About Me

Growing up in a small New England town with a mother who was an antiquarian it was inevitable that I would be exposed to old things. After graduating from UMass/Amherst I lived in Connecticut, taught school, married, and raised three children in suburbia. A move to Newburyport MA renewed my interest in all things old. This background has now evolved into research, writing, consulting and all the things I love to do.

Prudence Fish

Friday, December 9, 2016



For nearly thirty years I  was a Realtor selling antique and historic houses, some of them my own.  I still research house histories and  follow the real estate market. I pay attention to all the listings of antique houses. I have been a buyer, a seller and a Realtor.  As a consequence I am rather opinionated and pretty critical of the way a house is marketed.  There are mistakes that can turn off a potential buyer looking for an antique or an historic house.  Often the salesperson representing the house has the best of intentions but has an incorrect perception of what is good in an old house and what is not so good; what to advertise and what not to advertise; what should be saved and what shouldn't be saved.                                                                  

New homes for sale 

Here is a headline from today's local newspaper's Friday real estate section.  Look in the real estate section of any newspaper and you will see a similar headlines.  So what is wrong with it?

Here is what is wrong.  Homeowners or brokers are not in the business of selling homes.  They are selling HOUSES.

A home is what you create for yourself and your family when you live in a HOUSE.  It is a HOUSE infused with your taste, your stuff, your treasures and all the things that make it a special place for you and your family.  You start with a HOUSE and it becomes your home.  Realtors are in the business of selling HOUSES.  The new buyer will make it their home.  Empty houses are not homes.  It is not a home until you have lived there and tailored it to yourself or your family.

Sometimes a seller, developer or broker is convinced that the word home, like hearth, depicts something to a potential buyer that makes the property sound more appealing.  But to others is is annoyingly incorrect. When you sell your HOUSE it will become the new owner's home just as it had become yours.  But for the purposes of the sale, it is simply a HOUSE!

When you have an antique house for sale there are certain things that will make a serious buyer cringe or even reject a house.  Most Realtors and sellers are oblivious to these missteps in showing or advertising the property.  Serious old house buyers are always wishing they could find a salesperson to speak their language.  In the meantime many are politely frustrated.

Do not tout the gleaming hardwood floors!  Why not?  Hardwood floors usually suggest quality in a building.  Right? That is usually true but the reason not to focus on hardwood floors is because real antique houses didn't have hardwood floors.  They had wide pine floors and this is what a buyer of an antique house looks for so an ad for hardwood floors isn't going to help your sale.

People tend to have high regard for the widest boards.  In some instances the use of the widest boards was to cover the floor faster as we might use plywood today.  In other houses the widest boards are in the attic and narrower in the important rooms downstairs.  In the 19th century many of the wide board floors were intended to be covered with wall to wall ingrain patterned carpets.

Example of 19th century ingrain wall to wall carpet

The former occupant of my 1863 house long ago told me that the worst day of the year was the spring day when they pulled up the carpets and took them outside to be beaten.  When returned they had to be tacked down again with all those little carpet tacks.  If you have a 19th century house examine the edges of the best rooms.  You may find plenty of evidence of tack holes from years of taking up and replacing the carpets.

Another error is calling the floorboards planks.  A plank is a thick board, usually two inches thick.  Most old houses have pine floors that are either worn thin or sanded thin and hardly meet any definition of a plank. Planks are thick boards and have nothing to do with the width of the boards.  A very wide board on the floor doesn't make it a plank.

Don't say the house is all restored with exposed beams.  Exposed beam ceilings, believe it or not, are not a good thing to advertise in many cases.  The reason?  It's because after about 1725 houses were very refined. They were not crude cabins and they were no longer post medieval. They did not have exposed beams.  If the house is a first period house built before 1725 then you DO want to promote the beams but there are never many houses of that age on the market and chances are the house you are selling is newer than circa 1725 or before.  If the ceiling beams were originally exposed they will be chamfered and whitewashed or at least have a residue of old whitewash.  So if you open a ceiling and all you see is brown bare wood stop right there.  Cover it back up!  A serious old house buyer does not want to see brown beams and boards over their head.  This has become so commonplace that you may be surprised that I am saying this.  Many people like the look but if you want an authentic restoration or wish to be a sensitive restorer you don't want to remove original fabric of the house by taking down the plaster ceilings.

The look of this exposed beam ceiling is popular but incorrect.
If the bricks around the fireplace are exposed or bricks exposed where the breast plate or over mantel should be, this will not be attractive to an old house buyer.  It may look amazing to an untrained eye but, again, after 1725 it is the age of refinement and an easier life style than the days of the 17th century.  Bricks and beams were hidden away and never visible. Bricks surrounding the opening to the fireplace should be parged smooth and painted. Bricks exposed above the mantel or lintel should be enclosed.

