I bought a crumbling Victorian townhouse for $18,000 and transformed it into my dream home — see inside
- Betsy Sweeny bought a 3,025-square-foot crumbling Victorian house when she was 27 for only $18,000.
- She spent the past 2 ½ years rehabilitating the property to create her dream home.
This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Betsy Sweeny, a 30-year-old historian in Wheeling, West Virginia, about restoring a 19th-century house. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I'm an architectural historian. I've always wanted to live in and work on an old house — something in a historic neighborhood that fit the lifestyle I wanted and my budget.
In 2018, I was living near Charlottesville, Virginia, working for a museum. I wanted out of the museum and academic circuit and to find a job and a space that felt more community-focused.
Wheeling was my answer
I moved to Wheeling, West Virginia, in January 2019. I'd landed a position as a program manager at Wheeling Heritage, an organization responsible for maintaining the Wheeling National Heritage Area. I was renting an apartment and settling into my new life.
About eight months after moving, I was on a walk with my friend, and we noticed this beautiful old house, but it seemed empty and looked a wreck. My now-next-door-neighbor happened to be sitting on the porch and overheard us. They shouted down, "Oh, this is Brian's house. He hasn't lived here in a while. I bet he'd sell it to you. I can get you in touch."
At the time, I wasn't seriously looking to buy property — I'd moved less than a year ago and was still adjusting. But the next thing you know, I was touring the house. McClain House was built in 1892. It's 3,025 square feet with three bedrooms, 1 1/2 bathrooms, a living and dining room, an office, and a backyard.
The owners had been slowly restoring the house but moved away from Wheeling and wanted to sell. They wanted $20,000 for it and were putting it on the market.
I was only 27 and wanted to see how much money would be available to me if I took on this project. I reached out to a local banker, Troy, because I knew it would be difficult to finance.
A local banker helped me finance the formidable project
I went away and did a lot of research into what the renovation would cost. Because the house wasn't livable, I couldn't get a traditional mortgage.
The property was appraised at $16,500. With the help of Troy and my bank, I was able to pool all my money, with a small loan, and buy it in cash for $18,000.
Once I owned the property, I had more financing options.
A local preservation organization offered me a $25,000 loan for home repairs. I used that as a down payment on a $100,000 construction loan. The $125,000 would be enough to get me to a livable structure. Then, the plan was to get the house reappraised at a higher market value and wrapped into a mortgage that I could pay off at a lower interest rate.
I wasn't nervous about taking on debt because I already had so much student-loan debt
At least now I had something tangible.
Troy believed in me and the project. Going through a local bank was crucial to financing this project because larger banks are too risk-averse and too regulated. Local businesses understand projects on an individual level. My job as a preservationist and a project manager meant I was the best person to take this rehabilitation project on.
I went under contract for the house in March 2020, got the keys in May, and began work in earnest in July.
The house was falling apart. The first thing that needed to be addressed was the water infiltration and damage. I hired local craftspeople to fix the roof and attach gutters to the front of the house.
The water had damaged the masonry, and bricks were falling out. My partner and I reappointed the whole house. This meant scraping out all the mortar and then squishing new mortar in. The work wasn't hard, but it was time-consuming.
Doing the reappointing ourselves was our biggest cost saver
We saved about $30,000. It took around six months just to reappoint the house.
The water and structural issues made up around 30 to 40% of our budget and 80% of my stress. We could start on the interiors by spring 2021. This meant closing up windows and focusing on internal repairs.
Working on a Victorian house, I tried to maintain as many of the structural and architectural features as possible. My philosophy was if you took the house and shook it, and the feature didn't fall out, it was worth retaining.
I refinished all the floors myself, reaffixed the Victorian fireplaces, and plastered the walls. I didn't use a general contractor and did all the design myself. But for anything modern, like heating or electrical wiring, I hired out.
During the initial stages of the renovation, I was living on a strict budget to make loan payments of $1,100 a month while paying rent on my apartment.
The low cost of living in small towns and press attention helped move the project along
Luckily, living costs in Wheeling are extraordinarily affordable. I was renting my warehouse apartment for $900 a month. We were also in the middle of a pandemic, so I wasn't spending as much.
Still, it was a hard eight to 10 months until I could move into the house and repackage my construction loan into a mortgage.
In spring 2021, I was approached by the Magnolia Network to do an episode with it. It wanted staged after photos, so within 12 weeks, I finished one bathroom, the living room, the dining room, the foyer, and the exterior. The network gave me a small stipend to spend as needed to allow for the expedited timeline.
I moved out of my apartment and into the house in December 2021 and continued working on the house while living in it. The primary bedroom, living room, dining room, and baths were completely finished — the kitchen was ugly.
Overall, I spent $160,000 in loans on this project
I got the house reappraised and took out a mortgage on the estimated value of the property. It was valued at least $202,000. My monthly payments went down to $700, and I was able to take out another small loan, $35,000, to create my dream kitchen. So all in, I spent $160,000.
I started on the kitchen in spring 2022, which is now nearly finished, and I'm slowly working through the smaller miscellaneous projects. Today, the third floor is under construction and the second-floor guest bedroom is still completely unfinished.
The hardest part of a rehabilitation like this is to keep the momentum going once furniture is in a room. I got more done in the first intense year of the project than I will in the next 10.
If I had to put my house on the market tomorrow, I would probably list it at $240,000. But that's in my urban neighborhood. In Wheeling neighborhoods that are considered more upscale, you could see a house of my size at $375,000.
For me, it's not about flipping a house as quickly as possible for the highest profit margins
You have to come to a house that's 100 or 200 years old with some humility. If you take the time to retain historical features that define a property, your end result will be higher quality and more authentic, which will increase its value in the long run.
I've shared my journey with this house on Instagram and was overwhelmed with press attention. I kept sharing because I want to show people this approach to real estate and small-town living is accessible.
Reinvesting in these historic neighborhoods provides you with an asset that, in some cases, far exceeds what you could buy new. Money aside, being part of a small, historic community is better for mental health and better for local economies — I think it's a more just way of approaching real estate.
In these kinds of postindustrial cities with historic homes, rehabilitating property is an excellent investment if you can deal with the headache of doing it — even with the added cost of professionals and consultants if you're not adept in restoration or architecture.
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