyers show good credit history, but lack sufficient history to earn a high credit score. Even so, you still have options.
Myth—All the down payment money must come from my own funds.
Reality—Many first-time homebuyers receive cash gifts from relatives, and that’s okay. The gift-giver has to provide documentation of the source of funds and an executed gift letter. Some buyers get help from relatives who co-borrow with them to help them qualify.
Myth—I can’t buy a “fixer upper” if I’m a first-time homebuyer.
Reality—FHA offers 203K programs that allow fix-up expenses to be financed as part of the purchase price and require only 3.5% down payment.
Your home purchase can really be your American Dream if you’re prepared and have help to guide you through the process. Working hand in hand with a mortgage professional and realtor will help make your dream a reality.
Ken Pitts is a Senior Mortgage Banker with Leader One Financial Corporation, a national mortgage lender. With over 25 years of real estate and mortgage experience, Ken serves the greater Philadelphia area, Delaware and Southern New Jersey markets. Contact him at 610-345-9100; Leader1.com/KenPitts. NMLS # 528202
Buying your first home is a major milestone. It’s likely one that will make you feel more like an adult, a more responsible person, and more connected with your community. The perks of home ownership are plentiful—tax benefits, building home equity and credit, sometimes even a cheaper monthly payment. Plus ownership brings with it a sense of pride and security you won’t find while renting or crashing with friends or family.
Before you take the leap and buy your first home, you’ll want to be prepared for the responsibilities that accompany your new status. Because, unlike the images on those televised remodeling shows—where kitchens and bathrooms are redone in a few days and fixer-uppers are transformed in short order—owning a home is work!
That’s why you’ll want to be sure you’re ready and prepared for the challenge.
How Do You Know?
Buying a home is as much an emotional decision as a financial one. “You’ll know you’re ready to buy because you’ll feel it,” says Jennifer Daywalt of Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate. “You’ll want to make your home décor Pinterest boards a reality, and you’ll begin envisioning what your home will look like and how you’ll decorate.”
You’ll more likely feel ready when you’re at a stable point in your life and taking that next step seems a perfectly logical choice. “If you plan to move in the next year or so, it might not be the best time to buy,” notes Brett Jones of Sotheby’s Brandywine Fine Properties. Only you know if the time is right. And as Jones advises, “The most important thing is making your first home a place to be happy.”
Of course, you’ll want to make sure your finances are in order. Yes, you’ll need money for the down payment and monthly mortgage payments. But you also have to plan for things like property insurance, taxes, regular maintenance and higher utility bills (some renters don’t pay utilities, like heating) as part of your homeowner budget. (More about getting your first mortgage in the “Worth Knowing” column in this issue.)
Savvy homeowners also set money aside for unforeseen expenses—that rainy day fund—as well as other things that make them happy so they don’t feel house poor.
What To Look For?
A key consideration in your decision is your lifestyle. “Do you want to live downtown, where you can walk out your door to local shops and restaurants?” asks Jennifer Daywalt. “Or, do you prefer a smaller neighborhood with more open space and nature right outside your front door?” These lifestyle cues will help you decide where to start looking.
Other considerations include proximity to work, family and friends. Some people may feel a fresh start in a totally new location is just what they need, while others won’t want to give up the close relationships and familiarity with towns in their current neighborhood. The trend among millennials favors community-style condos and townhouses, but that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone.
And remember, although your first home is likely not your ultimate dream home or the only one you’ll ever buy, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan for the future.
“Many first-time buyers make the mistake of being too conservative,” notes Holly Gross of The Gross Realty Group. “They’ll pick the bare minimum they can afford and outgrow their home too quickly.” For example, if you buy as a single person or couple and then decide to start a family, your needs and wants may well change with your lifestyle. “It’s better to leave yourself room to grow than have to move again before you’re ready,” says Gross.
Best Time To Buy?
Traditionally, springtime was thought to be the best time for buying a home. But times have changed. Many realtors now say there’s no best or right time. In fact, waiting until spring may prove more stressful for first-time buyers as they compete in the busy market.
It’s best to start looking as soon as you know you’re ready. “Although the old adage has been to list in the spring, buyers shouldn’t limit their timeframe to start their search,” says Georgianna Stapleton of Country Properties. She admits the springtime will generally have more houses available, but it doesn’t prevent the rest of the year from having great properties for sale. “The need to purchase, not seasons, should be the buyer’s motivator!” she says.
Do You Need A Realtor?
The resounding answer to this is … yes, you absolutely need a realtor! Specifically a local one. And especially as a new buyer.