This cooking fireplace has been "undressed".  This treatment looks impressive
but not appreciated by a serious old house expert! It screams to be covered up.
Don't brag about all of the stripped paint on the woodwork.  Woodwork was painted as soon as the homeowner could afford it.  Miles of brown woodwork and paneling is not attractive and it is not correct. In fact, it is boring. Pine that  has been stripped invariably leaves paint residue in its pores (the grain) and screams to be repainted.  Once in a while you might come across paneling or sheathing that has never been painted but that is truly rare.  There are styles and periods of houses where unpainted paneling might be correct but not in the typical 18th century house in New England.
Paneling for sale.  Shows evidence of being stripped of paint.
Once I listed a beautiful Federal house built around 1808.  The homeowner had spent about 18 years stripping all of the paint in the three story house including the louvered pocket shutters at the windows.  (By the way, they are not Indian shutters.  No Indians were lurking around our cities in 1800) She stripped paint every day while her husband was at work.  This house was a very fancy house but later owners have come and gone and no one has ever had the heart to paint the woodwork so painstakingly stripped by Julie with Red Devil paint stripper.  What a pity.  A later owner then re- clapboarded the house and left the outside unpainted just like the inside.  Someday I hope a new owner will bring out the Federal beauty of this great house with paint in lovely soft Federal colors.

I showed this house early on in my real estate career to an extremely knowledgeable buyer.  I was sure he would appreciate the beautiful detail of this house including the graceful spiral staircase that soared to the third floor.  His comment after the showing was, "Pru, find us a house that hasn't been scraped.  Even the history of the original paint colors as been obliterated".  He was more interested in the old abandoned cemetery in the back yard.   A lesson learned!

If there is a cooking fireplace never say that the house has a Dutch oven.  A Dutch oven is an iron pot for cooking just as today a big kettle is called a Dutch oven and not a part of the house.
Getting the oven ready for baking

Almost any day of the week I can find an ad for a house with a Dutch oven.  Just call it a bake oven.  Period.
Iron Dutch Oven

Talking about borning rooms or birthing rooms is just plain corny and inventions of the colonial revival period and has nothing to do with the the period vocabulary of the antique house. The same goes for the term keeping room which is widely used.  I'm not sure where this comes from but I have been researching old houses period and reading old inventories for at least forty years and I have never seen the term in an old document.  Only once I saw "keeping room" on an old house plan and it was in reference to a sitting room in the front of a circa 1800 house.  Therefore, I never use that word.
Inside of bake oven, looks like a beehive.

Once I was dealing with an expert buyer.  As we mounted the stairs to the attic with my buyer following behind me I was aware that a section of the attic floor was plywood. How did I know? I knew that because I was one of the restorers who had made the decision to steal a few boards from the attic because we couldn't find more old wood for a repair on the first floor! In fact it was the red house at the top of this page! Thirty five years ago that was the thing to do and I didn't know any better back then.   As I approached the top of the attic stairs the buyer following behind me said, "Pru, don't  you just hate it when  people take up the attic floor to use elsewhere in the house?"  Ouch! Talk about being chagrined especially since he knew that I had been one of the restorers of the house.  That was a long time ago and I hope my advice to others since that time who were about to make the same mistake has saved a couple of attic floors.  Don't borrow from one part of the house to use in another part of the house.

Don't call the house restored if it has replacement windows or siding.  This is a sign of renovating with nothing to do with restoration.  Houses with interior walls that have been removed are not restored either.  They are remodeled or re- muddled.  Both are insensitive.

One last piece of advise is when showing a house to its best advantage I prefer to take a potential buyer in through the front door.  Sometimes the door has hardly been opened in years but I still want to introduce the house from the front.  Many old houses have additions and ells and ramble on in the rear which can easily confuse a buyer.  Entering by the front door usually makes more sense and the layout of the house becomes clearer and the house seems to flows better.  It is very easy to become confused if entering from a rear door.  I like to start at the front door with a front hall and a staircase, the living room or parlor, the dining room and continue on toward the kitchen and the back of the house.  Entering through an old woodshed or mud room doesn't contribute toward a favorable first impression anyway.

I understand that every real estate professional is not going to be an expert in architecture or period houses but there are a few basics that can prevent a Realtor from unknowingly embarrassing themselves. Serious old house buyers just shake their heads and wring their hands at the lack of knowledge exhibited by the typical broker/salesperson.

Anyone in sales needs to know their product whether it is pots and pans or automobiles.  Only in the real estate industry are they trained to deal with contracts, legalities, and myriads of paper work but many have no clue about the house they are representing.  Few so-called real estate professionals know their product adequately.

