Historic vs. Modern: Which Type of Building is Right for You?

In Part 1 of our series on different types of apartments, we compared the pros and cons of renting in small and large buildings. This time around, we’ll compare historic and modern apartments.

Victorian housesSelling Points of Historic Buildings

The most obvious difference between historic and modern buildings is the general sense of character and aesthetics. There’s an undeniable romance to well-preserved historic architecture. Now, don’t go overboard in your daydreaming—if you hear “historic” and you start to have visions of living at Hogwarts, well, you’ll be sorely disappointed. But hardwood floors? Built-in bookshelves? Entirely possible (though, of course, no guarantees). Some older buildings may even have features like window seats, art-glass windows, or other architectural details that make you sigh, “They just don’t make ’em like they used to.” As historic preservation aficionados like to say, it’s not good because it’s old, it’s old because it’s good.

Let’s repeat a statement above, this time with emphasis on the key words: There’s an undeniable romance to well-preserved historic architecture. . . . And there’s an undeniable agony to historic buildings that haven’t been updated in a generation or two—or that have been updated poorly, with all the woodwork stripped out, the fireplace Sheetrocked over, the stained-glass replaced by splotchy plywood. No, thanks. Old buildings often have old-building problems—drafty windows, faulty heating systems, funky room layouts that result in the oven in the living room and the bathroom accessible only through the coat closet. One person’s romantic eclecticism is another person’s worst nightmare.

Historic buildings also tend to be be smaller—not necessarily tiny, but almost certainly not skyscrapers. As we pointed out in the post comparing small and large buildings, fewer units means fewer neighbors, which has both its pros (closer-knit community) and its cons (maybe you don’t want a close-knit community!). And where there are small, historic buildings, there are likely to be other small, historic buildings—odds are good that it’s a long-established neighborhood with shops and restaurants and a distinct sense of place.

Selling Points of Modern Buildings

Downtown CalgaryModern buildings will have their own quirks, obviously, but a whole lot less of them—so if you want to do things the easy way, the newer the better.

Modern buildings are also more likely to have more (tangible) amenities. Think central air. Roomy showers with reliable hot water. Thoroughly modern kitchens with ample counter space and shiny new appliances. (Remodeled older apartments may have these, too.) These amenities don’t come free, though, so be prepared to pay higher rent.

Also keep in mind that many new  highrise buildings are  located in up-and-coming new neighborhoods, so you may  have to deal with limited services until the neighborhood gets established.  You may discover that grocery stores or dry cleaners are few, and your takeout options are scarce.

No matter what vintage your new apartment is, be sure to ask all the right questions. When you visit the unit prior to signing the lease, turn on the water and see how long it takes to warm up. Turn on the lights in each room. Ask what type of heating is used, how effective it is, and who pays the bills. If the building is historic, inquire about lead paint, asbestos, and other hazardous materials—they should have been abated, but it’s always best to ask. Look at the ceiling and see if there are any odd discolorations that could be water damage—and could, in turn, indicate bigger problems like leaky pipes or ice dams.

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Doug Mack is a writer based in Minneapolis and the author of the travel memoir Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day: One Man, Eight Countries, One Vintage Travel Guide (Perigee Books/Penguin). He has lived in apartments large and small, historic and modern, in Minneapolis and Chicago. Visit his web site at www.douglasmack.net or find him on Twitter @douglasmack.

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  1. Avatar Diane Tuman

    I love old buildings — they are charming. But, one thing that drives me nuts is the lack of outlets. There’s usually one per room.