Navigating the real estate market through websites like Realtor.com may seem like the way to go, but you could cause yourself more stress and the potential for a costly mistake.
An experienced realtor who knows the area’s ins and outs is your best guide, one who can tell you about the neighborhood, school district, things to do, local businesses and more. “We’re there to guide you through the process and look out for you,” notes Holly Gross. Gross stresses the importance of interviewing several realtors and choosing one who understands your needs and makes you comfortable asking difficult questions. And as a first-time buyer, you’re likely to have a lot of questions.
Realtors want you to be satisfied. “The last thing we want is our clients to experience buyer’s remorse,” notes Brett Jones. “Having a realtor there throughout the process of inspection, making offers and signing contracts helps lessen the chance of making the wrong choice.” And a happy homeowner makes a great reference and a repeat customer.
So if 2016 is your year to buy a home, there’s no time like the present to get started!
Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate, 202 Bridge St., Phoenixville; 610-933-1919
Brandywine Fine Properties, Sotheby's International Realty, 5701 Kennett Pike, Centreville, DE; 610-474-6520
Country Properties, Berkshire Hathaway/Fox & Roach, Routes 82 & 162, Unionville; 610-347-2065
The Gross Realty Group, Berkshire Hathaway/Fox & Roach, 484-678-0367
Even those who aren’t hard-core HGTV fans have likely heard of the Property Brothers, Jonathan and Drew Scott. These identical twins—a realtor and a licensed contractor—help couples find, buy, remodel and transform extreme fixer-uppers into their ultimate dream homes on time and on budget, using CGI (computer generated images) to show images of what could be. If you missed them at January’s Philadelphia Home + Garden Show, catch one of their TV shows, Property Brothers, Buying & Selling, Brother vs. Brother. They were kind enough to share some home improvement advice with us.
Everyone wants to update their living space. What’s the easiest way to do that?
We can’t stress enough how important decluttering is in a space. You have to make sure that your furniture pieces aren’t too big for the room and that your paint palette isn’t too dark, as that makes a space feel smaller.
When renovating, what part of the home do people tend to neglect the most?
The master bedroom is typically the last room to be considered for a reno because the focus is always on the ‘entertaining’ areas. That’s kinda crazy to me because the homeowner should have a wonderful, relaxing oasis to kick back in at the end of the day. We always put everybody else’s needs ahead of our own. That needs to stop. Put in that amazing soaker tub. How about a fireplace in the master? Or even a massive walk-in closet to admire your shoe collection.
Is there a remodeling project that should generally be done by a professional?
Anytime you’re doing major electrical, plumbing or structural ... use a professional. These are areas where one small mistake could cost thousands of dollars or worse yet put the occupant’s life in danger.
What project can most homeowners tackle themselves?
If you’re tired of staring at a boring blank wall in your living room, take on a fun weekend project to install a reclaimed wood feature. You can buy a reclaimed wood veneer product that comes with adhesive on the back. Or to save some money, you can buy real reclaimed wood that has been processed and is ready to install. Or to save even MORE money, you can find real rough reclaimed wood and prep it yourself with a wire brush. It’s a beautiful feature and fairly easy to install.
Do you have a favorite type of home improvement project?
We absolutely love outdoor living spaces. It’s a great way to add livable square footage without doing an actual addition. Nothing beats kicking back with friends around a fire pit.
What’s the best part about what you do?
The most rewarding part is when homeowners throw their arms around us and say thank you for helping them do what they would never have been able to do on their own. Oh, and the demolition part is a lot of fun too.
If homeowners need to tackle one project at a time, what’s the best place to start—what room or what project?
Start with the areas that will make your life easier. Kitchen if you like to entertain or always prepare family meals. Basement with bathroom if you need more space for the kids. Expanded laundry if you’re struggling to keep up.
What’s your best tip for staying within budget?
Organization is key. Plan everything in advance. Look for deals on all materials and fixtures well before you need them. Otherwise you are at the mercy of the retail price at that time.
What’s your best advice for finding the right home?
Location. You can do anything you want to improve a home ... but you can’t upgrade your community. So never turn a blind eye to things like an airport or train in behind the property.
Even for house-hunters, the heart wants what it wants.
Sometimes a house-hunter just knows—it’s love at first sight. The house may not include every item on your wish list, but suddenly that seems less important—something that can wait until you’re settled in and can update the house exactly the way you’d like.
That’s how it happened about twelve years ago at a historic home in Flourtown—the current owner walked in and knew fate had led her family to the right place. “The minute we went in it,” she says, “we knew that’s where we wanted to be.”