Years ago before I was in real estate I saw a fuzzy photo in the newspaper ad for a three story house.  I called the listing broker and asked about the age or style of the house.  Was it a three story Federal I asked?  Her answer was that it was really "no style". I got nowhere with her but I thought I could discern a big chimney.  I persevered, calling another broker who assured me that it was in fact a three story Federal, circa 1800, with big chimneys encompassing many fireplaces.

We bought the house...through the second broker.

If you are a seller and you suspect that your antique house isn't being represented enthusiastically try to find someone in you area that will show more interest in learning about your house and representing it with a positive outlook. 

 Condition may effect the price tag but condition does not effect the historical value.  A dilapidated house has value, can be important architecturally or historically and needs a broker/ salesperson who is excited about it.  An old house can be very exciting regardless of condition.  Don't judge a house by the condition.  Look at it carefully.  A neglected house my be wonderfully intact.  A house in great condition is more apt to have been stripped of its original detail and fabric than a rundown old house that has been left alone and left with integrity.  

A beat up old house can be an exciting, untouched diamond in the rough. And that's a fact!

These days I am a died-in-the wool preservationist on a rant.  We are losing our architectural heritage at an alarming rate and I will do what I can to call attention to the loss, to educate and do my part to reverse this trend.

This morning on the Internet I read about a house in jeopardy and slated for demolition.  Someone responded with the most ignorant comment yet.  This was the remark.

“There aren’t many rules and regulations on the book about what to do when an old house is too old"

In my imagination I would like to say to this person,  "Fix it, restore it, preserve it or go to jail!"

But what I say to those of you out there who care about our architectural legacy and built environment, "Get on board!  Get involved, and speak up."

Thanks for bearing with me and reading these comments which are not only important to me but to others who want to save our architectural heritage.


PS   Here is an afterthought that should have been included above .

The word is hearth.  Many people think that hearth and fireplace are one and the same.  They are not. If you say you have a hearth (pronounced harth) you'd better have a fireplace to go with it because the hearth is the floor of the fireplace.  You build a fire on the hearth but it is inside the fireplace and extending out into the room for safety.  A house with three hearths would look pretty funny if it didn't have three fireplaces to go with them.  In fact, it would be impossible to have a hearth if there wasn't an associated fireplace.

So these two words, hearth and fireplace, are not interchangeable.  They go hand in hand but in describing a house the word fireplace should be used.  There is little reason to talk about the hearth unless you say the cat was lying on the hearth to keep warm or you are putting the logs on the hearth before you start the fire in the fireplace.


  1. Hello Prudence, I agree with everything you say here. In Victorian houses too, everything ends up the opposite of the original. Beautiful black walnut and mahogany woodwork is painted white, while cheap mis-matched pine is stripped. Houses lose their fences, porches, towers and carved ornament, exterior and interior. Meanwhile, the most basic cottages are altered and embellished beyond the wildest delusions of grandeur of the fanciest mansion.

    Original, time-capsule houses of any period are the rarest of the rare, and the attrition rate is alarming.

  2. As always, thanks Jim! I'm writing from a New England point of view and have to remind myself that what I say may not apply in other parts of the country where the predominating house styles are unlike what I see every day.

    A house here was gutted to a shell. I was appalled. It has become condos and I just received a lovely invitation by mail to attend an open house next week to see the beautiful condos. I don't think so!

    Less than a month ago I attended an auction at a house that was really a time capsule and as you might expect it was in poor condition but was re-markable. It had been built around 1807 with three floors and 15 room. It was passed down through the same family until 1960 when it was sold with all of the contents. Those people eventually passed on and it sat unoccupied for years. It contained layers and layers from each period with things added to the previous period. It was a sight not to be seen again. All was sold at auction, the good and the bad, the old and the newer. Few changes were ever made to the house whch was also sold at auction. I have not heard who bought it or what the plans are. I had never witnessed anything to compare. A real time capsule.


    1. Hi again, You bring up another good point, Pru. Why, when time-capsule houses are sold, are the belonging furnishings always sold separately, thereby destroying a rare unity of house and contents? One is constantly reading about museum houses buying back furniture that originally belonged to the house. --Jim

  3. Thank you once again, Pru, for your enlightening and well-illustrated piece. Your writing style is just so inviting and personal. I want everyone I know who lives in New England to have the pleasure of reading this column.

    1. Lois, you flatter me! Miss you in Gloucester. Thanks for your kind words.


  4. I love in Minneapolis. I won't see an historic home here, but it was great to read about this!

  5. Thanks, Isabella, for reading my blog.