The kids had made themselves at home already—they were running up and down the stairs. She turned to her husband and said, “We have to have this house.” And they did.
And certainly the house as it presented itself when the owners bought it had much to offer. Generously sized, it was framed by mature trees on a nearly four-acre lot that backed up to the Wissahickon Creek.
There were two main structures joined together. One was of stuccoed Colonial-era fieldstone, with the smaller rooms typical of the time. The other was larger, with larger rooms, done in the more formal Federal style, dating from the early 19th century.
There were seven fireplaces, 11-foot ceilings, millwork their architect calls “spectacular,” and distinctive touches like a floor-to-ceiling mirror in the dining room so massive it requires special supports in the basement.
And yet it wasn’t overpowering or museum-like. “It was so grand and yet warm,” the owner says. “It’s just a really great-karma place.” It was also well cared for. “You can tell when a house has been loved,” the owner says.
But like any home, historic or otherwise, that hasn’t been renovated in decades, there were things missing that the owners wanted. It didn’t have “a fabulous modern kitchen,” the owner says, it didn’t have a master bath and dressing room, nor a mudroom. There were any number of features missing from the house and needed for an ideally updated incarnation.
Time Had Come
After living in the house for a few years, the owners decided to go forward with the wish-list renovation. They started looking for architects they felt would make the project a “labor of love,” and decided Devon-based architect John Toates was the one for the job. “Very quickly, his vision was similar to ours,” the owner says.
That consensus was not pure serendipity—Toates says his process involves interviews to learn about the homeowners’ basic requirements and desires. He then refines the plans as he learns more about how they live, sifting and refining the myriad options until the new version of the house is a near-perfect fit.
He doesn’t like to call his designs “custom” homes, he says, a term he thinks is overused to the point of meaninglessness. He borrows the term “bespoke” from the world of tailoring to express the goal: a home not just unique but uniquely suited to its particular owners.
At the top of the wish-list, the house had a general problem—it was hard to move about freely in it. Many historic homes are like that. “Rarely are the pieces linked together in a way that makes sense as a holistic package,” Toates says.
The house had a living room the family liked to use, but it was a dead end. “Once people got down there, they were trapped,” Toates says. The dining room was a similar cul-de-sac.
So the redesign project included the creation of a butler’s pantry with a wet bar off the dining room that connected to the sunroom that connected to the living room. “This gave a release from that space,” Toates says. “There was another way to enter and exit the space and it felt more natural.”
Other large-scale changes involved taking the stucco outer layer off the original Colonial-era section of the house to help distinguish it from the later Federal section. Both the outside and the basement walls of the Colonial section were done in handsome fieldstone that turned out to be in good condition, so the project added a basement wine room with a set of stairs to make it easier to reach.
A mudroom and family entrance were also added, along with a solarium that opened out to the pool area, making life easier and more convenient for the family. The project also involved an addition to the Federal section with an open porch on one side and a sunroom on the opposite side. “It’s just much more functional than before,” the owner says.
Modern, Yet …
The kitchen is an example of larger goals and meaningful details woven together. The owners very much wanted a beautiful, modern kitchen, and the modernity shows in the expanses of black soapstone countertops and gleaming stainless-steel appliances. But past and present are intertwined: The cabinetry, furniture and flooring all evoke the past, and the fireplace is a focal point.
Toates, who cultivates sources of antique furnishings as part of his work, found a period fireplace crane to replace the long-gone original and recreated other elements of that fireplace and the history of the house, he says. He also found the antique cast-iron air duct grills that matched similar arch-top pieces in the front hall—another uniquely bespoke sort of touch—matching that was more meaningful to this house than it would be anywhere else.
The house may be more functional and uniquely tailored to the way its current owners live. But the team who made those changes also respected the house’s history as they worked, and this was part of the current residents’ vision too. Ted Trethewey, president of E.C. Trethewey Building Contractors, says projects like this require not just experience in historic renovation but the help of a superior architect and clients who share the building professionals’ goals. “It really allows us all to do what we do best,” Trethewey says.
The owner says her family and the former residents became good friends, and they’ve talked about their sense of the house’s long history. It’s a thing you hear from many owners of historic homes—they’re writing a new chapter in the house’s history, but other chapters will come, and they feel a sense of responsibility toward the future owners and the larger story.
“We’re caretakers,” the owner says.
Architect John Toates, Architecture and Design in Devon
Builder E.C. Trethewey Building Contractors Inc. in Downingtown
Designer Patty Billock of PMB Designs in Ambler
Downingtown Architect Jennifer Baxter supervised the construction phase